Self Powered Part 2: Amped AF

For those following along at home, in my previous post I talked about getting a second battery and installing more solar on my roof to try and go completely self powered. The core issue is that a 5kW system just wasn’t enough to charge 2 Powerwalls and keep my house completely off grid. It would perform great on sunny days, but throw a few cloudy days in and suddenly I was back to drawing on grid power like some kind of caveman. My goal in putting more solar on my roof was simple: could doubling my solar capacity mean I could go completely off grid?

The conclusion as it turns out is a resounding: YES! Here’s what happens now that I have an 11kW system on a sunny day vs a rainy day:

The above is interesting for a few reasons:

  • Most people don’t realise that you can still generate solar power even when it’s raining. My system pulls down around 2-3kW when it’s bucketing down.
  • With the above in mind, now think about the fact that the sun comes up every day, on a reliable and predictable schedule. You can literally set your watch to it. This means the power is very reliable. The sun isn’t likely to break down anytime soon.
  • A typical house like mine needs around 20kW/h a day to power itself. Obviously this will vary widely per household, but you only need to check your last power bill to see what your daily average is.

Which means that, even on a rainy day, my house can power itself with no issues. Additionally on a sunny day, it can make me money by exporting excess power back into the grid:

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The graph above shows power being generated from the sun in yellow, and below the graph you can see the green part is where it’s going into the battery, and once full, the grey is the power being put back into the grid.

There’s one last bit of this experiment I want to share which surprised and delighted me. I have an electric car (you can read more about it here). Prior to installing these panels I was charging my car mainly from the grid. I use an energy provider called Amber, which has 30 minute wholesale based prices, so I would wait til power was cheap to pull down lots of it. This flexibility was nice, but it still meant I was needing to draw on the grid to power my car. On average I use roughly 10kW/h’s a day to drop my kids off at school and go to and from work. While electricity is far cheaper than petrol (and cleaner, especially here in South Australia!), I still was a bit miffed that this was throwing a spanner in my 100% self-powered works. It turns out I needn’t have been, because for the last month, my car has been 100% powered by the panels on my roof as well! I think it’s worth pausing for a moment just to think about that. All the power my house uses (for hot water, cooking, cleaning, washing, heating, cooling, etc) and my entire commute to and from work and other family outings, are now powered by the sun beaming onto my roof every day. Not only does that mean it’s free, but it’s also dependable and convenient. If there’s a shortage of oil/petrol, I’m not bothered. If the power goes out for a day or more, I’m not affected. I’m completely self-sufficient in the best possible way.

So what does a typical 100% off grid day look like? My car (which I plug in when I get home) is scheduled to start charging itself 1 hour 20 minutes before I leave for work. Most mornings there’s 70-80% remaining in my batteries (they have a capacity of roughly 27kW/h), and my car takes about 10kW or so out which is what I’ll use that day. Then the sun comes up, and starts charging the batteries back up. Depending on the weather they are normally full sometime between 12pm and 3. At night we use about 20% cooking, doing the dishes and powering our night-time activities and so we’re back to about 80% by bed time. There are a few weather based variations as well, for example on a really hot day (30 degrees celsius or more) I’ll flick on the air-conditioner remotely at lunch time to cool the house down to 23 degrees using that free excess power. Here’s an example of the day described above in graph form:

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The blue spike at the start is my car charging, then you’ll notice another spike when the air conditioner turns on. The green and grey below the graph are power going into the battery, then once full the rest going back into the grid. Maybe I’m a nerd, or perhaps just plain weird, but staring at this image fills me with a weird sense of satisfaction and awe. The electrons and I are no longer enemies, but friends enjoying a journey of energy discovery together.

Self Powered

Quite a few people who read my previous post about having an electric car (https://rustyshelf.org/2019/05/31/australia-meet-wattson/) have been asking me what I think of home battery solutions like the Tesla Powerwall 2 and if I’d ever consider getting one. The answer might surprise you: no, I wouldn’t consider getting one. I would however consider getting two!

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I purchased the first one in 2018, and when the South Australian government introduced a home battery rebate (which equated to $6000 towards a home battery) I decided to get a second. The solar inverter you can see in the picture is hooked up to a 5.1kW solar system (soon to be 11kW). I know it sounds like hyperbole but I think this battery might be the single best purchase I’ve made in recent years. The first and most obvious reason is this:

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I have solar panels on the roof, generating up to 40kW/h of energy a day…and when I most need it (around 6pm when we’re cooking dinner and then later that evening) the suns not really around anymore to help me out. Additionally here in South Australia we pay on average about 40c per kW/h for power and are given around 10c per kW/h for power fed back to the grid. That means I pay roughly 4 times more for power from the grid than they pay me for power I give back. Something about that always felt wrong to me. I’d invested in power generation that sits right on top of my house, but when I needed them all those electrons were long gone and I had to pay for different, more expensive ones. Not to mention that mine were 100% renewable, who knew what sources these other nasty electrons came from?

So I did some rough maths, decided a home battery was the way to solve this problem and paid my deposit. Tesla being Tesla took their sweet time in fulfilling my order. In total it took around 6 months from when I placed the order to when the battery was installed. After about half a day for installation it was powered on and I immediately installed the app to see what was going on. I was greeted with this fun and rather mesmerising animation:

I’m not kidding when I say my wife and I have wasted many a moment just staring at that animation. It’s a fairly simple thing: there are 4 main items in the coloured circles. You have your solar panels (yellow) and the power grid (grey) which can both supply power. You have your house (blue) which uses power. Lastly you have the battery (green) which is both charged by the solar panels and supplying the power to your entire house until it’s flat. Almost every day after the battery was installed my entire house became self-sufficient. This meant while I wasn’t home the battery was being charged to 100%, and the rest of the remaining power sent back to the grid. When I got home the battery kicked in to power us through the entire night and into the next day. My power bill dropped to almost $0 overnight.

Then something even more interesting happened…

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The power went out to our entire neighbourhood for a full 21 hours. The only reason I knew it was out was because I noticed all the lights in my home flickered for a split second. Then I got a notification on my phone from the Tesla app.

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I got up off the couch, looked out the back door and our entire suburb was dark…except for our house. We watched TV, we made tea with the kettle, we cooked dinner and left our lights on the whole time. It was such a surreal experience knowing that our house was powered by that one (relatively) small battery in our garage. When we woke up the next morning and found out the power was still out I immediately wondered if the battery would continue to charge without a grid connection. I forgot to ask the installer about this, but sure enough when the sun came up, our battery went straight back to charging itself back up. We were, for the first time ever, completely off the grid.

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At work that day I got a notification from the Powerwall that the power had come back on. The final kicker was that a month later our power company sent us a cheque for the inconvenience of having been without power for 21 hours and their sincerest apologies. I cashed that cheque grinning like a giddy little school boy knowing that we hadn’t been without power for a single second of that time.

So if life was so amazing with the panels and battery, why did I bother to buy more? Well summer was a rush, no doubt about it with 1MW of power generated by my panels:

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Then, in the same disappointing way it finally did to Winterfell, winter came to my place as well.

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And it was at that point that I knew if I could find the means I had to do 2 things: double my solar production so I could be self sufficient in winter while also doubling my storage capacity to cover those pesky heavy cloud days. Solar panels had almost halved in price since my original install, so the first part seemed easy. Then the South Australian government introduced a home battery rebate which sealed the second part for me. Even with the price drops and rebates, this second part of my journey became less about return on investment (which I’d calculated to be about 4-6 years) and more about just doing everything in my power to farm my own electrons and use them on my property. I was drunk on the power of, well, making my own power and I wasn’t about to let a stupid season defeat me. The second battery went in last month and the extra panels should go in next month.

When winter comes for me next year, you better be damn sure I’ll be ready for it.

 

Australia, Meet Wattson

The Tesla Model 3 just went on sale here in Australia. I know some of my crazy tech nerd friends know how much of a big deal this is and have already mashed order (if you haven’t, and you want some free supercharging kms, now’s the time I should nudge you to use my promo code). For those that haven’t and are genuinely wondering what it’s like to own and drive an electric car down under, well, I have a confession to make. Meet Wattson:

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Back in September of 2018 he arrived in Adelaide. He and I met in Port Adelaide and every day we travel together, hand in wheel. Creepy friend analogies aside, it’s been an amazing experience. I admit I’ve always been an early adopter and I while I did some research before buying, I still had a tonne of un-answered questions. There aren’t that many Tesla’s around in Australia either, so I’m also used to fielding questions from interested random people I meet on my travels. So I thought what better way to kick off the launch of the Model 3 in Australia than to answer some!

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How long does it take to charge?

By far the most common question I get from people. From completely flat to full at a supercharger, about an hour. You rarely if ever do that though. Most times you just plug it in at night just like your phone and top it up with your home charger. Depending on whether you have single phase or 3 phase power your home charging speed will vary from somewhere between 35km/h to 80km/h. If you’re desperate you can also just plug it into a stock standard plug and charge at 10km/h.

Tesla superchargers are located all around the coast of Australia and driving from say Adelaide to Melbourne like I did a few months back was a breeze. Worth noting that the Model 3 is capable of charging faster than that, so expect to see those times at superchargers and other charging stations go down.

What’s the range like? Do you get anxious about running low?

Tesla sell different models with different ranges, my Model S has roughly 500kms of range. I’ve never really been anxious about that because in a typical day I drive at most 50km. Then when I get home every third day or so I might plug it in. You can even schedule charging to be at off-peak times if you get cheaper power at different times. It actually turned out to be quite the opposite of what I expected, charging is really convenient and never having to go to a petrol station again is a huge win!

How do you service it?

Well unlike a traditional car there’s no engine. This means no oil changes, no filters changes, no spark plugs to check, no drive train to maintain, and well, the list goes on. Imagine all the money you spend servicing your car now, and remove every cost except replacing tyre’s and brake pads and you quickly get an idea of what’s involved. Also because when you lift your foot off the accelerator the car regenerative brakes using the electric motors, your brake pads will last far longer than on a normal car. On a typical drive to work I barely use the actual brake pedal at all.

Has Elon turned you into one of those crazy Tesla Zealots?

Ha, no. While it’s an amazing vehicle it does have some downsides and quirks. The auto parking feature is very badly designed. I can’t figure out how to activate it half the time and every time I’ve tried the car has failed to park itself. My 2009 Golf never had a single issue finding or parking in spots by itself. The software in the car while of a high standard, has crashed on me twice in 6 months. The first time it did both screens went black, which is quite a scary thing to see in a car. The driving systems work fine when this happens, but it doesn’t really excuse it. The second time just the autopilot function crashed, beeping loudly at me to take over because it had a brain freeze. Tesla are aggressive about software updates and with that comes occasional quirks.

Autopilot you say, does this thing drive itself?

Yes, but also no. If you’re on a highway you can activate autopilot and the car will steer, accelerate, brake all by itself. I made heavy use of this on my last trip to Melbourne and it was a surreal experience. Imagine you’re in the car with a learner driver and while you have to keep an eye on everything they do, they drive you along the highway quite happily. It was honestly quite refreshing to not have to worry about all the tiny details and just focus on the road and enjoying the trip. Even weirder is if you want to change lanes, the car will happily do that too, just use the indicator and it will change lanes when it sees that it’s safe to do so.

If you believe Elon these things will be fully self-driving anytime now. Don’t believe Elon though, he’s a crazy optimist who is constantly wrong about the timelines on these things. I fully believe Tesla’s will one day drive you door to door, but I have a hard time believing that’s anywhere in the next 5 years or so.

Speaking of smarts, what tech stuff can it do?

A lot as it turns out. Firstly it has its own Internet connection which is really handy. Navigation via Google Maps, Spotify integration and companion app for iOS and Android that can do everything from reverse the car out without you in it, to unlock it, to turn on the climate control. You can even share a location straight out of your favourite maps app to the car via the phone app.

 

How much does it cost to run?

In a normal car I could tell you how many litres per 100 km’s you’ll get, and you’d know the price of petrol in your area and you’d happily do that maths yourself. In my golf for example there was (and I’m going off memory here) a 55L tank, which would cost about $90 to fill and could do between 800-1000km. The Golf was a small, efficient beast so your mileage may (literally) vary here.

Electric cars are no different. In my case (and lets round the numbers to keep it simple) I can do 500kms with 100kWh. If my power price is 25c per kWh, then it would cost me $25 to “fill up” my car.

Where things get really interesting though, is if like me you have solar panels on your roof and maybe even a home battery as well. In this case you can literally take free power from the sun, and put that straight into your car. I do this regularly in summer when I have way too much power being generated than I need, and in most cases get roughly 200kms of free range straight from the sun every week. Imagine if you could put something on your roof that could literally refine petrol for your car. Insanely cool.

I’ve read a lot about Tesla potentially going under, couldn’t this be a bad investment?

With every car you buy that comes with a warranty, you’re relying on the manufacturer remaining in business to fulfil that warranty. Ditto in general for parts and repairs. Tesla is a much newer, much less established car maker so that might seem like an unsure bet. To me though, I don’t think there’s any actual risk here. The company is selling a lot of cars and while Elon is a volatile influence at the helm, I’m fairly confident that if things go south for them what they’ve built out is valuable enough for another company to buy out and continue running. As I said above I’m not some rabid Tesla fan, they have a lot of faults but I really do think they are a good 5 years ahead of the rest of the automative industry and if you’re already in that space, or a giant tech company that wants to be, Tesla would be the perfect acquisition to take you from nothing, straight to the #1 EV maker position.

What about the battery wearing out?

This was a real concern back when EVs where new. How long would the batteries last, would you have as much range 5 years later as you did on day 1? The good news is that the Model S has been around for long enough for us to know the answer to these questions: and the answer is all good. You’ll lose a few km’s of range over the years but the batteries in cars aren’t built the same way the ones in your phone are, they won’t lose half their capacity in 3 years or anything crazy like that.

Any parting thoughts?

Yes! If you’re on the fence and have the means, just frickin do it! It will be the best damn car you’ve ever owned, I promise you that.

Does Wattson like wine?

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How about the beach?

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Are you just asking yourself questions to post more photos?

No! How dare you! This definitely isn’t Wattson in Keith porn.

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Does Wattson have any relatives?

Yes, Ampy…his umm…great grandfather who started it all, when he drove to my house way back in 2015. I thank and blame Mat Peterson for doing that and sparking my interest. He proved to me in seconds that not only were electric cars good, but superior in almost every way to their petrol ancestors. From that moment on Wattson turning up was a when not an if.

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Experiments, I’ve Had A Few

Those that know me even moderately well, know that I love exploring different sides of tech. Back in the early 2000’s I was a Windows user and really happy with my brand new Compaq laptop. It was one of the first to feature a graphics card you could game with and was really light and compact (I resisted the urge to say compaq, you’re welcome). Then someone brought a Mac into the office. A PowerBook. It was shiny. It was different… “Never seen OS X before, is it any good?” I was asking. Oh, UNIX based? Photo management built in? You can edit videos with ease? I’m sure you can see where this is going. The next time I bought a laptop, it was a Mac and I absolutely loved it. The PowerBook G4 was my first experience with OS X and I’ve been a loyal user ever since. Mac Minis, Mac Pros, MacBook Pros, MacBooks, iMacs the list of Macs I’ve bought at home and at work would probably be staggeringly long. And it all started with you little guy:

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Over the years that same curiosity has led me to try all sorts of weird and wonderful tech. On the phone front I switched to Android for a few years and thoroughly enjoyed the breath of fresh air that came with trying out things from a different perspective.

Ok, history lesson over. Fast forward to last year and I’m travelling to the states. I brought my 2016 MacBook Pro with me, which I felt had disappointed me in so many ways. High Sierra bugs though mostly minor kept annoying me. The keyboard wasn’t fun to type on and keys kept getting things under them which stopped some keys from clicking down properly. The Touch Bar I’d hoped would be a wonderful revelation in how I used my laptop turned out to be an annoying hindrance. Who knew I pressed ESC so many damn times in a day? Not I apparently. And in my time off between doing work and going to meetings I tried to game on it. The terrible frame rates and a lap that was on fire indicated to me that perhaps the machine wasn’t really comfortable doing what I’d asked of it. The fans concurred. Then, as if it were some kind of scripted event in a game I noticed something while browsing The Verge…it was an ad for something quite different

A graphics card you can actually game on? Top end hardware in an interesting form factor? Full size USB ports? SD card reader? Unlock it with your face? Touch Screen?! That…detaches? What the actual f***? I’m not exactly sure how it happened to this day, but I ended up in a Microsoft Store in San Francisco and somehow this came into my life:

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Having impulse bought yet another tech gadget I decided to see what all the fuss was about and attempt to use this as my primary laptop. How long would I last? Probably not long, I thought. Maybe a week? Well over a month later, this is still my primary laptop and my MacBook Pro just looks at me, sadly as it gathers dust. I know, some of you are cheering (I’ve met you Microsoft fans) and some of you are yelling at your screens (I’ve met you too Apple fans). So here are some thoughts about the why and how of it all.

What I love:

  • The GTX 1050 in the 13″ model I bought can handle almost any game on medium to high settings. It’s not the 1080 that’s in my desktop, but it’s decent. I almost bought the 15″ GTX 1060 model but they had none in stock at the time.
  • When doing intense tasks the laptop stays nice and cool. No more feeling of my lap being on fire that my MacBook Pro gave me every damn day. I’m not sure if this is more modern components, better cooling or just the placement of parts in a bigger case, but it’s so good.
  • Touch screen and stylus support. I didn’t think I needed this in my life until I had it. It’s really useful.
  • The pen magnetically attaches to the screen, nice touch Microsoft!
  • The form factor feels great.
  • Windows 10 is so damn stable. I haven’t had to restart it once because things were going wrong…something I find myself doing a lot on the Mac recently.
  • Gaming on Windows is a million times better than macOS. I know all the historic reasons for this, not all of them Apple’s fault, but still, it is. Also unlike under Apple BootCamp, Microsoft is quite happy for you to download the latest Nvidia drivers and install them if you choose.
  • Have I mentioned the hardware? It’s really solid and nice.
  • The keyboard feels like it has more travel and is much nicer to type on.
  • Battery life is solid, I feel like I get roughly double the battery life my MacBook Pro was getting.
  • You can unlock the laptop with your face! It’s basically the same technology Apple uses for iPhone X but done earlier and better by Microsoft. I say better because it is far better at recognising me and if my face is obscured or there’s directly sunlight telling me that and trying again.
  • Physical ESC key. ‘Normal’ USB port. I missed both these things, now I have them again. I like the idea of having an SD Card reader but freely admit to not having used it yet.
  • Surprisingly all my MacBook Pro dongles work. Ethernet, HDMI, etc. I’m sure Microsoft ones are just as overpriced as Apple’s so that was a nice surprise.

Things I have had to find another way to do:

  • I use Terminal on the Mac heavily, having UNIX there ready to go at any time is essential for me. Turns out Windows 10 supports installing a Linux subsystem with minimal effort. You go to the store, download Ubuntu (or your other Linux flavour of choice) and you’re done. There’s no tab support in the Ubuntu window but you can open as many windows as you like, and it’s actually real Ubuntu, no funny business.
  • I really like Tweetbot on the Mac. The official Twitter client for Windows is reasonably good but I don’t love it as much as Tweetbot.
  • Tower (my Git app of choice) is available on Windows. That said, I ended up using SourceTree just because their app felt like a more mature, stable Windows app.
  • Android Studio and Intell-J run pretty much the same as they do on the Mac. That covers my Android and Web development needs.
  • As much as die hard Mac fans laugh at things like Electron, turns out there’s a huge upside for Windows users. Slack, Sublime Text and so many other apps I use all the time work exactly the same way thanks to their cross platform nature.
  • 1Password for Windows is surprisingly good. If they added Windows Hello support it would be perfect.

Things that are worse, or that I don’t care for:

  • Detaching the screen seemed like such a great idea. I tried it a few times and didn’t really have a use for it, so I pretty much use this like a regular laptop. I wonder if that’s a me thing or a universal experience. I’m not embedded enough in the Windows world to know.
  • Running Xcode in VMWare is horrendously slow. I *may* have tried installing macOS directly, but getting the drivers for the graphics working seemed like an uphill battle I just didn’t have time for. This means that I have to do all my home development on my iMac, tethered to a desk. The humanity! In all seriousness if I didn’t have an iMac at work and at home this would be a huge problem. iOS development is an essential part of my job.
  • Windows still has a few dark places you can end up in. There’s still a registry (though it’s buried further down these days) and there’s still Windows 2000 style areas that you need to go to for some things. It’s not as bad as it once was, but the OS still feels a bit underdone in some visual areas.
  • While Microsoft’s ‘Authentically Digital’ design aesthetic is clean, I honestly find it bland and boring. It feels like all the bad things about iOS 7.
  • I’ve never used Siri on the Mac and I see no reason to try Cortana either.
  • Hi DPI support seems much more solid than the last time I tried it, but occasionally you’ll still run into an app that has fuzzy text or image assets because they haven’t updated to support it yet. I feel like on the Mac we passed that point several years ago.
  • The laptop goes into sleep mode when you close the lid, good. It doesn’t wake up when you open it though if it’s been a while since you did it. I suspect it has something to do with the laptop moving from sleep -> hibernate, but it’s mildly annoying.

Is this the greatest laptop ever made? No. Does it blow the MacBook Pro so far out of the water that I’m walking around laughing at people still using Apple laptops? No. But there’s something here, and you can really feel it. Microsoft is getting good at hardware. Windows 10 is improving. They are listening to feedback and making yearly incremental updates based on it. If I were Apple I’d start to worry. Being arrogant and opinionated only works as long as all the decisions you make are right. As soon as they aren’t, the illusion of “it just works” is broken and people will start to look elsewhere. Not all at once, not in some massive exodus, but person by person they will seek out the solutions they feel best for them.

 

My Next Mac Mini Part 2, The Minining

Early this year I wrote about my 2010 Mac Mini and the desire to replace it with something more modern. For some reason the article got some traction and it seemed a lot of people were in the same boat as me. They were also looking at something Mini-like but were uninspired by Apple’s Mac Mini lineup. At the end of my previous post, I settled on this Intel NUC as being my next Mini of choice.

This week, it arrived:

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iPhone 7 for scale

Out of the box a few things struck me. Firstly: Just how small it was. If that iPhone 7 above doesn’t give you an idea, here it is sitting on top of my old Mac Mini:

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The second thing that struck me is how un-Apple like it looked. Ports on the front! Coloured ports! I was excited though, this was going to be a fun project. By default Intel NUCs come without a hard drive and RAM, but you can order them pre-configured from places like this with those things and an OS installed too. I decided that half the fun was picking those parts myself, so I picked up 2x8GB RAM sticks and an M.2 drive from my local PC retailer as well as a copy of Windows 10. It was interesting (though not surprising) to see just how cheap RAM and SSD drives are when you don’t buy them from Apple.

Putting in the hard drive and RAM was a breeze. You just flip the NUC over, take off the base and pop both in. Installing Windows was also surprisingly quick and easy. It even comes on a USB stick these days which is handy, since this thing is physically smaller than a CD/DVD.

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Windows Update automatically found drivers for all the bits of hardware in the NUC and before I knew it we were up and running. My requirements for this machine were quite specific so I set about verifying everything I wanted to do would work:

  • Drives a 1080p TV
  • Plays online content like Netflix, YouTube, various online catch up TV services, etc
  • Runs iTunes and can play various TV and movie content that I’ve already purchased from Apple
  • Allows me to watch terrestrial TV, as well as pause, record, skip etc
  • Is able to use VPNs and Torrent clients to download very import Linux ISOs

So how did the NUC running Windows 10 go? Very admirably: it did all but the terrestrial TV part. It turns out my almost decade old USB dongle (EyeTV Diversity) isn’t that well supported. I eventually found drivers that seemed to run it, but it didn’t work that well. Also all the various PVR programs I tried had interfaces only a mother could love. I bet some of you out there are fans of them, and that’s fine, but I felt like I was in a horrible alternate reality universe compared to the program I was used to using: EyeTV from Elgato. No big deal, I told myself, I’ll just wander down to my local retailers and pick up a more modern USB TV dongle. It turns out (and perhaps this is a surprise to only me) that watching TV isn’t that popular with the kids anymore, because literally nowhere had them. Also Elgato at some point sold off that part of its business to another company that seems to be running their products in maintenance mode. At this point it was past midnight so I gave up and went to bed.

The next evening, fresh and spritely after a day at the office, an evil thought crossed my mind. I could search for a TV experience I was happy with on Windows 10, buying all new hardware and hoping for the best…or…I could install macOS on this machine. Now I’m not saying I actually did this, mind you. But if I had I would have used a combination of this guide, mixed with this one. And a short time later I probably would have seen something like this:

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And perhaps then I would have installed all my software I had before, including EyeTV 3 and had a faster, smaller and much better Mac Mini running all the things the 2010 did. It probably would have looked something like this:

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Had I done this I probably would have discovered that everything just works, except for the Bluetooth and WiFi. Perhaps I would have made a quick trip to a store to pick up a Bluetooth USB dongle which worked perfectly with my existing Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard. Finally I might have gone into the BIOS of the Intel NUC and turned off all the flashy lights as well as set the fan settings so that it’s all but silent except when doing processor intensive tasks. I’d like to think I would have been happy with this setup. Had I done any of that. Which of course I didn’t.

Hal: Open The Air Pod Doors

There are a million reviews of Apple’s new AirPods on the web, so this is not one of those. I have however been so impressed by mine that I just had to write about it. And why you ask? Well I feel like this is the first time in a long while that an Apple product has genuinely wowed me and exceeded my expectations. Everything from how small they are, how easy they are to pair (just open the lid) how well everything they do works, wow, just, wow. The feature where it pauses when you remove one? Works 100%. Instantly connecting to my iPhone when I take them out and put them in my ears? Works 100%. Battery life is great, charging them in the carry case is just genius. This is Apple at their very best, it feels, dammit I’m about to say it: magical.

I think the reason all of the above makes me so happy is that this is what it used to feel like to be an Apple user. Every new product was a chance to experience just a little bit more of that crack like magic. Of course it would always break occasionally (like when my laptop pretended like my AirPods didn’t exist until I signed out of iCloud and back in) but you were always willing to forgive the occasional glitches because the experience as a whole was so good.

Lastly, and really importantly they also pass a pretty high bar in my household: the Michelle Test.

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I occasionally joke (lovingly of course) that I married my biggest critic, but it’s true in a nice way. I trust Michelle to give me feedback no one else would. The second she saw the AirPods in my ears she just laughed. And rightly so, right now it does feel goofy wearing them. So it was rather poetic that when she opened her xmas presents, among them was her very own pair of AirPods which she reluctantly concedes are pretty good. I caught her a few times just opening and closing the lid of the case, watching the little card go up and down on her phone each time she did.

So hats off to Apple for bringing some of that elegance and charm to their product line that wowed me back in the early 2000’s. I hope there’s more where that came from.

It Meshed With Me

Something about the new year makes me look around and want to replace things I own. Out with the old, in with the new! I know, how very first world, 1%, consumerist of me. To ring in 2017 with a bang, the first thing I replaced was something that doesn’t need replacing at all. My recent(ish) Netgear WiFi Router. Apart from the management interface designed in the 90’s by hardware engineers, it has served me pretty darn well. The WiFi is fast everywhere in our house, the routing…well it routes…and it has done the best job it can to distribute the ultra slow Internet we have here at home around my house.

But when Andy Ihnatko (my co-host at Relay FM) told me about his new Google WiFi mesh network, I instantly wanted it. I couldn’t just buy it though, I’m impulsive at the best of times, but at $299USD for a pack of 3 even I needed a reason. Then it dawned on me, sometime this year the new house that we’re building will be finished. This new house as it happens is much bigger and has more bedrooms than our current tiny house. Yes, what this house needs is good WiFi, and it won’t get that with just one router alone! What this new house needs is a new style of router, one that has multiple nodes that seamlessly mesh network together!

Lame attempt at justification over I headed to Amazon and to my amazement found they’d happily ship it here to our Penal Colony in Australia. The first thing that surprised me when it arrived was how nicely it was packaged. The second was just how small each of the units is:

A white cylinder, one LED strip through the middle of it and on the bottom two Ethernet ports and USB-C for power. The USB-C part was really handy since it came with US power plugs. I already own a lot of devices that charge via USB-C so finding a spare adapter or two was easy. From there I installed the Google WiFi app and was impressed with just how easy it was to set up. It got me to scan a QR code on the bottom of the first device and walked me through plugging it in and setting up a WiFi network. Basically the first unit you set up and plug into your router via Ethernet becomes the primary device, any others you add automatically mesh with that first one, or if your house is big enough each other. On being prompted to plug the second one into power it found it straight away. A short mandatory update later and my new WiFi network was live. Being curious I broke out a great app called Netspot and it confirmed that my house was all lit up in sweet, sweet green WiFi.

I tested file copying to various devices and that was fast and error free. Next up was my pet hobby, Rocket League on the PC for a few minutes of gaming. Here I encountered my first and only roadblock. Every minute or so my ping would go from a reasonable 65 to an unplayable 500+. I quickly figured out that my kids were watching YouTube which causes problems at the best of times (welcome to Australia and my 3.5mbs connection). Not to worry though, this was the perfect time to test out the ‘priority device’ feature. This lets you choose a device to give a premium level of access to, in theory allowing the packets it’s sending and receiving to be prioritised over all the others. In fact the Google Help page about it specifically lists gaming as one reason you might turn this on. So I turned that on and my connection…got worse. This part made no sense at all to me…had Google, the fledgling hardware maker made yet another dud? Their previous failures like the Nexus 9 (with it’s frequent unexplained freezes and lock ups) made me all the more nervous. The amazing Pixel phone in my pocket though gave me some hope though, maybe I’d done something wrong? The next day happened to be a Skype recording of Material…and it too went rather badly.

Some quick googling of my setup afterwards revealed a few things that might be wrong and needed investigating. The first one being that when I’d plugged it into my router, I hadn’t changed any settings on it at all. So my router was both handling the ADSL connection and routing traffic through its LAN ports. The Google WiFi was trying to do the same, on it’s own 192.168.86.x subdomain while my router and devices attached to it were on 192.168.2.x. There’s no point in having two routers going like this (and it can sometimes cause routing issues like ‘Double NAT’) so I changed my router into ‘modem only’ mode, and re-configured the Google WiFi to handle that change. A quick trip to Rocket League revealed a drop in my ping from 65 to 52…a small but seemingly positive change. The frequent and unexplained lag spikes (even when quitting YouTube on the other device) also seemed to be gone. The final test though was what originally had me so excited about setting this up even before moving house: could I play a game like Rocket League (that is incredibly dependent on the latency of your Internet connection) while other people were also doing things on our Internet? Previously I had tried to configure the Netgear QoS settings that were meant to allow this and it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. So I tried the priority device settings on Google WiFi again with this new setup…and lo and behold it now seemed to work! Even when everyone else in the house was doing things on the Internet the game would still mostly be responsive. I say ‘mostly’ because I was still getting occasionally slowdowns and spikes in ping, but it was night and day compared to what it had been like with the Netgear. The takeaway for this feature seems to be: it’s not magic, if something like Google Photos saturates your upload bandwidth during a backup for example, even the priority device will be affected. However if a few people are browsing or playing other online games, it seems to make a big difference.

All in all I’m really happy with Google WiFi, and I haven’t even mentioned things like being able to pause the Internet on a device (or a group of devices that you label) or just how smooth and seamless the app for it is. Literally the only change I feel like I’m missing is the ability to schedule these pauses: it would be great to kill the Internet to all the kids devices in the evening, and only have it turn back on in the morning at a reasonable hour. But this for me ticks all the boxes otherwise, the units are small and elegant so you can place them anywhere you have power. If you have a router that’s many years old or you have dead spots in your WiFi connection, then it’s definitely a worthy upgrade.