Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Story of the "Mid-line" Cellphone

For roughly the last 3 years, I've been using the Motorola (aka Moto) G4, and has been perfectly satisfied. This is really a rather unremarkable phone and therefore it's service shouldn't be of interest in any way. And there-in lies the story......

I have a long history of buying Motorola's premium offerings going all the way back to the i1000 on the Nextel network. Sure, there were other devices that ranged from the very interesting Nokia 8100 of Matrix fame and my one and only Apple device; the iPhone 5s. They all served me well, but as phones got increasingly complex, I began to feel that I got nowhere near taking advantage of their capabilities. When their life expectencies were closer to 5 years and contracts were close to 2, that was OK. When those things dropped to half, it became not worth the cost. At roughly the same time, the feature set became such that one didn't need to buy "halo" device (Z4 below) to get all the features one needed. 

There were 2 paths for the makers to put these devices to market. They could go the traditional route and sell them in bulk to the big carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint etc), or sell them directly to the consumer as "unlocked" phones ready to connect with virtually any system. My Moto G4 bought from Costco was one of these. It cost me about $150 on a Black Friday sale. That makes the phone itself cost less than $5 per month (of course, there is the cost of the plan itself). That's cheap! More importantly was that over the course of the 34 months that I used it, I never wanted for anything in terms of features.
So, last week, after my G4 committed suicide by jumping into the pool at practice one day......, I went out and chased down another mid-line phone. The Moto G6 Play. 
To reinforce the concept:
  • It has all the features I need and some I don't.
  • It has the old Micro-USB charging port. I'm really not ready to buy a bunch of replacement cords, and it charges plenty fast enough for me!
  • It has the regular 3.5mm headphone jack! 
  • It was cheap. I paid $63 on eBay from a DFW seller who got it to me in 2 days.
  • Despite being 2 generations newer, it's interface was comfortably familiar. 
The fact is, even if I'd have gone out and paid full price for it, the price wouldn't have been any higher than what I paid for it's predesessor, the G4. As thing would turn out, I actually ended up paying nothing for it. I won't get into that story today. But I'd have been quite happy to pay $5 a month for it's use over the next 2-3 years.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Workstation Interrupted..... and Then Detoured!!!

This has been what my personal computing world has been like for the last 2 years! In September of 2017, I wrote a blog post on my workstation rebuild project. At that point, I had acquired the motherboard, processor and memory. Everything was pretty much in place to move on to the build itself! Then a number of things happened:
  • For my birthday (October) of that year, I got a gun. Subsequently, I've been very involved in all things firearms!
  • I started coaching the swim team at my school. We'll just say that it's time consuming, and exhausting and leave it at that....
  • Since that time, my children have turned 12&15, then 13&16, which is in and of itself is exhausting, but has included things such as teaching my son how to drive, as well as dealing with a teenage daughter...... enough said......
  • I found out that the X99 motherboard steadfastly remained dead, despite my best efforts, so it went to Gigabyte warranty depot. Which is why you buy from a quality manufacturer.
  • Gigabyte had a glitch and forgot about my board for about 6 months.....
  • Gigabyte now has no more of the X99 boards to replace it and we are now going back and forth as to what to do about this situation.....
  • MS Windows 7 support is ending, and I've been dealing with ours' as well as clients' machines.
You can see, what that above picture is about now.
After I sent the X99 to Gigabyte, I decided to pull out one of my old computers as a stop-gap measure, expecting that it would do email and some light web surfing for a month or two at worse. 8 months later .....I finally took it off of my desk and put the old warhorse out to pasture. For those who don't recognize it off-hand; it's my old "Tomcat" build. It's an IBM (which should be your first clue), Z61m running a Core2Duo processor with a chipset so old that it has a 3Gb limitation! Which goes to show that for what most people do (email and web-surfing), they don't need the latest and greatest. In any case, although it was slow and occasionally a little annoying to use, I was grateful to have it. On to the next thing.....
....And this is the next thing. An ASUS Rampage III Extreme with an Intel i7-950 processor and 6 sticks of 2Gb Dominator memory that I picked up for $50 about 3 years ago off of Craigslist. It has the X58 chipset and was from the 1st generation of Core CPUs! I'm using it because I'm tired of not being able to use my monitor rig, including the 28" 4K panel. I spent a few hours this last Saturday getting it up and running. I've got to say that for a 2011 motherboard, it runs (Windows10) pretty well, especially compared to the old ThinkPad! 
As of yesterday, Gigabyte and I are in the process of negotiating a mutually agreeable replacement for the X99 board. They asked me for a chipset and I prudently asked for a Z370 board vs. the X299 which would be a direct replacement in the product line. However, after some research, it turned out to have some hardware limitations that would have boxed me into some very specific (read expensive) hardware that I didn't want to get involved with. Much like my new philosophy about my cameras, I've decided to give up on some dreams for a more practical a outcome. Despite the "Z" chipsets being more "consumer" oriented, it will do everything I need it to do. There was just no sense in spending more money on spec that would have been meaningless. I'll explain more when I detail the build in a future post. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Burn The Ships!

Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and forever changed the world...... But it could be argued the things didn't really get going until 1519, when Cortes landed in Mexico and gave the fateful order to "burn the ships"! What does this have to do with me? Well...., awhile ago, I made the decision to give up my full-sized DSLR Nikon gear (APS-C) based around the D300 and bought a Panasonic Lumix GX-7. This last weekend, I burned the ships! About 3 weeks ago, I sold the D300 rig, but a few days ago, I cut my emotional ties.
For some time now, I had been collecting an ad hoc selection of old film 35mm cameras from the heyday of Japanese manufacturers. They ranged from the old and quaint such as Topcon Uni, and Miranda RE to true classics such as my Minolta XE-7 all the way to the hi-tech from last years before digital as represented by a Contax 139 Quartz. The group was so varied that I collected a number of Tamron Adaptall II lenses so I could use the many adapters made for the numerous cameras. Unfortunately, this little hobby, while fun was getting stale the last few years and it was a vast clutter of jumbled and dusty hulks. So, between meeting a guys who bought several lenses on Saturday, and another guy on Sunday who bought everything else; I'm out of the "big/old camera" business. 
It's not as simple as cleaning out, or even just switching gear. There's a lot of emotion associated with those old cameras. In a many of ways, it represents my youth, my most abiding hobby interest, and even some professional aspirations. On the other hand, it's a lot of stuff that sits there and did nothing, but collect dust. And, although, I probably didn't sell it for as much as I could (or should) have, it did bring in some money and to a large extent, was a relief as well! Those ships got burned!
What did I do with the money? I used some of it to replace the cameras and lenses I used. I had previously picked up a Lumix GX7 with a 12-32mm (24-64mm eq) lens. After selling the Nikon D300 gear, I decided to use some of the money to replace the Nikon 18-200 lens with a Lumix 14-140mm. Uh..... I did that by purchasing a GH1 with that lens! And along with it came a FL-360 flash (which I needed), and an Olympus 14-42mm lens, along with misc accessories. Why? The whole thing was about $50 more than what I was going to have to pay for that lens anyway at about $300 total! Those lenses alone routinely run anywhere from $200 to $250. 
After I sold all the old camera gear, I decided to give myself a little reward. That is in the form of one of the "littlest" Lumix lenses around.
The 20mm/f1.7 (40mm eq), considered one of the sharpest for the format. They typically sell for $125 to 175. I paid $145.....
 ....for a 20mm/f1.7 and a Lumix GF-1 attached. Yup, I found it on eBay for $150 after shipping (down from the original listing of $200) with an "OBO". So I offered $130 for it. So, now I have a Lumix micro-4/3rds system. More to come.

Friday, March 29, 2019

I've "Switched"!!!

See....., not what you thought, huh? I'm the father of two teenagers, my daughter is almost 13 and all that that implies. OK, so let's move on to the more pleasant topic,..... the almost 16 year old son. He has shown signs of coming out of the middle school to 10th grade funk which was the bane of our existence. But the last few months, he's actually been more useful and quite a bit more pleasant to be around, a switch that has led me to become more involved in his hobbies. In today's world, that quite often involves gaming. He has 2 main interests in that area; PC gaming which he participates via the gaming PC that I built for him a couple of years ago. It's still relatively current and very usable so doesn't need attention at this time. His other gaming interest is the Nintendo platform (which is a relief for my wife and I).
From the standpont of straight-up technology, I think that this platform is really interesting. A very successful adaptation of the favorite from my rather brief days of video gaming; the NEC TurboGrafx16.
Or more specifically, the legendary, NEC TurboExpress.
This thing was (technologically speaking) the "Tour de Force" of the mobile gaming world of the late 90s. In a world where the typical handheld gaming device was a monochrome Gameboy, with weak, chopped down games, the TurboExpress had color and played the full-sized NEC TGX16 games! The only problem....., it ate batteries like an 8 year-old does candy! Unfortunately, the NEC console was a distant 3rd in the gaming platform world of that era. I only got involved with it because my favorite arcade game, Galaga was only available on it! 
Fast forward 30 some-odd years, we now have a successful marriage of the power of nVidia hardware with the marketing might of Nintendo, and you get the Switch! A console platform with a mobile form-factor, capable of playing the full games. I've become so intrigued by the concept that I've began researching extending the capabilities of the system. 
A major part of our lives these days, is the amount of time we (Josh and I) spend on a school bus traveling to and from swim events. Sometimes, it's many hours in one sitting. Texas is a big state! What I learned from driving the team around is that they will often play Switch games together to keep the boredom at bay. It's apparent to to any observer that its a struggle for them to play together in "table-top" mode when multiple kids need to crowd around the relatively small 7" screen. The other issue is the struggle to keep the screen stable on a moving bus. The solution?
The Gaems Vanguard Black Edition, "personal gaming environment" for $299 of course! Uhhh, no..... I don't have $300 just to run out and buy something like this, and on top of that, it doesn't resolve the issue of power. Not only does the thing not resolve the issue of powering the gaming platform, it in fact creates another need for AC power in the 19" screen that's built in to the case. So in reality, it's simply a fancy case sized to hold a game system, and a LCD monitor to display it, so really, it doesn't resolve the problem of playing in a mobile environment nor real of portability either. What's then is the solution?
The top image is the Dell Latitude E7240; it's about a 3 year-old ultra portable notebook that's less than 4 pounds, has a 12.5" 1366 x 768 screen built into a nice aluminum case of less than 1 inch. The lower image is a Suaoki D100 26,800mAh power bank with a critical attribute of having an AC plug as well as 1 USB Type-C, and 2 USB 3 "Quick-charge" ports as well. Why is the AC plug "critical", and what does one have to do with the other?
It appears that the Nintendo Switch, despite having a USB-C power/connection port, does not comply with the power draw standards set for that type of port. Sooooo, it's generally accepted as a bad idea to power the device by anything that's not officially sanctioned by Nintendo! Besides that; in order to send a signal to an external screen, one must use a dock which has an HDMI port, so yeah...... So my little project needed to have a source of power that has an AC plug for the adapter, AND a lot of power to drive the screen and the Switch itself. The Latitude was free courtesy of a client who killed one and I was tasked to replace it, leaving me with a laptop with a dead motherboard, but functioning screen. The power bank came about because my wife decided that she should carry our old one and that I was free to buy a replacement of my choosing.... thus leaving me with marching orders, and the freedom to buy the D100! Anything else is required to complete this project?
I did have to order a controller board from China for the screen in the laptop. It was about $20. I also need a case to build it all into as well.
This actually gave me a lot of trouble tracking it down. There are tons of these light weight "hard-shell" cases out there for things like GoPro cameras and external hard drives, but they just aren't big enough. After hours of fruitless searching, it occurred to me that I need to search for a case designed for something bigger, but also commonly carried around, ..... which led me to the drone case. This one by DBPower was $22 on Amazon with free shipping! So, all I'll need to do is to cut some new foam to fit my pieces and figure out a way to attach a carry strap. 
Why? Well..... being a dad to a teenager isn't the easiest thing in the world. And our time with them under our room is limited. Sure, it sounds good to raise them to appreciate what we do, but that isn't always a practical reality. I'm on the back end of my 50s and he just started driving this year. We aren't going to have that many interest in common. I gave up a few things this year to be his swim coach, is taking some more time to show an interest in his hobbies isn't much more. Plus, it's kinda cool! I'll put up another post when I get done. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

The World Is Flat!!! ....Or Something Along Those Lines....

It's finally happened. I replaced my DSLR, the faithful Nikon D300. I love that camera, lusted for it before I possessed it and now in retirement, remember it fondly. Mine was configured just the way you see it above: D300, MB-D10 battery pack and the Nikkor 18-200mm "super-zoom". I toted that thing everywhere. The Dallas Arboretum for family pictures, top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, all over Taiwan, to every kid sporting event and to every family outing. I bought it used of course, but it never game me the slightest hiccup. The lens packed it in once due to a dead stabilization motor, but that was my fault due to forgetting to turn that off while using it on a tripod. But that got repaired and it just kept right on taking pictures. 

Over the years, I did manage to use a couple of other lenses on it; the Nikkor 18-70mm and the legendary 50mm manual focus Nikkor f1.4.  The former came on the D70 that I own previously and the later a gift from my brother after he had it electronically converted to talk to current Nikon mounts. Nice equipment that still shoots nice pictures..... why change now?
This isn't exactly the way I look, but it sure is the way I feel these days. While our vacation trip to Disney forever changed what I'm willing to drive long distance with kids and luggage; our trip to DC forever changed what I'm willing to carry in photographic equipment! 
This was the instrument of change! I don't mean I replaced the D300 with the Lumix LX5! Here's what happened. I felt like I needed to be able to have something small enough to fit in a pocket, since there are places that don't allow the big professional style cameras, plus I wanted to be able to shoot video as well. Given that we were going to DC and would be inside of buildings a lot, I wanted something that gave a little wider view than most pocket cameras were capable of giving. It turns out that this little Lumix would do all that and was cheap since it was a few years old at that time. I found one down in Waco for about a $100 and grabbed it. Since that time, most things that was too much for the phone got assigned to the little Lumix.
So, I've been periodically keeping an eye on cameras of this type for some time. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came across a few of the GX7s bidding at a low price on eBay. One of them, even came with a lens, so I bid on it and got it for just over $240 shipped. At this point, I'd better back up to the point where I had decided that the D300 was too big and heavy. Not only that, it wouldn't do video which I've increasing found that I needed. 
Some of you might remember that I had gone down this road before, when I wanted to build an alternate system that was small, light and easy to carry. As much as I liked that camera, I couldn't live without an eye-level viewfinder......
....and trust me when I say that I tried to live with the rather awkward attachment viewfinder. So I gave up and sold it for what I paid for it. In the meantime, Panasonic had brought out the GX1 which fixed most of what was wanting on the GF1, but it was too much and the recent failure too fresh. Then the GX7 came out and it was everything I wanted.... just cost too much. But that was the last quarter of 2013 and in the world of consumer electronics, 5 years is a long time. By the last quarter of 2018, that $1100 GX7 is now sub-$250 and this particular one came with the 12-32mm lens. For those of you not familiar with Micro-4/3 format, that's 24-64mm in the 35mm world. Barring the 14-140mm superzoom, or the 20mm/f1.7 pancake lens, this was my next most coveted glass. 
Wouldn't I have rather gotten the more current GX8? Sure, but I didn't want to give $500+ for the body alone. Besides, my days of envisioning myself as a Cartier-Bresson are long gone. If I really were willing to spend more money, I'd have bought this...

The Olympus Pen-F that I would argue to be the perfect combination of most beautiful and capable digital camera today.  But alas, we who live on teacher salaries, have to make hard choices. Enough of dreaming. What do I really want/need to be fully converted over to the new system.
2 lenses and a flash. The main lens will be the 14-140mm and that will live on the camera most of the time, the 20mm/f1.7 for low ambient light. And of course the other solution for low ambient light; the Godox TT350, because unlike Nikon; there's no advantage to paying more and going with Panasonic. This will make traveling a one bag experience without the back pain of carrying a full-sized DSLR.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The $500 AR: Buy or Build

I'm 57 this year. And by anyone's standards, I'm part of the older generation! My ideas and perceptions were shaped during the 60's, and that includes my thoughts on guns as well as other things.
I was born in 1960 and we moved to the United States in 1968, so obviously, the Vietnam War was a big part of it. 
And in the Psyche of a pre-teen/early teen of that ear; the most advanced infantry weapon ever was the M-16. OK..... let me start by saying, that, for today, I'm not here to argue the merit of this Eugene Stoner design. I'm discussing the basis of my fascination for it. 
When you compare it with it's immediate predecessor, the M-14, it's clearly a completely different animal. And if you compare it against the weapon of the "bad guys" (the AK47), it just looks more advanced. 
Fast forward 3-4 decades and several generations, the M-16 goes through the A1 to A3 versions and comes out the other end as the M-4 Carbine. The military has refined the old battle rifle originally designed for it's small-statured Asian allies into a modern "platform". One that can do just about anything given the wide variety of equipment that can be attached to it at will. But the best thing?
It's become that thing that Americans most love...... a standardized "open platform". What does that mean? It's the PC of the gun lovers! One can literally buy every single component from a different manufacturer, have most of it mailed directly to your house and put them together yourself with a minimum of tools. And on Black Friday, you could do it for less than $400!
After I got my handgun situation squared away, and the reloading setup running; the pressure was too much. I started looking for parts to do my own build. Maybe I should back up here. As always, I studied the market first, and found that a decently working plain-Jane AR15 could be bought for between $500-600 from one of the big-box outfits if I watched the sales. That would mean a workable (along the lines of what you see above), ..... a "smooth-top" (no rear sights or optic), plain (generic hand-guard and butt stock known as "furniture"), and pretty much bottom end everything. Don't get me wrong. These things are still Mil-spec and will shoot well all day long. But I wanted more......and I didn't want to pay more. I wanted more, for $500. How does that get done?
If you're reading me on this blog, but have read my stuff on my technology blog as well, then you already know. I research obsessively. What I found was that everything I already knew about computer buying/building applied to guns (especially the AR) as well. 
  1. You don't save money by building your own gun.
  2. A quality gun is an expensive gun.
  3. There are no secrets in the AR world.
  4. If you build your own, you can easily build a messed up gun.
  5. It's fun.
So; as we've already discussed, the baseline is $500-600 (barring special sales and such). I also learned that the price for a used one isn't much better. I looked on the online listings and prowled a lot of pawn shops. Most importantly, I learned that you can get nicer parts for not much more money if you build your own. So I went in that direction. Early on, I began to see a company being commonly described as being a cut above the entry level, but at the same time, relatively inexpensive. This was Aero Precision from Tacoma, Washington. Apparently, they had been a long standing contractor that provided parts and set out on their own when the "blackgun boom" happened. 

In the midst of looking at "lowers", which is the "frame" of that which composes, officially the gun, since it has the serial number on it, I found a place in Texas that was selling a "complete lower" (one with all the parts installed) for $135. I had learned that the cheapest a "stripped lower" gets is $50, ..... and that's for a generic one. The LPK or lower parts kit which includes all the little pieces for the trigger group and safety is another $50-60. Then you have the "buffer tube" (that thing sticking out the back that the stock is mounted on), is another $25-30 or so including the buffer and spring. Then you have the grip and stock for another $15-20. So yeah, I was ahead of the game with a completely built one at a lesser price! So I bought it.....
Now, although I owned a gun, the majority of the parts to make it work didn't exist yet .... at least not on my AR! Most of the cost of building AR is connected to the "Upper" ($65-85), not the upper itself which isn't generally very expensive, but the expense is in things like the barrel, the bolt carrier group (BCG) and the front hand-guard. 
Let's start with this. What you see here is actually 3 parts: the barrel itself, the gas block, and the gas tube. A plain cheap-o one will set you back about $100 or so..... maybe $125 with the gas block and gas tube. But..... you guessed it...... I wanted something special. I didn't want either the .223 Remington or the 5.56 NATO chambering since you can't shoot the 556 in the 223, and the 223 isn't very accurate in the 556. I wanted a .223 Wylde, which is a hybrid chambering that shoots both well. On top of that, I didn't want the typical 1:7 twist rate that doesn't do a good job of stabilizing lightweight bullets (eg. anything under 55gr). I wanted a 1:8 or 1:9 which is considered a good compromise that will handle heavier 62/77gr as well as the little bullets down to 40gr. I know..... OCD, aren't I!?! It gets worse. I also wanted a "mid-length" gas port which isn't as far down as the rifle (since I wanted a 16" barrel), but not as short as the "carbine-length" which can be "over-gassed". Plus the mid-length is thought to shoot nicer. We'll see. One more thing, I'd like to have the barrel in stainless please! They tend to be more accurate!
On to the handguard. In case you didn't notice, the stock M4 style version depicted above. My thoughts on it? Uhhhh, no, that'd be a H*** NO!!! First of all; I want it to "free-float", meaning that I want it to attach at the receiver end only and not touch the barrel anywhere else. Secondly, I want it to have a continuous top rail, but none anywhere else. Thirdly, I want it to be slim instead of the bulky "quad-rails" that are the typical upgrade from the M4 stock handguard. I also wanted the modular attachment style to be the M-Lok(versus the Keymod) which is depicted on the lower of the pictures. The goal? Weight, comfort to hold and ease of attachment for anything I need/want to add. Oh yeah, these can cost anywhere from $150 to $200 depending on length. I'd prefer to 15 incher so it covers almost all the 16" carbine length barrel.
Then, there's this..... the Bolt Carrier Group (BCG), which includes the actual bolt, the bolt carrier, and the firing pin. They can run from $65 all the way up to well over $300, depending on the maker, and the coating. The basic design is the GI Phosphate coating which can be hard to clean, then it goes up to Black Nitride, Nickle-Boron that finishes out the fairly "normal" types. These are roughly $30-40 either way of $100. I wanted something a little better than the typical so that it'd be easy to clean, but I didn't want to pay big money for this.
So; how did I answer all these questions? You already know about the lower for $135. As it turns out, I actually answered the upper just about as easily. What happened is that, after I bought the lower, I started researching uppers/monitoring websites. And came across a "complete upper" (means, having all parts barring bolt carrier group and charge handle) on Gunbroker that had pretty much everything I wanted which at that point was bidding at $265. That's an Aero M4E1 upper, 16" Stainless, mid-length gas ported barrel chambered in .223 Wylde, complete with an Aero 12" free-floating handguard! Turns out, after a week and a half of watching it (while watching "Black Friday" sales), no body bid on it. So I got it for $265, plus the guy only charged $10 to ship it tome from Wisconsin! The next day, I caught a sale on an APOC Armory black-nitride BCG with charging handle for $91 shipped.  
So, meet my little $497.20 "little friend"...... OK, so I need to get some random little stuff like sights, etc., but still...... I'm pretty satisfied with how this has gone.