The Intel N-Series Chips: A Perfect Balance of Performance and Power Consumption

The Intel i3 N Series launched in 2023, consisting of the 4 core N-100 and N-200, as well as the 8 core N-300, and N-305.

For years, Intel’s low power CPUs were items I used because I needed something low power and was willing to suffer the slow speeds. But technology has caught up. The series is perfectly fast for the majority of my needs, be it a server, or even a web browsing system. It isn’t a gaming powerhouse, but can handle media playback admirably, and has the power to handle transcoding for a Plex server, if you wanted it to be one, and all at low power. I’ve acquired 3 N-100 powered items to replace older systems…to power my NAS, a backup/portable desktop for various uses, and as a dedicated computer for a scanner project.

It seems, with this line, Intel has finally gotten to a place of reasonable performance and power usage. So, I wanted to show some examples of what reasonable little systems you can buy. Of course, I usually wipe Windows and switch to my preferred Linux desktop or server OS, but…to each their own.

For example, you can try something like this CWWK N-100, which has 4 2.5GBE ports, and looks perfect for a router. It does not come with drive or RAM for a little over $200.

This Beelink S12 Pro offers 16GB RAM and 500GB of RAM for $169. It does lack a USB-C port, which I do like to have, but Beelink has a good reputation for inexpensive devices.

Even smaller is this GMKtec Mini PC with 8GB of RAM/256GB SSD, at $135. It looks to be 4 inches square from the image.

Minisforum also gets good reviews, and this one, the UN300, has that USB-C port I was looking for, although not a 2.5GBE port, if that’s important to you.

So, this isn’t just about me showing off little toys I wouldn’t mind buying. It is the cornerstone of my refresh plan for old technology. It’s inexpensive and I can deploy it to replace 5-10 year old systems, and it will last another 5-10 years, if not more…which is why I’m already thinking about 2.5GBE ports… My systems are all wired with gigabit ethernet. 2.5GBE is 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet…and is becoming more mainstream. There are 5 and 10GBE, but as gigabit ethernet was once expensive, 2.5 gigabit capable equipment is rapidly more affordable and being included in hobbyist level equipment.

 

Building My New Network Attached Storage(NAS): Introducing the ODroid H4 Series

I’ve been back and forth between a commercial Network Attached Storage(NAS) product and a homebuilt NAS product. But for the last iteration, I had given up on something I built and moved to a commercial product. But I’m finally ready to go back to homebuilt. Except this time, I’m going to try TrueNAS, because my barrier is always how much time I spent tinkering with it.

I debated a variety of different system configurations and decided I wasn’t going to have my NAS also handle other server duties. It’s primary job would be to run applications. I have a server for that. I just want to run functionality related to file serving, and TrueNAS offers most of that out of the box…although there are more decisions to be made. It isn’t a pure drop in replacement.

So, I settled on the N100 series of CPU processors. Generally available, reasonably priced, and more than enough power for what I wanted. Looking around, that meant I needed to pick a case, a motherboard, etc. While looking, I stumbled across a product just launching, from Hardkernel, who makes the Odroid line of products, which are single board computers. I’d rejected single board, wanting a x86 compatible processor, but the newly launched H4 series is just that.

There are three models, the H4, H4+, and H4 Ultra. The H4 and H4+ use the N97 processor, and the Ultra ups that to an i3 N305. The basic difference between the H4 and the H4+ for me is that is offers 4 SATA ports. The power profile of this thing is perfect for a headless server. They offer a mini-ITX conversion kit, but they also offer 4 different designs of metal cases you can buy, and DC adapters to power them. Case Type 4 allows for 4 SATA hard drives, a fan, and the board. It is essentially 4 cut pieces of metal you can assemble, as well as screws and a fan. The picture in this post is courtesy of their site.

It doesn’t look like a normal NAS, or a computer…it looks like an appliance, which is what I want. I sourced the equipment through Ameridroid, who is the O-droid provider in the US and who I have dealt with minimally before. This included ordering the type 4 case, the board, and the power adapter. That ran me a little over $200.

It also limits me. If I install the operating system on an NVME SSD, plus the 4 SATA drives, I can’t grow the system with additional drives. Any changes become a drive replacement, or a system replacement. But I’ve stuck with only 4 drives up until now in my commercial unit, and even in the home built ones I’ve had in the past. It allows me to have a good mix of redundancy and performance.

Redundancy in the same system is not the same as a backup though. I will be talking more about that as I learn about the options TrueNAS offers, and will talk a little about my backup strategy in future.

We’ll see what happens when the board comes and if I made the right decision.

 

Building A Silent Keyboard On A Budget- An Inexpensive Approach To A Better Typing Experience

Continuing my keyboard experimentation, I wanted to see what you could get in a build project for as cheap as possible. So, this is the M87 Pro Keyboard, a TKL keyboard that is hot swappable, with south facing RGB LEDs. It was going for $29.99 before a 20% instant coupon. I didn’t disassemble it, but the video of its disassembly shows a gasket mount with 5 layers.

I already had some keycaps I had taken off another keyboard for cleaning(they were getting a bit shiny), and I decided this was also a good time to try some new types of switches. Because the description for the product said, “Sound Absorption Foam & Silicon Bottom Pad…Each press feels like a symphony of comfort and precision…”, I opted to try two types of advertised silent switches.

The Akko V3 Fairy Linear Silent Switch and the Epomaker Sea Salt Silent Linear Switch, as pictured below. Of course, my first box of Fairy switches showed up pre-opened from Amazon(which I assume was a return they didn’t detect). I apparently wasn’t the only person with this problem, as there were similar reviews. Either way, the Fairy feels a bit better, is definitely more silent when I type, and is actually cheaper. At the same time, the Seat Salt is a box type switch, seems a stronger construction(none of them showed up broken or pre-used) and are rated for 10 million more uses. So, I can see the benefits of both of those.

I did consider some alternatives to try in the sub-$50 kit space. You can find some even cheaper on Aliexpress and sites like that, but there is a comfort with using Amazon, I suppose. The CIY GK68 Wireless Hotswap Keyboard is only $37.90 at time of writing here, and that adds in, obviously, wireless capability using AAA batteries, as well as being a 65% layout as opposed to TKL, and comes in a few colors.

Also, being as keyboard kits, unless they are higher end, can cost more than keyboards where you just discard the switches they provided, you can also consider some budget models that you intend to completely strip.

Much to my annoyance, or happiness(just wish I’d known it was coming), the Keychron C3 Pro, which was a budget model I really like, now has a hotswap version. I recommend it even more, and it is selling for $48 at the time I write this for the hotswap version, and I’ve seen the regular version for as low as $30.

 

 

 

Know When To Fold ‘Em? My Quest For A Modern Folding Keyboard

The first time I saw a keyboard and knew I needed to get it was when I saw someone with the Targus Stowaway keyboard. It was connected up to their PDA. I immediately wanted a PDA and the keyboard to use to type on the go. For those of you who missed the PDA phase, it was the smartphone before smartphones. I still have fond memories of my Handspring Visor.

The Stowaway Keyboard was a tri-fold keyboard that folded into a pocket size item, and contained a mount to put your PDA into to connect to it. The modern equivalent is bluetooth or USB, and connects to your phone. So, I looked on Amazon to see if I could find what the successor to that is.

 

You still can get TriFolds like that…for example, the Moko Foldable Bluetooth Keyboard. It even has a full number pad.

There are also bifold bluetooth keyboards of varying prices and quality. But, I’ve been on a mechanical keyboard exploration of late, so I wondered what was available in folding or otherwise tiny form factors that was mechanical.

I tried out the Royal Kludge F68 60% folding low profile keyboard. Royal Kludge is a fairly well established lower cost brand, and this was a unique design. I used it to write on a tablet, and it had no issue being plugged in via USB or paired via bluetooth. I was able to type an entire email comfortably with my phone. The only issue was the keycaps started showing discoloration immediately, so I decided to swap the keycaps for something of better quality. The keycaps are low profile, so I found a nice inexpensive set, and it worked perfectly…except for the spacebar. It’s 6U, as opposed to the more common 6.25U…so…problem. But the rest of it is now much better.

But that is a problem in itself. If a keyboard doesn’t start out close to what you what, is it worth putting money in to make it that? I’ve been delving into keyboard videos on YouTube and keyboard forums. I have been buying keyboards only to immediately switch to PBT keycaps. I’ve been experimenting with new switch types…and for the most part, you can only get a limited selection preinstalled on the board and there are so many other options.

We’ll see what I try next, but what is your preference for mobile keyboards? I’ve covered folding as well as the smaller form factors…

 

 

Best Tools For Productive Work On The Road: Spring 2024 Edition

Many of us are travelling more than we used to, but there is no reason we can’t have a great work setup while on the road.

This post serves as a packing list, among other things, for my travel gear. These allow me to be productive from anywhere. It’s a good opportunity to go over what I keep in my bag, and over time, talk more specifically about the items I keep in there and why.

  • A Walmart Onn Android 4K TV puck – Powered by micro-USB, used for streaming in hotel rooms
  • 2 Ainope Right Angle USB-C to USB-C 6 foot cables, braided 60W rating – any USB-C cables might do.
  • 2 Baseus 100W retractable USC-C PD 5A 3.3 foot cable
  • EMEET USB Speakerphone for Live Streaming – Got this on sale, but you can’t get it anymore. Good because it is compact, and a webcam and speakerphone in one. I’m fine in the shortterm, but will look for alternatives to suggest.
  • Charger for a Pinetime Watch – More on the Pinetime in future
  • An Ikea LED USB lamp . – Some hotels do not have a desk light and this takes up almost no space.
  • Generic USB/battery operated LED clock – I use my phone for alarms, but I honestly can’t be bothered to fiddle for it when I’m trying to sleep in a hotel room while experiencing jetlag. This was just the smallest clock with digits I could see without my glasses. About the size of a harmonica. There are dozens of these.
  • 200W GAN USB C Charger Block, 4 USB-C PD ports, 4 USB-A ports – Can power everything with plenty of ports. I have one of these on my desk as well.
  • The 65% K6 Keyboard…I wrote about my Keyboard search previously.
  • Graffiti Fat Wrist Rest for small keyboards – Wrist rest for the keyboard
  • Dierya Kemove X Keyboard Travel Case – To protect my keyboard while traveling.
  • A GL.iNet travel router, right now I have the Slate Plus which was on sale, but there is a budget version available now, the Opal. There are advantages to the Slate Plus over the Opal…but for hotel trips, you can forego them. Having a travel router has a variety of advantages.
  • A portable monitor – I have a few of these of various sizes and capabilities. A 15.6, and a 12. I can mix and match depending on the computer I’m bringing…laptop, mini PC, etc, to form a variety of different configurations. More on that in future. But, this either requires HDMI cabling, sometimes mini-HDMI, sometimes full-HDMI, plus USB power, or USB-C connections.
  • Folding Laptop Stand – They don’t make the one I have anymore, but there are a lot of these. This unfolds, lifting the laptop up so I can place my keyboard below it. This assumes I bring a laptop, and not a mini-PC
  • Trackball – I prefer a trackball to a mouse. My two favorites are:
    • Logi M580 – this is a thumb controlled trackball that fits easily into a bag
    • Kensington Expert Wireless Trackball – Also comes in a wired. This thing looks big because of the provided wrist rest, but is not that much bigger than the Logi M580, which I’ve taken on many trips.

 

Review: Vivo Livestream Device Shelf Mount

I’ve been working on upgrades to my desk, and tried out the Vivo 16 Inch Above/Behind VESA Monitor Livestream Device Shelf Mount.

The image is a stock image from the manufacturer, not my setup, but this replaced so many things for me. It attaches to a monitor mount in between the bracket and the monitor. Not only is it good as a shelf, but I’m able to attach accessories to it.

I’ve bought two of these, one for each of my monitors. There is a webcam attached with an adjustable ball head, an old tablet that shows an information display, and a light to better light the webcam. As the bezel of monitors becomes thinner, attaching a webcam to the monitor itself is starting to actually hide some of the screen. You can mount a webcam or even a professional camera dead center and still have plenty of room on the shelf to add more small items.

The height you can adjust it to does depend on your monitor. I had to put them at different heights on different monitors due to where the ports were in relation to the mount. You may also have issues if the back of your monitor is curved. Reading reviews on Amazon, some people solved these issues by cutting off some of the bracket to make it shorter. Others had to get longer screws than the ones provided or get standoffs, both of which are fairly common needs for VESA monitor mounts.

Other people used it to hold speakers, as a shelf for their remotes, microphones, etc.

There are competing products, but none of them at a $20 price point.

  • Ulanzi makes a similar top shelf for $43 at time of publish, which includes 3 ballheads…but you can get better ball heads yourself if you need them.
  • HumanCentric offers theirs for $56 at time of publish. They have 3 sizes, a small, medium and extra large, the extra large being the $56 one and roughly the same shelf space as the Vivo. It seems to offer no specific advantage, except it is slightly shorter in length(so maybe you don’t need to cut it if it covers your ports), but hardly worth the price increase for that.

 

In all the mounting gear I’ve purchased for my desk, the price does seem high for what is essentially a piece of metal with some holes in it. But convenience is worth something. I have a second desk I use elsewhere where I will be using this to replace a cheap boom arm that holds up my webcam.

Musings On The Best Keyboard For Travel

In my previous writing, about using a Mini PC on the Go, I mentioned a 60-65% keyboard as the right size in my opinion for travel. So, what are the different types of keyboards?

  • Full-size
  • Tenkeyless(TKL) – A tenkeyless is the same size as a full-size keyboard, but omits the number pad.
  • 75%  – condenses the function keys
  • 65% – usually retains the arrow keys while condensing the other function keys.
  • 60% – removes the function and navigation keys
  • 40% – the smallest keyboard

I have long since given up on full sized keyboards. All my home keyboards are TKL. This is something of a practical issue. I’m left-handed, and the number pad is on the right side of the keyboard, favoring right handed typists. In the rare cases when you need it, you can try for a keypad such as this inexpensive one from Kisnt, which has Red, Brown, and Blue switch options and PBT keycaps already.

40% is too small. I know people are very passionate about this size once you get used to the combinations to use it. The most economical 40% I found was at the local Microcenter.

For my latest attempt, I opted for a 65% Keychron K6 that was discounted at the time I purchased it and is still reasonable. The K6 is bluetooth and USB-C, but has a hardware rather than a software switch between wireless and wired. Some models of the K6 are hotswappable, meaning you can change the switches.. Compare that to the well reviewed Royal Kludge RK68, which has a software switch. 65% gets you the arrow keys, which I do enjoy having as dedicated functions.

I previously used a 60%, and tried several variations, but missed those arrow keys. However, if I opt to try a 60% again, I might try the Royal Kludge RK61, which is not only hot-swappable, but has QMK/VIA support…which allows you to remap the keys to a configuration of your liking. Since I’m on a Keychron kick of late, they have the K12. The Pro Version has the QMK/VIA support.

By the time you get to 75%, you might as well carry around your tenkeyless on a trip, thus making the 65% percent the perfect compromise between the two.

 

Thoughts On Using a Mini PC On the Go

Recently, I was reading an article by Brady Snyder of XDA Developers about using a Mini PC on the go. It happened to match up with something I’d been thinking about. However, Brady’s premise involved the use of a battery pack. So…turning a Mini PC into a fully portable computer, instead of my goal…a computer I could set up anywhere. I’m thinking about this a lot right now because I just spent two weeks in a hotel for work, where I’d want more than I’d take on a short trip.

Dual portable monitors are coming down in price, but so are portable USB-C/HDMI single monitors that have good quality, and fit in a bag. I calculated that a USB-C to barrel connector could power everything off a USB-C PD charger. A 60-65% keyboard, portable mouse, and even a second monitor if needed can complete something that fits in a bag.

I stopped using laptops at home ages ago…because staring down at one started to hurt my neck. I could dock my laptop, but I found I rarely used the screen and mostly had it in the dock, so why not save money on the screen and get a better processor?

Over the years, I’ve tried many combinations of mobile setups. Different small keyboards. Different portable monitors. Etc. I’ve already decided on my next experiment, and will be putting out some notes about how different configurations work out. This includes:

  • Improved 60 or 65% keyboard options
  • Different portable monitors
  • Keeping the wiring simple.
  • Converting mini-PCs to USB-C PD using adapters
  • Travel micetrackballs
  • Storage devices

Curious what others thinl.

Take Control Of Your Garage Door With Rage Against the Garage Door Opener

https://user-images.githubusercontent.com/4663918/288449523-9ddf3da2-9eac-4be0-beed-11867dc8d446.png

Rage Against The Garage Door Opener(RATGDO), is a board created by Paul Wieland that gives you local control of a Chamberlain/Liftmaster garage door. It also supports other garage doors with some additional equipment. The ratgdo board is an ESP chip, and inserts itself in between the circuit board in the motor and the safety sensors and the button/control panel on the wall. It then learns to communicate with the components. I ordered this device, which is now frequently back ordered, last year, and finally got to installing it this weekend.

I haven’t spoken to the developer directly, but how did this board, which is a sudden boom side business for him, become so? It starts with Chamberlain announcing they would be blocking access to their API for home automators.

The board offers:

  • Open/Close Functionality
  • real time status of door
  • the ability to partially open or close the door
  • Obstruction sensor status
  • Motion Sensor status

If you can wait for an item on backorder, I recommend this device if you have the right sort of garage door to ensure peace of mind in regard to the status of your door.

 

 

Musings On Keycaps- Should you Favor ABS or PBT?

With my recent keyboard commentary, I thought it best to talk about keycaps…Keycaps are the covers for the mechanical switches on a mechanical keyboard. Likely the switches themselves, the keycaps are also the subject of intense debate. And I’m just experimenting with these things myself.

I remember, years ago, I bought this flat rollable keyboard, and within a few weeks, the letters started to rub off. I filed a warranty request, and spoke to the company…whose name I don’t remember at this point, but I remember was based in Texas, and they told me that some people’s natural oils tended to degrade the coating more than others. They sent me one with a newer coating they were working on and it lasted for years.

So, the tendency of letters to rub off, and keys to get shiny is certainly a concern of mine. You can clean the keyboard, but the ability to replace worn out keycaps is also a plus, and with mechanical keyboards, there are no end of options I’m still trying to figure out.

The most common discussed materials are ABS or PBT plastic. ABS is the most common keycap material on all types of keyboards. ABS is the one that tends to get shiny in a shorter period of time. But even within the two categories, there are differing levels of quality. PBT is usually more expensive, but you can get cheap and poor quality, or high quality in either material.

PBT has a bit more texture, to most opinions as well, which many enthusiasts prefer. It is generally thought to have a less jarring sound when typed on, but ABS can have the same property if you get a thicker ABS keycap as opposed to the more common ones.

This is not to mention stylistic questions like:

  • Doubleshot – two color keycaps, often used to mix a solid color on the top with transparency on the sides for backlit keys
  • Backlit keys
  • Side or top printing of the legends
  • Printing…Laser Etched, Dye Sublimation, or Pad Printing as the way to label the keys…or….do you need legens on the keys at all…some people like all blanks
  • Profiles…the shape of the key.

So many choices. In the end, I’m not buying the most expensive PBT, but I have, on the keyboards I use regularly, replaced the keys with PBT because I like the benefits. Even on the inexpensive budget keyboard I just bought, I switched out the keycaps for an inexpensive PBT set on sale. Still feels better than the originals.

My only problem is specialty keys. For example, it seems like no one makes PBT keycaps with the media markings on the function keys. I rarely use the function keys on my keyboard, having them show the traditional media options instead would be useful. I guess I’ll just have to remember which is which.

In case you are just getting started, like me, here are some brands I have experimented with, with a few examples as of publish date that were on sale.