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

Pieces and parts

Pieces and parts

Power can be a problem. I don’t mean the kind where you have too much power, and you get corrupted six ways from Sunday. No, I mean the kind where you need electricity to flow to the pieces and parts in exactly the ways that they expect. And since we’re using consumer parts to build the project, these things aren’t easily modified. But, you know what? This is a problem that can be solved.

We just haven’t been able to solve it yet. The PC takes the majority of the power, which we expected, and the screen takes a comparatively minimal amount. I bought this specific screen model because I saw it powered by USB in this video. Unfortunately, it won’t pull enough power either from a power brick (same brand as the video, but different model) or from a USB cable plugged into a wall wart rated for more than enough juice. I’ve reached out to the maker of the video, but haven’t gotten a reply.

It’s worth noting that the difficulties we’ve run into have had me considering whether or not I should continue the project. And then, at one point, we had the screen on and connected to my laptop, mirroring the display. And, still, that little 10″ screen is beautiful. It’s so pretty. And with that, I was determined all over again to see this thing through to its conclusion.

If you have any ideas or expertise that you’d like to lend to the situation, please contact me with the details you’d need to help with the problem, and I’ll send them your way.

I don’t wanna upgrade.

You read that right. I will be very upset when my iPhone 6S gives up the ghost. I don’t want to change, despite my knowledge that it’s inevitable. Even with battery replacement, its life is finite. And I’m lamenting it now, even though it could be years away.

I grumbled about the non-expandable storage when I switched. I complained about the non-replacable battery (unless I wanted to void the warranty) when I switched. I wasn’t sure how I was going to like iOS and the closed nature of the apps, etc, etc. My 5S was a rock, though. It’s still in use, in the loving care of my brother-in-law. It just worked. Phone calls and text messages just worked. Like, reliably. All the time.

I didn’t have to root it and install an alternative OS just to make it do the thing. I was a convert. Not quite a proselytizer, but just shy.

And then came the iPhone 7. My wife got one, and I was not enthused. Removing the 3.5mm jack was a step too far. Now the only physical jack is Apple’s proprietary one. NO THANK YOU. And how long before that is gone? But, you know, that complaint is years old, right? Why post about this now?

Well, another positive of having an iPhone has been Apple’s attitude towards encrypting as much of the end user’s information as possible. In short, they’ve been heavily for it. But now, right around the time that the new iPhones were released (don’t get me started on offering the 8 and the X at the same time and the even more confusing new naming scheme and ARGH), Apple wants to use my phone and texting metadata for creating a trust score.

No! That’s a bad Apple! *thwacks with rolled-up newspaper*

And when I upgraded to iOS 12, I agreed to this in the EULA/ToS. Great.

Did I mention that the XR is US$1,700? No?

So, do I want to switch back to Android? Hell no. Alphabet/Google is way worse about how it treats your data. Even if I wanted a vanilla Android, I wouldn’t be able to get it with a 3.5mm jack, a replaceable battery, and expandable storage. That combination just isn’t a thing.

Or is it? Enter the Fairphone 2. It does all of these things. ALL of them. And it’s €529 (US$621)! Oh, and if I don’t want to deal with Alphabet/Google? It runs Ubuntu Touch. Which has been resurrected by UBports, and is once again in full and active development!

What’s the catch? Why am I afraid to upgrade if this sweet thing is out there? Well, it’s only sold in and shipped to Europe. The Fairphone 2 is not available in the States at all. Cue the sad trombone.

Maybe, just maybe, when my rock solid iPhone 6S finally dies, they’ll be available here. A Skippy can hope.

Tie Fighter LEGO Set

LEGO Tie Fighter in the box

When your wife takes the kids to the Lego Land store, and then asks you if you want anything, what do you say? You say yes, Ray!

There was an X-Wing, a Republic tank, Anakin’s fighter from Clone Wars, a Jakku jumper, and a bunch of others. They were all nice, but nothing was really jumping out at me. I whined offhandedly about really wanting a TIE fighter, and my lovely wife brought THIS gloriousness home for me.

Partially assembled LEGO Tie Fighter

Now, on its own, this toy is intrinsically cool. On top of that, I was at a snapping point with both home and work stress. Having something to build while I did other things was a near-perfect channel for all of that frustration and angst. I spent two days following the three sets of instructions, and only worried a little about the few extra parts left over. Apparently, that’s just a thing Lego does now.

Finished LEGO Tie Fighter

The level of detail and layered coloring struck me at every stage of the build process. I’m pretty sure that there are details that, if it remains intact, will never see the light of day. And, like Lego sets throughout the decades, this one had me questioning how it was going to end up looking like the picture on the box when all was said and done.

But, like all of them, it did. And I love it.

Long-awaited update

A physical mock-up of the hand held steam box project.

There’s this thing called a mock-up. My good friend had to explain this to me, because I was entirely unfamiliar with this stage of the prototyping process. A mock-up is where you arrange the parts, or bits that represent the parts, close to how they’ll be on the final product.

Why? Well, this way you can make an effort to predict how the details will come together. You can see where there will be room for air flow, test different orientations of the motherboard, and where the ports will be exposed, things like that. In fact, we did that very thing, and made an unexpected decision in the process.

We decided to make it wider.

With the weight of the batteries, we were a little bit worried about holding the device up by the joy-con rails. We didn’t want the mounting screws pulling out, or damaging the joy-cons themselves. Also, they’re small, especially in relation to the rest of the device. If we slightly angle the battery packs underneath them, we provide a better grip and more leverage to hold the device. (If you look at the photo, the mock-up is looking at the back, with the screen down.) We tried to make the angle similar to the angles used in the charging grip. Why waste Nintendo’s R&D?

This made the device a bit wider, but the angle of my arms now feels far more comfortable. I did think about another drawback, though. During charging, the battery packs may warm up to create sweaty palms on the grips. We’ll have to test that once we actually form the grips, and use real battery packs, rather than dead ones.

Full disclosure – due to travel on both of our parts, as well as home repairs, the project has stalled a bit. BY NO MEANS has it stopped. I’m still excited about this and still want to make this a reality.