A Faster, Stronger Blog Host: the Digital Ocean $10 VPS Droplet

This is the speed on Servage, my previous web host. ๐Ÿฅบ

It’s amazing how server horsepower has gone up over the past few years, and how costs have come down.

For $7.99 a month, Servage gives me a shared hosting environment – an unknown amount of CPU power, an unknown amount of RAM (but I’d guess 256 MB at most), and 200 GB of storage. And the above performance is indicative of the kind of speed I’d see from this blog – when it was loading at all that is.

Servage, a web host I’ve been with for years, has become so dysfunctional, and their shared servers so overloaded, I’d often see 4-6 hours of down time on this blog. It was staggering how many technical problems and poor provisioning (in terms of too many sites on a single host) they inflicted upon customers. And even logging in to file a trouble ticket to ask why my site was down for the 15th time this week always started like this:

Compare that with Digital Ocean, where for $10 a month, I get a dedicated 2 GB of RAM, one virtual CPU, 50 GB of storage space…and a dedicated VPS that has (so far) perfect uptime. And look at the speeds: this site loads 15x faster! It’s amazing how painful WordPress is to use when it’s on an underpowered server ๐Ÿ‘ฟ, but what a sheer joy it is to use when it’s on a solid machine. ๐Ÿ˜‡ Granted, running your own VPS isn’t for everyone, but so far it’s been a great experience for me.

This is the speed on Digital Ocean! ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ‘

For those wondering what took me so long to move this blog over to a better service, it’s a combination of having several domains and dozens of email accounts on Servage (which is a pain to move to a new host), having all my Thoughts Media sites on a different VPS (1&1, which also needed to move over onto Digital Ocean), and of course the biggest factor: I am not a Linux expert or web hosting guru, so I was was limited by my own skillset and the gracious help of friends when they could spare the time. ๐Ÿ˜

At this exact moment I have my digital footprint spread across the above three service, but within the week I hope to have it down to two, then within the quarter down to one…

The Maddening HP Inkjet “First Print of the Day Blurry Problem”: SOLVED

I have been brutally disappointed in the experience of owning my HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 for the past 15 months. Every single day, the first page of any print job is blurry.

The first week I used the 8710 I started getting blurry prints from it. I contacted HP support and spent 30 minutes troubleshooting it. Because this is an intermittent issue that only occurs after the printer has been idle for hours, it’s impossible to make a change and know if the fix worked. I hoped the steps I took with the first tech worked. They did not.

So I called back and HP helped me again. This time they thought it was the print head causing the issue, so they sent me a new print head. I replaced it.

The problem kept happening: blurry prints.

Then I called back and HP helped me again. This time they thought it was the whole printer that was the issue, so they sent me a refurbished printer.

The problem kept happening: blurry prints.

So I called back and HP helped me again. This time they thought it was a configuration issue with the macOS printer driver (never mind the fact that my wife also got blurry prints when printing from her Android phone). The tech walked me through some changes to the driver, and I hoped it would help.

The problem kept happening: blurry prints.

Always the first print of the day when the printer had been idle for hours.

Multiple firmware updates have occurred and every time I hoped that maybe THIS TIME it would fix the issue. 

The problem kept happening: blurry prints.

By this point, probably 10 months had passed and I’d wasted easily 2-3 hours of my life working with HP tech support trying to fix this problem. I just gave up and didn’t want to deal with it for a while.

Today I called HP support again, even though my printer was out of warranty, in the hopes that there was a known fix for this blurry print issue. The tech kindly offered to help me, despite being out of warranty, but after he had me reboot the printer and pull out the ink cartridges and look for corrosion, I just couldn’t walk through the same useless troubleshooting again. I explained in detail the symptoms of the problem, explained that the problem persisted across printer head chanages, multiple ink changes, and even A WHOLE PRINTER CHANGE, but the tech persisted in wanting to put me through the basic steps.

I’ve owned HP printers for 15+ years, and I’ve never felt like I feel now: that my HP printer is incapable of doing the most core thing I need from it…printing. I will likely never buy another HP printer so long as I live given the extreme distrust I now have for their printing products (and lack of faith in HP tech support to solve customer issues).

July 2019 Update: I am pleased to share that HP solved this problem for me. I was told the 8710 printer was known for having this problem, but only in rare cases and they couldn’t duplicate the problem in their labs and thus figure out how to solve it. That makes it a tough issue to fix for customers. However, HP solved this for me by sending me a different printer: the HP OfficeJet Pro 9015. So far I’ve had it set up for a few days and have had no blurry prints, so I’m happy. ๐Ÿ˜ I am extremely impressed that HP support was both empowered and willing to offer me a replacement printer. This undoes a lot of the frustration I had toward HP and I am pleased with this outcome. Kudos to HP leadership for giving their techs the authority to do things like this for customers! It’s unfortunate though that I had to go to such lengths to have them offer me a replacement printer. โ˜น๏ธ

This is What Storage Salvation Looks Like: Western Digital RED

Huge thanks to my friends at Western Digital (hi Heather!) for helping me out of a storage bind with these three 10TB WD Red NAS hard drives! These will save me days of moving 35+ TB of data over Ethernet from one NAS to another, twice. And these drives are rated for 24/7 use + a three year warranty. These are my first NAS-appropriate drives – I’ve just used basic consumer-grade drives until now – and I’m excited to see how they perform.

Why was I in desperate need of 30 TB of hard drives you might be asking? I’m in the midst of dealing with a defective Synology 1019+ NAS that has given me non-stop headaches for months, and moving this much data around is incredibly difficult. When I went from my old Synology 1512+ to the new 1019+ I migrated the drives and OS, but I’m convinced that played a role in some of the issues I’m seeing now (as well as outright hardware failures).

So instead of migrating, I’m starting from scratch with a replacement 1019+ and these WD drives, then moving the data over – but only once, which will be a huge time-saver.

Customer databases are hacked more often than you might think

Although I can’t prove this – only the biggest of companies will admit to the most egregious data breaches – I’m convinced there’s a near-constant theft of customer data happening from improperly secured servers. And I’d bet that in many cases, the company involved doesn’t even realize it. Hackers don’t make their presence known unless they have reason to.

How do I know this? I use unique email aliases whenever I give out my email address. I use catch-all email forwarding for jasondunn.com. So if I sign up for something from company XYZ, I give them [email protected] as my email address. It’s hilarious when I do this in person, watching the expression as people try to process it. ๐Ÿคฏ They sometimes think that I work for their company. ๐Ÿ˜‚

I do this to have some control over incoming email; every email address becomes a “burner” that I can throw away by routing it into an inbox with only 1 MB of storage space (so it bounces all incoming email at this point). I have easily over 100 email addresses that are routed this way. These email addresses are compromised in various ways: some are shared/sold to other legitimate companies (“cross marketing”), some keep getting email even after I’ve tried to unsubscribe, and some are used by spammers/phishers like this one below.

I’d contacted Congressman Adam Smith via his online contact form, using this unique email address that had never been used anywhere else before, and a couple of months after using it, I started getting repeated email spam to that alias.

I’ve seen this many times before; I used to try and follow up with the company to point out they might have a problem. Once, years ago, when I did this with an online reseller of Roomba products, they got back to me and confirmed that they did in fact have a security breach and customer contact info was stolen – and they hadn’t realized it. It’s more efficient now for me to just rout the compromised email address into oblivion than to try and make the case that my info was compromised by a third party.

This type of issue happens several times a year to me, so I’m glad I have the ability to control the inflow of email. It will be very hard to go back to the “regular” way of doing email if I ever can’t do an email catch-all…๐Ÿค”

Dramatically Speed up Synology NAS Network Folder Browsing on macOS

Since adopting macOS into my computing world five years ago, and having a Synology NAS in the mix for even longer, one thing I’ve consistently noticed is how much slower it was to browser NAS folders via macOS compared to Windows. Every folder loads so slowly on my Macs, but immediately on my Windows laptop. It’s not about server load either. After five years of wondering why it was so slow, I finally found a solution right on Apple’s tech support pages:

To speed up SMB file browsing, you can prevent macOS from reading .DS_Store files on SMB shares. This makes the Finder use only basic information to immediately display each folder’s contents in alphanumeric order. Use this Terminal command:

defaults write com.apple.desktopservices DSDontWriteNetworkStores -bool TRUE

To complete this change, you log out of your Mac and log back in. Boom! You’ll be able to browse network folders as fast as you can on Windows. The negative to this method is that the DS_Store files aren’t scanned, so Finder won’t remember custom file sorting views, etc. No big loss from my perspective, but something to be aware of.

For anyone like me who’s constantly accessing network shares on a NAS, this tweak is a game-changer!

iPad Pro 2016 vs. iPad Pro 2018 iMovie 4K Render Test: FIGHT!

If you saw any of the coverage of the 2018 iPad Pro launch, you couldn’t escape the way Apple talked up the performance of the 7nm A12X Bionic chip at the heart of their product. ArsTechnica has a great write up about the chip and what it’s capable of, the most interesting of which is that this is the first product Apple has ever released with their own chip that ran utilize all cores simultaneously. Naturally, after seeing the benchmarks where it had incredible performance numbers, I wanted to understand what the real-world results would be doing the most intensive thing I can do with my iPad: exporting 4K video. I was also involved in a conversation where another person claimed there was no speed difference in iMovie exports on the new iPad vs. the previous model.

That didn’t make much sense to me, so here’s what I did: I took four 4K GoPro clips, 2 minutes 18 seconds in total, and put them into iMovie on my old iPad and my new iPad (I don’t have a 10.5″ iPad Pro to test with). A filter was applied to each of the clips, and I added some simple text titles. I did exactly the same steps on both iPads in iMovie. I did four runs of the test, each time adding a single text element, doing the export, then removing it and doing the export again. Why? Even if you delete the exported video file, and purge deleted items from Photos, iMovie keeps an internal copy somewhere and immediately “finishes” the render when you start the export again. I had to alter the project to get a true re-render. The iPads were both running on battery power, and each was at about 80% battery level. Neither had any background tasks running purposefully, but I didn’t factory reset my 2016 iPad Pro to create a truly level playing field – so keep that in mind.

The results were interesting in three ways:

  • The 2016 iPad Pro was 23%ย 19% slower at exporting the 4K video compared to the 2018 iPad
  • The 2018 iPad Pro was extremely consistent, turning in the same time (2 minutes 24 seconds) on all four tests. No variation at all.
  • The 2016 iPad Pro was wildly inconsistent, doing it was quickly as 2 minutes 48 seconds, as long as 3 minutes 12 seconds, and once iMovie crashed.

A difference of 23%ย 19% adds up if you’re doing longer video projects; the A12X Bionic is a beast of a processor. However, 19% isn’t exactly a massive leap over two chip generations, so the real performance gains might appear elsewhere (as seen in Geekbench numbers).

I also bought LumaFusion for my iPad and did a simple 1080p edit – it worked wonderfully and the output was extremely quick. I can see why people like Jonathan Morrison are extremely excited about the iPad as a video editing tool – it really does open up a wealth of possibilities! Now if only Apple would give us access the iOS file system and let us use external storage devices…

The 10 Reasons Why I Returned My Google Pixel 3 XL…and Five Things I’ll Miss About It

The short answer to why I decided to return my Pixel 3 XL? Insufficient value to me and too many compromises.ย If this was a $649 phone I’d have lower expectations for it, but in my opinion Google priced this too high for what they offered me as a buyer. They are at iPhone pricing without being an iPhone, and frankly that matters. If you’re going to charge me a thousand dollars for a phone (with tax), it had better be stellar!ย I’d saved and budgeted for this phone, so it’s not about putting it on a credit card and having buyer’s regret either – it’s about this phone not justifying its cost to me.

I can see why a lot of people will love this phone though, especially if they don’t own a dedicated digital camera. This phone has a great camera and for many people that will be the best reason to buy it. ?

For context it’s worth noting that for the past two years I’ve been using a OnePlus 3T, and my wife has had a OnePlus 6 since July (and a OnePlus 3 before that), so those three phones serve as comparison devices. If you’re wondering why we both haven’t been using HTC phones, well, that’s a whole different story that I’ll tell another day. ๐Ÿฅบ Continue reading The 10 Reasons Why I Returned My Google Pixel 3 XL…and Five Things I’ll Miss About It

Pixel 3 XL Halloween Photos

Last night I took my Pixel 3 XL out Halloween trick or treating with my kids and decided to see how well it handled real-world low-light conditions. This is without the forthcoming Night Sight, which by all accounts is extremely impressive. The images below are shot in regular camera mode, JPEG (I completely forgot about the raw mode option) with post-processing done in Lightroom. Lightroom noise reduction was not used on any photo. I could have posted the unretouched photos, but I always do some sort of post processing, either on my phone or on my computer, so this is real-world for me. I’ve also added some additional analysis on each photo for those that are curious, and linked to the full-sized JPEG (most are somewhat cropped, so none are original size).

The TLDR version? This Pixel 3 is the best camera I’ve ever used in a smartphone, and it has impressive optical image stabilization. It’s still a tiny sensor and subject to the same laws of physics as any other phone though, so it can’t work miracles. I’m generally impressed with how well it holds up at high ISOs that would make many phone images fall apart.

Above: this scene was quite dimly lit, despite what the adjusted image looks like, and is reasonably sharp given the camera was shooting at 1/15th of a second (which is below what I can properly hand-hold at without stabilization). It had to push to ISO 2728 though, which is why the cloth robe is noisy mush. It’s an OK picture if you don’t look too closely at the robe because other elements look decent. Continue reading Pixel 3 XL Halloween Photos

If Apple Was Being Honest With Their Site Navigation

My transition to being mostly Apple hardware has taken a few years, starting with an iPod Touch years ago. I still use an Android phone, but my desktop is an iMac, my laptop is a Macbook Pro, and I have three iPads in my home. My wife has inherited my trusty Dell XPS 13 though, so I still have access to a great Windows laptop. ?

I’ve decided that at this moment in my life, the benefits of what Apple offers is worth what I have to pay for it…but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a little grumpy as I watch how Apple updates – or, more accurately rarely updates their Mac product line. The iPad is, in my opinion, the best tablet you can buy today. The iPhone is an excellent product. But Apple’s Mac products? They alternate between stale to compromised, outdated to ridiculously expensive. And yet because they are the only way to get macOS, people who want to use that platform have no choice.

Above is what Apple’s site navigation looks like today. They add the word “New” in orange when there’s a product update. What would it look like though if they were a little more honest? This. ?

(you’ll want to click on the image to appreciate all the sarcasm)

I’d created the graphic below months ago, so wouldn’t you know it today was the day that Apple finally put 8th gen Intel CPUs in their Touch Bar-based Macbooks and updated a few other key things (more max RAM and SSD options). The new Macbooks might have better battery life, and they might have fewer keyboard problems. We’ll see!

If you’re a Mac user, what do you wish Apple would update next?

AudioEngine A2+ Speakers in High-Gloss Red Reviewed

I have a long history with AudioEngine speakers; I first reviewed theirย A5 speakers back in 2007, and theirย A2 speakers in 2008. I’ve owned their A5+ speakers since 2011, having only recently retired them from use last year, and not by choice; we put a bigger TV in a spot where a soundbar was needed in front of the TV because we needed all the width of the mantle for the TV. The point is, I have a deep fondness for AudioEngine products so I had high expectations as I excitedly unpacked the box with the A2+ powered speakers. I have a tremendous โค for products that are red, so one of the reasons why I asked to review the A2+ speakers was because they game in this glorious red colour:

The speakers are available in satin black, high-gloss white, and the above high-gloss red. The photo above is slightly deceiving: it looks brighter in my photos than in the normal lighting of my office. Because it’s so glossy, the colour pops depending on how much direct lighting they are in. Tucked beside and behind my iMac, they are a deep, dark, blood red.

In virtually every review of speakers or headphones, the writer will trot out obscure artists and tracks, trying to impress the reader with their musical pedigree. I shall do no such thing, and simply say that with the variety of music I listen to regularly from these speakers – pop, rock, a capella, country, orchestral scores – I am extremely impressed with how great the A2+ speakers sound. You’re not getting booming bass here without hooking up a sub-woofer – that’s a matter of physics, and these are small speakers – but when cranked up, these tiny powerhouses will move some serious air (you’ll actually feel wind blowing strongly on you at higher volumes) and they sound quite full for their size.

Volume wise, listening at four pips of volume on my iMac has the speakers at about 62dB (measured with a sound meter at 16 inches away). It’s what I consider a “comfortably loud” volume level – not quiet background, volume you can actually hear and appreciate the music. At 50% volume (8 pips) they’ll hit 84db. At 100% volume (16 pips) they’ll hit 105db – a volume level I find painful being so close and would never use, but if you’re trying to full a medium-sized room at a party, you may need this volume. At max volume they hold up without distortion on every song I tested them with, and while I won’t “song drop” I tested a live cover of “Superstition” with some heavy bass and at 100% volume it was smooth and (OK, OK, check the bass solo at 4:08 here).

Continue reading AudioEngine A2+ Speakers in High-Gloss Red Reviewed