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Writing the No Man’s Sky fan fiction feels good. I am definitely exercising muscles that have been dormant for a while. This will get me ready for writing the next draft of the next chapter of Adam’s Name. And by chapter, I mean book. And by book, I mean… book. Dangit.

The school year has started back up, and we opted for fully virtual, rather than a hybrid in-person and virtual setup. Neither their mom nor I felt or thought that it’s safe enough for anything else. The old adage of schools being petri dishes is incredibly apt right now, no matter how much sterilization or separation that they’re able to pull off. I am more than happy to put up with complaining about the kids missing their friends in exchange for being sure they’re not going to be involved in an outbreak.

The Razer laptop’s battery expanded, contracted, and has been replaced. Kudos to the third party battery company for not abandoning their customer after ten months. Free replacement, no ridiculous hoops, and the new one does the thing. If you’re looking to replace a laptop battery, check out ANTIEE.

Building a Minecraft Machine

So, way back around Christmas time, each of my kids asked me to build something for them or install something on their computers. My daughter wanted to learn a language on her computer. DuoLingo to the rescue. My youngest son wanted java Minecraft, with the Pixelmon mod. Done easily enough. My middle son wanted a computer to play Minecraft on when he came out to my place. Ah! A challenge!

I tend to keep pieces and parts lying around, so I went digging. I had a Lenovo ThinkCentre super small form factor PC from the Other Project, along with its mounting bracket. I had a brand new mouse, but it was from the PS/2 era. I had a monitor that I was using to troubleshoot my server when it went sideways. I had a keyboard collecting dust. That was pretty much everything I needed. Except, of course, the ThinkCentre didn’t have a PS/2 port. Too new for that. So, once again, adapters to the rescue! A quick trip to the local Micro Center, some browsing in their adapter aisle, and I came home with this oldie-but-goodie.

He wanted to play on the family Bedrock server, so Windows 10 was the operating system of choice. Then, I mounted the bracket onto the back of the monitor, and plugged all the bits and bobs in. Keyboard, mouse, monitor, everything was recognized the first time around. There was a little bit of tinkering with drivers, a little bit of poking and prodding, but in the end, everything worked, right down to the wifi.

So, now I’d made the gift, got it together, and tested Minecraft on it. No delays, snappy response, and no drops from the server. It would never play something high-end, but it did what I needed it to do. But, my middle son wasn’t out to my place as often as his younger siblings, so I needed to be able to store it away. The monitor cable was easy to wrap up and tie, but what about the mouse? It couldn’t be permanently shortened, he’d need slack on it when he used it. I’m not sure why, but this is my favorite part of the build. Two curtain hooks from an old box fit right between the computer case and the mount bracket, and the mouse wraps around them just like a vacuum power cord.

When he got the computer, my son loved it. He was excited, and the first thing out of his mouth was… “Can I play Fortnite on it?”

Ah, well. Can’t win them all!

Chip off the old block

It was a proud moment for me when my youngest son brought home a laptop from a garage sale, and said that we should fix it. According to my wife, he talked my repair skills up to the family running the sale, full of pride in his Dad. My wife had grabbed a second one out of the bin, just in case my son’s didn’t work. At $5 each, it was a hell of a deal, and all the buttering up helped a great deal. So, of course I said I’d do it!

The laptop he’d picked out was a Compaq CQ62. Single-core Intel Celeron processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB spinning hard drive. The other was a Lonovo Chromebook N22, with mysterious Google magic inside. Maybe also hardware. Neither came with power cords, and the batteries were drained, so of course they didn’t boot up. I ordered some very inexpensive replacement cords from Amazon, and set to cleaning the laptops. They were both missing keys, but that was a worry for after confirming that they’d boot. There was a lot of dust, and some grime on the Compaq’s boards that might’ve been water damage, or might’ve just been storage ick. The Chromebook was sealed together tightly enough that I didn’t want to poke around too much, lest it never fit back together again.

When the power adapters arrived, there was great happiness! Both laptops not only booted, but heir batteries held a charge! The garage sale lady had been honest, and storage hadn’t wreaked too much havoc. For the Compaq, I restored from the factory default, which sped it up a great deal. I upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10, and the laptop behaved just as snappily. (Shut up, it’s a word!) While watching it chug through updates, I used the task manager to see if there were any resource choke points. Lo and behold, the CPU and RAM were keeping up like champs. The hard drive, on the other hand, was SLOW. Far slower than a spinning drive should be. It passed both the quick and long tests for its manufacturer, but that took ages as well. So, I cloned the drive to a 120 GB SSD that was living in another project computer.

Everyone, I/O speed has way more impact on a machine’s behavior than it has any right to. The difference in behavior was staggering. Windows 10 – fast. LibreOffice – fast. Minecarft – responsive. Roblox – responsive. Steam – hell yeah, I’ll install! YouTube, Twitch streams – smooth! Our only disappointment was a long shot: DC Universe Online. It loaded, and ran, eventually. In the end, it just wasn’t playable with the graphics hardware. He was totally fine with it, and was just happy that it worked. Score!

The Chromebook was even easier. It booted, updated ChromeOS, and just ran. Double-score!

All that was left were the damaged and missing keys. I ordered some replacement from LaptopKey.com, and they… well, some of them popped right on. Some, due to the design of the keyboards, were a bit of a struggle. Unfortunately, they didn’t fix the problem, so I guess those keys were damaged in the layers of the keyboards themselves. Back to Amazon for replacement keyboards! When they arrived, all it took was a couple of YouTube how-to videos, a couple of screwdrivers, and a couple of hours to replace them both. Did they work?

Yes! The Compaq is fully functional and in my son’s room. The Chromebook is on my wife’s chaise lounge, and works for web browsing, app install, and streaming – both Netflix and Amazon. We spent between 40 and 50 USD, and ended up with two functioning laptops. A fun time, and completely worth it!

Giving Up and Making Progress

I’m a little frustrated, and a little irritated. MyMateVince is using Anker power bricks to supply power to many of his mobile projects. Anker themselves said that the power brick I ordered would supply the juice I needed. But, dang it, I couldn’t get it to work. I couldn’t get more power out of the USB ports than the standard amperage, and I couldn’t figure out how to trigger their PowerIQ to open up the floodgates. So, finally, after all of the tries in the previous post, and a few more, I gave up and contacted support

Assembled and updating

Support immediately told me that it was not possible with their current generation of power bricks. There may or may not have been some slamming of my head into my desk. I will neither confirm nor deny. The battery is now being returned for a full refund.

Ahem

This led me to table the idea of powering the first version by battery, and instead focus on a portable, if plugged in, version. Which led to re-assembling the machine, updating the software, and confirming that all the things still worked with all the other things. And they did! The games run even better now that Steam is pushing so hard for more Linux compatibility, some visual artifacts have disappeared, and my available library has more than doubled.

Mocking up the case

On top of that, my friend noticed that the mount plate (that piece of metal that the motherboard screws into) was attached to the case with several spot welds. I was confused by how this mattered, until he pulled out his drill and started drilling out the weld points. A butter knife and some elbow grease later, and the plate was free of the case, and available for us to use. We can now mount the motherboard on one side, and affix it to the case on the other.

Speaking of cases, my friend and I began considering. And, when he considers, it’s more like he starts mocking it up on the spot. He just happened to have this small sheet of steel lying around, and got right to bending it. So far, the only thing that we disagree on is the speaker placement.

I’m right, of course. :)

Nerding in parallel

Did I promise to give an update if and when I worked on the portable Steambox project again? I did? Well, here you go! We worked on it! And ALSO on something else.

Again, things came down to power. This project needs a battery pack that can power both the screen AND the motherboard, and at different voltages and amperage. We’ve got some bits and bobs that should have done the job, but none quite did All The Things. So, I went back to my thinking at the start of this project, and looked for a consumer battery pack that would do what was needed. And, after an email chat with a representative, I found the Anker PowerCore AC. I picked it up and… didn’t test it. I’d given the power cords to my partner in crime, so to speak, and he was out of the country for work. Well, last week, he came back.

Whatever tells the Anker power pack to increase the amperage to support faster charging isn’t happening with the screen. It’s getting the 5 volts and 100 milliamps, but isn’t getting the quick charge IQ goodness. So, the screen tries to turn on, fails to get enough, and turns off. So, we needed to find a way to check if the battery pack could put out what was advertised.

Tech mess

My friend set up the following power chain: Anker A/C port, router plug, power-over-ethernet injector, RJ45 cable, step-down converter, D/C cord into screen. And it worked! The screen turned on and stayed on! So we know for a fact that the power supply can do the needful, at least out of the A/C port. Now we need to figure out a way to either trigger the battery pack to engage its fast charging, or combine the power from two USB ports to support the screen. We’ll see which way it goes.

Tech mess

The other project is re-purposing an old Dell PowerEdge server into a moderately useful gaming box. It’s currently got one Xeon quad core processor running at about 2.5 GHz, and has a slot for another. It’s got 8 gigs of RAM, and can go up to a whole lot more. My friend had thrown in a 5 year old video card with 1 gig of VRAM, that had sat in its box since he picked it up. It’s got a 500 gig hard drive, but it’s one that came with the server and is a bit slow. Windows 10 runs on it, and runs pretty well, which wasn’t a surprise. It’s done a really good job of scaling down to old hardware since its release, and hasn’t reversed that trend, which I’m thankful for.

Our first test was Minecraft, cranked to full everything, and it ran smooth as butter. Next, we installed Everquest II, a game that the end user (my friend’s wife) plays, and I hadn’t played in about seven years. My login still worked! My characters were still there! I had a succession of “what the crap” moments, and tooled around the winter area in which I spawned, and figured out that anything over “Balanced” graphics quality wasn’t going to be smooth. But! The game worked! For old time’s sake, I let off a PENITENT KICK! and took a photo.

EQ2