Tag Archives: Sony

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:

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My New Sound System’s Got Me Surrounded

I recently picked up the new 3D Blu-ray Disc of Marvel’s Doctor Strange. It’s a great presentation of an audio-visual spectacle, and one of the few movies in my collection that really “pops” in 3D. Sadly, upon first viewing, I discovered that my sound system wasn’t able to deliver the complete experience.

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Pretty wild, right? And that’s just the BOX! (Source: BestBuy.com)

Last month,  I mentioned my Sony STR-DG820 surround-sound receiver. It’s been the centerpiece of my home theater for the better part of a decade, and it handled everything I threw at it… until I went 3D.

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A good receiver… just not good enough, anymore.

Ironically, the 3D TV fad may be on the way out; but in the here and now, I’ve got some movies (and I’ll pick up the occasional new title like Doctor Strange) that take advantage of that format. My 3D TV, a 55” Sony flatscreen, displays 3D video flawlessly. The problem only comes when you want to hear the movie.

Doctor Strange was encoded with 7.1-channel DTS-HDMA audio. When connected to a capable sound system, the disc has audio to play out the front left, center, and front right; and surround left, back left, surround right, and back right speakers, with a healthy .1 “LFE” channel for the subwoofer. However, if the receiver doesn’t support DTS-HDMA, it will downmix the audio to standard 2.0 stereo, out the front left and right speakers only. This is what happened to me.

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The DTS-HDMA logo. Click it to visit the DTS “At Home” website.

Wowed by the visuals, I made it through almost the entire movie before realizing that only the front speakers were engaged. I don’t have 7 surround speakers, but the 5.1 setup I do have should be substantial enough to provide an enjoyable immersive audio experience. I tested the surrounds by switching the movie to its Dolby Digital 5.1 French audio track. While, admittedly, Stephen Strange’s initial trip into the Astral Plane is no less impressive en Français, I was going to need to improve my setup if I wanted to experience anything with proper surround-sound in my native tongue.

Deciding it was high time for an upgrade, I looked at my local electronics retailer’s selection, and I narrowed it down to two higher-spec receivers: one from Sony, and one from Denon.

I was leaning toward the Sony STR-DN1070 because of two factors: the first being a not-entirely-rational sense of brand loyalty; and the second being that, due to the aforementioned brand loyalty, I would be connecting this new receiver to a Sony BD player and a Sony TV.

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The Sony STR-DN1070. Source: AVProductReviews.com, click photo for their review.

But then I compared it to the Denon AVR-S920W. They were the same price and each boasted 7.2 channel surround sound. The first big difference I could see was that the Sony offered a healthy six HDMI inputs (to contrast, my STR-DG820 only offered four); but the Denon included a whopping EIGHT HDMI ports (seven in back, one in front). The other big difference I could find was the Sony’s lack of DTS support. This may be an oversight on the part of Sony marketing, but I didn’t want to take the risk of buying a not-inexpensive piece of equipment in the hopes that it supports Doctor Strange’s DTS-HDMA audio as an unadvertised feature.

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The Denon AVR-S920W. Source: GearOpen.com, click photo for their review.

So I took the plunge and bought the Denon. Setup was relatively painless, and all five of my speakers and the sub connected without incident. Connecting it to my TV was even easier than its predecessor. Both TV and receiver now supported the one-cable ARC standard, so I could hook up a single HDMI cable between them and know that all video signals (from any one of eight potential sources, remember) would make it to the TV. Over the very same cable, the audio from one of my TV’s built-in sources like Amazon or Netflix would make it, in full surround-sound glory, out of all the speakers in my home theater.

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HDMI.org’s diagram showing the Audio Return Channel (ARC) connection between receiver and TV. Click it for their page on this and other combinations.

Once I hooked up my BD player to the Denon receiver, I wasted no time going straight to Doctor Strange‘s Chapter Five, “Open Your Eye,” (see below) to see how it would handle the 3D picture and surround-sound audio. I was legitimately concerned that the receiver would detect that I didn’t have all seven speakers plugged in—only five, remember—and therefore would downmix to 2.0 stereo. I’m happy to report that it gave me the benefit of the doubt and played as much of the rear audio as I could support, for a truly enjoyable “behind you” sound experience.

NOTE: The above YouTube clip is just to show which scene I played. This format does not do the scene justice. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend viewing it in 3D and surround-sound.

One additional feature that the Denon includes is built-in wifi with Pandora internet radio. Since I could listen to Pandora directly from the receiver now, I could disengage my Amazon Echo from the home theater, rendering my Echo adventure from February  essentially redundant. I boxed up the bluetooth adapter and TP-Link Smart Plug and returned them, since I wouldn’t need them anymore.

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The Denon receiver’s “Online Music” screen. If I still had a SiriusXM Radio account, I could listen to that, too. Source: Denon.com

See, sometimes my tech sagas leave me with fewer gadgets at the end! ◼︎

Happy Daylight Savings! Isn’t It Time for Self-Setting Clocks?

At one minute past 1:59 am on Sunday morning, our clocks “sprang forward” to 3:00, to usher in Daylight saving time (DST). When I woke up later that morning, I was pleased to see how many of my household clocks had already followed the time change and were on the correct time. These included the time readouts on my land-line phones (to say nothing of my cell), my cable boxes, my Nest thermostat, and even my “Radio Controlled” La Crosse Technology wall clock.

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It sets itself. Watching it rush ahead an hour must be what time travel feels like.

Sadly, there were still some devices that needed a more “hands-on” approach to catch up. This is the story of those stragglers.


Printer: HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw

The only reason this device even needs a clock is for its fax function. Admittedly, that is the least-used aspect of this printer in my home office, but that doesn’t mean it should be incorrect! As I describe below, some of the devices I had to change make it as simple as switching the “DST” setting to “on.” This printer had no such option; it simply required a manual entry of the correct date and time. It’s an eight-step procedure. (Following for each device is the text directly from the manufacturer’s online manual):

1. From the Home screen, touch the Setup button.

2. Touch the Fax Setup menu.

3. Touch the Basic Setup menu.

4. Scroll to and touch the Time/Date button.

5. Select the 12-hour clock or 24-hour clock.

6. Use the keypad to enter the current time, and then touch the OK button.

7. Select the date format.

8. Use the keypad to enter the current date, and then touch the OK button.

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The LaserJet Pro’s touchscreen control panel. That “wrench” icon at the top is where you change the time and date.

It’s tedious, but there is hope. HP has, in the past, included in some of their printers the option to synchronize with a network time server, using NTP (Network Time Protocol). When it’s time to shop for a new printer, I’ll include NTP support among my list of “must-haves” (or at least, “would-be-nices”). Until then, it’s those eight steps above, twice a year.


Game System: Sony PlayStation 3

The oldest “connected” device in my home entertainment setup, the PS3 gets much of its functionality from its wifi connection, and this includes the time. Indeed, the PS3’s Settings menu does include the option to “Set Automatically” its internal clock; but strangely, the option for DST is a manual “Standard” or “Daylight Saving” choice. So, just like my HP printer, this is an update I have to do twice a year, when I switch from Standard to DST and back again.

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Just because it’s from 2006, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be on the correct date and time! (Click the photo for the relevant page of the PS3 online manual.)

According to its online manual, the PlayStation 4, on the other hand, has included automatic “spring forward” functionality:

Adjust Daylight Saving Automatically

Your PS4™ system automatically adjusts for daylight saving time. To disable this feature, clear the checkbox for [Adjust Daylight Saving Automatically].

This setting is available only if the region set under [Time Zone] is one that implements daylight saving time.

And for those of you wondering why I haven’t upgraded to a PS4 yet, stand by for a future blog post on that topic. But for now, moving on to another Sony device…


Television: Sony XBR-55X850B

Here, the option to access time settings was in the “Preferences” menu on its Home screen. From there, I had to select “Clock/Timers,” then “Current Time.” I have my set configured to automatically acquire the current time over its wifi connection; but again, I must manually change DST from “Off” to “On.” It’s a bizarre quirk that I must attribute to the older TV interface this time. Shortly after I got my TV, Sony switched to the Android interface, and today’s equivalent to my model now features full “Automatic date & time” setting.

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Sony’s “legacy” TV menu screen. The Settings icon on the upper right (boxed in red) is where the time and date changes are made.


Game System: Nintendo Wii U

Not even acknowledging the existence of DST, Nintendo’s previous flagship console has a procedure reminiscent of that HP printer I opened with—if even a little longer!

The Calendar screen allows you to change the Wii console’s date and time settings. The time is in military time (a 24 hour clock) and does not automatically adjust for Daylight Saving time.

To make a selection, point to the desired option and press the A Button.

What to Do:

Select the Wii button from the Wii Menu.

Select “Wii Settings.”

Next, select “Calendar.”

How to Adjust the Date:

Select “Date.”

Select the up or down arrows that correspond with the month, date, and year to adjust each setting.

Depending on the language the system is set to, the date format may be different. Check the List

Select Confirm to save any changes.

How to Adjust the Time:

Select “Time.”

Select the up or down arrows that correspond with the hours and minutes to adjust each setting.

The Wii console uses a 24 hour clock (military time). For example 1:00 p.m. is displayed as 13:00.

Select Confirm to save any changes.

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The Wii U’s friendly, if not particularly advanced, settings screen.

So once again, despite the console being connected to the internet, no NTP or automatic DST setting is offered. This is just one more way in which the Wii U’s successor, the Switch, is an improvement: when I turned on my Switch Sunday morning, I saw that it had updated its clock to DST either while asleep, or immediately upon waking. Well done, Nintendo. It’s about time (heh).

Leaving my office and my living room, I was confronted with those clocks not connected to internet-enabled devices: namely, my gas range, my microwave, and two clocks in my bathroom.


Gas Range: Frigidaire FFGF3011LWC

Okay, this one is pretty straightforward.

To set the clock:

1. Press clock once (do not hold key pad down).

2. Within 5 seconds, press and hold the ⌃ or ⌵ until the correct time of day appears in the display.

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It’s a tiny black-and-green display, but it’s so irritating when it’s wrong. (Source: specsserver.com)

And that’s it. So it’s a two-step procedure twice a year. But isn’t this the age of the “Connected Home?” The “Internet of Things?” Shouldn’t there be ovens that go online at this point, and download their time from the internet?

Actually, we’re getting there.

General Electric is leading the “smart oven” wave. According to their website:

WHEN THE REMOTE ENABLE BUTTON IS ENGAGED ON WIFI-CONNECT OVENS, YOU CAN USE YOUR SMART PHONE FOR THE FOLLOWING:

• Preheat your oven remotely by turning it on from the App

• Get notifications when preheated, when Timer finishes, or when meat probe* reaches temperature

• Determine time remaining

• Monitor and change the oven temperature

• Turn off your oven

• Adjust your oven control – Set Clock, Tone Volume, Sabbath Mode, and more

Here’s GE’s promo video showing the app in action:

Strictly speaking, they’re not saying if the oven can set its own time; or if you just have the option to do it from your phone, as opposed to the control panel on the oven itself.


Not to be outdone, I had to see if there were similar advancements in microwaves.

Microwave Oven: Panasonic NN-SN661S

My microwave is actually the newest kitchen gadget in my home, but it’s still pretty “dumb.” The clock-setting procedure takes three steps.

Setting the Clock

Example: To set 11:25 a.m. or p.m.

  1. Press timer/clock twice. Colon flashes.
  2. Enter time of day using the number pads. Time appears in the display window; colon continues flashing.
  3. Press timer/clock once. Colon stops fashing; time of day is entered.

From what I could find on their website, GE has not added microwave ovens to their “GE WiFi Connect” family yet (nor may they ever, given how microwaves can interfere with wifi signals).

Indeed, none of the big appliance makers is currently offering an internet-connected microwave, and the closest I could even find was a bizarre 2015 Kickstarter page for the “MAID” oven:

So this one may be stuck in the old-fashioned time changing method for now (or even forever). But it raises an interesting question: other than the cooking timer, why does one even need a clock on the microwave in the first place?


In the bathroom, I have two clocks: one facing my mirror, and one in the shower on my radio.

“Mirror Clock”: Martek Nurdanian Clock

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This is what the clock really looks like at 9:27…

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…and this is what it looks like in the mirror.

This “backwards clock” lets me see the time in my reflection, displayed correctly due to the inverted numbers and retrograde motion. This is a novelty item, and it doesn’t look like La Cross is planning to make a radio-updated version. But there are interesting moves in the world of mirrors with smart clocks built right in.

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The built-in clock is just one of the features advertised at ElectricMirror.com (click photo to visit that site).

While there are indeed commercially-available mirrors with integrated clocks (see above), none of them appears to have native internet connectivity, so they’re no more convenient to set than my cute plastic clock.

Dutch engineer Michael Teeuw built his own “Magic Mirror” with a Raspberry Pi DIY kit; but the work involved  is a far greater headache than spinning the hands of an analog clock ahead or behind one hour, depending on the time of year.

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Yes, it’s very cool. But the process of making it is not for amateurs. (Source: michaelteeuw.nl).


Finally, my shower radio clock:

Shower Radio: Sangean H201

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Sangean’s waterproof shower radio. (Source: sangean.com)

This one took seven steps.

  1. The clock will start running when the batteries are installed or when the radio is connected to the mains supply. The display will show ” – : – – “
  2. The time can be set with your radio switched off or on.
  3. Press and hold down the Time Set button for approx. 2 seconds until the hours digits flash in the display with a beep.
  4. Press the Tuning Up/Down buttons to set the required hour.
  5. Press the Time Set button, the minute digits will  ash in the display.
  6. Press the Tuning Up/Down buttons to set the required minute.
  7. Press the Time Set button to complete time setting. The second will start to count.

From what I could find, even the “smartest” waterproof radios and bluetooth speakers draw the line at automatic time adjustment. Oh, well. I like to run my shower radio a bit fast anyway, so I don’t linger under the water.


So in the final analysis, if I really wanted to, I could upgrade several of my appliances and electronics to save the hassle of having to re-set their clocks twice a year. And honestly, I’m considering it!

I admit it; I’m spoiled. But then, perhaps I’m just cranky because I missed an hour of sleep. If only there were a a gadget to fix that… ■

How I Heard My Echo

As I write this week’s post, I’m listening to Pandora Radio via my new Amazon Echo Dot. It’s that rare modern gadget that has no video display (unless I bring up the Alexa app on my iPhone or iPad), so audio quality is made even that much more essential. It was with this in mind that I decided to hook my Echo Dot up to my powerful home theater sound system… and made more work for myself, in the process.

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Connect the Dot, la la la. (Source: Amazon.com, click the image to order.)

Unlike its big siblings the Echo and the Tap, the Dot doesn’t have a very powerful built-in speaker. When Alexa (the Amazon AI assistant in the Echo) speaks to me, I can hear her just fine; but when I want to listen to music, the overall effect is underwhelming. Luckily, the Dot supports bluetooth, so beaming the audio signal to a powerful speaker system is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, my older Sony receiver doesn’t have bluetooth built in, so I needed to pick up a device to add bluetooth to my sound system.

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The Sony STR-DG820. It’s a great receiver; it just doesn’t do bluetooth. (Source: Engadget.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

Logitech makes such a device, their compact Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It plugs into a wall outlet for power, and includes a cable to connect it either to a 3.5 millimeter stereo jack, or to red and white RCA stereo jacks. I ended up using a separate red/white stereo cable set (sold separately) to go from the Logitech adapter to my Sony receiver. Once I programmed my Logitech Harmony remote to switch on the receiver and change its input to the port with the bluetooth adapter, I was able to vocally command Alexa to do the same job without my having to pick up my remote control. She ably flipped on my Sony receiver and had it switch to the proper input, leaving everything else off. The bluetooth adapter was already on (there really isn’t an “on/off” switch on that device), so playback proceeded to stream through my speakers flawlessly.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It’s actually quite small, measuring only 0.88″ tall by 2.00″ wide by 2.25″ deep. (Source: Logitech.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

The problems only began when I turned my stereo off.

You see, when you tell Alexa to connect via bluetooth, she’s more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, asking her to switch away from bluetooth is a more challenging proposition. Since the Logitech box never turns off, it remains in a “ready to pair” mode even if a device like my Echo Dot leaves it. Alexa then sees there’s a bluetooth device out there looking to pair, and, helpful as always, she re-pairs with it. Except in this scenario, my receiver is now off, so I can’t hear Alexa through the external speakers; and since she’s using bluetooth, her internal speaker is off, too. This makes any further communication with her impossible until I turn the receiver back on. But sometimes I just want a weather forecast or a news brief, and stuff like that just doesn’t need to come out in high fidelity stereo!

The challenge I faced was how to turn the Logitech bluetooth box off so Alexa would revert to her internal speaker for non-musical conversation. Luckily, as with so many problems in my life, there was a solution, in the form of new technology. Enter TP-Link’s Smart Plug.

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TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. Make sure you have room for it on your power strip or wall outlet–it’s a space hog! (Source: TP-Link.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

If I couldn’t tell Alexa to turn off the Logitech bluetooth adapter directly, then I would have to have her cut the power to it, via TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. TP-Link advertises Alexa compatibility:

Amazon Echo Voice Control – Amazon Echo (sold separately) lets you control devices connected to the Smart Plugs just using your voice.

Indeed, once I had configured the Smart Plug to join my home network, I added the “Skill” (Echo’s answer to an app) for TP-Link devices in its “Kasa” service, and Alexa had no difficulty turning the Smart Plug on and off with a well-placed vocal command.

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The TP-Link Kasa app in action, controlling their Smart Plug. (Source: eBuyer.com)

With my Logitech bluetooth adapter now plugged in via this Smart Plug, I hypothesized that when I would tell Alexa to turn that Smart Plug off, that would cut off her bluetooth conduit to the external speakers. I put that hypothesis to the test, asking her to turn off the Smart Plug. She gamely did as I said, and the last thing I heard her say out of the external speakers was the compliant “okay.” After seeing that the Smart Plug was now in the “off” mode and that the Logitech bluetooth adapter was fully off, I asked Alexa if she was still there. “Yes, I’m here. I listen once I hear the wake word,” she emitted cheerfully and clearly… out of her built-in speaker, once again.

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A small selection of the many Skills available for Alexa to learn. (Source: AFTVNews.com, click image for their article on Alexa’s Skills.)

I made sure to establish a “group” command to turn on power to the bluetooth adapter, while simultaneously turning on the Sony receiver (via my Harmony remote, another Echo “Skill”) and setting it to the correct input. I called this group “Audio Only,” so all I needed to do was call out, “Alexa, turn on Audio Only.” It’s fun watching the relevant devices switch on and fall in line, like something out of a futuristic movie. In fact, it’s so “sci-fi,” that I was compelled to take advantage of the Echo’s optional alternate “wake word.” Amazon designed the Echo to respond to other words, in case, for instance, you have somebody named “Alexa” also living in your home. The alternate wake words are “Amazon,” “Echo,” and my personal geeky favorite: “Computer.”

I haven’t risked playing a Star Trek episode in Alexa’s presence yet. She hasn’t learned to distinguish my voice from the TV, yet.

Fun fact: if you call out, “Computer: Earl Grey, hot,” she’ll pick from a series of responses incorporating the concept of the Starship Enterprise‘s replicator. Alas, no tea for now; but there is a gadget…

For now, I’m happy with the result of my experimentation. Followers of this blog know how rarely my tech setups work out as planned the first time. It’s true, I would have preferred Alexa to stay off bluetooth when I ask her—thus not requiring an extra device—but this is a satisfactory compromise.

Besides, what other gadgets do you know of that will sing to you on command?

 

 

LG’s new 5K Monitor Draws Sideways Looks

It’s an unspoken understanding in the world of computers and technology: when you buy a manufacturer’s most expensive, highest-end device, it’s supposed to be the “best” in the line. This has been the conventional wisdom at Apple for years, but today’s post is all about the frustrations that come with their latest “flagship” device, the new UltraFine 5K Display from LG.

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LG’s latest monitor, now with Apple’s seal of approval. (Source: Apple.com, click photo to go to the Apple page for this display)

First off, the conundrum: why would Apple’s newest monitor come from a third-party manufacturer? That’s anybody’s guess. Since nearly the founding of the company, Apple had made their own displays, going all the way back to the Apple Monitor III in 1980. The last standalone display manufactured by Apple was the 27″ Thunderbolt Display, introduced in July 2011, and discontinued in June 2016.

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Apple’s last in-house display, the 27″ Thunderbolt Display. (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Apple proudly unveiled their partnership with LG, in the form of the new “UltraFine” Display line, at their October 27, 2016 keynote.

The monitor was intended to complement Apple’s new flagship notebook, the 2016 MacBook Pro. This notebook is the first from Apple to feature Thunderbolt 3, a technology I discussed in a previous post.

I’m sure the new display works like a charm on the new notebook, connected natively through the new Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable. The problem I encountered came when I connected the new monitor to Apple’s flagship desktop, the Mac Pro.

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“Remember me?” (Source: Apple.com)

The cruel irony is, that while the Mac Pro was unveiled to a great deal of fanfare in 2013,  they haven’t kept up its momentum in the past three-plus years. This may change (and I certainly hope it does), but as of this writing, the Mac Pro is currently running older interfaces than its notebook siblings the MacBook and MacBook Pro. And this is where the first issue arose.

LG’s 5K display has five connection points on its back: standard AC power, one Thunderbolt 3 in, and three USB-C out (shaped the same as the Thunderbolt port, of course—markings designate which is which). Connection is a cakewalk to an equivalently-designed notebook via the included Thunderbolt 3 cable: plug it into a 2016 MacBook Pro or even a 2015 or 2016 MacBook, and you’re all set. But what if your computer doesn’t have the appropriately-shaped port?

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The ports on the back of the 5K UltraFine Display (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Solution: Apple sells adapters. Of course they do.

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Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter, shown here plugged into a 2016 MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 port. (Source: SlashGear.com)

The one I got takes the USB-C shape and adapts it to fit a standard Thunderbolt 2/Mini DisplayPort cable (see the photo above). That Thunderbolt 2 cable then plugs into the corresponding port on the computer, and the connection is complete. Interestingly, Apple does NOT sell a cable that adapts the Thunderbolt 2 port on the computer, to fit a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable, such as the one included with the new LG monitor. If I wanted to plug the 5K UltraFine Display into a Thunderbolt 2 port via this adapter, I was going to have to buy a Thunderbolt 2 cable. Of course.

Fine; I got the cable, and the adapter, and I was able to plug this new whiz-bang monitor into my client’s Mac Pro cylinder. The picture came up bright as day, and all was well, until my client explained that he needed to rotate the screen 90 degrees into “portrait mode.”

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Viewing a rotated display can be tricky if you don’t have the right settings. (Source: giphy.com)

Now, this isn’t necessarily a non-starter. The latest iteration, macOS 10.12, “Sierra,” supports rotation at 90, 180, and 270 degrees, via the “Displays” pane in System Preferences. Once I had the monitor connected, and suitably rotated on a VESA arm, (remember those?)  I went into the Mac Pro’s settings to rotate it the 90 degrees. I selected the rotation, and then… blackness.

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macOS’s “Rotation” option in System Preferences/Displays. (Source: osxdaily.com)

Luckily, the rotation setting needs the user to confirm the new setting; if you don’t click “Confirm” within 15 seconds, the screen reverts to its original orientation.

I was surprised to see this feature, which allows users to view documents and websites in space-efficient upright orientation (see below), wasn’t working on this monitor when connected to such a powerful Mac; especially when it had worked just fine on my client’s previous monitor, a 32″ Sony display from 2013 (same vintage as the Mac Pro, remember). Why would anyone take away functionality?

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The same monitor in landscape (left) and portrait orientations, here highlighting the benefit of the latter. (Source: keyliner.blogspot.com, click the photo for a 2012 discussion on monitor rotation).

I contacted LG to get to the bottom of this riddle. They explained that they don’t support rotation, and that was that. I arranged to pick up the monitors to ship them back to Apple; and the hunt for new, rotation-friendly screens continued in earnest.

I brought my Thunderbolt adapters and cables back to the Apple Store where I bought them (unlike the LG display, these were not a special order, so I could walk them back into the store to make the return). Once the return was completed, I went over to the display table where an identical LG 5K display was connected to an identical Mac Pro. I demonstrated to the Apple folks what happens when you select 90 or 270 degree rotation. (Amusingly, Mac Pros have no problem flipping the picture 180 degrees on the 5K display, but that’s not what my client needed.) I told the Apple team about what LG had told me, that this display was not rotatable, so there you have it…

Until I went over to another Apple display: this time another 27″ LG 5K monitor, connected to a mac mini. For fun, I selected rotation, and it worked!

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Amazingly, the $499 mac mini (right) can do something the $2,999 Mac Pro (left) can’t? (Source: macheat.com)

LG’s stated “non-rotation” policy notwithstanding, here’s my theory on why this may be.

The 2014 mac mini has a maximum external resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels at 60Hz when connected via its native Thunderbolt 2 connection (adapted for a Thunderbolt 3 screen). This is known as “4K” resolution (because “3.84K” sounds less impressive).

The 2013 Mac Pro, on the other hand, outputs a maximum external resolution of 5120 by 2880 pixels via Thunderbolt (proper 5K, you see). When connected to a lower-resolution monitor (such as my client’s Sony screen), the resolution peaks at whatever the monitor can handle. The Sony’s resolution was a mere 1366 by 768 pixels, so it had no problem performing the graphical gymnastics required to rotate the screen. Likewise, a lower-resolution computer (such as the Apple Store’s mac mini) isn’t going to push the limits of the 5K LG monitor; so again, rotation isn’t a problem.

The issue only seems to occur when a 5K-capable computer attempts to rotate the picture on a 5K display. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to test this hypothesis on 5K displays from other manufacturers, such as Dell or Philips; but since we’re focusing on computers and monitors both sold under the Apple imprimatur, LG is the relevant brand.

In the meantime, my client has decided rotatability is a higher priority than monitor resolution; so we’re now shopping for displays with 4k–or even lower–resolutions. I suppose that’s a more sensible course of action than, say, keeping the 5K monitors and swapping the Mac Pro for a mini.

Given LG’s recent headaches with wifi interference, it’s probably for the best that we keep looking, anyway. I’d hate to have to switch computers, and then have to move everything to the other end of the room, away from the wireless router. My client is fiercely brand-loyal to Apple, so it’s a good thing these screens are made by LG… hey, maybe THAT’S why Apple decided to let somebody else make them! ■