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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Clementine, my primary desktop, has had dual monitors for the past few years. One of them (a Samsung SyncMaster 940BX) dates back to my old desktop, Fozzie, and was the oldest computer component currently in use. The other was identical to that one, purchased a couple years later just for Clementine. When my wife and I consolidated onto one machine, I took the opportunity of having two identical monitors to get a dual monitor setup.
Now, several years later, one of them has become my oldest component. The other one has started acting up — randomly being blurry in some spots on the screen. A good deal of time has passed for both of them, and monitors are much better nowadays — these Samsungs are starting to show their age.
So, I decided to replace both of them with one, single, high-quality, widescreen monitor. Selecting a monitor is a delicate process because it’s going to be your primary window into the computer for many years (hopefully!). I knew I wanted it to be widescreen, roughly the same height as my current monitors (which meant 22 – 24 inches diagonal), have an LED backlight, and, if possible, have an IPS panel. IPS is the current cream-of-the-crop for monitors, with extremely wide viewing angles and bright, crisp colors. I also wanted a monitor where, based on online feedback, I’d be confident that I had a lower-than-average risk of dead pixels. After much searching, I settled on the Dell S2340M. It met all of those criteria, and was priced very nicely to boot.
So far, I’m really happy. This monitor seem to be very high-quality at a great price. IPS is as good as I’ve heard. High image quality, crisp colors, even backlighting, wide viewing angles, extremely small bezel, and it looks sleek and modern as well.
And, so far, I don’t miss having two monitors. Having a widescreen seems to mostly make up for that. For home use, I don’t find that two monitors is necessary most of the time (I find dual monitors indispensable at work, though). My plan is that if I ever find I need a second screen for a particular task, I’ll just spend the $10 and get AirDisplay for my iPad, which allows it to act as a second screen.
After an excessively long contemplation period, I’ve decided to add two new machines to my family of computers. One in particular I’ve had for a while, but the issue at hand was whether to consider them truly part of my family of computers, or just simply consumer electronics devices. I’ve decided they’re part of my computer family.
First — my third-generation iPad, Clifford. I’ve had him since March, 2012, so he is not new to the household. Prior to this, my wife and I had found ourselves increasingly storing my laptop, Beaker, behind the couch and using him to quickly check emails, look up actors in movies, etc. But, as we did more of this, we also increasingly became aware of how bad a Windows laptop is for this use case. You have to wait for the machine to boot up, deal with update notifications, wait for software to load, and then when you’re done, you have a big laptop to either put on the coffee table, or put back behind the couch. This wasn’t working.
So, somewhat on a leap of faith, I decided that a tablet would probably be a better fit, and did some research, and decided on the iPad. I can say that the iPad indeed has been great at fulfilling this use case. It has no boot-up time, has a user interface that is streamlined for the task at hand, and requires minimal maintenance. And the fact that it’s slim and light means it’s fine to just set it down on the coffee table, as if it were a magazine. It doesn’t look out of place. Clifford very quickly overtook Beaker entirely for these sorts of tasks — I daresay that Clifford is now our primary computer, in terms of how much we use it directly.
Second — my third-generation Apple TV, Beauregard. I just recently got this a couple weeks ago. Several years ago, I got my first Home Theater PC, Scooter. It seemed like it would be useful to have a small PC, permanently connected to the TV. I didn’t know 100% what we would use it for, other than Netflix, so I wanted it to be really flexible. In this vein, I got a small-form-factor PC, running Windows. This way, I could do anything on my TV that I could do from my PC. That was a big positive, especially in order to allow me to explore how best to fit a HTPC into our lives. But there were certainly negatives, too — a cursor/window/desktop-based user interface is not the most couch-friendly way to interface with a TV, and since it was a relatively low-powered general-purpose PC, it would sometimes lack the horsepower for some tasks (like HD Netflix streaming). But despite these drawbacks, we really discovered what we use it for: Netflix, Pandora, downloaded iTunes content, and some website streaming (like from TV network sites).
I typically put my machines on roughly 4-year upgrade cycles, so as Scooter was nearing this mark I began thinking of how best to replace it, now that I knew what we used it for. I spent a long period of time researching various options, and eventually decided that the Apple TV was pretty much the only option that would A) Allow us to do everything we currently do with no sacrifices and B) Improve on the things we already do. And so far, I’ve been incredibly happy with the purchase. It has built-in Netflix streaming, and since it uses hardware video decoding and is optimized for this task, and it can handle even Netflix’s new Super-HD streaming quality (which looks almost as good as Blu-Ray and has surround sound!). It has built-in support for iTunes-purchased media. It can integrate with iTunes running on a PC in order to play home movies or other videos stored on the PC. And through AirPlay, you can send anything you can access from your iPhone or iPad to the Apple TV — this covers Pandora, website streaming, etc. And in a lot of ways, handling those sorts of tasks via AirPlay is actually better than having built-in support for it. I certainly would rather browse to a website from my iPad with its virtual keyboard and then send the video, rather than try to type on a TV screen. It pulls the “fiddly” user interface elements closer to you. It’s entirely worked up my expectations, with no issues. Excellent.
So why did I wait so long to add these new machines, particularly Clifford? Because these are fundamentally different from the machines I’ve previously listed here. Desktop PCs allow for building and upgrading of parts. They’re “real” PCs. You don’t upgrade parts on an iPad, or Apple TV. They feel like a different type of device — consumer electronics. But, they take over the same tasks as traditional PCs — and in many cases do them better. My iPad has almost completely displaced my laptop — the laptop only comes out in very specific cases now. My Apple TV Beauregard has banished my old HTPC Scooter to the basement TV. I think this trend will continue to some degree — this is the “post-PC” world Apple talks about. If I don’t count consumer electronics devices as computers, in ten years I won’t have any computers! So in the end, I decided that devices like this will be considered part of my family of computers if they assume at least part of the role of a traditional computer that I already listed here.
It’s a brave new world!