Saturday, March 30, 2013

Teleworking and Small Office Internet

Today marks exactly one year since I left my job with Azul Systems. Azul was always good to me; former and current, they're a great bunch. One of the perks Azul allowed me was the ability to work (cross-continentally) remotely for four of my eight years with them.

As a teleworker, I soon discovered that a home office is not the ideal workplace for everyone. Even without spouse/kids, I'd find myself breaking up my day with various non-work errands and chores. This can lead to a pattern of "making up work time on nights and weekends" that may or may not actually happen. The disciplined approach of working a mostly contiguous day can become a slippery slope to cabin fever. In 2010, a trusted friend approached me with the idea of sharing costs on a telework space. I leapt (inside joke) at the chance.

This is Comcast country, so we split the bill on business class service with static IPs for remote access to our office network. I installed a small Intel Atom-based firewall/router running pfSense to handle network chores. Over time, I added static routes and dnsmasq config to allow persistent access to our respective company's networks via Linux-based VPN routers running under virtualization.

Alas, things change and paying for an office no longer makes sense. Being under contract with Comcast, I decided to move the business class service from office to home. The tech did the install yesterday, and I got my router working with the Comcast gateway today. So right now I have both residential and business networking.

MacBook Pro => wireless router => Comcast residential modem => Internet

MacBook Pro => wireless router => Comcast business class gateway => Internet

I'm still weighing whether I'll cancel my residential service entirely or keep it just for TV. Bundled pricing being what it is, Comcast seems to want me to cancel. Maybe (against hope) I can talk to a Comcast CSR who appreciates my dilemma.

As for my own networking setup, wireless routers are getting really powerful and pfSense is overkill for most home networks. This means out with the pfSense box and in with the ASUS RT-N66U wireless router running Tomato Shibby firmware. The N66U is what I would label prosumer quality, while the Tomato firmware makes this suitable for small office setups. Having used various stock and open firmwares over the years, this is really a thing of beauty when running on a full-featured router.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Optimizing EDC for Spring

As winter becomes spring in the northern hemisphere, a person's mind turns to... optimizing one's set of everyday carry (EDC) items. My jacket pockets have become heavy with items not worthy of a shorts, trousers, or shirt pocket in warmer weather. Depending on one's profession, this list of items will vary. I'm a homeowner and IT geek in a past life, so my EDC layout reflects that. For some, EDC implies self-defense; that seems overly specific to me. I'm not fearful of attacks, but just want to be generally prepared for the tasks I may face on any given day. That said, I think nearly everyone can benefit from a good knife.

I used to carry a cheap jackknife until 9/11 permanently ejected that knife from my keychain. Abandoning the knife was a critical step to becoming pickier above knives as tools. I now have many quality folding knives, but I keep coming back to Spyderco knives for simplicity and quality for everyday use. I've pretty much settled on the Sage 2 (above in picture) and Ladybug 3 Hawkbill Salt (below in picture) for my EDC layout. The hawkbill is package opening perfection that can go on a keychain. The Sage 2 is a great, simple slicer that rivals knives over $300. Get informed and a quality blade will serve you well.

I also recommend a good LED flashlight bright enough to illuminate a walking path on a dark night. A more common use for me ends up being to illuminate computer labeling of jumpers and connectors. My 40+ year old eyes aren't what they used to be and more light really helps. I've been happy enough with a Fenix E05 on my keychain. In retrospect, I'd choose a light that can go on a keychain ring and still stand on its base to illuminate a small room or space.

I used to carry a wallet full of cards, paper money, and cruft. Some of the cards have been transferred to CardStar or other apps. Thankfully, my new debit card no longer has embossed numbers; it fits so much better now. I somewhat envy those in countries and cities that have made the transition to better e-payment; no such luck here yet. I've been experimenting with a card wallet and separate paper money clip for the last year plus. Alas, I think I'm heading back to a unified, yet thin, nylon wallet. I'm not a vegan, but leather is for murderers and old-school yuppies. ;-)

Living in a semi-rural area, I have both a car and truck. The car has an electronic keyfob with hidden, internal physical key. The truck is older and has a separate key and fob on a ring. Future and some current vehicles sort this out with app/Bluetooth-proximity entry and remote start. I want! And badly enough, that I may look into thirdparty remote unlock and starting systems. It's borderline stupid that one can't unlock and start one's car from one's phone in this modern age!

I should be carrying a USB stick, but haven't quite found what I want. Most of us probably have several old, small, semi-useless USB sticks. I want a single USB3 multi-stick (switchable boot partition) for modern use. Any recommendations? Eventually, smartphones will render temporary use of USB sticks obsolete.

Last, but not least, we have a smartphone. I started out with an original iPhone and upgraded every other release: iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4S. Now I'm itching for a Nexus 4 or HTC One. The Nexus 7 was a cheap gateway device for me. The N7 weaned me off the Apple ecosystem and onto the Android ecosystem and Google services. Despite the recent Google Reader flack, Google is now giving me the services and features I want compared to Apple. Recent iTunes changes also seem like a disincentive to stay with Apple. Samsung nails it in their anti-Apple commercials from a few months ago: Apple has become the platform of choice for kids and grandparents! Don't get me wrong, I've been back with Apple since 2003 and still love my late-2008 MacBook Pro. Apple abandoned the enthusiasts, not the other way around!

Always soliciting input for little gadgets that others out there find indispensable. What are the critical items or philosophies behind your EDC layout?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Super Slim HTPC Followup

Now that the new HTPC has been "in production" in the bedroom for a couple days, I have a few notes and comments for those considering a similar build.

SilverStone PT12B case

  • This case is functional, minimal and very attractive for HTPC use.
  • Ease of system assembly is the best of any case... ever! That's really a compliment for Mini-ITX.
  • The blue power LED is very bright and blinks when the system is in standby. This is enough to be very distracting in a dark room. I will absolutely end up disconnecting or putting tape over the LED.
  • The case is not overly sturdy, especially in the top center. I wanted to put my display (24" monitor) stand on top of the case, but don't trust it to support the weight. Putting an old standalone DVD player atop the case and the monitor stand on that works fine. The DVD player distributes weight to the corners of the PT12B. Some larger cases include a metal cross-brace and additional center/rear middle leg to accommodate weight. Honestly, I'm happy enough not to deal with an annoying cross-brace.
  • There is no provision for a horizontal expansion card. I don't see this as a big loss for HTPC in a slim chassis. Mini PCIe and USB provide decent enough expansion capabilities.
  • Cooling holes over the CPU are a nice touch for passively cooled (Atom) or very low-profile HSF systems. I could maybe see putting my old 35W Core i3-2120T in this case with a low-profile HSF.
  • It's not clear how efficiently cooled this case really is. That said, it does specifically accommodate the Intel HTS1155LP cooler. I feel like cooling could be optimized to allow better cooling of the motherboard, RAM, and SSD as well as CPU? That said, I'm not having problems at heavy load.

Intel HTS1155LP cooler

  • This is better quality than Intel's cheap OEM HSF units.
  • Thermal paste is separate and not pre-applied. I used Arctic Silver 5 instead. Seems like a plus not to have to scrape pre-applied thermal paste off the heat transfer pad.
  • Plastic under-motherboard support and screw attachment seems like a plus compared to Intel push pins w/ twist release. That said, how to know how hard to torque the screws?
  • Blower is quieter than expected. This system is installed at the foot of my bed and I can't hear it above ambient noise while playing video. It also didn't seem loud while doing games testing. I almost want it to be louder (higher RPM) under significant load?
  • Exhaust air is slightly warm. Compared to my desktop gaming PC I think this is a plus. I definitively know heat is being exhausted from the case.

Intel DQ77KB (Ivy Bridge) motherboard

  • Intel also offers a cheaper and older DH61AG board that would be perfectly fine for most HTPC.
  • DQ77KB provides SATA3, plentiful USB3, dual Ethernet, Mini-TOSLINK (via green audio out port), and DDR3 1600 RAM support.
  • PCIe x4 is wasted in a super slim case. How useful is PCIe x4 on this board? You'd want x16 for video; I guess x4 is useful for more networking or more storage. Honestly, this seems like a leftover; we have 4 PCIe lanes left so here they are!
  • Full and short length Mini PCIe provide good internal expansion for mSATA and Wi-Fi. The screws in the Mini PCIe standoffs can come torqued a bit too much. Is this the new source of badly designed frustration for small PC builders? I'm tempted to buy a separate set of standoffs w/ screws to replace the half faulty included ones!
  • The included mSATA port is only 3GB/s while my mSATA SSD supports 6GB/s. For shame! There are two regular 6GB/s SATA and two 3GB/s SATA ports on this board in addition. My secondary drive gets to be 6GB/s, the mSATA primary only 3GB/s!
  • I'm basically whining about a perfectly good low-profile motherboard. My complaints are either unnecessary optimization or trying to make this board into something is was never meant to be.

Intel Core i3-3225 3.3GHz dual-core CPU

  • Intel HD 4000 graphics are basically a 720p (not 1080p+) solution for gaming.
  • This is a very capable CPU. In retrospect, I should have not tried for gaming and saved myself some money.
  • It would be more tempting to downsize if these Socket 1155 Core i3 processors weren't all similarly rated at 55W TDP. I feel like Sandy/Ivy Bridge T (low-power) processors are priced a bit dear. The thing is, all Intels idle very efficiently these days.

Antec SN90P slim notebook power adapter

  • This power brick works great at full CPU and graphics load and is quite small compared to most power bricks.
  • Highly recommended so far!

Windows 8

  • The initial install went very smoothly.
  • Yeah, it's Windows 8 with all the desktop annoyances one would expect.
  • Surprisingly, I'm actually glad I went with 8 for an HTPC build. The native Windows 8 Netflix app is a nice advantage for my setup.
  • XMBC with cmyth PVR supports works are well as any other platform (Linux) I've tried.
  • As much as I'm a Linux and not Windows guy, Windows 8 makes a very usable HTPC appliance.


Having spent time mucking about with GNU/Linux PCs and Android/Linux devices to get a decent HTPC experience, this is the first time I feel like I've achieved it. This system wasn't cheap, although it could have been much cheaper and still gotten the job done. Someday ARM-based streaming devices will probably provide an equivalent or better experience, but we seem to be a few years away from that still. I'm very happy with this build, but would probably be nearly as happy with a downspecced DH61AG, cheaper Sandy Bridge, and 4GB RAM build. ARM-based Android media devices may be several times cheaper, but they don't get me where I need to go yet.


I'd desperately like to know what hardware configurations others are running to meet their media streaming needs. I'm tempted to maintain a guide for currently acceptable HTPC build and configuration. For HTPC, it seems that savvy geeks would prefer to run the cheapest, friendliest (wife acceptance factor, etc.) systems that will do the job. For some this is (hacked) Apple TV, for others TiVo plus a separate (expert mode) HTPC, Android devices, other media boxes, friendly HTPC, and the list goes on. We're in this frustrating interim period between conventional broadcast/cable TV and pure Internet IPTV and many of us want to keep on top of the advancements. Thanks in advance for your help. See you all on my blog, your blogs, the message boards, and Google+!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Super Slim Intel HTPC Build

After messing around with massive cased x86 home theater PCs and Android media devices that aren't quite there yet, the goal was to assemble a slim, x86-based HTPC that is overkill for everything but gaming. This build is specifically designed around the low-profile Mini-ITX form factor as adopted by Intel and SilverStone.
  • Case: SilverStone PT12B super slim Mini-ITX
  • Motherboard: Intel DQ77KB low profile Mini-ITX
  • CPU: Intel Core i3-3225 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz dual-core
  • Cooling: Intel HTS1155LP CPU cooler
  • Memory: Kingston KHX1600C9S3P1K2/8G DDR3 1600 SO-DIMM
  • Primary Storage: Mushkin MKNSSDAT120GB-DX mSATA
  • Secondary Storage: OCZ Agility 3 60GB SSD
  • Power Supply: Antec SNP90 slim notebook power adapter
Let's start with the SilverStone PT12B case, because that's where I started with this build. One look at this case and I knew this was the form factor I wanted.

I'm an old Mini-ITX guy, starting from the ancient VIA boards. I first became aware of low-profile Mini-ITX with Intel's Johnstown Atom board. Johnstown and an M350 case was tiny server perfection. I'm so glad Intel has taken this form factor to the next level with Socket 1155 support.

The SilverStone case pictured above is really small and cleanly designed. The case front from left to right is: air intake, power switch, reset switch, power LED, HDD LED, slim DVD bay. There's no front USB, audio, FireWire, or labeling. Clean is how I like it. This is reflected on the inside of the case as well. This requires an external 19V DC power brick that connects into the back of the motherboard, so there's no internal power supply, only the brick and DC to DC conversion on the motherboard itself. The left side of the case is specifically designed for Intel's HTS1155LP heat pipe, heat sink, and blower assembly. This seems to cool my 55W TDP Core i3 well enough. I don't think I'd try a >65W TDP CPU in this form factor. The Antec 90W external power brick is tiny and works great.

See how tiny and clean the motherboard with CPU and RAM look in this already very small case.

I can hardly imagine an easier Mini-ITX build or, indeed, any PC build. The Intel CPU cooling solution has a back plate that needs to go under the motherboard. The Intel-supplied blower fan mounting screws don't work in the SilverStone holes. Luckily, SilverStone supplies smaller screws that work just fine. You will definitely want a tiny phillips head screwdriver. Below are pictures of the installed cooler and fully cabled system. This is without the mSATA drive, as the mounting screws come installed and require (yet again) a tiny phillips screwdriver I needed to retrieve from elsewhere.

Installing Windows 8 via external USB DVD drive went flawlessly. Linux is my true love, but this system will be Windows for maximum compatibility with Flash and Silverlight video. I also run a MythTV and video storage backend on Linux, so I'm expecting this box to spend a lot of time in XBMC.

This is my first experience with Windows 8. The install was very quick and smooth. Setting up my secondary SSD was infuriating as management apps are hidden. Searching for "disk" helped not at all. One must simply type Windows-R and enter "diskmgmt.msc". Easy! ;-P Microsoft has both dumbed things down and made things less intuitive with separate Start and Desktop modes and hot corners. Do I miss the Start menu even though I used to hate it? Hell yes! The sad part is, I feel like it would have been almost trivial for Microsoft to produce a touch-friendly but not desktop-averse shell. Hot corners are an "expert" feature that have been forced as a default.

This is also my first experience actually using Intel HD graphics for anything at all intensive. My CPU features the more capable HD 4000. Newer games like Borderlands 2 are borderline playable at lower quality 720p. Older games like L4D2 are quite playable at 720p. Basically, high end Intel graphics are a 720p, low to medium quality gaming solution. This machine will spend most of its life streaming video at 1080p (or less), and for that it should work splendidly. This is an expensive solution for that, but a lower spec CPU and smaller SSD would work fine for HTPC use.