Dragon Touch Y88X 7″ Quad Core Tablet – A Fun Tech Toy for just $36

I’ve sort of been in the market to find a new tablet since our daughter destroyed our LG G Pad 7.  Somehow she broke the screen but not the glass, lol.  I say sort of looking since we didn’t really use the G Pad that often and I wasn’t entirely sure we actually needed one.  What am I saying, I’m sure we don’t actually need one at all.  The LG was mostly brought along on trips, and even then mostly just to play movies for the kids in the car.  I tried playing some games on the thing, but perhaps I’m too old to game on touch screen systems.

After the fate of the G Pad I decided that something cheap would be best.  Not that the G Pad 7 was expensive, I believe it was $100 when it was new.  After some looking about I found the Dragon Touch Y88X tablet.

Specifications:

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CPU Processor:  Allwinner Quad Core A33, 4×1.2 GHz processor
GPU:  Quad Core
Operating System:  Google Android 4.4 (KitKat)
Screen Size & Resolution:  7 Inch Multi-Touch screen 1024x600HD
Touch Screen:  5 Point Capacitive Multi-Touch Screen
RAM:  512MB DDR3
Nand Flash:  8GB Storage, expandable up to 32Gb Micro SD/TF support
Dual Camera:  Front facing 2.0MP, Rear 2.0MP
Built-in Loud speakers & Microphone
Wireless:  Support WiFi (Built-in 802.11b/g/n)
3G Supported (3G Dongle Not Included in Package)
AC Power Adaptor:  Input AC110- 240V, 50-60Hz, Output 5V 2A
Battery Pack:  3.7V Build-in 4500mAh Lithiu Battery
Dimensions:  7.1 x 4.8 x 0.3 inches
G Sensor:  4 Direction Gravity Sensing
I/O Ports:  1 x Micro USB; 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack; 1 x TF/MicroSD card slot

First Impressions:

Though it shipped fairly fast it took about 4 days to get here.  At the same time I purchased a thick rubberized self standing case branded “Fintie CaseBot Kiddie”.  Sadly for us the case arrived two days earlier than the tablet.  Upon unpacking the tablet everything seemed a little better than I had expected.  For $36 bucks I wasn’t expecting such a premium box.  I’m sure the idea is to leave a good first impression.  This tablet comes with a DC power adapter but strangely it has a 2mm-ish end instead of a USB cable.  Fortunately the tablet can be charged via the USB – so the included charger seems of little use.  I mean, if were travelling somewhere I’m not going to bring a special charger for the tablet when it can use the same charger my phone uses.  Back to the tablet itself.  I was excited to power the device on, however the protective plastic on the screen stated I needed to charge the device for 10 hours before first use…  At the very least I got to see a cool green battery icon for a few seconds.

I like the flat finish of the tablet it has a nice feel.  We did get the pink version as it was intended to be mostly for our daughter.  The tablet itself seems to have a little flex to it if you twist it at the ends but is otherwise pretty sturdy.  I wonder if this tablet could have been a little thinner.  When I push in on the back of the device it seems that I can push the back cover in at least 1mm around most of the center of the tablet.  It could be that other versions use that extra space.

Another thing I found interesting was that this tablet already had a screen protector installed.  That seems pretty impressive, I’ve never seen a tablet or cell phone come like that before.  It was a really nice when you consider my daughter immediately got the screen dirty and even scratched up the screen protector (not that she would have necessarily actually scratched the glass, but better safe than sorry I suppose).

Warp Power Now Sir:

Okay, well not exactly warp power but the tablet boots up in about 35 seconds.  Which doesn’t seem too shabby really.  With just the stock apps installed the tablet seems pretty snappy.  The OS is Android version 4.4 so it is a bit dated in that respect.  I may look into upgrading the version at some point, mainly for any possible battery/power savings.  Though I wonder if Android 4.4 was picked deliberately because it is older and this device only has 512MB RAM.  I installed ES File Browser for access to our Samba share as well as VLC to watch some media.  Everything went smoothly and we were able to stream over our network seamlessly.  I did lose connection a few times, but this could be mostly related to the location of our wireless access point and my distance from said access point.  I did some streaming from youtube as well, however no videos had the option to try quality settings higher than 360p.  I might guess that is due to the youtube app version.  Regardless, the videos played just fine.

Sound and Picture:

While I can praise the Y88X for numerous things, audio quality is not one of them.  The onboard speaker has the typical small speaker sound, and worse yet is rear facing.  I just can’t understand why any tablet maker would make rear facing speakers.  The screen is decent but nothing special.  The image itself has somewhat of a grainy effect that shifts as you look at the screen from different angles.  When watching videos this is fine, however it does seem a little fuzzy when working with smaller text.

Problems:

On our Y88X I have noticed that the screen seems a little too touch happy.  It will often launch an app before I realize.  Some of that could be my own clumsiness with a larger hand held device.  But still, it does seem like the top left half of the screen touches too easily.

Battery:

The battery is alright.  Sometimes it appears to drain very fast, while other times it will seemingly sit at a number for hours.  We have gotten a least 3 hours of screen on time per charge.  I think that is pretty good as well.

Accessories:

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As I mentioned earlier, I purchased this Fintie CaseBot Kiddie case for the tablet.  I really like the case, it is easy to install and use.  The foam is pretty tough and it seems like it will hold up pretty well over time as well as protect the device fairly well.  The online vendor I purchased mine from had magenta listed as the color, but the stock photos (as shown just above) showed hot pink.  I was a little disappointed that the tablet doesn’t match the case exactly but whatever, I guess it looks okay.  One part I am worried about is the top right section of the case.  It is a thin slice of material that has to be left mostly open to accommodate the power button, dc power jack and usb port.  However, the size of the opening is about twice as long as needed.

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I also installed a Lexar 16GB micro SD card.  I had just purchased this card for a different project and didn’t end up needing it.  Just $7 at my local corporate giant office store.  The Y88X supports a maximum 32GB micro SD card.

So, Final Thoughts?

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Overall I love the device.  For the price, it is hard to beat, we paid a total of $50 for the tablet and the case.

Forehead Thermometers – The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, but…

Why the hell do these stupid things have a memory recall on them.  Better yet, why are they always showing you the last temp read.  Like BTW two weeks ago your kids forehead read 99.1 – okay, so what.  As with anything, I’m sure there are people who like that feature, or need it for a specific purpose.  Though most of us only need to see the temperature once.  It’s pretty easy to remember, given that these thermometers are designed with children in mind and that said child’s health is paramount to the parent means they aren’t likely to forget.

Our Experiences:

We have the Wal-Mart ReliOn brand currently and aside from the memory recall complaint the device actually works pretty well.  In all fairness the memory only shows for a second or two when you power on the device.  It was also very affordable, I don’t recall exactly, but I think I only paid about $10.

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We have used it in conjunction with a traditional thermometer and found that they gave similar results (though don’t forget, foreheads read cooler than the mouth, armpit or elsewhere…).  One other downside on this model is that the battery cover comes off very easily and can be bumped lose from regular usage.

We purchased our previous forehead thermometer at K-Mart for $50.  It was a Vicks so I figured it would work well.  Considering we had to buy another you’ve probably already figured out that this one crapped out on us.  We bought this one in 2013 just after our first child was born.  I thought, better get a good one and we can amortize the cost over the years of use we’ll get from the thing, right?  Wrong!

Vicks-Forehead-Thermometer

It looks pretty cool, well packaged, the actual device has a nice overall design with a comfortable grip.  It certainly looked better than all the rest on the shelf.  Sadly though, within two years it was broken.  It never really worked very well to begin with, frequently turning off while it was supposed to be reading the temperature as well as sometimes getting stuck in memory mode.  I mean hell, if your kid is sick, you need to read their temperature right now.  And if they are sick, they probably don’t have the patience for you to try and take their temperature over and over again because your POS thermometer keeps on messing up.  Its life ended when it got permanently stuck into memory mode and we finally gave up and threw it out.

A Quick Word On Ear Thermometers:

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We very briefly tried a Walgreens ear thermometer after the Vicks thermometer broke.  Unfortunately we weren’t sure about the temperatures it read out.  Additionally it doesn’t seem like most kids can sit there with this thing in their ear long enough to get a reading.  Even more, the ear part is too big for younger children on this particular model.  So there is another $20 in  the toilet…

Now what did I learn?

Perhaps nothing I suppose.  I’m sure I knew already at that time that you should always research products before you buy them.  However, spending the better part of $100 on thermometers in less than three years should teach me something too.  But truth be told, when I bought the ReliOn type I just went out to find a cheap one.  Maybe what I really learned is that you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.

Another Recycling Rescue!! – Replacing Reliant

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This post is a bit of a computer build log.  Though I really just swap the guts from one case into another with a few slight tweaks.  I also did the work on this machine on one of my typical workbenches – my office desk so you’ll see some other machines in the background as well as the subject machines of this post.

Reliant:  You Served Us Well:

So first off, what is Reliant?  Reliant is the name of a very dependable and regularly used old workstation in our office.  It was named after the USS Reliant from Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan (easily one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time).  Reliant is an older machine, a Dell Optiplex 755 model with just 2GB of RAM and a core 2 duo e6600 (2.4GHz).  Over the years people repeatedly had issue with it due to the low RAM and poor integrated graphics.  This machine had some odd issue with the RAM slots, it seems that half of both the A&B channels had burned out.  How that can happen is beyond me, but I could only populate DIMM3 & DIMM4 (a2 & b2) on that machine and I either didn’t have any 2GB DDR2 memory or the ones I had didn’t work in that machine.

The machine was given to me by an ex-coworker so I didn’t have a dime in it.  I might have considered upgrading it before, but it was still working well enough.   In addition, being installed in a very tight spot didn’t make me eager to do any work on it.  But after 4 years, it is time for a change to something better.

The Awesome Find:

The replacement system I picked was a junkyard find, a Dell XPS 8300.  This machine is one of the newest pieces of hardware I’ve ever found at a yard.  When I found this XPS and saw the i7 tag, I could hardly believe what I saw.  I figured it must really be dead because it was only a few years old.  It had been kicked around the scrapyard for a while so it was pretty beat up.

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When I got it home I proceeded to see if it worked and it did turn on.  I immediately heard some beeps and after some quick checking found that the the beep code I heard was “real time clock failure”.   Seriously… real time clock failure, so the battery was just dead?  Really?  Sure enough after changing out the battery I was greeted with the post screen on the next power on.  Now in all fairness, I ended up finding that there was some memory incompatibility with one of the pairs of RAM that was installed causing some startup beeps once in a while and which also destabilized the system.   The memory was probably upgraded because it had a pair of two 2GB DIMMs installed and a pair of 4GB DIMMS installed – I never checked the service tag, but the 4GB DIMMs were probably the original equipment.  I’ll imagine the original user was fed up at that point, three problems with that computer that I could see (1, it was too low on RAM and needed an upgrade, 2, the machine was probably exhibiting the memory problems which forced 3, the machine to sit unplugged for a while and eventually killed the battery).   I suppose it is also possible that the battery died once the machine was sent to the scrapyard.  Either way, with those fixes the XPS was now stable and reliable.  This machine had no disk drives other than the optical disk when I found it.  At that time, I added a 128GB SSD as well as a standard 320GB SATA disk drive and installed openSUSE 13.2 on the SSD.

Finding the Right Case:

I picked the case shown below for the new system.  It was originally a Nobilis Pentium D system.  This was yet another junkyard rescue and is a little scratched and scuffed but nothing near as bad as the XPS.  I needed the height of the case to be less than 14.5″ tall.  You can see Reliant at the far right beneath the printer (there is not much room).

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The system in this case was filthy, not the worst I’ve seen, but it was pretty gross.  This case is a fairly standard mini-tower, two external 3.5″ bays, two external 5.25″ bays and 1 internal 3.5″ bay.  Basically it had everything I needed in a mini-tower case and the style was something I could live with.  I’m somewhat particular, I have around a dozen mini-tower cases but most of the others didn’t really stack up aesthetically.  The first case I picked was a Dell Vostro 220, unfortunately it didn’t have a removable I/O shield, it just had the ports punched out for the particular board it had installed by the factory.  I was actually pretty surprised by that.

Doing the System Swap:

Below is an image of the Dell before I removed the system.  I think it is interesting how dell oriented the internal 3.5″ drive bays sideways.  I’m not really a fan, it seems to me like there is limited room for upgrades (though most people wouldn’t need the space so I can understand the decision by the maker).

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The Dell has a standard micro-ATX motherboard standoff pattern as did the micro-ATX in the Nobilis system so no problems there.  I considered using the power supply from the Nobilis system but thought better of it for a few reasons.  First, the Nobilis is older and of lower power (380 watt vs 460 watt), second, the Dell power supply was specifically matched by Dell to that machine, and third, the Dell power supply was as clean as the rest of the Dell machines internals.

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Installation went fairly easily but one problem was the cable length of the SATA power connectors.  I have heard that Dell custom produces their hardware to their own specifications to save money.  As such, there was limited cable length beyond what comfortably fit the Dell case.  It really wasn’t much of a problem, I just needed to keep the main disk drive close to the secondary drive.  I was fortunate to have a spare 3.5″ to 2.5″ HDD converter I didn’t use from a Rosewill Challenger case to install the SSD.  This new system needed to have dual monitor support so I installed a Dell K192G NVIDIA GeForce9300 256MB video card.  These are decent cards for everyday home & office use and light gaming, they support two monitors via a DMS-59 port (fortunately I have numerous adapters).  At this point I was about finished.  I had transferred almost every part from the old Dell XPS 8300, even the case exhaust fan (because it was clean, worked well and was quiet).

A Fun Diversion:

With all the parts from the Dell XPS 8300 into the Nobilis case I thought I was about done.  But something was missing, some color, some flare…

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There is something about lights in a computer that is just plain awesome.  I wanted to have some red lights since my other machines in the area are pure blue.  I knew I had an old red LED fan, but IIRC it was in rough shape.  Yes indeed, after I dug out the clear plexiglass case it was installed in previously I found that though it still lit up bright as day the fan blade was wobbly and loose.  I thought I could just pull off the fan blade entirely, however the copper windings that remained got quite hot after running the fan for a few moments.  I tried to rip the remainder of the motor off from the plastic fan base.  Unfortunately, though I did get the motor piece off the circuit board, I ripped the contacts for all of the leds off the circuit board as well.  Next I found a blue led fan I had and started playing around with the salvaged LEDs from the red fan.  I found that they would light when connected to the leads coming off the blue LEDs, but that there was not enough power in the line to power both at the same time.  I ended up splicing two of the red LEDs into the fan.  I had to run out to the hardware store to get some heat shrink tubing.

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I used the red LEDs to point through the bottom two mounting holes of the fans frame.  Then, when installed, I taped the two blue LEDs where they could be seen shining nicely from the front of the case.  They give the front grille a cool symmetric colored glow as well as a nice color blending effect.  The ridiculous truth is I spent far too much time on the fan lights.

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Just one final step, get rid of that Pentium D sticker and replace it with the Core i7 badge from the XPS case.  Luckily that was easy enough and now the machine looks great!  I was able to squeeze it into the cabinet where the old Dell was, but it was a tight fit and it hangs out in both the front and the rear of the cabinet a little, though I knew it would.

Rambling Bits:

The system is performing as expected.  One thing that did surprise me was that my wife was excited about the new computer.  She had to deal with the issues on the old one so perhaps it should have come as no surprise.

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As with all my machines, I’m hoping for a long an uneventful life.  Since this hardware is newer, and has been previously tested as being stable I would think that chances are good we get many years of quality service from this machine.  But what about Reliant?  Well, I’m not sure yet.  It certainly still had good potential for a number of projects, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

Upgrades!! Part 2 Installing an Intel T9300 in my Dell Inspiron 1525 Laptop Computer

After literally weeks of waiting my Intel T9300 has finally arrived.  Honestly, my performance on this laptop has been adequate for my usage needs, so I’m not sure there was any real necessity to upgrade my CPU on this machine.  But an approximately 60% performance improvement (based on the Passmark website averages for the Intel T3200 & T9300 CPUs) for just $24 seemed too good to pass up.  When the CPU finally did arrive it came in the thinnest box I’ve ever received.  I was a bit worried that the CPU would have some bent pins.  Fortunately the CPU was not damaged.

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From the research I did before hand I found that the T9300 was the best value for performance increase available for the Dell Inspiron 1525.  In the past I have always found that CPUs that are a few steps down from the very best are usually the best value for money.  For example, the Intel T9500 is only about 8% better than the T9300, but the going price on these right now is $46!  Almost double the cost for a negligible performance increase.

My first step was to install the Passmark PerformanceTest 7.0 test suite to test the system.  I did a trial run of the CPU testing suite expecting to achieve results similar to the averages posted on the Passmark site.  In the past systems I have tested have been very close to the averages as shown on their site.  So when I saw the following results I wasn’t at all surprised.  The Passmark site average for the Intel T3200 is just 1046 – so a 1012 is pretty close to the average.  However, if you look at the CPU usage graph at the top of the screenshot below you’ll see the CPU at 59%.  After I noticed that I realized that one core was already running at 100% so I killed the process causing the issue and reran the test.

Screenshot from 2016-03-21 13-01-16

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To my surprise the cpumark score was in the high 1580s.  I was pretty shocked so I tested the system again twice and each time the score was within a few points.  This number was 50% better than the average.  I was only hoping to achieve a score of about 1680 with the new CPU and seeing how high the score was already I was a little worried that there wouldn’t be much benefit to the upgrade.  Regardless, I have the chip and I’m certainly going to install the thing.

Doing the work:

To replace the CPU on the Inspiron 1525 I needed to remove the large access panel on the bottom of the laptop.  Once removed there also is access to the RAM slots as well as the wlan, wwan & uwb slots.

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With the access cover off I then removed the CPU/GPU heatsink assembly.  There are five numbered screws on the assembly.  I would assume one is supposed to screw them in numerical order.  So with that in mind I unscrewed them in the reverse order.  Here is a view with the heatsink removed:

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The CPUs look pretty similar but the T9300 has a larger die.  Switching the chips out was pretty simple.  There is a lock on the CPU socket that needs to be turned with a flat screwdriver to release the CPU.  Then the installed chip can be easily lifted right out of the socket.

With the new chip in I was excited to boot the system.  Unfortunately the machine would only turn on for a few seconds, the screen didn’t even light up.  I was a little worried that the chip was bad, but then I realized I probably should have updated the BIOS.  Of course, I had to switch back to the original chip to get the computer to boot again.  What was worse was that there doesn’t appear to be a non-Windows BIOS update program for this particular machine.  So I was forced to boot an old laptop HDD that still had Windows 7 installed so I could run the Dell BIOS update.  I was on revision A16, and there was only one newer update, A17.  Luckily the BIOS flashed properly.  I rebooted the system to give a little test for stability and then proceeded to switch out the processor once again.  This time, success!  I hit the setup key to enter the BIOS and it seemed to freeze up the computer.  It turned out it was just doing something, very, very slowly.

Worth the 24 bucks?:

Now for the performance test.  Given the higher performance numbers that this machine generated on the old chip, I was at least hopeful of similarly better performance for the new chip.  But I didn’t rule out the possibility that I would only see the performance number that the Passmark site shows.  After a few minutes of waiting and wow!

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With the T9300 installed the machine pulled Cpumark score in the 2380s.  Which is a 50% performance increase over the T3200 chip.  I’m not sure what the discrepancy is for the superior performance of this particular Dell laptop.  I may have turned off any power saving features in the BIOS, however I don’t recall doing so.  It may also be because I have openSUSE linux installed.  My speculation here is that Linux may be able to use the system more efficiently.  Though that seems unlikely as well.  When I have used the Passmark software in the past I have achieved very similar results to the averages.  Usually a few percentage points above average but not too much.  I generally attribute that to the motherboard or performance features in the BIOS.

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The comparison between the chips is very interesting.  In some areas the T9300 is twice as fast as the T3200.  However in other areas the T9300 only out performs the T3200 by about 20%.

The upgrade worked great and I am very happy with the performance of the machine.  In my original article about this Dell Inspiron 1525 I figured that this laptop cost me about $91 including an estimated cost of parts I had on hand as well as parts I purchased including this Intel T9300 processor.  With this CPU upgrade my performance is still about 30% lower than the i5-460M in our other laptop.  But since my actual cost was only $40 out of pocket I really can’t complain.

The Next Day:

So after writing up this article I started to feel more and more like how could these numbers be so skewed compared to the averages on the Passmark test site.  The next thing I did was install the Passmark PerformanceTest 8.0.  When I ran the CPU again I came up with a result of approximately 2030 on each of 3 occasions.  This seems to be a rather large difference between versions.  Now I was curious how the old T3200 would perform.  So I ended up reinstalling the T3200 and rerunning the CPU tests.  On three tests I averaged out at 1360, which is 30% faster than the average.  The T9300 test results of 2030 are roughly 20% faster than the site average.

The interesting thing about both versions of PerformanceTest is that the T9300 outperforms the T3200 by about 50% overall in each version.  So, although the numbers were different between versions, they did effectively come up with the same results.

Though it was a pain to switch back and forth to the old CPU the information it provided was worth the effort.  I’m still very happy with the upgrade!

Small Budget 11TB openSUSE 42.1 Linux Raid 6 NFS/Samba File Server

Putting together a cheap Linux raid NFS/Samba server is a great way to centralize files & backups from everyone at home or the office.  For many users a NAS is a great way to go because they come pre-configured and do just the one job.  However the biggest drawback I see to those devices is the price, not to mention the lack of expansion potential.  When it comes to a NFS/Samba file sever any old dual core PC will work fine and you don’t even need much RAM.

The Preliminary Stuff – Finding/Picking the Parts:

This build was made entirely from used parts I had on hand aside from the 6x 3TB Hitachi hard disk drives.  To start I need to decide the rough specifications of the machine.  In this case I wanted at least a Core 2 Duo, preferably one with a passmark cpumark score of about 2000.  I was hoping to use an Intel E8400 or E8500 Core 2 Duo CPU.  I decided that 4GB of RAM was certainly sufficient and I picked the case, power supply & extra fan based on aesthetics.  However it didn’t hurt that the case had enough room, the power supply was decent and had enough power and even the fan was pleasantly quiet for a non-motherboard controlled molex type connection.

As for the motherboard, the main requirement was that it have 6 onboard SATA ports.  This is important as I wanted to run a 6 disk raid.  In the past I have built 8 drive raid arrays with twin PCI or PCIe controller cards.  Though I do not recommend that as a preferred practice.  Sure it works but the possibility for an entire controller to fallout is possible, thereby destroying the RAID array.  So, if at all possible I try to stick with a raid that can be run on one host controller.  I will admit I am a fan of Intel boards, they certainly do seem very reliable.  That being said, it is no surprise that I found the DQ965GF as a perfect fit for my project.  This board has 6 SATA ports and though it doesn’t support the E8400 or E8500 it does support many other similar CPUs.  I also selected a SIIG PCIe SATA controller card to control the boot drive.

Most of the decisions regarding parts on this machine were a small dilemma.  I don’t want to waste tech that would be better suited elsewhere.  On the other hand, I have lots of decent machines, shouldn’t my main file sever be nice?  Since this is one of my machines that will probably  fill a significant roll for a few years I figured I should make it look cool as well as function well.  So I picked a Core 2 Quad Q6600 for the main CPU along with 4 matched Crucial 1GB DDR2 667MHz memory modules.

Parts List:

Rosewill Challenger Case
Intel D945xx Motherboard
Intel Q6600 Core 2 Quad CPU
4x Micron 1GB DDR2 667MHz RAM
1x Hitachi 250GB SATA HDD
6x Hitachi 3TB SATA HDD
1x SIIG SATA Raid Controller (for added SATA ports only)
2x 3.5″ to 5.25″ Drive Bay Adapters
Extra Blue LED 120MM Case Fan
Raidmax RX 530SS – 530 Watt Modular Power Supply
Thermal Paste, Screws, Zip Ties etc…

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Moving Forward:

To begin assembly I installed the CPU and the RAM while the motherboard was still out of the case.  I had cleaned the CPU cooler and fan earlier in the day.  Fortunately this case had a similar Intel motherboard installed with the same standoff pattern so I was able to simply install this one into the case without changing the standoffs.  I did not find the I/O shield for this board, but really I don’t care.

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Next I started adding the disk drives.  I had originally planned to add 4 of the 3TB drives in the lower 3.5″ drive bays, and use two 5.25″ to 3.5″ drive bay converters to install the last two 3TB drives in the top bays.  I installed the 250GB boot drive in the bottom 3.5″ drive bay.

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After some test fitting and thought I decided it would be best to spread the hard drives out a bit more if possible.  I moved the 250GB boot disk into the lower external 3.5″ drive bay.  I then went and found a third 3.5″ to 5.25″ drive bay adapter and then rearranged the internal 3.5″ drive bays so there was an empty slot between the drives.  The machine now has a nice amount of open air between all of the disk drives.

After installing the disk drives I needed to install the 120mm fan to keep the upper drives cool.  This was pretty simple, I just zip tied it to the adapter rails of the uppermost hard disk drive.  Luckily the 5.25″ to 3.5″ adapter rails provided enough depth clearance for the fan to fit between the case bezel and end of the adapters.  In addition, because it is only connected at the top, the fan can swing up to allow removal of the lower drives.  Certainly this may not be the prescribed methodology for installing a second fan, but it has served me well in the past.

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In the image above I tried to route the front panel cables along the side of the case bezel.  I removed the audio connector wire, as well as the eSATA connector since I find it doubtful I will use either.  I have a few of two types of cable management “loops” with self adhesive bottoms that I use for situations like this.  I’m not really sure why the case manufacturer didn’t route the cables this way.  When new these cases just have the cables run through the 5.25″ drive bays but there is a convenient cable management hole next to the external 3.5″ drive bays.

The Raidmax 530SS power supply was used in a previous project and was in need of some cleaning.  I should have done a before and after though I am sure you can imagine.  The cleaning worked very well, the blades on the fan look great and the dust inside was easily blown/brushed out.

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With the power supply clean my next step was to get it installed.  It is often a project to get the cables routed just to my liking.  Ideally I’d like this rig to have nice looking well routed cables.  Things don’t always work out but in this case the cable routing worked alright – at least for the power cables.  Once installed I tested the machine to make sure the fans weren’t too loud and to check out the dual blue front fan.

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As you might notice, I installed the SATA controller card for the primary disk drive as well.  I also needed to rearrange the drives in the 5.25″ bays.  One of the adapters needed to be too far back to clear the fan.  However because it was too far back it was pressing up against the ATX power connector pretty hard.  In this lower position the drive is pretty close to a capacitor, I must have another drive adapter around here somewhere.  One thing I would like to do is to paint the drive adapter shown in the middle 5.25″ bay.  I only used that adapter because I don’t think I have any other of the gold anodized type.  It is nice because the drive placement matches the other adapter set I have but since I decided to move the third drive to the upper drive bays mid build I grabbed something quick I knew would work.

The final step was to install the SATA data cables.  I like to do the drives in order with the SATA ports.  For example, make the bottom drive connected to port SATA0, and move up in order so that the top drive is port SATA5.  That way if you do get a failed drive, say /dev/sdd, you can be pretty sure that is the drive connected to port SATA3.  I have noticed some boards or systems don’t always match the port names listed on the board to the port number in BIOS or maybe rather the OS does not report them in the same way, I don’t know for sure.

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With the SATA cables installed the machine looks a bit overrun with cabling.  I probably should have used shorter cables, but these were a known good set, and they were all bundled together.  I may go back and rework the data cables on this machine at some point, though it seems doubtful really.

Finishing things up:

It was late when I finished doing the hardware build.  I didn’t have it connected to a monitor or keyboard or anything but everything seemed to sound fine.  The following morning I attached the keyboard, monitor and mouse as well as a DVD drive so I could get the OS installed.  I had one issue, the recycled SATA controller card appeared faulty.  It would find the devices attached but would take forever, and had problems no matter which devices were connected.  As it happens, sometimes things are in the trash for a reason…  Fortunately I had a Startech card that I used to replace the SIIG card and my problem was solved.  Another small problem was the DVD drive I picked out didn’t want to boot.  I’m not sure why, but I swapped it out for another and I was on to install the OS.

I installed my standard operating system openSUSE on this machine.  I used the latest 42.1 release and installed the minimal command line only version.  Before the final boot to the installer I unplugged the power from all the 3TB SATA drives.  I’m always fearful that the boot loader will get installed on a drive other than the disk I want to install the OS on.  For the partition setup, I “short stroked” the hard drive using a partition of just 6GB for /.  The openSUSE installation used just 1.3GB.  System RAM usage is at just 101MB without buffers/cache.  It takes the system 12 seconds to go from grub to the login prompt.

Overall I’m quite happy with the system.  The performance seems adequate and all of the newly acquired drives appear fine – smartctl shows them all to pass.  The case fans look awesome and the final price was just $318 ($278 for the 3TB drives, $20 for the power supply & $20 for the case – everything else I had on hand).

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(Note: the featured image and the image shown directly above were taken before I installed the SATA cables.)

5 Days Later:

After a few days of testing I have found the machine and components fully competent.  The used hard drives all appear to be working well and the SMART data says they are all good.  The CPU motherboard and RAM are all apparently fine as well.  The system appears stable and has not crashed.  The server is able to fully saturate a gigabit network with 120/125 MB/s file transfer speeds.  I simply copied files from the server to a terminal to test the speed.  I did need to make two concurrent file copies as none of my receiving hard drives can write data at that speed.  Surprisingly a 500GB traditional disk was able to write at 95MB/s while a OCZ TRION 120GB SSD was only able to write about 70MB/s (same system/bus).

A friend of mine who read this article commented to me that most people might not have those other parts lying about.  Certainly that is true, the additional cost of purchasing the same parts on eBay that I had would be:

$30 – Intel DQ965GF Motherboard
$20 – Startech 2 Port SATA Controller
$15 – Intel Q6600 Core 2 Quad
$12 – 4x 1GB Crucial RAM
$10 – Hitachi 250GB HDD
$6 – 120MM LED Fan
$6 – 6x SATA Cables

This would add another $99 to the build for a grand total of $417.  Which is still less than many of those little NAS boxes – without any disks!  But let’s keep in mind that these are the prices on eBay, and also, that I only used those specific parts because I had them already.   The setup I have built is a little overkill.  While doing multiple concurrent backups as well as copying data from the server to a terminal I never saw the CPU usage go over 25%.  I believe the slowest of the Core 2 Duo chips is about a third as powerful as the Q6600 so any C2D system should work well.  Readers out there can easily purchase an old Core 2 Duo for next to nothing on craigslist, if not even acquire an old one from friends or family who have retired them.  Purchasing a prebuilt system or CPU/MB/RAM combo can be even cheaper than buying things separately.  Old Dells, Compaq and HPs can be had starting at $45-$50 (shipped) with Core 2 Duo CPUs and 4GB RAM on eBay.  This type of machine would be perfect to gut and reuse – and the old case (including the plastic parts) can be dropped off at your local metal recycling yard.

In the end I am still happy with the system.  The only negative is that is is a little loud.  It has 6 fans inside, which may be a few too many.  Maybe I’ll add some fans that are controlled via the motherboard – unfortunately there are only two headers on the motherboard for case fans.  Still a great machine and a bargain to boot!

My Recycling Rescue Dell Inspiron 1525 Laptop

Recently I rescued this Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop from the recycler.  I’m not sure how much I paid for this machine exactly as it came in a large group.  We can probably just say I paid about $5 for the laptop.  Though this isn’t a fancy or high performance system it is a great piece of hardware for everyday computer use.  I plan to use this system for web browsing, blogging and some light photo editing.  Of course I may also use it to watch some videos or listen to some music (on headphones of course) from time to time, and maybe even play some simple games.  System hardware as found:

CPU – Intel T3200 Dual Core 2.0GHz (Passmark 1047)
2GB DDR2 RAM
HDD – Faulty

I also happen to have another Dell Inspiron 1525 carcass from an unfortunate accident that has many spare parts.

When I found the machine it did not have a working hard drive.  There was no power adapter, and I cannot recall if the battery I have in the machine now was with it when found, or with the old 1525 I had.  Either way, I had one good battery and a charger.  With the charger plugged in the laptop sprung to life.  It appeared at first though that the battery did not charge.  I was under the impression that when the old 1525 was up and running the battery did not charge either.  This made me think the cheapo replacement charger was just junk.

I started using the 1525 with a 250GB 2.5″ HDD I had sitting around.  I installed openSUSE 42.1 and started using the machine lightly.  I had some system lockups and something made me think that it was hard drive related.  I then reinstalled openSUSE to a 16GB SSD to try and rule out the hard drive as an issue.  Unfortunately I continued to have sporadic system lockups.

As it turns out, once in a while the charger does work.  I did not notice this at first, because I did not know the battery was even charging at all.  When it does charge, sometimes the computer locks up.  I have noticed complaints about the video systems in the log files.  My guess is that the gpu or video card circuits are overheating when the battery is charging.  The entire machine tends to generate a good amount of heat, even though the fan radiator is clean and the fan itself is working fine (I pulled it off and cleaned it early on even though it wasn’t very dirty to start).  I am hopeful a CPU upgrade will alleviate some of the heat issue.  The battery that is installed is a higher capacity model and I can use the machine easily for 1.5-2 hours per charge.  This certainly may not sound too impressive, however, for an 8 year old laptop, I think that is pretty good.  I have taken to using it only when on battery power to avoid the lock-ups.  Since this is a secondary system I find the battery life quite suitable.  Another thought I had was, is it possible that the lockup problem is because of the generic power adapter?

The system came to me with 2GB of RAM, but can have 4GB maximum installed.  Some sources on the internet seem to imply that 8GB will work – but for my usage scenario I really don’t think I’ll need more than 4GB anyway.  Fortunately I was lucky enough to find a matched pair of 2GB DDR2 memory modules lying about between my spare parts and another parts donor machine.  With recycled computers, I take to testing the memory with memtest on every module.  No sense in chasing down issues caused by a bad module.  I also replaced the Wi-Fi card with an Intel one that supports wireless N networks.  In addition, I added a second Intel Wi-Fi card into the wwan slot.  I’m not sure why really, I have no need to connect to any second wireless network.  In addition, a second card running is probably draining the battery quicker, yikes!

I have tried to spend very little money on this machine.  Due to the age of the machine upgrades could cost as much as purchasing a newer “old” laptop.  Other than the primary machine cost of $5, I purchased an Intel T9300 CPU for $24 and a HDD adapter caddy for the DVD slot for $11.  All in all that’s just $40, which isn’t bad.  The performance of the new CPU should be about 60% faster, coupled with the SSD will let this machine remain viable.

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On the flip side I would note that we purchased a laptop for my wife for $95.  Her machine is an Intel Core i5 M460, it came with 4GB RAM, and the battery and charger were in working order, as was the hard drive (a conventional 160GB I believe) and everything else.  The passmark site rates the Core i5 M460 at 2353, and the T9300 that is en-route for my laptop has an average score of 1686.  Additionally, without the parts I had lying about I would have had to spend nearly or as much as purchasing the i5 laptop to build a comparable machine.

One sad note is that there may actually be some large problems with this laptop.  On occasion I have had an issue where the OS just goes to sleep as if the lid was shut.  I am hopeful that it is just an OS issue as I stopped the issue once by rebooting the machine.  The issue does not present often but is frustrating when it does happen because the system will go to sleep, and then I push the power and it comes out of hibernation fast, but will sometimes go right back to sleep.  My concern is that it is an issue with the hinge switch/wiring.  The right side hinge doesn’t open well and the case gets pried apart a little when the lid is opened and closed.  I try to be very careful with it, but perhaps a little lubricant on the hinge will solve the issue.  In addition the touchpad is in bad condition.  It touch clicks very easily and sometimes is unresponsive to touch at all.  Since it is integrated into the main body of the computer it can only be replaced by replacing the entire palmrest which is also the top half of the body piece.  It requires a lot of work to tear down of the computer to replace.  This is something I am very reluctant to do.  I do have one on the old Inspiron 1525, but I am uncertain whether it is in any better condition and it is also has a small piece cracked off  near one of the hinges (which could be fixed easily enough with some super glue I suppose).  One final issue is the charging of the battery.  It appears that the system BIOS does not recognize my charger as a Dell charger every time.  However after unplugging and plugging the power cord back in several times (usually 3) the charge light will come on.

I don’t suppose I needed any of the upgrades that were purchased specifically for the machine.  I would estimate the parts I had on hand and installed were worth about $41 ($15 SSD, $10 4GB DDR2 RAM, $11 Dell Charger, $5 Intel Wi-Fi card).  We can add another $10 for the 250GB secondary HDD I installed too.  If we add that $51 with the $40 that I actually spent we would come up with $91.  When you compare the two machines they are similar in specification.  Certainly the machine my wife owns is a newer generation but it is only about 25% faster than my upgraded Inspiron.  And in actual use with the SSD as the primary drive the Inspiron may in fact have the edge.  With the secondary disk drive installed the Inspiron also has 106GB more storage.

As I mentioned earlier I am using the openSUSE 42.1 Leap Linux distribution.  I am a fan and I install suse on all of my machines.  Since this machine only has 4GB of RAM I try to keep my number of tabs low in my web browser.  I also make sure to close any unused programs to free the memory.  Since this is one of the oldest and slowest machines on our network I was a little concerned that this latest version of suse would be too much for this machine.  Apparently I did not need to worry.  I was able to install and run suse normally with Gnome as my desktop.  I always install a number of extensions I find useful including a bottom bar and a favorites launcher.

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Ultimately I am happy with the computer.  Once I figured out the quirks of the machine it was simple to use effectively for my needs.  I like the fact that the laptop is still being useful and wasn’t needlessly destroyed.  And of course, I liked building it too.  Once in a while refer to it as my Frankenstein laptop since the parts came from so many sources – and was resurrected from the dead.  I’m hoping for a long trouble free life for this laptop though only time will tell!

 

Dell Inspiron 1525 Upgrades! – Adding a Second Hard Disk Drive

One of the few upgrades that can be done to the Inspiron 1525 is adding a second hard disk drive.  In some ways it is less of an upgrade and more of a feature swap as the DVD drive must be removed to add the second hard drive.  Personally I would far rather have the added storage of a second hard disk versus a DVD drive that is more than likely only used to install the OS.  This is probably why I consider this an upgrade.

My first step was to look on ebay and see if I could find a bay adapter that fits the Dell Inspiron 1525.  I found this no name adapter for just $10.99.  Unfortunately it came from China and apparently took the slow boat…  Well not really of course, but the seller waited nearly a week before they even shipped the item.

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Humorously enough this caddy doesn’t have any part numbers or compatibility listing on the packaging.  Ordinarily I would assume to see something that says fits such and such devices.  The adapter included a small screw driver and had some protective plastic that needed to be removed.

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This adapter supports all standard 2.5″ SATA drives.  I had a number of 2.5″ drives sitting around and picked the largest one I had – 250GB.  The drive is also only 5400 RPM, so I would hope that uses less electricity.

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The drive gets set down into the caddy and is then slid back to connect the drive.  The adapter has two screws to secure the front half (opposite of the connector end) of the drive.  The connection end is held in with the connector – which is a common drive retention method on both 2.5″ & 3.5″ drives.

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Removing the original DVD drive is very easy.  Just one screw holds the drive in place.  Once removed I was able to just pull the drive out of the slot.  However I did pop half of the drive face plate off while it was being removed.  This was no problem though as the face plate is easily popped on and off of the drive.

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With the drive already installed in the adapter and the DVD drive out I was ready to install the second hard disk into the computer.  Though the drive slid in easily, there is no tab for the single screw that retains the stock DVD drive.  I haven’t noticed this to be a problem, the drive adapter seems very securely installed.  Unfortunately the face plate that is installed on the drive adapter is not correct for the Dell Inspiron 1525.  No worries though, the stock face plate on the DVD easily installed onto the adapter and made the adapter look totally stock.  One question I have is, why is the face plate on the adapter printed up to look like a DVD drive?  I could understand if they reused actual Inspiron 1525 DVD drive face plates, but what is the point of printing DVD markings on a disk drive adapter bay.  I would think that a plain piece of plastic would have been ideal.

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After installing the part I booted the computer.  I was going to check the BIOS to see if the drive was found automatically.  I missed hitting the enter setup input key in time and because I have a SSD installed in this machine I was into the OS before I knew it.  When I brought up nautilus (file explorer) I immediately saw the drive in the left panel.

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Overall I am very happy with the end result.  The installation went very easily, and it is a very easy swap if I need to use the original drive in the future.  The next upgrade will be the installation of a Intel T9300 Core 2 Duo CPU – sadly, it too is on the slow boat from China.

My First Computer – Compudyne 3SXL/25 386 25MHz Notebook Laptop

The year was 1995, I was 15 years old and I loved computers.  I spoke about my history with computers in another post chris80502 The Early Computer Years.  This post will discuss the first machine I owned, the Compudyne 3SXL/25.

At the time of purchase it cost $684 and was already years out of date.  Especially when you consider the Intel Pentium processor was released in 1993.  However, for me, it was the best machine that I could reasonably acquire.

Specifications:

Intel 80386SX 25MHz CPU
4MB RAM (expandable to 6MB)
80MB Hard Drive
Integrated trackball
64 Shade Monochrome LCD Display
1.44 MB Floppy Disk Drive
Serial, Parallel, PS/2 & 15 pin DSub VGA Ports
100-pin Toshiba Compatible Expansion Slot Connector
24Watt/hr NiCad Battery
MS-DOS 5.00 with Windows 3.1

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The image of the laptop on the manual cover shown above is an actual and accurate representation of the real machine.  The Compudyne Microsoft WINDOWS 3.1 Concise Edition was just that, it is about 1/3 the thickness of the standard Windows manual of that era.  Unfortunately my books have “aged”, but I doubt many other copies remain today.  After a quick search on ebay there appears to be very little Compudyne related material floating around in the collector market.

A Brief but Enlightened Existence

As my first machine I was interested in experimenting with all sorts of different things that I had not had the opportunity to experiment with before.  Mostly software related, things like reinstalling the OS or doing some programming in qBasic.  I even installed Windows 95 on the machine, but it took something like 4 whole minutes to boot to the desktop.  Once booted with Win 95 the system was so slow it could hardly be used for anything.  I ended up settling back on DOS and Windows 3.1.

As you might imagine, I also played many games.  Those were the days of all sorts of fun shareware.  I would spend countless hours playing games like Wolfenstein in 3D, Doom, Packrat, Crystal Caves and Cosmos Cosmic Adventure amongst many others.  Indeed I owned some software of my own, most notably Lightspeed (a super cool early 3D RTS space sim with commerce, resource gathering, ship upgrades and combat!).

Primarily though I did a lot of programming on this machine.  I created a software program about Egypt and the pyramids for history class.  I created another program that did virtual frog dissection, and yet another that was about spider anatomy.  I was always working on some new bit of code or trying out some other fun idea.  One of my biggest projects was to create my own operating system, or rather like Windows as it was software that would run in DOS as Win 3.1 and earlier had always done.  I started work on a system which I called Isoworks.  I had created a basic user interface as well as some simple utilities, even a GUI icon creator for my new system.  When the system finally died, a lot of this code was lost, locked on a disk I couldn’t access.

Since this was a laptop I wasn’t able to upgrade much.  However I did add an external parallel port Addonics 2X CD-ROM drive.  In those days that device cost $300, if I had wanted to get the 4X, it would have been $600!

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I recently found the one shown above at a computer recycler I know.  I could hardly believe it when I saw this one, it looks very much like the one I had originally.  This one is marked 12x on the bottom and the installed CD-ROM appears to be different than the one I had in the past.  At any rate, the case is the same, as is the bold blue Addonics Portable CD sticker on the side of the drive.  Using the device was pretty straight forward.  Have the parallel port mode set correctly in BIOS, plug in the cable and use the included software in your autoexec.bat to start the driver.  With bulky cables and at a little over 5 lbs. you can imagine this CD-ROM was pretty cumbersome for portable use.

The battery on this Compudyne Notebook never worked.  I had looked into purchasing a new battery, but at the time they were quite expensive – maybe as much as $200.  Couple this with the portable CD-ROM and I practically had a desktop anyway.

The Beginning of the End

At some point not long into my ownership of the machine I started having trouble with the keyboard.  I found that the cable to the motherboard had started cracking in two.  I’m not sure if I caused the issue myself, or if it was just plain defective.  Regardless I had no warranty but I was brazen enough to attempt to fix the device myself.  Sadly though I only made problems worse.  I tried to do a soldering job to reattach the halves, that only melted the cable up.  At that point I was stuck and didn’t know what to do.  I ended up using the keyboard port with an external keyboard.  The days of this machine being a laptop were over.

It wasn’t long after having to use the external keyboard that I started looking into getting a new computer.  The truth is, I don’t remember what finally killed this machine.  All I know for sure is that it must have died, because I wasn’t able to retrieve my data (programs/code I had written) that were on that 80MB disk.  I had pulled the disk thinking I could use it with an adapter in a desktop machine, however I never found the right type.  I do still have the drive, maybe it works, who knows though after all these years.

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Regrettably this is all that remains of my Compudyne 3SXL/25.  I believe I got rid of the rest of the machine with some other computer waste in the mid-late 2000’s.

Rambling Bits…

Though it wasn’t much of a machine it allowed me to learn skills I later used and improved upon throughout my life.  I will always have a fond memory of this machine for that reason.  But it also reminds me of a time when I had dreamed of becoming a millionaire, having my own multi-national computer software company and creating my own user interface!

Trust Me…

This is a time honored truth that I have “learned” time and time again.  Basically I’ve come to understand that you can never trust someone who tells you “trust me”.  On the surface that seems pretty obvious, someone shouldn’t need to tell you to trust them.  However, the people who have burned me in the past with “trust me” always seem to have a way about them.  Something about their personality when they say trust me somehow puts their victim at ease.  Clearly they can sense the other persons trepidation, this is when the “trust me” appears.  But what is it that makes that “trust me” so convincing?

The last time this happened to me was when I sold my AMC Eagle SX/4 near the end of 2012.  At the time I had a collection of 4 vehicles (this was pretty impressive as I was living in the downtown of a college area, where parking was at a premium).  A number of things happened that year that forced me to move to a city about 45 miles away.  With the move I was going to lose the extra parking spaces I had, so I decided to sell off two of my cars.  I had placed an add for the Eagle on craigslist and got few responses.  Soon enough though someone was interested but they only wanted to pay half.  I was asking $1200, mostly because the car was from California (I live in the north where cars rust).  Not to mention it only had 66k on the odometer, black interior (in decent shape) and it was a 4 speed!  Anyway I spoke with the guy about the car and he came over to see it start.  It had lost the clutch cylinder so it couldn’t be driven at the time.  We got the car to start and I agreed to $800 on the car and a tow for my 1983 Camaro Z28 to my new place.  I’m happy to help someone out a little and I thought it was a reasonable deal.  Payment came in the form of a check that the soon to be buyer had received from a painting job he had done.  Certainly this was a red flag, but time was short for me to finalize things at my old place.  We made arrangements for him to come back and tow my Camaro and I gave him the title.  This is when I make the fatal mistake.  After I give him the title, I still had the keys.  I was going to give them to him, but then I hesitated.  That’s when the “trust me” came out.  And as you already know, I did, and I gave him the keys.  Well sure enough, the car was gone when I got home from work and I never heard from him again.  He got just what he wanted, the car for $600, and I was stuck without a way to tow my other car.  I called, he never answered.  Luckily there wasn’t an issue with the check he signed over to me.  I suppose I could have pursued things further, but to what end?  Can you partially steal a car, or would I have been on my own in a civil case anyway?  I guess it matters little now.

So this was just one example.  I’m sure that many among you wouldn’t be so easily fooled.  However, I know that many others have fallen victim to similar situations.  I guess all you can do is try and learn your lesson and keep your wits about you in the future.

53 Hour Battery Life on HTC one-M9 after Android 6 Upgrade!

A few days ago I wrote the post:  “Wow!! 48 Hours Of Battery…”.  To summarize, I discuss the vastly improved battery life on my phone after upgrading to Android 6.  When I wrote that article my phone had been on for one day.  I estimated at the time that the phone should have last me until at least 6pm the next day.

Onto the next day.  The discharge curve indeed held and the phone lasted until about 6:40pm, which was 10 minutes short of 53 hours.  I did allow the phone to go into energy saver mode at 15%.  I would also note that I believe I used the phone more often on the second day, making the battery life even more impressive.

I suppose none of that sounds impressive compared to some other phones.  My HTC one-M9 seems to use a lot of power, and not having to charge it every day is a fantastic new feature.

The people at Google deserve some real credit for this improvement.  If every phone that upgrades gets similar battery life improvement – then the people at Google have saved the world literally millions of dollars.  Numerous internet sources state that over 1 billion Android devices shipped in 2014.  I’m not sure how that number is broken down between tablets and phones, so lets just say 500 million phones.  Now lets do some math:

500,000,000 Devices
* $0.50 US to charge per year (approx)
= $250,000,000 per year
– 1/2 = $125,000,000 – PER YEAR

To be clear, I’m far more excited about charging my phone less/having more power when I need it than I am with the cost savings.  Since the actual charging cost is so nominal I can’t imagine it being an issue for anyone.  However, we live in a day and age where people worry about pulling their charger out of the wall to save the same 50 cents per year (or rather to be green and save the electricity which is the more valuable commodity).  Which is awesome too.

Anyway, great work Google, thanks so much!!