Saturday, August 30, 2014

Asus Chromebox

Asus Chromebook

 So I had about $40 in best buy bucks that I had to spend before they expired.  They had the asus chromebox for $167 so that brought my price down to $127.  I noticed amazon has it for a little cheaper and had a $10 rebate that I might give a try.  So yeah it's a really cheap little box.  I already fell in love with the celeron 2955u based acer c720 chromebook that I got at the beginning of the year and this basically has the same exact guts.  So I picked one up for two purposes: wife wanted a premium browsing experience on the 55" hdtv in the family room, and two I wanted to see how good of an xbmc machine it was.

I decided to do a dual boot setup with chromeos and openelec.  I skipped installing coreboot firmware because I wanted to continue running chromeos.  On the chromeos side I installed crouton.  I also disabled the firmware write protect to reduce the time to get past the white developer mode screen.

I just basically followed the instructions here:
Just a few notes on step 1.3.  I used the chromeboook recovery utility to prepare the recovery usb flash drive.

Installing openelec I just followed the instructions here:
Everything went smoothly.  The only thing I might have done differently is to use a 1GB partition for openelec instead of 2GB.  If you are going to stream everything 2GB is a bit overkill, and I would have rather used that space with crouton.  I wish there was a way to reduce the boot time to 5 sec instead of 1 or 30 sec.  Having chromeos boot quickly while in dev mode is nice and is especially important when using a wireless keyboard/mouse combo like the logitech k400.  They don't work during that dev white screen.  So you need a regular wired usb keyboard to be able to hit ctrl-D or ctrl-L.  Being able to shorten that to 1 sec makes a big difference.  Openelec runs fantastic as a media streamer.  CPU utilization never went past 55% even under the most demanding mkv 1080p high bitrate videos.  Dolby digital true HD and dts master audio both bitstream pass through just fine over hdmi.  Just make sure you use the recommended openelec settings listed in that first wiki link.  For remote control I used a Flirc along with my harmony remote.  Harmony has a default profile for flirc under media pc.  It worked with flirc without even having to learn anything and works right out of the box.  Everything is smooth and responsive.  It plays everything great except for one thing: frame packed MVC 3D video files.  It plays them just fine but only shows the left frame so it's 2D only.  FFMPEG doesn't even support MVC yet so don't hold your breath on xbmc supporting it anytime soon.  SBS and OU mkv 3d files work just fine though.  So if you don't care about MVC and only stream local media (no netflix, hulu, etc. though you can get all that and more on the chromeos side or through some xbmc addons/hacks) this thing is better than the wd tv live and comes close to the med600x3d but doesn't quite surpass it.

Over on the chromeos/crouton side it was very similar to the acer c720p.  Setup was pretty much identical so you can read that article for all the gory details.  I installed the ubuntu software center, all of libreoffice, steam, vlc, and minecraft.  I did run into one small issue when trying to install steam.  I had to install this first:
sudo apt-get install apt-transport-https

I installed xbmc gotham under crouton just for the heck of it.  After all this I had about 3.5GB free left.

It uses only .6w while sleeping, 7w while idle, and about 12w under heavy media playback load.

The asus chromebox was surprisingly a slightly different experience than the acer c720p.  Having a full 1080p screen to use the hardware on is refreshing.  You can even have dual monitors (there is also a display port).  It's just as fast and responsive as ever and looks great at 1080p.  For the price again the value is unbeatable.  You get so much flexibility and performance between chromeos, crouton, and openelec.  For less than the price of a med600x3d you get the same great performance, nearly as good media support, and pretty high WAF (with flirc and harmony) plus the great desktop chrome browsing experience and the utility of linux under crouton.  Having an intel based soc I think is kind of critical though for this flexibility and utility.  Some of the newer chromebooks like the new acer 13" is switching to tegra K1.  I think the trade off is pretty poor.  You gain even more battery life (but battery life doesn't mean much once it lasts all day) and a very nice GPU, but you lose x86.  This means linux compatibility is greatly reduced.  Many linux applications only work on x86 including steam and most linux native games.  So say goodbye to steam streaming.  IMO, you should skip the K1 ARM based chromebooks and wait for broadwell.

The chromebox is a pretty great desktop and htpc experience at a great price.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

HooToo TripMate Elite

HooToo TripMate Elite is $60 at amazon though I picked it up while it was on sale at newegg for $46.

Personal cloud storage devices have recently become more popular lately which usually let you provide your own usb storage and share it among your mobile devices over wifi.  I picked up one of the first on the market called cloudftp (it's now called iUSBPort) through kickstarter.  It's served me well on many trips over the years.  I also find it handy to bring a travel router like my TP-LINK TL-WR702N.  It was getting a bit of a hassle having to bring 2 devices + power adapters + having to switch between wifi networks to have either personal cloud access or internet access (setting up cloudftp in infrastructure mode is a bit of a pain), and the relatively short battery life of cloudftp.  In comes this new device that pretty much does everything above for less in a much more compact and portable form factor.

The HooToo Covers all these functions:
- Personal cloud usb storage (worked fine with ntfs usb 3.0 flash drive and a 1TB exFAT 2.5" external hard drive)
- Travel Router, 150mbps b/g/n, AP/Router/Bridge
- 6000mah battery that powers itself or can charge other devices.
- Dual USB wall charger when plugged in with the handy built in ac plug that folds down.
- Works while charging either while plugged in or over the micro usb port.  So say if you wanted to use it on a long trip you could plug the HooToo into a car power adapter or another external battery (like this RAVPower one that I really like) and run the personal cloud all day.
- the HooToo app is ok (and free) but nPlayer is the absolute best for streaming/playing back media supporting a ton of codecs and protocols and works great with the HooToo.

Out of the box it was already flashed to the latest firmware.  Setup was pretty easy.  I tried it out in router and bridge modes and both worked fine.  What was nice was the mobile apps found the hootoo just fine even when I was connected to my home router vs the hootoo directly.  It's good then that any access to the device/personal cloud requires the web login.

default wifi pw: 11111111 (8 x 1)
default web login/app login/samba share: admin/no pw

Performance seemed fine for a travel router in an environment where I'm already running two powerful routers with transmit power jacked up.  It's good enough for streaming media.  I tried out the iOS (on iPhone and iPad), android (nexus 7 2013), and my acer c720 chromebook (crouton, xbmc, streamed over samba shares).  All seemed to work pretty well and I had 3 streams going at once.  The mobile apps worked just fine.

Highly Recommended.  It's a great value for all the functionality it provides.  It has a very small and light weight travel friendly form factor.  It seems pretty stable overall in my limited testing so far.  Each function might not be quite as feature rich as the devices I'm replacing but it hits pretty much every use case I care about.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Google Nexus 7 (2013) 2nd Gen

Nexus 7

I've had some exposure to android over the years through my mk808 and my hp touchpad (kitkat 4.4.2) but I've been itching to give pure vanilla Android a try with modern fast hardware to see how the experience is like.  We have 3 iPads and 4 iPhones in the family so we are pretty firmly iOS as far as mobile devices go.  My wife doesn't have her own tablet and she always complained that the iPad was too heavy and big so I figure why not give the Nexus 7 a try.  I picked up a refurb 16GB for only $130 off of ebay (shopdivvy).  It's a fraction of the price of an iPad mini plus it was an excuse for me to pick up a nexus device.

- First off the device I received looked brand new and has worked flawlessly these last few months.  Battery life is good too.  Performance was very good and stability was much better than the hacked rooted devices I've been using.  It's still no iPad Air but it's definitely good enough especially at this price point.
- Battery life seems pretty good though I would say the iPad still seems better. This could also be because this is a refurb. I think I got about 6 hrs out of it when I was basically non stop installing and setting up apps.
- What is with the incremental updates? I have to install 4.4.2, reboot, 4.4.3, reboot, 4.4.4, reboot
- Pretty much every app I use on iOS is here on android except a few notable missing ones like: amazon instant video and air video.
- Games have gotten a lot better.  I tried out minecraft, edge of tomorrow, sonic 2, sky force, ravensword 2 and they all ran and looked good.  But android is still missing a few like my current addiction: FTL.
- Mirroring with chromecast worked well.
- I really like swiftkey and can't wait for iOS 8 which will also support 3rd party keyboards.
- Plex is still no air video especially the horrible tablet version which has NO LIST VIEW.  They still make it incredibly hard if all you want to do is browse a large list of files.
- Installed flash with firefox because I could but I wouldn't call it a great experience.
- I love the multiple user support. This is one thing iOS really needs. Though the way to share play app store purchases is a bit clunky having to add my google account under my wife's user profile. I wish you could just specify the google account to use for the app store and not have to add it at the OS level because then my account shows up as a selection for several apps. This confused my wife a bit.
- For some reason gmail default notification sound was some endlessly looping chime. It took a while but I finally tracked down the setting and changed it to a nice short sound. Overall, I think settings are a bit of a mess on android and harder to track down. It definitely feels less consolidated and logically laid out as compared to iOS. It's just a learning curve I guess. But it's another one of those quirks.
- I'm using this moko case and this screen protector.  It adds a bit more weight than I wanted but overall not bad for the price. It has the magnets on the cover so it turns the device on/off.
- I picked up this OTG to USB Adapter.  I picked up both the dongle and the adapter though I think the adapter is a bit more convenient especially if you are using it with a usb flash drive.  Install MX Player and custom codec (for dts support), buy Nexus Media Importer ($4) and stream media off any usb storage device.  1080p mkv works just fine.
- XBMC arm android works well.  All my local media played smoothly.  My wife likes this interface much better than plex and is great for streaming local media.
- Subsonic app works pretty well.
- I just noticed 1password now has a full complete app and not just a viewer.
- For epub I still like Marvin better on ios than say aldiko.
- Remote control stuff like Jump for RDP, citrix receiver, and splashtop seem to work ok.
- Bluetooth worked fine with a pair of sony headphones and a logitech keyboard that I tested it with.
- I have nothing to test NFC with. Maybe I'll buy some tags just to mess with.
- iUSBPort app was a bit buggy and a bit crash prone.  I have to hold down on a file and select mx player every time I launch a video.
- 16GB was enough for me to install all the apps I wanted and the games listed above for 2 users and I still have 5.6GB free.  Just move all your media off onto usb flash drives if you need local media storage and use that OTG adapter.
- Mobile chrome browser is absolute garbage.  Desktop chrome is my main everyday browser but I really hate mobile chrome.  There is no home button, no bookmark bar, the context sensitive zoom when you tap on links is wonky and unpredictable.  I pretty much hate everything about it.  Mobile safari on iPad just bows this crap away.  I'm still trying other alternative browser but I haven't been too happy with any of them.

Overall, I'm very impressed.  I still think iOS is a more premium experience and you definitely pay a premium price..  UI still scrolls smoother and is more responsive on iOS but on this nexus 7 hardware it's gotten pretty close.  You can't dispute the value though.  At $130 you are getting a ton of performance and functionality (much better expandability and media support).  A refurb iPad retina mini is $339 so a $209 price difference is pretty hard to swallow.  I just wish android came with a better default browser.  It's probably the single most important app and it's a shame it's so poor on android.  Games are closer now but still lag behind iOS.  If I could only have one tablet then I would still go with an iPad.  But as a cheap 2nd, 3rd, or 4th in my case tablet the nexus 7 is a great option.  Highly recommended.