Magic Trackpad

I’ve always liked trackpads on laptops, and that only became more true after getting a MacBook Pro. Apple is known for making great trackpads that are responsive, large, and support many intuitive gestures. The Magic Mouse is a pretty good improvement on traditional mice, but the more I’ve used the trackpad on my Mac, the more I miss it when I’m using a mouse. On top of that, I’ve found recently that I get wrist pain after using a mouse for an extended amount of time, but not after using a trackpad.

So, I decided to get an Apple Magic Trackpad 2, Apple’s standalone trackpad, for use at my desk. It’s a large trackpad — probably about twice as big as the trackpad on my laptop — but that makes it great for dragging files around or using gestures. You hardly ever hit the end of the trackpad when trying to do something. It also uses haptic feedback when clicking, rather actually physically depressing. At first I thought this was just going to be a gimmick, but two observations are that A) It’s really, really, convincing in terms of feeling just like a physical click and B) It’s actually really useful to be able to click anywhere on the surface and have it respond exactly the same, unlike a trackpad with physical clicking where typically the bottom moves more than the top. Especially for a large trackpad like this, that’s a big benefit.

I think this has been a great addition. The trackpad is a much more natural and efficient way to use modern computer, especially a Mac, and my wrist pain has disappeared. There are probably still some tasks that benefit from a mouse, so I am still keeping my mouse nearby, but the trackpad has become my primary pointing device.

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Venus Gets a Time Machine Backup

Over the years, I’ve developed a very elaborate — but pretty reliable — backup strategy. I keep all of my data on my file server. It backs up, offsite, automatically, to CrashPlan throughout the day. Once a month I make a backup to an external hard drive. I’ve never focused on backing up my laptop, because all of my data is on the file server. If something happened to my laptop, I wouldn’t be at risk of losing any documents, pictures, videos, or other personal files. But I’ve recently come around to the fact that even though something happening to my laptop wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would certainly be an annoyance to have to re-install applications, get settings back to where they were, and hope there wasn’t one stray important file stored only on my laptop. This recently weighed on me when I had to send my laptop in for service on short notice, and realized that anything could have happened to it in transit.

So, I decided to start using Apple’s Time Machine backup software, and bought a Western Digital Elements 2TB external hard drive for this. Time Machine is great because there’s very little configuration or setup needed, it “just works”. It backs up the entire laptop hard drive, so in the event of a catastrophic failure, you could use that drive to restore the entire machine as it was, either to the same laptop or to a different Mac. And it also allows for retrieving data on a file-by-file basis, with full version history.

My existing backup solution already made me feel confident in the safety of my important files, and now with Time Machine I also feel confident in the ability to restore my laptop itself.

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Finally – a new file server!

Back in 2015, when I transitioned to using a laptop as a primary computer, I also transitioned my previous desktop computer, Clementine to the role of being a file server. I felt it was a better approach to have a computer that was dedicated to being powered on all the time, with software oriented around making my data useful and safe — media streaming, automatic backups, private cloud, and so on.

Clementine was fine as a first file server, but had three primary drawbacks: 1) Physically, Clementine was a large desktop computer, which limited options for placing her out of the way. 2) Clementine was overpowered for this use case, and leaving her powered on all the time meant a lot of electricity was being wasted. 3) Windows is not a great operating system for servers — it reboots frequently without warning, and many programs can only run within a user account, not as a system service, so after a reboot it was necessary for me to manually log in so that those programs could start up.

My plan all along was to replace Clementine with a machine more optimized for this purpose, but it took a long time to settle on the right approach. I considered simple hard drive network adapters, dedicated NAS devices such as Synology, and even a completely different approach of utilizing cloud services. In the end, I decided on a custom-built, small PC, running Linux.

Which brings us to Iris. Iris is a Mini-ITX form factor (just 10 inches tall), but still with room for two hard drives — one fast but small SSD for the OS and applications, and one big mechanical hard drive for data. She’s built around an i3-6100 CPU, which provides surprisingly good performance (enough to handle media transcoding in real time), but at a low cost and with low power consumption. And she runs Ubuntu Linux, which is a stable, powerful, reliable operating, where every piece of software I use can be set up as a system service. Thanks a large amount of planning, the transition to Iris went very smooth, with almost no downtime — the only challenge was cable management in this new, small case. Iris is capable of doing everything Clementine could do, but more reliably, in a more power efficient way, and while being physically out of the way.

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New Apple TV

I’m a big fan of the Apple TV.  In terms of functionality, I feel like it is the superset of all streaming devices.  You can cast media to it from smartphones and tablets.  Out of the box, you can stream your own local content from a PC.  It ties into Apple’s iTunes ecosystem for movie/TV rentals and purchases.  And the third-generation Apple TV has a large number of built-in channels, while the fourth-generation has a vibrant app store full of third-party apps that provide access to a wide range of content.

For several years now, I’ve had two third-generation Apple TVs, one for each TV.  I finally decided it was time to replace one of them with a new fourth-generation Apple TV — Persephone — and pass my older one — Beauregard — onto my parents.

So far, I like it a lot.  It can do everything I could with my previous Apple TV, but with lots of new apps available (particularly, Plex and games).  Even though I predominately use a Logitech Harmony remote, I do also find the Siri Remote pretty interesting and well-designed, particularly the ability to search for content across all of your apps.

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New iPad!

Back in March 2012, I bought a third generation iPad to serve as a “family room” computer — for checking email, looking things up while watching TV, checking the weather, etc.  It served extremely well in that role — even better than I had expected!  In fact, I was so impressed by this concept of a lean computer that was optimized for certain tasks, that it went on to influence an entire re-thinking of my household technology infrastructure.  I now try to focus on devices that bring technology out of the office and into the places where technology is needed, and I give a lot of thought to what each device will be used for, not just tech specs.  That iPad, Clifford, had a lasting impact on my technological worldview.

But, after 4 years and a lot of use, that third generation iPad was having trouble keeping up.  Newer versions of iOS didn’t run as fast, modern apps (designed for modern tablets) weren’t as snappy as they were four years ago, and some features that I care about (like the front-facing camera for videoconferencing) had become eclipsed by other, newer, devices.  So, I decided that it was time to replace Clifford.

I still feel that Apple’s iPad is the best all-around tablet available, and is supported by an extremely strong ecosystem of software, services, and other devices.  So, I decided to stick with the iPad, and ended up getting a iPad Pro 9.7-inch, which I’ve named Concordia.  I feel that, for my needs, the 13-inch iPad is too big (that goes beyond “family room computer”, and the 8 inch iPad mini is too small (that’s a good size for reading books, but I have a Kindle for that).  The 9.7-inch size is perfect for setting on the coffee table while sitting down to watch a movie.

So far, so good.  The screen is the best computer screen I’ve ever seen.  The new 4-speaker setup produces that best tablet/laptop sound I’ve ever heard.  It’s thinner and lighter than my old iPad, which I didn’t think was possible.  and the front-facing camera is great for videoconferencing.

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Upgrade to external hard drive

Many years ago, I built an external hard drive by getting a Rosewill external hard drive enclosure, along with a 640GB Western Digital hard drive to go inside it.  Combined, they gave me an external hard drive to use for monthly backups (in addition to the real-time cloud backups I get with CrashPlan).

Over time, the amount of data I have has grown immensely, especially since having children and starting to take more photos and videos.  So, the 640GB, which seemed huge at the time, has become very tight as a backup destination.

So, I decided to upgrade the hard drive, keeping the Rosewill enclosure since it’s worked well over the years.  I decided on a 2TB Toshiba hard drive.  2TB matches my primary data drive at the moment, and gives me a good amount of breathing room before I should need to upgrade either the primary drive or this backup drive, since my data amounts to just about 600GB.


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Keyboard upgrade — finally!

Over a year ago, my wireless Logitech keyboard died, and I temporarily replaced it with a backup Dell keyboard that had come with my old HTPC, Scooter.  I originally had planned on getting a permanent keyboard as part of getting my new laptop Venus last February, but I had trouble picking one out, so I delayed this upgrade and stuck with the Dell keyboard for Venus’ “docked” environment at my desk.

What I really wanted in a replacement keyboard was: 1) A full keyboard, including numeric keypad (my wife and I both use the numeric keypad quite a bit);  2) Bluetooth;  3) Backlit (since we type at night often);  and 4) Good build quality / key-feel.

After searching and searching, I realized that a keyboard that matches all of those qualities does not exist, so I had to prioritize what mattered most to me and find the best overall keyboard.  I ended up deciding on the Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad.  It’s got a number pad, and an extremely high build quality with a great feel to the keys.  I had decided that those two qualities matter most to me.  Bluetooth doesn’t matter a much as it would with a mouse since the keyboard sits on a keyboard tray and doesn’t really need to move, and not many keyboard have backlit keys to start with so that holding onto that quality would have greatly reduced my available options.  Interestingly, the white keys of the Apple keyboard are surprisingly visible in low light, which mostly addresses my need for a backlit keyboard.

Now having gotten this keyboard, I think that, all things considered, it’s probably the best keyboard I’ve ever owned.  The feel of it is amazing, it’s a pleasure to type on.  So having percolated on this decision for over a year ended up being worth it — this keyboard is a great addition to my computer!

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First upgrade for Venus – A New Mouse!

When I got my new laptop, Venus, and decided to make her my primary computer, I knew that I would still frequently want a full keyboard/mouse/monitor setup in many situations, so I set up a “docked” environment at my desk that she could easily be connected to and disconnected from, comprised of an amazingly nice Dell monitor I have, a wireless Logitech LX7 mouse, and (oddly) a generic Dell keyboard.  The keyboard is an anomaly — it was just a spare I started using when a previous wireless Logitech keyboard failed, and I haven’t had a good enough reason yet to go out of my way and replace it.  The LX7 mouse was actually an identical duplicate of an earlier LX7 mouse I had, which after many years of use started to exhibit phantom double-clicks.

Then all of a sudden, after 9 years of use, this LX7 also started to exhibit phantom double-clicks, making it nearly unusable.  I had had this mouse for 9 years (it was my oldest computer component still actively in use), so I think it had quite a long and useful life.

It just so happens that I had recently been giving some thought to buying a new mouse (since this one was so old), so I didn’t have to start from scratch in doing my research.  For quite some time, I’ve been wanting to shift towards Bluetooth peripherals, with the goal of eventually having no wires other than power and video.  The only devices I had connected via USB were my speakers, keyboard, and the wireless receiver for this LX7 mouse.  So, I had a strong preference towards getting a Bluetooth mouse, as one step towards a USB-free computer.

Bluetooth mice are less common than wired or “wireless-with-a-dongle” mice, so  there’s less to pick from, but still some good, well-reviewed choices.  After trying out several in person, I settled on the Apple Magic Mouse.  It’s got a lot going for it: It’s Bluetooth, has a good, solid feel to it, and, best of all, has support for multi-touch gestures on its surface.  It doesn’t support as many different gestures as a good track pad does, but it is cool having that ability, in a more limited form, right on your mouse.  It works great for things like swiping to go back or forward, double-tapping for zoom, etc.  So far, I think this mouse is great — and now I have one less USB device!

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Introducing Venus

I recently was able to enact a long-planned and far-reaching change to my technology environment at home.

The main change to talk about is that I bought Venus — a late 2013, 13-inch MacBook Pro. Prior to Venus, I had always had a desktop as a primary computer, with a low-powered laptop to use if I couldn’t be at my desk. However, my wife and I increasingly found after having children that it was becoming harder and harder to devote time to being at a desk while at home, and that it was frustrating to have two different computing profiles — a high-powered desktop at the desk and a low-powered laptop when away from the desk. You couldn’t necessarily do everything on the laptop that you were accustomed to doing on the desktop. So, we decided to make a major change and start using a laptop as a primary computer. If we were able to be at the desk, then the laptop could be attached to a monitor/keyboard/mouse for comfort, and if we were away from the desk, then we’d have exactly the same computing power — anything we could do at our desk, we could do away from it.

With this decision made, I also wanted to make sure it was a highly portable laptop, which (to me) means 13 or 14 inches, and also decently powerful, with a reasonable benchmarking score. After scouring laptop manufacturer websites, the only laptop that really satisfied both criteria was Apple’s 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. Having used Windows most of my computing life I knew this would be a change, but I had become pessimistic about the direction Windows was going in with Windows 8, anyways, so a change in operating system seemed like it might be a breath of fresh air.

Acquiring Venus led me to retire Beaker, my 2008-era laptop. I bought an Ethernet-to-Thunderbolt adapter in order to be able to connect to wired networks, which closed that one functional gap between Beaker and Venus (laptops increasingly are dropping built-in ethernet ports).

Also as part of this plan, my previous primary desktop computer, Clementine, became a file server, since laptops generally don’t have terribly big hard drives and usually aren’t upgradable. Clementine, with her 2 TB hard drive, can function well as a central place to store files and makes those files available via network shares. Also, I purchased an external Blu-Ray writer to add that functionality to Venus and cover that function of Clementine. Over time, I plan on replacing Clementine with a more dedicated file server, but for the short term I’ll be keeping Clementine around.

At the end of the day, this exercise was very fruitful and I feel we’ve gotten out of it what we wanted. We still have a powerful primary computer capable of doing everything we could do before, but now we can bring it out of the office and still be able to do all the same things where ever we are.

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Holiday Updates!

As is the case every year, the holidays brought several computer updates.

The most important one is that, after having been extremely happy with my Apple TV, Beauregard, I got a second one, Aloysius, for my basement TV.  I really, really like the Apple TV.  It makes it so easy to watch streaming video from sources like Netflix and Youtube, to stream locally stored video from my own desktop, and the integration with iPhone/iPad via AirPlay is something that I now couldn’t live without.  No other streaming box satisfies all of my requirements like the Apple TV does.  This means that my previous basement HTPC, Scooter, is now retired.

Also, I did a handful of small updates for my desktop, Clementine.  I got a small USB 3.0 hub, and also a USB audio adapter that lets me connect my speakers to my computer via USB.  The real intention here is to simplify the wiring for Clementine — now, all USB devices plug into the hub, and also the speakers using the adapter, and just one single USB connection to Clementine is then  needed to cover all of these devices.  The real intention here is long-term: at some point I plan on mostly or entirely replacing Clementine with a laptop, and simplifying the connections will make that easier, both because laptops tend to have fewer connections available, and because I will likely want to be able to easily connect and disconnect a laptop from the desk setup (monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc…), and reducing the number of connections will help with that.

Posted in Aloysius Beauregard Clementine Scooter by Greg Leedberg. No Comments