Passing on the Home Assistant

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I’ve been reading and watching tons of reviews on various home assistant devices from the Amazon Alexa, Apple HomePod (what little info exists for it since it hasn’t been released yet), and the Google Home to see if this is something that would help me when I’m actually at home and so far I can’t justify the cost of having one.  I tried doing a few experiments when I’m at home or on the road with just Siri on my iPhone since I have enabled “Hey Siri”.  The functionality works pretty well overall over the iPhone 7 but I use it very infrequently and so do people in my household.  I guess the reason that I find it so useless is that we don’t really have a smart home so there is nothing for the virtual assistant to actually control.  For being an IT guy my home is pretty basic.  No lights are controlled by WeMo or Belkin, garage still uses a regular radio remote, thermostat is just on a simple schedule and doesn’t have wifi connectivity, and on and on and on…..

My family doesn’t constantly have a TV or computer on (maybe I do, I keep my MacBook Pro on the entire weekend even though the start up time is insanely fast) but I’m not in front of it doing stuff like surfing the net, creating junk or whatever.  Music…. ha!  The only time music is really listened to is in the car so no need for constant Spotify, Pandora, or any other music streaming service that would compel me to call out into thin air “OK Google, play me some Ice Cube on Pandora!”.  I also don’t have a huge ass bank account that I can call out “Hey Alexa buy me (insert product here)” and have it delivered to my door.  This is my opinion but the home assistant doesn’t have a good use case in my life that isn’t fulfilled by my iPhone, iPad, or my MacBook Pro.  Besides I’m more of a visual person and just hearing my commands obeyed (granted that sounds pretty cool when I think about it) doesn’t justify spending mucho cash on a speaker with a mic that has to be constantly plugged in just to function.

A poor mans version of this can be done with a UE Boom (I think I haven’t tried it but if you’re connected to a phone with Bluetooth it should be possible) which I do have.  It’s wireless and when connected to my iPhone or any other device it sounds awesome!  I can’t do all the cool commands that Alexa or Google home can do but I don’t really have a desire to start yelling in my home to a computer.  There’s still something weird about doing that but maybe its because I’m not sold on the benefits.  I ask Siri during the week about the weather but I can’t ask it whats on my calendar or anything like that since work secures the data so much I have to check my phone to see what I’m up to that day.

I think my home will need to become a lot ‘smarter’ before I consider investing in a Home Assistant.  These things are sort of not expensive but since its over $100 I take a long time to ponder getting something that expensive.  I also have to clear it with the house CFO before making such a purchase and for right now it doesn’t fit with our lifestyle.  Until everything can be controlled by a single service like Google (I do have 2 Chromecasts already), I don’t want to have a mishmash of device types infesting my house.  I’m already considering if I should ditch my Apple TV’s in favor of the Chromecast since I mostly use streaming from my Plex server rather than mirroring my phones screen.  Since everything still works I won’t retire them yet but there’s going to be a point when they won’t work with my current phone or my MacBook Pro and thats when I’ll start killing off technology.  One area where I think I could make my home really ‘smart’ would be all my light switches, that would be neat to control using my voice but at $50 a switch thats an expensive proposition, and it would increase my laziness so instead of getting up I’d just yell at my home.  Sounds great for when I get old(er).  I guess I have found a use case but one that won’t be useful to me for another 20 years.

Unless there is some HUGE leap in the home assistant area, I’m still going to pass.  Siri on my iPhone is just fine.

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Bringing my 10 year old desktop back to life with an SSD

Way back in 2007 I bought a desktop computer from Beat Buy.  I nice shiny desktop with a quad core processor and 3GB of RAM.  It even had 2 hard drives that equaled 500GB of storage!  Being it was the early 2000’s I was still of the mindset that tower computers were best.  At the time it was awesome, I had Windows XP Media Center installed and it was my media hub with all my music, videos, and files.

Fast forward about 10 years and a hard drive replacement later and the computer is still chugging along but at a very slow pace compared to my 2017 MacBook Pro.  I installed Windows 10 Professional but even with a clean install it took forever to boot up and launch programs and that’s with almost no programs installed.  Chrome was a dog and took its sweet time to load web pages.  Some of my past posts have chronicled how I put an SSD into my 2011 MacBook Pro but since that computer died, I took out the SSD and just had it lying around.  I tried using it as a backup for my NAS but it was too small.  I then decided to clone my Windows computer but how to do it?

Google to the rescue! I found an article that had some instructions on how to use Clonezilla (which is free) to clone a hard drive to an SSD.  A lot of the commands were like old DOS prompts that I experienced throughout the years but I made a few errors trying to do the clone.  

Major Fail: I should have unhooked all of the hard drives to prevent cloning to the wrong drive.  I had a backup of my data drive but as luck would have it I cloned my Windows dricento the data drive.  That kinda pissed me off.

The second time around I unhooked everything except for what I was going to use and it worked like a charm.  All my apps and settings were there and things launched like lightning comparatively speaking to using a regular hard drive.  However I did notice that the drive partitioned itself!  Weak!  I really wanted a full 1TB system drive but after thinking about it, it really didn’t matter.  It’s not like I was going to keep data on my SSD, that’s what my NAS and cloud storage accounts were for. I also had a backup which I’m probably never going to access since it’s all old stuff that I may one day look at.  After rummaging through some settings I set up the data partition and decided to do some speed comparisons (more user experience than actual data collection and comparisons). 

The boot up to Windows 10 was awesomely fast and the login was almost instantaneous!  I launched Chrome and didn’t have any real issues.  The programs that load on start up still took a little time but it was way faster than before.  Now am I going to use my desktop over my MacBook Pro?  Probably not since it’s in the office and I mostly work in the dining room these days.  The MacBook Pro is also still way faster and I’ve gotten used to using the touchpad and my gestures for navigation.  It will benefit my wife who uses the desktop more than I do.  At least now she will be able to get things done quickly rather than waiting for things to load.  Using the SSD has definitely extended the life of my desktop, maybe it will run for another 10 years or until Microsoft stops supporting the hardware in it.

Downloading shows from Netflix and Xfinity has changed my plane trips

Not really recently but pretty recently for me anyway, I started to use the download feature for Netflix and Xfinity so I can be entertained while I’m flying around the US for work.  I knew that these services were available but never took advantage of them until very recently.  Netflix has a ton of shows that I only watch there and the ability to download 12 episodes is totally awesome.  Granted I don’t need to download that many at a single pop but its nice to have them offline so I don’t have to worry about finding a wifi hotspot or something and then the streaming quality is bad.  What also helps a lot is that I normally have a 128GB iPhone with at least 30 gigs of storage left to download all this goodness.

Xfinity is somewhat the same but I download the DVR versions of shows that I want to watch.  There are shows that my wife and I watch together so I don’t download those, I wait till I get home.  The problem I have with downloading the DVR shows is all of the commercials that come with it!  I have to spend time fast forwarding through commercials that just repeat and repeat when there are breaks and it just kind of ruins the viewing experience for me.  Even using apps like the ABC app have commercials in them and that just turns me off to downloading them.  However there are new seasons of my favorite shows like Mr. Robot and South Park and those must be watched!

I haven’t checked out Amazon Prime yet but I’m pretty sure they have this feature as well. The thing with Amazon is that there aren’t a lot of shows that I like there that would warrant me downloading and watching on a plane. It also doesn’t hurt that American Airlines has a ton of movies on their in flight entertainment system that just are out that I need to see and the screens aren’t half bad really.  The challenge is staying up long enough to watch them and not running out of time before the plane gets to the gate.  Thats happened a few times where I have 20 minutes left and then I have to wait until my return flight to finish the movie!

I just went ahead and downloaded all of Season 4 of Voltron to my iPad, now I have something to watch on the plane tomorrow to Cali.  Ahh that makes things so much easier!

Life with the AirPods

Over a year ago I bought an iPhone 7 and one of the missing features was the headphone jack. In truth this didn’t bother me too much, I had my Bose bluetooth headphones and I was fine with using the included lightning EarPods. Just recently I got a pair of AirPods and I must say that its been pretty awesome. I use them more than almost all of my other headphones (except for when I’m flying). They’re not very large so its portable, they have pretty decent sound like regular EarPods, and the best part is that they don’t have any wires. I think that last part is the most important since I like not being tethered anymore to my phone if possible.

I do bring the case with me everywhere, mainly so I have a place to put them away because I’m scared of losing one and these things aren’t cheap. The fact that they just pair with my iDevices is pretty sweet. I have had a few problems here and there with the sound when I take calls but its normally short lived. I also managed to pair it to my work laptop so I don’t need to use wired headphones when I am on WebEx or doing some training that has sound. Unfortunately activating them is a bit harder on a Windows 10 laptop compared to my MacBook Pro but it just means when I walk away from my laptop its not in any danger of flying off a table.

I’ve seen a lot of review videos about the AirPods and even tried out my fathers pair since he had them before I did. I’ll admit that it makes me look funny when I’m walking around with them but sine they are so common now in California I don’t look so weird. There aren’t as many people wearing them in FL so I still look a little funny there. I thought they were going to release a new version of the AirPods during the iPhone event but I was surprised that they did’t. I guess they didn’t need to release a W2 chip since the current version is pretty awesome.

The only reason to get rid of my AirPods will be because they won’t hold a charge anymore. I hope that won’t be for at least a few years, I need to get my money’s worth out of these things. They are truly useful for things like writing blog posts while watching Netflix, no wires to trip over!

Is my Apple TV still relevant to my home?

A few years ago I bought some Apple TV’s to fill a need which was to stream Netflix, YouTube, and other stuff on a big screen rather than trying to view it on my iPhone or iPad.  I actually have 3 of them, only 2 of which are actuallly hooked up to TV’s but they aren’t used very often.  I guess my use cases have changed a little bit but I think it’s the capabilities of my Xfinity cable box that has really killed them off.

My Xfinity X1 cable boxes support Netflix and YouTube natively so that has eliminated most of the need for the Apple TV’s.  The other use I would have had for Apple TV was for my Plex server but in reality Plex works better with Chromecast than Apple TV.  To use Plex with an Apple TV I need to cast from an iDevice and it’s pretty hit or miss and not consistent.  An annoyance is when the mirroring is interrupted on the Apple TV so I also have the Chromecasts hooked up where possible to the same TV’s.  I can technically use my Xbox 360 for Plex too but it takes too long to boot.

I’ve looked at the newer Apple TV’s in the store but I don’t see how I would use it.  I would still have the same problems that I have with the old one.  The Xfinity X1 has largely replaced my use of the Apple TV and the Chromecast does the rest.  I’m considering unhooking the Apple TV’s to see how long I can survive without them.  I think I won’t even know they are gone.  I know my wife and daughter don’t use the Apple TV’s, they prefer using the X1 cable box.  The only feature I can see missing is screen mirroring which is useful for showing videos from my iPhone that can’t be seen using a Chromecast or Xfinity X1.

Anyway, enough musings for one night, maybe I’ll send a new blog post in later this weekend.

Bought an iPhone 8 and Apple Watch Series 3 ….. but not for me…..

This past Friday I totally forgot that it was the day to pre-order the Apple iPhone 8 and the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE!  Normally I set my alarm to wake me up but I was distracted by the fact that I had no internet at my home and my cell signal was barely a single bar and I couldn’t surf the internet even if I wanted to.  I’m personally keeping my iPhone 7 and my original Apple Watch (its not a series 1 but an ORIGINAL) but my wife has been in dire need of some tech upgrades.  I’ve written how her iPhone 6 has been failing her recently due to the crappy battery issues (it barely lasts 4 hours on a single charge) and she’s been without a watch for a while since her FitBit stopped working (it doesn’t like water).

Apple came out with some decent upgrades so we decided to get her the Apple iPhone 8 with the 256GB of memory (for all the pictures that I demand from her while I’m away for work). The 10 isn’t bad but since she liked the idea of having Touch ID like on her current phone and because it was $200 less it did’t take much convincing to get her that one.  I attempted to pre-order the phone at around 10:30am EST (so late!) and I wasn’t able to get an unlocked version.  However, since I’m with T-Mobile they give you an unlocked version anyway except they stick a SIM card in it.  That seemed like a good win to me in my book since the black one was really hard to come by and thats what the Mrs. wanted.  The new Apple Watch Series 3 now has LTE which should be kinda useful.  It’s only another $10 a month with T-Mobile and since they’re now paying for my Netflix I can use that $10 for the Watch.  The picture in this post is the one she is getting and I think it looks really cool with the white, black, and red.  I was considering getting a newer watch but its $599 (I want the chrome face like my current one) but I can’t justify buying it for that much when my current watch works just fine still.

The phone comes this Friday but the watch we have to wait for until sometime in October.  Thats not too bad really and I have recent backups of everything too.  I think I’m going to try and hold out for the iPhone 11 or 12.  The iPhone 7 is plenty fast and the only thing that I can see failing is the battery just like my wife’s iPhone 6.  I’ve already sold her iPhone to Gazelle so I can offset some of the cost of the iPhone 8 and Apple Watch.  Its not a large amount of cash but anything helps.  Hell I even sold her old iPhone 4s and I’m getting money for that too!  Can’t wait till Friday to see the new iPhone!

Escaping Hurricane Irma

 

Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma heading towards Florida

One of the biggest hurricanes in recent memory is heading for the state of Florida and it prompted me to actually evacuate from the state because…. I mean just look at the picture this thing is massive!  It covers the whole state almost from top to bottom and right now its not even on top of Florida yet, its still making trouble for Cuba.

Normally I wouldn’t have evacuated for a hurricane but when they said its going to be a category 4 or 5 and directly hitting South Florida, I took my wife’s advice and decided to button up the house as best we could and make for Atlanta.  Now when this was decided I had actually been in California for work so that meant I flew coast to coast twice in 2 days (essentially only a day trip) in order to get back home to evacuate.  My wife was awesome by doing almost all of the prep work for us to get going on the road, I only had to close up the shutters and pack up my clothes and put them all in the car.

Route to Atlanta

Your typical route going to Atlanta from South Florida

Our road trip consisted of following the Florida Turnpike to I-75 all the way up to Atlanta GA.  Now based on Apple Maps, Waze, and Google Maps, that journey should only have taken us 9 hours to complete.  Now that definitely wasn’t the case because just about everyone was trying to run away from the hurricane.  The entire drive end to end was really closer to 22 hours.  Now in that amount of time and with normal and not “holy shit we’re gonna die if we don’t leave FL” traffic I could have made it all the way to CT in the same amount of time.  The average speed going up to Atlanta was about 30MPH.  Thats slow by any standard and it was really painful.  Luckily my wife was kind enough to share the driving but unfortunately my daughter had to stay strapped into her seat for almost the entire way except for breaks.

The strategy that we decided on was to drive until we reached half a tank in the van and then refill the gas tank and keep on going.  The reason for this was that it is 676 miles to Atlanta and there was no way I would be able to get there on a single tank but I also didn’t want to run out of gas and get stranded.  In most of the gas stations on the turnpike was gas and the attendants were very good at guiding people to pumps.  There was only one station near Gainsville where I had to wait because the pumps were being refilled by a tanker truck.  As soon as I made it to my destination in Atlanta, I decided to fill the van up again just to be sure we had gas.  Since we were going so slow almost the entire way, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to replace the brake pads on the van soon even though I just had that service done a few months ago.  I’ve never been in such crazy stop and go traffic in my life.

Now me and the family are just waiting it out in Atlanta to see what happens with Irma.  Right now its heading towards the west coast but thats only the eye.  I’ve been getting email updates from Broward County of curfews and tornado warnings.  I’m hoping theres not a lot if any damage so that we can go home this coming week.  The biggest challenge will not be having any gas, food, water, and power at home.  Also there might be gas shortages heading back south so we might not even be able to make it all the way to South Florida in a day.  Since we’re here in Atlanta, might as well take advantage of being here by hitting up some attractions and taking the family to some spots I’ve eaten at while I’ve been here for work. And the first attraction for us was….. Georgia Aquarium!  But thats for another post.

Georgia Aquarium

Family trip to the Georgia Aquarium