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The Sweet Sound of My Echo

This is going to be a quickie. I’ve got some more in-depth articles planned for the near future (such as my first few weeks with Apple CarPlay, among other things), but  I wanted to share a simple pleasure I recently discovered.

I’ve been studying for recertification, and music helps my mind focus. But if it has lyrics or too intense a tempo, I can get distracted. The best fit for me, personally, is classical music. Knowing that Amazon has a pretty good selection, I figured I’d put my still-pretty-new Echo to the test, and I asked her, “Play me some Classical Music.” And boy, did she.

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Amazon Prime Music. Click the image to visit their page.

As I type this, I’m listening to the “Classical Focus” station on Amazon Prime Music. The link may only work if you’re a Prime member, so here’s a link for a free Prime trial:

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

Two things struck me, listening to this sweet, lilting music (sorry, classical fans: no crashing cymbals or blasting trumpets on this station): the built-in speaker of my Echo Dot sounds great; and Amazon Music doesn’t have commercials.

Connect the Dot

As you may recall, I had originally intended to connect my Amazon Echo Dot to my more robust home theater sound system, via bluetooth. After all, the Dot comes equipped of notoriously the weakest built-in speaker of the Echo line. But as you may also recall, I ended up disconnecting Dot from my home theater when I upgraded to an A/V Receiver with built-in audio streaming from Pandora and Sirius XM. So I really only used the built-in speaker on my Dot for playing Jeopardy! J!6 Alexa. Music wasn’t part of my plan.

 

 

But when I decided to try out this Classical Focus station, I discovered how much clearer the tiny speaker was than any tabletop AM/FM radio. And by keeping the music coming out of a small speaker in the corner of my living room, I averted the audio overload I would have gotten listening to music on my surround-sound system. After all, I just wanted some light, unobtrusive background music. And that’s exactly what I got.

Less Talk, More– Well, Not “Rock”…

The other revelation was that the music never stopped for station identification, commercials, or even to pause between songs to let me know what I had been listening to. Because that’s what Shazam is for.

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I’ve grown accustomed to commercial interruptions, listening to the free versions of Spotify and Pandora. With my subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio, it’s true I don’t get “commercials” in the traditional sense. Instead, I hear ads for other XM stations, as well as commentary by their on-air talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a ploy to eventually unveil “XM Plus,” with nothing but music. It’s an aspect Amazon has perfected, that I wouldn’t mind seeing other services, well, Echo.

One last thing: when listening to Classical Focus on the Echo, whenever I have to pause playback, I can command Alexa with my voice. Since I’ve changed her wake word to “Computer,” it makes me feel just that much more like Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Hey, when the music moves you…

As I keep saying, “the future is now…” ■

Does This Hard Drive Make Me Look FAT?

I recently had a client approach me with hours of digital video that needed editing. My video-editing colleague works on Adobe Premiere for Windows, and the drive containing the video was a Mac-formatted ThunderBay 4 drive from Other World Computing. We were therefore faced with two problems—which soon became three.

Problem #1: Physically Connecting the Drive

The ThunderBay enclosure only connects one way: via the now-dated Thunderbolt 2 port. This port was primarily featured on Macs, starting in mid-2011. Apple began phasing out Thunderbolt 2 in 2015; and by this year, 2017, nearly all new model-year Macs* sport the speedier Thunderbolt 3 port, with its increasingly-prevalent USB-C connector. For a refresher on this change and my thoughts on it, click here.

* The 2017 MacBook Air still sports Thunderbolt 2; and Apple still sells laptops and desktops from as far back as 2013’s Mac Pro cylinder.

Regardless of the version of Thunderbolt, the bigger concern is that the editor’s PC tower didn’t support Thunderbolt at all. Despite being a technology developed by Intel, Thunderbolt never really made a splash on the PC side. With its lopsided support by Apple, I’m reminded of the old IEEE 1394 port, better known to Mac users as “Firewire.”

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Spare a thought for FireWire (1994 – 2013). Source: networxsecurity.org

So how were we going to get this video onto that PC? Simple: move it to another hard drive, one that could connect to the PC.

We ordered G-Technology’s 8-Terabyte (TB) G-RAID with Thunderbolt 3; and when it arrived, we prepared to move the video files from the ThunderBay to it, via the client’s MacBook Pro.

 

 

The laptop was from 2015, so it still supported the older Thunderbolt 2 connection. As for the G-RAID, that connected via USB 3.1 Gen 2 (remember that?) as well as Thunderbolt 3; both using that same USB-C shaped plug. I used Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, and the older MacBook had no difficulty recognizing the new drive. And the great thing about this new G-RAID drive, was that the editor’s PC supported USB 3.1 Gen 2, so there should be no problem connecting it… OR SO I THOUGHT.

 

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The big drive on the left is the G-RAID, and the big drive on the right is the ThunderBay 4. The little pieces sitting on the laptop are Samsung portable SSDs, but this blog post isn’t about them.

Problem #2: Getting Over My ExFAT

In order to get a Windows PC and a Mac to recognize the data on the same drive, first you have to format that drive to be recognized by both operating systems. In most cases—say, with a USB flash drive (or “thumb drive,” if you prefer)—you would format it in the Extended File Allocation Table, or ExFAT. This format claims a drive ceiling of 128 petabytes (PB), according to NTFS.com. (NOTE: one petabyte is 1,000 terabytes). So we connected the G-RAID to the PC, formatted it as ExFAT, and Windows had no problem reading or writing to the drive.

And then we reconnected it to the Mac.

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This is what happened when we connected our ExFAT drive, formatted in Windows, to a Mac. First Aid didn’t help.

So here we were with a new problem: even if you could physically connect the drive to both machines, only one would recognize it. That’s no way to transfer data!

After discussing the issue with the editor, we decided the best course of action would be to reformat the drive in Apple’s HFS Plus (Hierarchical File System) format. Luckily, there were a couple programs made for Windows, precisely to let that OS read and write to HFS-formatted drives. But which one to use?

 

Problem #3: Coke or Pepsi?

When clients ask me which of two tech products they should get—Mac or PC, iPhone or Android, Laptop or Tablet—I tell them, it’s a “Coke or Pepsi” decision, all tied up in their personal preference. Shopping for an HFS drive program for Windows was, at first glance, one of those choices.

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Decisions, decisions… Source: Flickr.com

It came down to one of two programs: Mediafour’s MacDrive 10, or Paragon Software Group’s HFS+ for Windows 11. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just pick the one with the version number that was “one more.”

Mediafour’s MacDrive only has a 5-day free trial; and the purchase price is $49.99 per PC for the Standard edition, or $69.99 for the “Pro” edition. Here’s their comparison between the two versions: http://www.mediafour.com/software/macdrive/standard-vs-pro/

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Source: mediafour.com

I compared MacDrive and HFS+ for Windows at macdrug.com, and while that comparison showed MacDrive indeed had more features, they weren’t necessarily features my colleague needed just to read and edit video files. Candidly, I read some iffy reviews about both programs, which you’re bound to encounter with any third-party software that purports to sidestep the built-in limitations of any OS. This was uncharted territory for me, so I wanted to be absolutely sure this would work before committing to anything.

I decided to take Paragon up on their 10-day free trial, and I downloaded HFS+ for Windows 11. If it was a hit, the final purchase price would be only $19.95 per PC. The editor would need this on both her Windows desktop and laptop, so that would be a total software investment of about $40.

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Source: paragon-software.com

I’m happy to report that Paragon’s HFS+ handled the G-RAID masterfully. After installation, Windows 10 recognized the Mac-formatted drive as if it were a Windows drive; and all the files appeared as desired, with no corruptions or data loss. The editor was able to work directly off the G-RAID both on her desktop via its USB-C card; and on her laptop’s USB 3.0 port, via G-Tech’s included USB-C to USB-A adapter cable.

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Note the USB-C connector on the left, and the classic USB-A connector on the right. Source: bestbuy.ca

While this experiment was a success, I’ve recommended to my colleague that she look into getting a new Mac with Thunderbolt 3 for future projects, so she wouldn’t have to force a Windows computer to work with a drive that wasn’t formatted for it. She’s inclined to agree; but between us, I think she’s hoping Apple will follow Paragon’s lead, and offer their computers with a free trial… and one longer than 10 days, if you please! ■

Apple Believes in “Magic…” Perhaps Too Much?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a couple clients reach out to me, complaining that the wireless mice that came with their brand new iMacs had “died.” Since these new mice are meant to be recharged, I explained the process of plugging them in with their included recharging cables, and letting their batteries refill, “resurrecting” the mice, as it were. I also suggested we get a backup, wired mouse for such occasions; a mouse that could be plugged in to one of the iMac’s USB ports while its wireless cousin recharged. I suggested that we could also pick up a wired keyboard, as a backup.

And then I went to the Apple Store to pick up these wired devices. To quote the poet Biz Markie, “Oh, snap! Guess what I saw!”

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All the wired devices had disappeared… like “Magic!”

I had to confirm with the Apple employee helping me out: could it be possible that they were no longer selling wired mice or keyboards?

Not only was it possible, they told me after checking their system; that’s exactly what had happened.

Unlike Apple’s controversial moves in the past (which you’re welcome to review here), this one was done without any fanfare. Nobody announced the retirement of the wired peripherals. One day they were on the store shelves; the next day, gone.

This really is a bigger deal than you’d think. Apple had included a wired mouse with every Macintosh from its first 128K model in 1984; until 25 years later, with the Mid 2009 20-inch iMac, the last to ship with a wired “Mighty Mouse.”

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No, not you! (Source: Wired.com)

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“Here I come to save the day?” Not after 2009, you don’t! (Source: Apple.com)

In October 2009, the 21.5 inch iMac would debut with an Apple Wireless Keyboard and the new, less-trademark-threatening “Magic Mouse.” It was the first time Apple gambled that new users would prefer a wireless keyboard and mouse—although the option was still available to swap out those peripherals for their wired equivalents at purchase.

The Magic Mouse connected via Bluetooth, and it took two standard AA batteries. Not long after, Apple started selling—you guessed it—AA batteries.

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Take THAT, Energizer Bunny! (Source: pindelski.org)

Not only was the Magic Mouse sleeker, but it had the same scroll functionality as the Mighty Mouse, without requiring a separate button. Indeed, the smooth scrolling surface of the Magic Mouse put the Mighty Mouse’s fussy, easily gummed-up scroll ball to shame. It was an upgrade in every sense.

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The Magic Mouse (lower) improved upon the Mighty Mouse (upper) across the board. (Source: Macworld.com)

Apple also launched the Magic Trackpad in 2010, for desktop users who preferred a laptop-like interface, as opposed to moving a mouse around on a desk. This, too, took two AA batteries. Unlike the mouse, there had never been a wired version of the Trackpad.

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The first Magic Trackpad. (Source: Amazon.com)

The tale of the keyboard was fairly straightforward. The first Apple wireless keyboard debuted in 2003, taking four AA batteries to run. Over the years, Apple was able to streamline the keyboard’s design as well, ending up in 2007 with a low-profile Aluminum model (and this one only needed three AA batteries!)

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What a difference four years make! (Source: morrick.me)

The biggest drawback to the keyboard, other than the need to replace batteries every few months, was the lack of additional USB ports. Apple’s wired USB keyboards had included extra ports on the back or sides from 1998 until 2009, when the last new wired keyboard was introduced. It was a nice feature, not having to reach around to the back of your iMac to plug in a random USB device like a flash drive (or, say, a wired mouse). But I suppose Apple’s logic was, if your keyboard is wireless, that’s one more available USB port on the back!

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An iMac keyboard, ca. 1998. Note the USB port on its side, lower-left. (Source: Pinterest.com)

Another advantage to the wired keyboard was its usability during diagnostic tests. I’ve run into many circumstances where I had to boot a Mac into Safe Mode (holding down the Shift key); Target Disk Mode (holding down “T”); or the Apple Hardware Test (holding down “D,” or sometimes “Option-D”); and a wireless keyboard just didn’t send the right signal to the computer in time.

Or how about when my own Mac mini’s Bluetooth antenna failed, and my wireless mouse and keyboard were rendered outright unusable? On that occasion, I was very glad to have a wired backup for each.

Alas, …

After the success of the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad, Apple doubled down in 2015 with the Magic Mouse 2, Magic Trackpad 2, and the new Magic Keyboard. Unlike their wireless predecessors, these three models did away with the need for AA batteries (which Apple would stop selling in 2016). These were now sealed systems with internal batteries, rechargeable via included Lightning cables, the same as those used to charge iPhones and iPads.

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Apple’s Lightning cable. (Source: Apple.com)

It was a welcome upgrade in most cases: the Magic Keyboard was the slimmest yet, resembling the flat form factor of those found on Apple’s MacBook family of notebooks. The Magic Trackpad was wider and offered more functionality over its earlier version. And best yet, these devices did not need to go through a tedious hit-or-miss Bluetooth pairing process. Instead, one simply connected them to their computer via the included charging cables, and the device was paired, charging its battery the whole time. And while their internal batteries were charging, they could still be used—not unlike their wired equivalents from years gone by.

Except for the mouse.

For reasons known only to Apple’s Design Team, they put the charging port for the Magic Mouse 2 on the underside, rendering it unusable during pairing and charging.

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Hope you’re not planning on USING that thing while it’s charging! (Source: 9to5Mac.com)

The troubling part of this is that if an Apple user doesn’t pay attention to the mouse’s battery levels, that user could be rendered mouse-less when they need it most–as was the case of a client of mine who was in the middle of a time-sensitive writing project. We ended up getting her the Magic Trackpad 2, which she can use while it, and the mouse, are charging. I suppose there’s a sick logic on Apple’s part: instead of getting $29 for their AA battery kit back when the mouse just used AA batteries, now they got $129 for the trackpad.

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With the charging port on the back, the Magic Trackpad 2 can be used while charging. (Source: Gadgetmac.com)

So yeah, I’m not thrilled with how this went down. People shouldn’t have to buy a second pointing device to use while the other is recharging. Frankly, Apple shouldn’t be surprised if many of their users pick up an inexpensive third-party wired mouse for those occasions when the Magic Mouse runs dry.

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It may not be “Apple pretty,” but it WORKS. (Source: Amazon.com)

I’ve heard rumors that Apple’s working on wireless charging for all their devices, and I’ve even seen a mouse from Logitech that recharges wirelessly while you use it! But it’s not a perfect technology yet, and it certainly isn’t cheap. It requires a special charging mat, which still has to be plugged in somewhere.

It’s still unknown what powers Linus.

I’m also concerned by Apple’s unwavering faith in the Bluetooth standard. As I mentioned before, I had the Bluetooth go out on a Mac years ago, and I was lucky to have wired peripherals that I could rely on while troubleshooting.

It’s also not great that the rechargeable batteries aren’t removable, but Apple’s been slouching toward completely sealed systems that users can’t service for years, now. For example, the last Apple notebook with a user-removable battery was 2010’s 13-inch MacBook. I realize that ship has sailed.

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This is from Apple’s “About Mac notebook batteries” page, linked here.

It bugs me that there’s no simple solution. You can no longer request wired peripherals when buying a new iMac (the Mac mini and Mac Pro, in addition to being woefully out of date now, don’t include peripherals). It’s also too soon since the 2015 debut of the Magic Mouse 2 for them to release a new design, with a more intelligently-placed charging port.

And we’re at the mercy of Bluetooth, a technology that’s always struck me as “just good enough” since Apple first incorporated it in 2003.

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No offense, King Harald, but no technology is perfect; not even technology named after a Viking. (Source: DidYouKnowBlog.com)

Now, just watch: any day now, they’re going to release the Magic Keyboard and Mouse 3, with wireless charging and better-than-Bluetooth connectivity, and other features we can’t even imagine. After all, you can’t call it “Magic,” without having something up your sleeve!

UPS, I Love You (And I Don’t Mean the Shipping Company!)

On Saturday night, my area of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley experienced a large blackout. The L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) experienced an explosion and fire at one of their power stations in the Valley neighborhood of Northridge. To aid the fire department’s efforts to put out the fire safely and quickly, LADWP shut off the power to and from that station altogether. Thus, a blackout.

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The Northridge LADWP Fire. Source: Twitter, @avangerpen

During the outage, some thoughts occurred to me: I hoped nobody was hurt; that those who needed power (like hospitals) could rely on generators until electricity was restored; and on a personal level, how grateful I was that all my electronics were protected by a few UPS units.

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No, not you! Source: Seeklogo.net

For the purposes of this blog post, whenever I say “UPS,” I don’t mean the United Parcel Service; but instead, an Uninterruptible Power Supply: a battery backup for connected electronics. It primarily functions like a large surge protector, allowing multiple plugs to share the electricity from one wall outlet. Unlike a surge strip, however, a UPS contains a battery inside that would kick in during a blackout, brownout, or other dip in the electricity to a home or office.

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The many shapes and sizes of UPS units. Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

Most UPS units that support desktop computers also connect to those computers via a data cable, so the computer can know when it’s running off of battery power. In the event of a prolonged power outage, the UPS can provide minutes, or even hours, of electricity—time enough at least to shut the computer off properly. Some setups even include software that would automatically shut off the computer while on battery power, should the user not be present to turn the computer off him or herself.

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CyberPower’s Windows-only PowerPanel software. Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

In my home, I have three UPS units: one in my office for my desktop computer, and two in my home theater. Here’s what I’m using:

1. Desktop: CyberPower 1500VA

The two main players in the UPS space are American Power Conversion (APC) by Schneider Electric; and Cyber Power Systems, AKA “CyberPower.” I prefer CyberPower for two reasons: it is a little more Mac-friendly in my experience; and the data cable it uses is a standard A-B USB cable, whereas APC, until relatively recently, used a proprietary USB-RJ45 cable. Newer APC models now use standard USB cables, but they missed the “brand loyalty” boat with me when it counted.

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CyberPower’s 1500VA UPS (Note the handy USB ports in front for charging phones and other small gadgets). Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

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“WHAT AM I?!” Thankfully, most new APC UPS units don’t use this abomination anymore. Source: APC.com

Half the outlets in my desktop UPS are backed up by its built-in battery. This is important to bear in mind, when shopping for a UPS: not how many outlets total it has, but how many of that total can run off the battery when the power from the wall dies. I naturally have my 27″ iMac and external monitor plugged into the UPS’ battery outlets, as well as essential devices like my cable modem and wireless router. The devices I have plugged into the non-battery half of the UPS include my iPhone charger and my speakers.

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The back of the 1500VA UPS. Note that only the outlets on the left can run off the battery during a blackout. Source: Amazon.com

The key thing to keep in mind when deciding what gets a battery outlet, is what would happen to that device if it abruptly lost power. In the case of a desktop computer, a sudden power loss could be fatal. Not too long ago, a client of mine killed her computer just by hitting the power button while its hard drive was spinning. We forget that a computer can be an extremely sensitive machine, and if any facet of its operating environment changes without warning, it could spell disaster. Anyone who’s ever spilled liquid on their laptop’s keyboard can attest to that.

This kills the laptop.

The other devices that should be backed up on battery are the networking hardware. In my case, that’s an Arris SurfBoard (remember?), and an Apple AirPort Extreme.

I recently upgraded a client’s network in their home’s attic. In addition to a new modem/router combo from Arris, I also installed a Netgear switch, feeding data lines throughout the house. Both of these units were backed up by the same CyberPower 1500VA UPS model I used in my own home. When the house was hit by the big Saturday night blackout, all of their networking gear stayed powered-on. Unfortunately, the home’s internet provider, Spectrum, wasn’t so lucky. When I spoke with the client about the blackout, she informed me that, according to Spectrum, only 9% of their users were still online in her area. It was frustrating not to have internet, but she and I agreed that given our very recent installation of that UPS (as well as one on each of her three iMacs), the timing could not have been better.

I imagine this is what it’s like at Spectrum headquarters.

If you have a desktop computer, and if you’ve never had a blackout or brownout in your home or office, I’d say you’ve been lucky… but you’re on borrowed time. Here’s a link to Amazon’s selection of CyberPower UPS units. You can determine how many outlets you’ll need (remember: typically, only half of the outlets get the battery), as well as how much electricity you’ll need that battery to provide. In the case of my desktop UPS, 1500VA means 1,500 Volt-Amps.

According to Australian battery vendor APCRBC:

VA is an abbreviation of the electrical term volt-amps, and indicates a capacity of power. For example 240 volts x 12.5 amps = 3000VA. It is used by UPS manufacturers more often than Watts because it makes the UPS sound bigger.

What is the difference between VA and Watts?

Put simply

VA is a measure of power supplied

Watt is a measure of power consumed

Not really very simple is it?

The main thing you have to remember is that the Watt rating will always be lower than the VA rating.  As manufacturers market their equipment based on the VA rating you should look closely at the Watt rating of your prospective purchase.

When shopping for a UPS for your desktop computer, it’s a good idea to research your computer’s power needs, starting with the manufacturer if at all possible. My iMac, for example, consumes upwards of 195 Watts when working its hardest. Most mainstream UPS units can certainly deliver that much power; it then comes down to, “for how long.” My UPS, for example, advertises a capacity of 1500 VA / 900 W, and a runtime of 14 minutes on half load, 2 minutes on full. Not a long time; but certainly enough, during the recent blackout, for me to run into my office and properly shut down the computer. CyberPower also stands by their product with a 3-year warranty and $500,000 “Connected Equipment Guarantee.” Thankfully, I’ve never had to put either to the test.

About that three-year warranty: UPS batteries, like all batteries, have a limited lifespan. After those three years, you may want to consider replacing the battery, either from the manufacturer, or from a third party battery seller (which is why companies like the aforementioned APCRBC exist). I always make sure to note, when first installing a UPS, the date the battery went online. I don’t have to rush out to replace the battery precisely three years later, but it’s good to know how old the battery is. With this information I can decide, when I’m prioritizing my household gear upgrades, whether I want to get a new battery; whether I want to replace the UPS altogether (sometimes no more expensive than just a new battery); or whether I’d press my luck and leave the UPS alone with its diminished battery power.

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A replacement UPS battery. Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

But let’s move on downstairs…

2. Home Theater #1: CyberPower OR700

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The wide, flat OR700 UPS. Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

Unlike the upright “tower” form factor of the 1500, this model is a flat, rack-friendly “pizza box” shape. I currently have mine sitting at the bottom of my AV rack, under my PlayStation 3. This UPS provides power to those home theater devices that, like a computer, contain hard drives that could potentially be damaged by a power outage: the PS3, my TiVo, its external expansion hard drive, and my Nintendo Wii U.

During the recent blackout, my UPS did indeed kick in, but the news reports indicated that the outage would likely last longer than the 11 minute maximum “half-load” runtime this 700VA / 400W UPS advertised. Since my PS3 was already off, and since there isn’t a power button on the TiVo or its external drive, I held my breath, turned off the UPS, and waited for power to return to the home. Luckily, when the lights did turn on, rebooting the TiVo was a painless process. But I do wish there were a method of safely powering it off, relying on more than the power of prayer.

This brings us to my last UPS:

3. Home Theater #2: CyberPower LE850G

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The LE850G UPS. Source: Cyberpowersystems.com

I keep this one directly under my TV. It only supplies power to three devices: a 55″ Sony flatscreen TV; a Philips Hue Lightstrip that runs behind the frame of said TV; and my JBL subwoofer. In theory, I could have run everything off the OR700 “pizza box,” but the location of the TV and subwoofer made it both impractical and aesthetically unappealing to attempt to run their power cords all the way to my AV rack. This third UPS wasn’t very expensive, and I was happy to have a dedicated unit for those few devices. Less strain on any one power system that way, too.

One “pro tip” when getting your UPS: many times, your electrical devices will use those blocky transformer plugs that hog so much space on a surge strip, and even on a UPS. Now, many UPS models do accommodate these large bricks with one or two generously spaced outlets; but if you have more than a few plugs like this that you need to connect, I recommend small extension cords from brands like Monoprice (one of my favorite cable manufacturers, anyway). This one-foot extender will let the brick plug in to the narrow outlets on all UPS units—and if you have a brick you need to plug straight into the wall, this will let you use both outlets on the wall without anything getting crowded out.

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Short extension cords can prevent outlet blockage. Source: lisasfreestuff.blogspot.com

As of this writing, I am happy to say my power is back on (truth be told, I was only in the dark for about 90 minutes). I’m composing this on a laptop, so even if the power went out again, I would have at least a couple of hours of internal battery life I could count on, while finishing up here. But of course, even if the wifi and modem stayed on long enough for me to submit this entry to the WordPress server, there’s no guarantee that during a blackout, the internet provider (Spectrum in my case, same as my client) would stay online during that period.

But at least I would be secure in the knowledge that I had protected my valuable technology during this inconvenient episode.

And knowledge, after all, is power.


Products Mentioned in This Article:

Twice the Speed? USB C-ing Things!

During this past weekend, I heard from my client from May, on whose Dell PC I had performed a clean Windows 10 installation. Since I last reported, we’ve done a RAM upgrade (from 12 Gigabytes to 16); and we’ve added a spiffy new graphics card. These upgrades have extended the usefulness of the now nearly seven-year-old PC. And it continued to run swimmingly, until a recent video editing assignment took things to a new level.

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A new graphics card can make a huge difference for a PC. Source: MSI.com

The client was handed two portable hard drives, each holding two Terabytes (TB) of footage. This was too much to transfer to the PC’s internal hard drive, so she had to run directly off the externals. That’s not an entirely unreasonable task, as we had installed a USB 3.0 card some time earlier, and that allowed her to input data at five Gigabits per second (5 Gbit/s). But she was still experiencing a frustrating lag when trying to play video directly from the drives. When she called, I asked her to provide me with the model numbers of the drives, so I could get a better sense of what we were working with.

“MU-PT2T0B,” she texted me. This is the model number for Samsung’s T3 Portable Solid State Drive (SSD).

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Samsung’s T3 Portable SSD. Note the shape of the port on the left. Source: Samsung.com

Checking out its specs on Samsung.com, I saw one line that intrigued me:

“USB 3.1 Interface”

I thought to myself, “Three… point… one?

No, just 3.1!

I remembered the blog post I did last November about the advent of Thunderbolt 3, and how it shared the rounded, “USB-C” connector shape with the nascent USB 3.1 format.

Okay, there it was, bottom of the chart:

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This is where things get a little messy. On their website for the  portable SSD, Samsung doesn’t get into which USB 3.1 standard the drive uses: 3.1 Gen 1 (formerly 3.0) with a top speed of 5 Gbit/s; or Gen 2, which, as you can see in the chart above, is twice that speed. All they say as far as speed is, “450MB/s Transfer Speed.” If that seems slow, note the capital “B.” That indicates Megabytes, as opposed to Megabits. It’s a subtle difference, but a Megabyte is equal to 8 Megabits. That means 450MB/s (Megabytes per second, mind) is 3,600 Mbit/s (Megabits per second). Applying the metric system, this becomes 3.6 Gigabits per second (Gbit/s). It’s still within the threshold of USB 3.0’s 5Gbit/s speed, but I wanted to try something nonetheless.

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This chart shows how USB 3.0 became 3.1 Gen 1. Honestly, this whole mess could have been avoided if “Gen 2” had just been called, “USB 4.0.” Source: Kingston.com

Adding USB 3.0 ports had been a simple, effective upgrade. Would it be just as helpful to add 3.1 ports? I went to my local Fry’s Electronics to look into it. If the upgrade was too expensive (or unavailable), then we’d just carry on at 3.0 (or 3.1 Gen 1, whatever you want to call it) speeds.

As it turned out, Fry’s had a wide variety of affordable 3.1 cards. But a closer look indicated that many of them were indeed “Gen 1,” and thus offered no speed boost over the “3.0” card we had installed a while back. I had to keep my eyes peeled for that essential piece of fine print.

I did find a few that offered 10 Gbit/s speeds, but the connectors gave me pause. You see, most 3.1 cards either use just the old, rectangular “USB-A” ports; or they go 50/50, with one rectangular port, and one rounded “USB-C” port. Both potentially work at the full Gen 2 speed, but I was thinking about my client’s Samsung drives. I wanted to go directly from each of their native USB-C ports directly into the computer’s, without using an adapter cable, or a hub (and more on that in a moment). We had two drives, so I wanted two USB-C ports (at that full Gen 2 speed, remember).

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A typical USB card with both shapes of the USB 3.1 interface. Source: Frys.com

Luckily, after a little digging, I found the only card in the store that met my needs: The Xtrempro 11107 PCI-E 2Ports USB3.1 Type-C Card (just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?). It met both my needs: 10 Gbit/s transfer speeds, and two USB-C ports. All that, at less than $30.

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And this is the FRONT of the box! But at least it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination!

I did, though, have to buy some cables: an internal power cable to run from the PC’s power supply to the USB card; and of course, two USB-C cables to connect those Samsung drives to this new card. When shopping for the USB-C cables, I was just as diligent about reading their specs as I had been about the card’s. I didn’t want the cables to choke on the full data rate promised by Gen 2, after all! Several USB-C cables I found were indeed only rated at 5 Gbit/s, so I’m glad I didn’t fall for the old “they all look the same” trap. I eventually grabbed a pair of PPA Int’l cables, after reading on their package, “Up to 10 Gb/s.”

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PPA’s USB-C cable. Source: ppa-usa.com

So I brought everything to my client, and we opened up her PC. The next consideration was where I was going to put this card. You see, a motherboard’s expansion slots can be just as prone to the “they all look the same” trap as the cables. And that can make a huge difference. Her motherboard contained six slots, all based on the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) standard. One slot (labeled 25 in the diagram below) uses the original PCI format, capable of speeds between 133 and 533 MB/s (note that capital “B,” as in Megabytes). The other five use the newer PCI Express format, capable of anywhere between 250 MB/s and 63 GB/s. And that’s a pretty wide range, so let’s narrow it down a bit.

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Dell’s schematic for the motherboard. Note the PCI slots toward the lower-left. Source: Dell.com

Slots 26, 29, and 30 are what’s known as PCI Express x1. This is a “single-lane” link, which means the following, according to howstuffworks.com:

Each lane of a PCI Express connection contains two pairs of wires — one to send and one to receive. Packets of data move across the lane at a rate of one bit per cycle. A x1 connection, the smallest PCIe connection, has one lane made up of four wires. It carries one bit per cycle in each direction.

Slot 28, an x16, was already in use by the snazzy new graphics card we got—and rightly so, as that’s the fastest PCI connection on the motherboard, and where better to put the indispensable graphics processor!

This left #31, which I’ll call, “Goldilocks.” It’s neither too slow, like its x1 siblings; nor too fast, like the x16 slot. This slot runs at x8, which—I checked—the new USB-C card supports.

So I installed the card into that x8 slot; and after running a power line to it from the internal power supply, we were good to go. We connected the Samsung drives directly to the card, and suddenly video that couldn’t even open was now coming up, buttery-smooth. We were no longer at the mercy of a 3.0 card in an x1 slot. We were now coasting at 3.1, Gen 2, via x8. And apparently, those numbers make all the difference.

EPILOGUE

I thought about the prospect of adding a third USB-C component in the future, like another Samsung drive, via a hub. To my surprise, as of this writing, nobody has manufactured a hub that supports the USB-C shape and the Gen 2 speed of 10 Gbit/s. I have reached out to the USB Implementers Forum at usb.org, to see if they know of anyone who has built such a device. I’ll post if and when I hear back from them. Until then, it appears if you want to connect more than two USB 3.1 (Gen 2) devices to a PC, you’ll need to use adapter cables. So make sure they don’t slow you down.

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A typical “USB-C Hub,” from Macally. Except it only connects (right) via USB-C, and the USB-C port on the left is only for passing through a charge into a laptop. The USB ports included are both the older USB-A shape, as well as the slower 3.0 speed! Hopefully, newer, better hubs are on the way.

◼︎

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuking a Computer

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I assure you, what I did was perfectly sane.

On Sunday, a client contacted me to recruit my help with her Windows computer, a Dell tower. During an overnight video render, it froze up and became unusable. When I came over to check it out, the only thing visible on the black screen was a white cursor. It moved, but there was nothing to click.

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Yep, that’s what it looked like.

She had already attempted a Windows System Restore, but the nearest restore point was from about two years ago. She believed it could have been a virus that trashed her system, restore points and all.

The good news was that in this tower, Windows was installed on its own drive, and the client’s documents and other critical data were held on a separate hard drive. This meant that if there were a software problem (such as a corruption in Windows or a virus); or even if the drive’s hardware was physically malfunctioning, most of what my client needed wasn’t necessarily at risk. But we still needed Windows to work.

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Dell’s Studio XPS tower. Source: Dell.com

I proposed two options:

1. A Fresh Start

When a hard drive fails, data recovery can be an arduous–and, depending on the extent of the crash, pricey–process. But if the only data lost is the Operating System (OS), it can be a much faster process just to buy a fresh new hard drive and reinstall the OS. Some computers don’t lend themselves to having their hard drives removed and replaced. Luckily, this Dell tower allows for its drives to be removed, so this was indeed an option.

A new hard drive is nowhere near as expensive as they used to be when PCs first entered the home market. If my client were to opt to get a new drive, she could pick up a new 500 Gigabyte (GB) Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for under $50 (as of this writing—I can only imagine the price in the future). If she preferred speed over size, she could get a Solid State Drive (SSD) starting at a little over $50 for 120GB.

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Click the above picture for the LinkedIn article, “SSD vs. HDD: What’s the Difference?”

The only other consideration would be the cost of the OS itself. This is one distinction Windows users must concede to their Mac-using brethren: Mac OS has been available for free to all Mac users since 2013’s version 10.9 “Mavericks.” Windows, on the other hand, only offered a brief, free Windows 10 upgrade download to current users of Windows 7 or 8. After July 29, 2016, Windows 10 was only available for $119 for the Home Edition, and $199 for the Pro Edition. Unlike prior versions of Windows, neither version of Windows 10 is available on an optical disc; instead, it comes on a tiny USB flash drive.

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This photo demonstrates how tiny a new copy of Windows is, as well as the importance of a good manicure. Source: Speedtest.net.in.

Luckily, I had a Windows 10 Home Edition USB stick, so my client didn’t need to buy a new copy. The way Microsoft had it set up was the installation would only proceed if the user entered a valid license key. A new key comes with each copy of Windows, of course, but I had already used the one that came with mine. Fortunately, Dell was good enough to include a label with the license key on the back of their tower. It was the key for the copy of Windows 7 with which the Dell tower shipped; but Microsoft doesn’t mind that it’s replacing Windows 7, as long as it’s legitimate (which this was, of course).

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An example of a Windows license key label. Source: techingiteasy.wordpress.com.

So we were ready to go with a new copy of Windows 10. I was prepared to go pick up an SSD (because when booting Windows, speed matters more than space), and to get started. I opened the case, and guess what I found: an SSD!

About a year prior, I had upgraded this Dell tower with a 500GB SSD, onto which we had reinstalled Windows 7 from its official DVD. My client then participated in the free Windows 10 upgrade program I mentioned earlier. The upshot is, there was no need to rush out and get an SSD; we had one already. Faced with this reality, I agreed that we should pursue…

2. The Nuclear Option

This is the more cost-effective option of the two, as it uses the existing hardware and saves the step–and the money–involved in buying a new drive. I extracted the SSD, connected it to a “spare” working PC, and ran a barrage of drive integrity scans. The good news was that the SSD was “healthy,” so I could confidently recommend continuing to use the drive. But we were going to want to “nuke” it, first.

Opening Windows’ Disk Management utility, I had at my fingertips the tools to wipe the SSD entirely. Confirming that my client really, for sure didn’t need any files from the SSD, I deleted its Windows partition. I had to use a third-party program to scrape off the last remnant of a “recovery partition;” but once I did that, the SSD was as blank as the day I picked it up at the store. One more disk integrity check, and it was ready to be reinstalled in the Dell.

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Windows Disk Management. Proceed with caution. Source: technet.microsoft.com.

At about 15 minutes beginning-to-end, installing Windows 10 from its USB stick onto this SSD was one of the fastest OS installations I’ve ever encountered. If you ever have to install Windows fresh onto a blank drive, this is definitely the way to do it.

Once Windows was up and running, I installed the latest drivers from Dell and AMD (for the graphics card); as well as the popular suites from Adobe and Microsoft. Since these were purchased online for download as opposed to disks from a store’s shelf, re-installing them with the relevant licenses was an easy, swift process. I enjoy any process that doesn’t require hunting for disks or slips of paper with license keys on them.

Confirming that Windows was now running at “Day One” speed and efficiency, it was time to reinstall the large HDD with all my client’s documents and data on it: a 2-Terabyte (TB) beast we nicknamed “BIGBOY.” After its own antivirus sweep and drive integrity check, I installed it back in the tower, and Windows Explorer found it without a moment’s hesitation.

Everything was as good as, or even better than, new. The computer now contained only the software my client wanted, and there were no trial programs or Dell pack-ins to be found.

Perhaps after hearing how well this went, you’re considering “nuking” your own computer. Maybe your apps aren’t running as smoothly as they used to. Maybe you’re running out of space. Maybe you miss how clean everything was when you first turned on your PC, before years of downloads bogged everything down.

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This is what it sounds like when drives cry.

I still prefer installing a brand new drive, because there really is no substitute for new hardware. It doesn’t have the “miles” on it that are bound to age the drive that came with your computer. Also, when you remove an old drive, you can keep it as an “archive” of the system as it was to that point. You may realize later on that there are files on that drive that you may need, after all.

If you’re just not in the position to get a new drive, then go forth with the Nuclear Option. Just make sure you have a valid copy of whatever OS you plan to install (along with the relevant license key, if necessary); and that before you do anything, that you double- and triple-check that you have copied (or don’t need) the data on your boot drive. You’ll also want to make sure you have the ability to re-download your important programs—unless you have them on their original disks, close at hand.

A spare computer is also a great thing to have, to test the health and integrity of old and new drives before installing or re-installing them in your primary computer. If you don’t have access to another computer, you can continue as planned, of course; but you’ll want to proceed that much more cautiously through each step.

Finally, when it’s all done, take this time to take stock. How quickly do you want to fill up this clean hard drive? Do you really need to download every new app that comes down the pike? How many desktop wallpapers is enough? I’m not saying you have to go completely Spartan, but the idea should be to avoid having to “nuke” your computer again for a while.

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Tempting, isn’t it?

Why Wait? Well…

In technology, timing is everything. When shopping for new equipment, we tend to seek out the newest, latest, greatest in tech—and hopefully for the best price, if we can arrange that as well. That’s human nature. But is there a benefit to waiting, or is our desire for instant gratification justified? It’s not always as straightforward as a trip to the electronics store (or website).

To illustrate my point, I’m going to point out four types of electronics consumer. There is a fifth that I’ll get to at the end, but I want to start with these four:

1. The Early Adopter

We all know this one—some of us even ARE this one! He downloads beta versions of software before it’s officially released. He reads rumor websites like macrumors.com, and he tunes in to the live feeds of keynote presentations from the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Apple’s WorldWide Developer’s Conference (WWDC). He pre-orders his devices; and when that isn’t an option, he waits in line all night.

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Talk about dedication! These guys are waiting in line together, AND they’ve got matching outfits! Source: MarketWatch.com

I confess to having a lot of those tendencies. And in tech, these are more often considered virtues than vices. It’s a little stressful knowing that there’s always something “brand new” on the horizon, but that doesn’t diminish the satisfaction of being the “first on the block” with the newest toys. Of the four habits, this one requires the greatest investment of time and money. But The Early Adopter is doing his part to keep tech companies in business, churning out the latest gadgets to meet that demand. And once he’s done his part, spreading the buzz about the tech he’s acquired (through no lack of effort), in steps…

2. The Bandwagoner

There is no crime in waiting a few weeks—or even months—for the supply of a given device to rise to meet demand. In most cases, manufacturers look at their sales and, as long as they don’t run into parts shortages or other logistical obstacles, they can ship out enough for everyone. This is where The Bandwagoner can pick up his device of choice. He’s not one to wait in a line, or to sweat over arcane pre-order processes. No, he’s patient. And this patience is often rewarded with “Version 1.1” (or later) editions, honed if not perfected after The Early Adopter reported any bugs he found in that launch wave.

The Bandwagoner also can enjoy the added benefit of a growing selection of peripherals and accessories for this new gadget. For example, I’m thinking of the varieties of cases for iPads and iPhones whenever a new model comes out. You see, it takes those case makers at least a few weeks to custom-fit their designs every time Apple adds or subtracts a few millimeters to their products. When The Bandwagoner is ready, he can pick up everything in one trip to the store. And if he waits long enough, he’ll slide into the next category…

3. The Mid-Cycler

This is a well-populated, if not-entirely-festive place to be. When a product has been out for several months (or even years, in some cases), it can be frustrating when you’re ready to buy the “latest” device, even if it’s not particularly “new.” For example, I recently had a friend of mine, “J,” text me to ask about the iPad Pro. This was our conversation:

J: I’m torn between the sizes

C: Have you handled both at the store? The 12 was a bit too big for my comfort. But you know there’s likely a new Pro coming out this year…

J: yeah it is a monster – hence my uncertainty. BUT a large factor in why I want a Pro (and not just new iPad) is to draw on. And the big one seems better for that. I’ve heard the new one is only going to come in one size and likely 10″. You heard dif?

C: Nothing official. They did just release a new 9″ non-Pro model. I’d be surprised if a new 12 wasn’t in the works.

J: Though I’d prob still go with a refurb old one. Wonder how much cheaper those would get when new model came out… And WHEN! Damn you Apple.

C: June 5 is their next big conference. WWDC. If you can stand to wait, it almost always pays off

J: Gah! I mean of course I can. This is all just for funzies.

C: 👍

J: But I want it now! Stupid lousy world.

C: Then get it now. Live your life, son!

J: blah. BLAH

C: Lol

I don’t know what he decided to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he waited a little longer, placing him firmly in the fourth category:

4. The Waiter

In tech, waiting for the next release is almost always a good instinct. What comes out next is almost uniformly superior to what’s out now; and it will either come out at the same price as today’s model, thus reducing the price of what’s out now; or the new device itself will debut at a lower price point. The Waiter loves when this happens, and he typically isn’t shy about gloating to The Early Adopter about the “better deal” he got, just by being patient.

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My hat’s off to anyone who can wait five years to buy hardware or software. Source: XKCD.com

The Waiter doesn’t always seek out the newest gear. Often he sees the new release and, unless it has some “must-have” feature, he happily picks up “last year’s model” at a reduced price. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard at the Apple Store the other day, when a young woman was deciding between the $269 Apple Watch Series 1; or one of the other varieties, starting with the Series 2 at $369.

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Apple’s current line of Watches. Source: Apple.com, click image to go to their comparison page.

The Apple clerk pointed out that the most prominent additions for the Series 2 are the built-in GPS, and that it’s now water resistant to 50 meters (as opposed to the Series 1, which is simply “Splash resistant”). The young lady thought it over, and said, “I don’t need the GPS, and I’m not going swimming with it.” So the salesman suggested she save the $100 and go with the Series 1. For those who don’t remember, the Series 1 debuted in 2015 for a starting price of $349. So not only did not needing to have the “latest and greatest” save her $100, but she saved $80 just by waiting a couple years!

Apple products almost universally reward The Waiter, despite the “ooh” factor of having the brand-newest iPhone, iPad, etc. In fact, Apple broke typical protocol and teased for their patient Waiter audience that a new Mac Pro desktop is on the horizon for possibly as early as 2018. They never do that. If you’re curious about your own next Apple purchase, you might want to pop over to MacRumors Buyer’s Guide. But as we’re still several weeks away from WWDC, don’t be surprised if that site tells you to wait on everything.

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WWDC, likely Apple’s next opportunity to announce new products this year, starts June 5, 2017. Source: Apple.com, click image to learn more about WWDC.

There’s only one scenario in recent tech history where waiting was not only not rewarded, but outright punished. This past week, Nintendo announced that they have discontinued production of their surprise Holiday 2016 hit, the NES Classic. Those who didn’t wait in line or jump through the typical “Early Adopter” hoops for it aren’t going to get to be Bandwagoners for this one. At this point, one can only hope that Nintendo will release a “Version 2.0” follow-up edition (perhaps including Super Nintendo games, or even the ability to download and install games legally?). With the focus shifting to Nintendo’s even bigger hit, the Switch, it’s more likely that Nintendo aren’t thinking about any further “Classic” offerings for a while. But hey, maybe they’ll surprise us. We’ll just have to… wait.


 

Finally, there is a fifth category I’d like to bring up:

5. The Archaeologist

There’s waiting, and then there’s WAITING. This category is mostly populated with hobbyists who have their “daily driver” computer or whatnot; but they seek out “vintage” (or to put it less kindly, “obsolete”) devices with the aim to restore them to original release condition… even if that original release was in the 90’s, 80’s, or even earlier. Sometimes, they see what they can do to augment the original hardware with more modern features, like adding a Solid State Drive (SSD) to devices never built with such a drive in mind, like an iPod from 2002. It’s nowhere near practical, but it can be entertaining to watch them succeed—and just as entertaining, if not more so, when they fail.


For your viewing pleasure, here are David “The 8-Bit Guy” Murray…

…and Ian “Druaga1” Anderson. You may not want to try these at home.


 

What category to do you fall into? Do you have to have the latest gadget before everyone else? Do you know to “never buy a console at launch?” Have you never paid launch-day prices? Or do you not care about such things, and you buy what’s available when you need it (and not a second earlier)? Each position has its merits. And sadly, each has its pitfalls. I think the best course of action is to “pick your battles.” That is to say, some devices merit rushing out and grabbing them on day one (I, for one, have no regrets standing in line outside Best Buy for my Nintendo Switch). On the other hand, most of my other tech purchases have put me firmly in the “Bandwagoner” or even “Waiter” categories. And I’m fine with that.

I mean, until they announce what’s coming out next. ◼︎