New keyboard

For the last several years, when my laptop Aurora (and before her, Venus) is docked at my desk, I have been using an Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keyboard, and it has generally been my all-time favorite keyboard. The keys have a perfect feeling to them, with just the right amount of resistance but not too much, it’s sturdily-made out aluminum, and generally has a streamlined and pleasing aesthetic to it.

The only downside has been that it’s a wired keyboard. That’s not a huge deal, but it means one more thing to plug and unplug when transitioning the laptop between desk mode or mobile mode. For many years Apple has made the Magic Keyboard, which is a well-made wireless keyboard, but it lacks a number pad. The sort of tasks that I use my laptop for at a desk are the types of tasks that benefit from a number pad (budget, taxes…) so that was a deal breaker for me and I stuck with the wired version.

Not too long ago Apple finally released a version of the wireless Magic Keyboard with the numeric keypad, which meant the time had finally come for me to upgrade. The Magic Keyboard has a slightly different feel to the keys, but is still the best keyboard I have used, and now is wireless!

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Upgrade to Mesh Networking

Recently, I upgraded my home WiFi network to use mesh networking. My previous wireless router wasn’t bad, but I did find that speeds dropped dramatically the farther away you moved, and the network did not expand outside of the house. I really wanted a consistent speed no matter where you were in the house, and I wanted our network to cover certain outdoor areas. Mesh networking is perfect for this because each node acts as a repeater, expanding the network out and helping to maintain consistent speeds. After much research, I settled on TP-Link Deco M5, in a 3-pack of nodes. Before setting it up, I did speed tests in several key spots inside and outside of m house, and then did the same speed tests after setting it up. I achieved the goals I had been aiming for — no matter where you are, you get the same speed, and that speed is slightly higher than the highest speed I saw before with my single router. And the wireless network covers the entirety of my yard. If I ever had issues and felt I needed to expand even more, you can just add more nodes. So far this has been a great upgrade, the only challenge was switching all of my devices over to the new network!

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A Couple of New Hard Drives

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a few new hard drives.

First, I got a new 2TB Western Digital external hard drive to go along with my new laptop, Aurora. This hard drive is intended to be used solely as a Time Machine drive for that computer. I’ve been using Time Machine for several years with Venus, and I’ve come to like how it works. It provides an easy local backup solution with full version history (until the drive fills up), and can be used to either restore individual files or the entire system — even to a new computer.

Second, I got a new 4TB Western Digital external hard drive to use as a secondary backup drive for Iris. Every month I perform a backup of all the data on Iris to an external hard drive. Having this second drive will let me alternate between two drives, providing a better safety net, and I also plan to eventually keep one of them off-site for even more protection. Right now my off-site backups are handled by CrashPlan, but the cost of CrashPlan has doubled and I’m looking to move away from it eventually. I count this hard drive as a “shared” resource because it can also function just as a useful vessel for moving files around between devices as needed.

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Say hello to Aurora!

When it comes to computer updates, nothing is quite as exciting as an entirely new computer! I’m excited to share I recently got a new primary laptop – Aurora.

Aurora is a 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro. Aurora replaces Venus as my primary computer, although Venus is not being retired — she is transitioning to being a secondary household computer. Prior to getting Venus in 2015, I had always had a Windows desktop as my primary computer. Venus brought two changes to my computing life — a laptop as a primary computer, and macOS.

Using a laptop as my primary computer has enabled me to not be chained to a desk, but still have a powerful, consistent computing experience wherever I need it. This wouldn’t have worked without a decently powerful laptop, but Venus has been able to handle all of my tasks. It did require me to re-think how I store data, since laptops typically have smaller and not-as-upgradeable storage. As a result, I added our file server, Iris, and have also embraced cloud storage more.

I’ve also been very happy with macOS. It’s an extremely polished, stable operating system. I love the design, the high quality software available, the iOS integration, and it seems to perform better on comparable hardware than Windows. I didn’t know what to expect back when we got Venus, but now I wouldn’t turn back.

All told, Venus is the best computer I’ve owned (so far) and replacing her was not a decision I took lightly. But, I’d owned Venus for 5 years, and as a refurbished computer her hardware was actually 7 years old. She still performed very well — better than any other 7-year old computer I’ve used — but some video editing tasks I perform are completely CPU-bound, so getting a computer with a more modern CPU would directly make those tasks faster, and there had been enough other improvements in technology that it seemed to justify it. Also, my oldest son was increasingly needing a computer for schoolwork, and so it seemed like a good time to branch out and have two active laptops rather than just one.

The 2020 MacBook Pro was everything I was looking for. It’s quad-core, so more than doubles my CPU performance. It returns MacBooks back to the traditional scissor keyboard after several years of the problematic butterfly keyboard. It has great speakers, great microphone, a still-great display, Force Touch trackpad, and the great MacBook Pro physical design.

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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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