A Technology Pickle: a New Small Form Factor PC or an Upgraded Synology NAS?

I’m in a bit of a technology pickle and I’d like some opinions from my geeky readers. For the past several years, I’ve had a small computer (a Gigabyte BRIX, Core i7 CPU) running as my 24/7 server. It runs Plex for streaming movies, runs CrashPlan for backing up all my data (as well as serving as the data location host for family member CrashPlan backups), Resilio Sync for always-on syncing with my other computers, and a few other apps. Connected to it is a 4 TB external hard drive, which is where I store copies of all my data (pushed and pulled there by a combination of Resilio Sync and SyncBackSE) and the CrashPlan backups from other people.
I also have a Synology NAS (a 1512+) from five years ago, stuffed with five hard drives and a DX513 expansion unit stuffed with another four more. I have about 32 TB of total storage and it’s where I keep my MKV rips from our movie collection – and this is what Plex uses for a data source (but the Plex server is on the Gigabyte BRIX). For the most part this works fairly well, though Plex (used via a Roku) routinely takes two tries to start playing movies – I think because the first attempt to pull the MKV from the mapped network drive fails – and it’s not uncommon for us to have a few moments of buffering in some movies. It’s very random though and I’ve never been able to pin down the source of these Plex glitches.

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My Dysfunctional MacBook Pro & a Lesson in Humility

Since the first week I had my MacBook Pro, it had a peculiar, intermittent problem: it would spontaneously turn off, and getting it back on was hit or miss. Pressing and holding the power button didn’t do anything. Tapping the keyboard did nothing. Once, I reset the SMC and it came back to life – but that trick never worked again. Other times, simply leaving it alone for 5-10 minutes would bring it back to life. What was odd was that it would only happen when I was away from home – it never exhibited this behaviour while it was used in my home office. I didn’t think heat was a factor as it didn’t happen after extended uses of heavy load – in fact, it often happened before I even started doing any real work.

This issue, when combined with the lackluster battery life, combined to leave me with a feeling of frustration and regret and having spent so much money on this product. No longer being a professional tech blogger, I am much more judicious about my technology purchases – this was my only laptop for the next 3-5 years, so it had to be a great purchase…and it sure didn’t seem like it.

The sixth time this happened (while I at my kid’s Taekwondo class), I finally got fed up enough to bring it into the local Apple Store Genius Bar. That time, it blinked off just after I logged in, which was a new behaviour. Normally it simply wouldn’t turn on.

In truth, I am still a neophyte with the UNIX underpinnings of macOS, so the “deep in the guts” troubleshooting methods aren’t part of my skillset yet (and might never be if I’m honest). The particular symptoms my MacBook was having were difficult to search for – I couldn’t find any online resources that were applicable. I thought since I paid the Apple premium – which includes the benefit of taking it into an Apple store – I’d see how the premium tech support experience worked. I already had decades of experience calling tech support lines in India for Dell and HP laptops, arguing with them about the problem, so I’d try the Apple way.

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MacBook Pro 13 Use Outdoors: This is One Bright Screen

There are some things that drive me nuts about my MacBook Pro 13 (mainly the battery life), but the outdoor view-ability of the screen is top-notch. And, interestingly, cranking the screen brightness doesn’t hurt battery life as much as you’d think. At minimum (one-notch) brightness with the MacBook Pro being passive, using iStat Menus, power use was a mere 1.94 watts. That’s pretty incredible and shows how dramatically the overall system scales down power usage.
On the flip side, if I crank the screen to it’s eye-searing maximum brightness – which Apple says is 500 nits – it uses up 8.11 watts. That’s a 4x increase in power consumption, yes, but 8 watts is still not a massive power drain. The screen Apple used is both bright and efficient.
Unfortunately, the scenario where I crank the screen brightness up to maximum to use it outdoors yet do nothing that uses the CPU aggressively is a rare one. Maybe if you wanted to watch a movie outdoors in the daylight? That’s not a scenario I’ve found myself in just yet.

MacBook Pro 13 Battery Life: The Ugly Truth

I’ve had my MacBook Pro 13 for about two months now, and based on all the initial furor around battery life I wanted to wait until I had sufficient hands-on time with it to make my own determination. After two months of use, the truth is really simple: Apple put in a tiny battery because they felt people wanted a thinner/lighter MacBook more than people wanted long battery life. This is simply a laptop that was not designed for all-day battery life. There’s nothing more to this story than that.

People can talk about software optimizations, Chrome vs. Safari, etc. all day long – but the reality is that there’s no software tweak in the world that will make a tiny battery into a bigger one. The battery in the 2016 MacBook (49.2 Wh) holds about 38% less power than the 2015 MacBook (79.2 Wh) .

I’m a little upset that this machine I spent $2600 on has worse battery life than the last laptop I owned (which was 60% less expensive I should add). I am trying to come to terms with that reality; the only thing that helps is that the battery is so pathetically small it charges fast, and that the USB-C ports give me charging options I didn’t have before – I now carry a 10,000 mAH battery pack with me to top up the MacBook when needed. It’s worth pointing out though that I need to put the MacBook to sleep to get any real charging – most battery banks don’t put out enough power to charge the device while in use.

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First Thoughts on the 2016 MacBook Pro 13

A week ago Monday, I unpacked my new 2016 MacBook Pro 13. It took 57 days from day I ordered it until the day it showed up at my door. Why so long? I’m glad you asked friend. ? I didn’t order it right away – I wanted to see a few reviews because I was so shocked and dismayed at some of the decisions Apple had made regarding the ports and the small battery size. As I waited, the build time went from 1-2 weeks to 4-6 weeks. Since I wanted to avoid Washington State sales tax (which would have added $260 to the final bill), I ordered it from ABT. It was considered a custom order since I got the Core i5 2.9 Ghz / 16 GB RAM / 1 TB SSD version. I didn’t want to make the mistake I made with my 5K iMac having only a 512 GB SSD, especially since I was planning on using Final Cut Pro on the MacBook and it needs tremendous storage to make it’s powerful mojo work.

The final price was an eye-watering $2600. I remember paying $2500 for several of my first laptops – I’m looking at you, little Fujitsu P5010D – but my 2015 Dell XPS 13 purchase was only $1151, so this was a big step back up to the pricing stratosphere. I am agog at the people who max out the 15″ version and pay over $4300! Cost is a relative thing though of course – back when I was a single guy with no real bills, a $5000 computer every two years was a regular occurrence. My how things change!

Presented to you stream-of-consciousness style, here are my first impressions of my 2016 MacBook Pro 13.

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A Mac User and His New iMac – The Rest of the Months

I have a new Mac-related post coming up, but I wanted to finish off this series first (yes, it’s long overdue!). After month four, I started getting into a groove, and had fewer questions and issues – thus fewer things to write about. There were a few things though that came up, and so I give you the final entry in this series. In some cases I’ve added updates if things have changed since I first wrote these 6-10 months ago. It’s fair to say that things have smoothed out since the first six months.


  • Although I didn’t buy the iMac for gaming, I saw the promo for Wasteland 2 and the comments about it being similar to Baldur’s Gate, a game I used to spend hours playing. I bought it, let it install, fired it up…and squinted in dismay at the incredibly blurry text. There’s just no way around it: when you have a display showing 5120 x 2280 pixels over 27 inches of screen, and a game that caps out at only half that (2560px) you’re getting a lot of stretched pixels. The cut scenes in particular were extremely blurry; it got better once I was in the game, but even then the in-game text was pixelated. I spent about 5 minutes playing it, but the controls were awkward with the Magic Trackpad. I’m grateful for Apple’s refund policy, though it’s entirely unintuitive because the process looks like you’re asking for tech support until the final step where a refund option is presented. That’s very likely the last time I pretend an iMac with a laptop GPU and a 5K display can do any gaming. 🙂

Continue reading A Mac User and His New iMac – The Rest of the Months

5 Quick Thoughts About Google Home

  1. Setup was fast and painless. Once I installed the Google Home app it was a smooth setup. I was especially impressed with how the app pulled the WiFi network + password from my Android phone and automatically created a peer to peer WiFi network connection with the Google Home. This is much less awkward than the Echo setup where you have to manually create a WiFi connection with the Echo, switch back to the app, and finish the setup. Google did a solid job with the setup process. The app also looks great – the Amazon Echo app is a bit rough looking on Android.
  2. The Google Home only has two microphones, but it’s very sensitive. My son was sitting about 20 feet away and talking in a normal voice and said “OK Google” and it heard him easily. With our Amazon Echo Dot, he would have to raise his voice. I was watching election coverage at a normal TV volume, and a Google Home commercial came on and the person saying “OK Google” triggered the Google Home in my home about 20 feet away from the TV sound bar.
  3. There’s just no escaping the fact that “Alexa” is less awkward to say than “OK Google”. I’d like to see Google let users change the command word to whatever we want. I’d use “Jarvis” for mine. 😉
  4. I was expecting to see my other Chromecast devices show up in the Google Home app. None of them are, including my new Samsung TV. They show up in the YouTube app, so it looks like Google Home is only going to see official Google Chromecast devices. 🙁 This is puzzling to me because Google is essentially creating a two-tier Chromecast ecosystem. It could be their attempt to ensure predictable quality, but it’s a let-down for me not to be able to speak to my Google Home and request it play a video on my TV. I’ve ordered a Chromecast Ultra which I’ll connect to my Samsung TV, but I wasn’t expecting to have to use it on this cast-enabled TV?
  5. The Google Home’s overall sound quality is excellent – significantly better than the full-sized Echo. It sounds fuller with deeper bass. Previously I had an Echo Dot connected via Bluetooth to an amazing-sounding Vizio sound bar, so even though the Google Home sounds good, this is a big downgrade in sound. The Google Home can’t connect to a Bluetooth speaker, which is an unfortunate omission in my view. It should just be table-stakes at this point for a home assistant to work through whatever speaker the user wants. Once I have the ability to cast to the Chromecast Ultra, which will be connected to my Samsung TV (which outputs audio to the Vizio sound bar) I’ll get some of that back…but it may mean the TV will have to be turned on, which is no good. This is clearly an area where Amazon has an advantage with the Echo Dot. Google needs a “Home Mini” ASAP.

Any questions about the Google Home? Post ’em and I’ll answer.

MobileViews Podcast 181: New Apple & Microsoft Hardware Announcements

My friend Todd Ogasawara invited me to join his MobileViews podcast, so along with Jon Westfall and Sven Johanssen, I joined in the conversation. It’s always great to get together and talk tech with like-minded folks.

Todd kicked off the podcast with what didn’t get announced:

  1. A Surface “amateur” 4 to follow-up the popular low-priced Surface 3
  2. A Windows Hello mouse with fingerprint reader
  3. An affordable (sub $900) Macbook anything
  4. A refreshed Mac mini – has not been refreshed since Oct. 2014

There’s some ranting me from about the new Macbook Pro, and some thoughts about Microsoft’s Studio Pro.

A Modern Music Discussion

My Wife: “Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell“.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “That’s weird. Maybe Alexa didn’t hear you. Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “What? I’ve been listening to Two Steps From Hell forever! That’s impossible – we own several of their albums.”

My Wife: “Maybe it’s not in Amazon Music?”

Me: “Hmm. I was sure I uploaded those albums to Amazon music. Apparently, we don’t own any music by Two Steps From Hell? We’ve been listening to it on Google Music for two years.”

My Wife: “Oh.”

Two weeks later, as I’m writing this blog post, I still have this nagging feeling that I own this music…someplace. So I check my music collection on my NAS and five several albums by Two Steps From Hell. I walk over to my Amazon Echo Dot.

Me: “Alexa, play albums by Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “Playing your albums by Two Steps From Hell.”

<music starts playing>

Me: “I’m really glad I ordered a Google Home today”.

Alexa: “Go to hell.”

OK, so Alexa didn’t actually say that last part, but I’m sure she was thinking it. I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12 month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12-month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

My Echo Dot was ordered March 17th, delivered May 20th, and made obsolete September 14th. That’s 182 day (6 months). Coming from the tech world, I know that technology marches ever onward. Products are always going to become obsolete. But six months between product releases? That’s slightly outrageous by any measure and as a customer, I feel burned by that.

The Echo Dot has a vastly inferior microphone system from my experience – since we moved the Echo upstairs and the Echo Dot became our kitchen-area voice assistant, and it’s not uncommon to hear my wife and son yelling at it. If there’s any ambient noise at all, the Echo Dot simply doesn’t respond. The full-sized Echo was amazing at hearing us no matter what was going on, but the Dot is quite terrible at it. I don’t think I have a defective product, as I had a few people on Twitter reporting the same problem.

Amazon’s Echo is generally great at what it does (music, shopping, home automation), but the deep learning and insanely huge data set that Google can draw upon gives them a tremendous advantage over what Amazon can offer. I’m keen to see if the Google Home I ordered is really as good as they made it seem in the keynote. We’ll see…