Old Storage, New To You: It’s Time To Consider Buying Refurbished Hard Drives

For the entirety of my time buying drives, going back many years, I’ve bought only new hard drives. For my servers, I’ve tried to buy NAS grade drives. NAS drives, compared to a desktop drive, are rated for more continuous operation and load.

But, my redundant backup strategy can be expensive, so while my NAS is using NAS drives I bought new, I decided for one of my two redundant backup locations, I’d try a pair of refurbished drives. I went with an outlet called Goharddrive. They sell through Amazon, eBay, Newegg, etc. Another called Serverpartdeals seems to have good reviews overall, through multiple sources.

From what my research seems to indicate, these two at least have good reputations for offering items that are not likely to fail quickly, and if they do, they quickly honor their five year warranty. Seagate and Western Digital have cut back the warranty period on some drives to 3 years, but still offer some drives at the 5 year mark. So, these refurbished drives, even if they fail, will be replaced during that period. They are designed for high data use as they were likely pulled out of data centers and other enterprise uses.

There are definitely advantages to these refurbished drives even for a primary function. But the lesson is, you shouldn’t use a refurbished drive without redundancy. But the same applies to new drives. New drives may last less time than a refurbished one, or more. So, the lesson in the end is to make sure that you never rely on a single drive regardless.

Here’s a link to a 10TB hard drive sold by Goharddrive via Amazon. A similar new NAS drive is running over double that. Assuming you get 3-5 years out of it, which is guaranteed, you may be taking a risk, but its an acceptable one. So, it’s perfect for sending my files to from my primary NAS, and will sit at a family member’s home as a backup server. Definitely cheaper than the cloud.

 

Amazon Prime Deal Alert: Keychron C3 Pro Keyboard QMK/Via Hotswap

I previously reviewed the C3 Pro keyboard. I’d gotten the C3 regular edition for $29.99 and was happy with that. However, today, the hotswap version is showing at $29.99 for Prime members(Link here). The keyboard comes in two switch varieties, red and brown. It offers a red backlight in the non-hotswap version and full RGB in the hotswap edition. The keycaps are replaceable, but the switches are not.

To remind everyone, the C3 is a TKL….a full keyboard less the number pad. It supports QMK/Via, which allows you to reprogram the keyboard and save the configuration to the device itself, over having it in software, meaning it doesn’t carry between computers.

The Keychron C3 Pro continues to be a great budget deal, and the fact they released a hotswap version, and now are selling at such a low rate…I hope they create this quality level of board at this price point in different form factors.

 

Woot Offers Great Sale on Last Generation Q Series Keychron Keyboards

Although not without their caveats, Keychron has a reputation as a reliable and quality brand of Keyboards. Their top of the line Q series, as of the original date of this post, is on sale over at Woot through July 12, while supplies last(link) as well as some from the K series.

These are the previous generation. They are slowly being replaced by the Q Max series, which adds wireless vs the Q. For the K, they are moving to K Pro(QMK/VIA support), and now the K Max as well.

So, these are popular, if last year’s models being sold.

These are great buys, especially for a Q series, which is an all aluminum construction with plenty of insulating foam…it can make anything sound great.

Typing Off Key: Do Keyboards Really Need These Legacy Keys and Can You Reuse Them?

With my recent interest in keyboards and customization of keys, I keep thinking of all the keys on the keyboard I don’t use. The latest keyboard I acquired has an F13 button, and it made me think…what is that doing there? So, I thought I should cover a few keys I question whether or not I really need, and might be able to repurpose.

  • Caps Lock – Chromebooks already got rid of the Caps Lock key. On my 40% keyboard, I set Caps Lock using a Tap-Hold function on the Shift key. When you tap the shift key, it triggers Caps Lock, otherwise, holding it is a shift. Double-tap is a common caps lock command on Smartphone keyboards. Also, the key is 1.75u…so even if you keep it, it takes up more space than a traditional key. On a Colemak layout, the Caps Lock position serves as a second backspace key to allow it to be reached by both hands.
  • Scroll Lock – This used to be used to change the behavior of the arrow keys, but it is not usually used for that outside of some programs any longer, making it less useful. On one keyboard I have, this was replaced by a microphone mute key.
  • Pause/Break – We’re back to….this doesn’t seem to do much on modern computers. On one keyboard I have, this was replaced by a control key for the lighting.
  • Num Lock – Num lock locks the keypad to numbers. Without it, the keypad can act as arrows, as well as having functions for home, end, insert, delete, page up and page down. Things pretty much every keyboard with a built in number pad already has.
  • Menu Key – Also known as the Application key, it has been used to launch a context menu with the keyboard, as opposed to a right mouse click. Microsoft recently decided to start replacing this with a Copilot or Search button.
  • Function Keys – Most keyboards has F1-F12. Macs remap these to media keys, which are often a secondary function on Windows systems. But computers actually support up to 24 function keys…thus my weird F13. These can be mapped in software to trigger operating system functions and are often used by default by software.. But, you can also just lock them to the media functions if you want to.

This doesn’t factor in the ANSI layout popular in the US with the alternate ISO layout popular in Europe. On the ISO keyboard, the Enter key is a larger L shaped key, the left shift is smaller to make space for another key, the right Alt is often replaced by a key to support additional languages, and the extra long backslash key is gone.

On many keyboard formats, some of these keys are omitted and generated using combinations of other keys. So, is this just a pointless exercise? I don’t think so. So many new keyboards still have all these keys, and they are sitting there, and you might as well use them for something, if not their original intention.

A New 4 Bay Network Attached Storage(NAS) Option: The Aoostar Mini PCs

In a previous post, I had mentioned how tempting the Aoostar Mini PC was if I’d needed a 2 bay NAS. I’d wanted a 4 bay NAS. Of course, the 2 bay would be perfect for a remote backup receiving location, over my primary location, where I would want more redundancy. I’ve already ended up with 2 4 bay NAS options, but I’d looked at Aoostar, and they’d promised a 4 bay version at the time. But now, apparently they have it.

It hasn’t made its way to Amazon, where I often link because I don’t like having to wait for things to be drop shipped from the factory, but it is on the manufacturer’s website. If this had been available a few months ago, this would have probably been my purchase. It has the N100 processor I like as a budget low power processor, a good SATA chipset, decent looking ventilation…supports an NVME slot for the drive, 2.5 gigabit LAN…

It is just a lesson, there is always something new around the corner. You can either wait, or get the best available and not sweat the small stuff.

 

Peeling Back The Keyboard Onion, Layers Upon Layers: Reprogramming Your Keyboard

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned QMK and VIA.

QMK is compiled firmware for supported keyboards. This allows you to load firmware with custom functionality and maps onto a keyboard. This allows you to customize nearly every aspect of the keyboard’s behavior. So, what is VIA? VIA is a feature in QMK that lets you change your keymap on your keyboard without needing to reflash firmware. Some keyboards, Epomaker ones come to mind, have implemented VIA support without QMK…or at least possibly violating the open source license of QMK. I could live with that, I’m not an open source purist, but their implementation is also frequently incomplete and buggy.

There is also a fork of Via called Vial, which requires porting firmware to include support for additional QMK firmware features in software.

The advantage of all of these options is you can reprogram and customize the behavior of your keyboard and save it to the keyboard…making it independent of any computer. Many keyboards provide driver software that can do ‘some’ of the same things, but they are also only for Windows. I’m a Linux user, so I’m often out of luck there. Linux does have some key remapping options, but my current recommendation is a very low level option called keyd. It remaps keys at that level, and supports a lot of the features that you usually need QMK for. Keyd supports multiple keyboards with different layouts, modifying based on the USB vendor ID of the keyboard, and always you to remap any key combination and even add layers.

So, let’s dig into some of the features. Layers are built into most keyboards using the FN key…when you press it, this allows for different keys. Layers are essentially overlapping keyboard maps, which can be triggered. The Mac/Windows toggle on your keyboard, if you have one, toggles between two keyboard maps. The FN key activates a new layer when it is held. I have coded something in QMK to actually change the backlight color of a keyboard to indicate what layer was activated.

QMK/VIA allows the following sorts of behaviors to be triggered by keypress

  • Change the default layer
  • Activate layer when key is held
  • Activates layer when held, keypress when tapped
  • Activates layer until next key is pressed
  • Toggle the layer on/off
  • Tap the key 5 times to lock the layer in place.

Increasingly, discerning keyboard users are demanding this feature on keyboards. I wrote about the budget C3 Pro from Keychron, which is a full QMK/VIA supported TKL. The other budget option I found was the Skyloong GK61 60% hotswappable QMK/VIA keyboard. Budget as in, under $50. The 50-100 market is getting options as well. This shouldn’t be a luxury feature, and increasingly it isn’t.

My layer needs are very simple. I have a 75% keyboard which has Delete, Page Up, and Page Down on the right side…which means no Home, End, Insert. The 75% profile is not consistent about what keys will be offered in the format factor. With a QMK/VIA keyboard, I could make those keys whichever ones I wanted, change the keycaps…and it would behave that way forever. This keyboard though, doesn’t have that…so I’m using the keyd daemon…which of course means if I move to another computer, it no longer works.

The icing on the cake for these options are macros. The ability to trigger sequences of entries. And again, with QMK/VIA can be stored in the keyboard itself.

So, why not check this out? And here’s hoping more manufacturers include the option.

This May Be the ODroid You Are Looking For: ODroid H4 Series

In a previous post, I was excited about the arrival of the ODroid H4+. Then I got a bit nervous because of broken SATA connector on the board. For one, the longevity of the product, having never bought anything like this in the ODroid line, and that Ameridroid would make the return difficult. As mentioned, I had no evidence of that, but dealing with returns is stressful at times, and I think I may have imagined the worst based on some of my less pleasant dealings with other companies.

A few conclusions about the ODroid H4+…The Type 4 NAS case and the positioning of the SATA ports puts too much stress on the SATA cables. You need to buy the ODroid cables because I can’t find anyone else who sells the exact same power cables, as power for the drives comes off the board. I opted to switch to this thinner set of bundled cables. There is a right angle version, but I’m not sure, due the positioning of the ports, if you could place this without straining the ports, which after what happened, I’m a bit worried up. But the thinner cabling does seem to strain less.

Thinking about this for the future, I also had gotten a Jonsbo N2 and put a mini ITX board in it. That feels a lot more robust than the ODroid’s metal sheet case, but it also takes up a lot more room.

As I write this, I’m running tests on some drives I bought to place in it, and then I will work on deployment. You can see below how tiny this thing is, but the fact that the hard drives are providing the structural support makes me wonder about its longevity. I would have felt better it there had been some corner brackets. Also, there are no dust shields around the ports, and the bottom is open. So it could accumulate a lot of dust.

The ODroid line is popular, and if you look, all of these cases for the H4 line and its predecessor, the H3 line have this scratchbuilt in a garage feel to them. But, just because something has that look and feel doesn’t mean it is bad. I would recommend this as a server.

 

ODroid H4+ in a Type 4 Case

A Guide To Choosing Switches For Your Budget Silent Keyboards

In order to learn more about assembling keyboards, I’ve been buying a series of budget keyboard equipment. In a previous post, I had talked about buying a barebones TKL keyboard in the mid twenty range and filling it with switches and keycaps. More recently, I found myself stumbling across these $20 hefty barebones 75% keyboards, which I’d share the link to if it hadn’t sold out and been delisted rather quickly. It seems to be older stock someone was clearing out, which is a lesson that you can get some reasonable deals if you hunt around Amazon. Some people prefer something like Aliexpress, because certainly you can get some good deals drop-shipped from China, but I find Amazon has a bit more payment protection.

The switches I tried in my previous post were silent linear switches, but there are also silent tactile. Tactile switches provide a bump through the keystroke, which many individuals prefer, especially those who type a lot.

To evaluate switches of the same type, we need a few more terms. Actuation or operating force is the amount of force needed to activate the switch. Lighter switches may allow for fast registering of keypresses, but they can also increase mistakes due accidental triggering of a key. Heavier switches may reduce accidental keypresses, and can also cause fatigue after long typing sessions. The pre-travel is the distance the switch travels before it is pressed.

I explored a few switches. The Gamakay Pegasus Silent Pegasus Switches, which has a 50g actuation force and 2mm pre-travel. It is reasonably priced at well. Then I checked out the Outemu Silent Yellow Jade Switch, which is even less expensive, and also has a 50g actuation force, but a 3.3mm travel. There are also ones that require less force, for example, the Outemu Lime. Force is a matter of preference. I’ve found the Silent Yellows feel better to me.

Trying out switches is an endless road of preference. There are multiple vendors, multiple types(we didn’t even get into clicky as they aren’t silent deliberately), and a variety of opinions. Today, I’m enjoying the Silent Yellow Jades, tomorrow, I may try something different.

 

Building My NAS: Choosing The Software To Manage My Network Attached Storage

I have gone through a lot of evolution of computer technology over the years, not only the technology, but my thinking. I remember my first server, which doubled as a NAS. It was a yellow full tower server system and had wheels . Why yellow? It was really inexpensive. But it was also really overbuilt for what I needed. I never filled all the bays and I never used it to its full capacity. And technology changed. I started building smaller, rather than overbuilding. I’ve gone from desktop, to laptop, to small PC, to mini PC, which is an evolution conversation in itself.

When my home built NAS died in the middle of the night some years ago, I ran to the store and bought a commercial NAS, because I was at the point in my life where I didn’t want to deal with another home build. So I went with a NAS and then a dedicated home server next to the NAS. And that was partly because the commercial NAS software was limiting and the manufacturer has stopped updating my model, but also because the hardware in NASes is always behind what you can get if you build it yourself. So, by investing in a NAS case, a motherboard, and using open-source, I can in future swap out the motherboard, upgrade the RAM, etc and continue…provided I keep to the same software platform.The lifespan is much longer.

I could run all my applications on the NAS, especially with the new hardware, but I want something that acts like an appliance…something that only is storage and storage related functions. I don’t want to clutter it with other things, even though it means another system to run server functions. Last time, I installed Linux and configured it. But there is software to make a computer a dedicated appliance, so it eliminated all the work I had to do to get everything working.

There are three popular options for NAS software…TrueNAS, Unraid, and OpenMediaVault.

TrueNAS has a commercial and a community version. It comes in the classic Core version, based on FreeBSD and the newer Linux based Scale. I get the impression impression Scale is the future for the project. Scale allows for containers and virtual machines if you want to run your applications on top of it. For the drives, it offers ZFS and the ability to deploy object storage similar to Amazon’s S3. ZFS is an incredibly robust filesystem.

Unraid, by comparison, is also commercially supported, with a license cost of $49 to $249, which includes the software. The most expensive membership at $249 is lifetime, which means updates for life, and the others offer updates for a year with a fee to upgrade after that. Even with no updates, some security patches are still offered for the older versions. The advantage of Unraid is it can manage drives that vary in size, speed, brand, and filesystem…so no RAID technology. Instead, it uses a dedicated parity drive, and offers a cache drive for speed.

Openmediavault is somewhere closer to Unraid in its simplicity, but has no commercial cost. It seems to be in the middle of the option here and can veer toward the Unraid feature set or the TrueNAS ones.

I ended up with TrueNAS, because I wanted the features it offered for data storage. I’ll be talking more about that, but setting it up took more time to restore my data than it did to set it up. It is now handling 100% of the file serving the previous server did. I still have backup and other redundancy functions to configure, but I’m 100% back online.

Building My New Network Attached Storage(NAS): A Change of Plans, Keeping Up With The Jonsbo

Despite the fact that my ODroid H4+ had an issue, I still remained committed to the course of action of building a NAS to replace my commercial one. So, even as I pursue the Odroid H4+, I decided to explore the other option I’d explored. My original plan was build a mini-ITX NAS. And so, feeling nervous about the ODroid future, I decided to revisit that plan.

I really wanted a low power, small NAS, but while I liked the simplicity of the Odroid 4 drive case, the experience of assembling the case made me a bit concerned about how running a case that is supported entirely by the drives might work out. I decided, since I need to have a secondary location to store the backup for the NAS, I would use this for that, and I’d go more conventional for the primary location. That is a bit more than I’d budgeted for, so this is going to have to last me a while.

On reading a lot of commentary on Mini-ITX NAS cases, I had decided on the Jonsbo line of NAS cases. There’s the Jonsbo N2, which supports five hard drives, or the slightly larger Jonsbo N3, which supports eight hard drives. While I opted for the N2, I can understand some wanting the extra space for future expansion.

The budget board I opted to try is also a N100, the same line I’d been advocating for. There are a variety of variations of this board sold. For example, by CWWK. Or HKUXZR. Or Dytebeply. With minor variations, these boards contain 6 SATA ports…5 of which are via an expansion chip, which may cause throughput issues. They also have 4 2.5 gigabit ethernet ports and 2 M.2 ports on the board. Reading a lot of reviews of these boards, it takes a long time to post, may have limited RAM options, but a lot of people are using these boards, it seems. I’ll be talking a bit more about how I might set up the options I’ve chosen.

If I only wanted a 2 drive NAS, the Aoostar mini PC would be tempting.

The next challenge is how I am going to configure this. There are a lot of decisions, even once I have the hardware.