49 Posts in Category 'Hardware' RSS

Review: Logitech Performance MX

I have a long list of companies I won't buy from, due to horrible customer service experiences or shoddy merchandise. On the other hand, my "Must buy from this company" list is awfully short.

Logitech is one company I'm generally OK buying from. (For now...) I go through computer mouses1 pretty fast, so I end up buying a new one every 4-5 years. Logitech hasn't failed me thus far.

In my opinion, the most important parts of your computer are the ones you interact with: Keyboard, mouse, monitor. I'd rather have a slow computer with a good mouse and keyboard than a fast computer with cheap peripherals. I already have a wonderful keyboard, and I like to have a nice mouse to match.

My latest mouse is the Logitech Performance MX.

Logitech Performance MX

July 26, 2010 @ 6:51 AM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

DD-WRT: 1, Microsoft: 0

An xbox360 wireless card is $100, and it's theoretically the only wireless card that works with an xbox, so if you want wireless internet, you have to buy that card. I guess the idea is to sell the console cheap (for sufficiently large values of "cheap") and then gouge customers on proprietary cables and addons afterward. Microsoft isn't the only company that does this, by far. (Not nearly as bad as $20 for 8MB worth of PS2 memory card. Ughhhh.)

Fortunately, if you have a spare Linksys router lying around (as I do) you can throw DD-WRT on it, put it into Client Mode, connect your xbox to the router via a bit of ethernet cable, and there you go. I can also plug my aging desktop machine (sans wireless card) into the same router, and two other devices if I can find any.

Installing DD-WRT was surprisingly straightforward if you take the time to read through the wiki instructions first very carefully. A bit of healthy paranoia of turning your hardware into a brick goes a long way.

15 minutes, $100+ savings. Thanks again, Linux and open-source community.

April 20, 2010 @ 7:32 AM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

ATH-AD700 Review

Recently I got my ATH-AD700 headphones. I've been FAR more excited than anyone has a right to be, waiting for these things to show up, like Christmas in August. Sweet, sweet anticipation. It was well worth the wait.

The only other headphones I have to compare these with are my Grado SR80's (which have really seen better days) and some Shure "noise-cancelling" earbuds which are nice but are not comparable to either. So I'll compare the AD700 to the SR80's. ATH-AD700's are pictured left, Grado SR80's are right.

Headphones Headphones

(Note: Nowhere in this article shall I refer to anything as "cans". I reserve the right to retain some level of self-righteous, snobbish disdain for the audiophile community.)

This post is related to Audiophail
August 17, 2009 @ 5:10 PM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

Audiophail

My Grado SR-80 headphones are more electrical tape than headphone at this point. Inexplicably, sound continues to come out of them. The wires have so many breaks that I'm not sure how this is physically possible.

Also the top of the band is also splitting apart and the pads are worn down and fall off constantly and there are pokey plastic bits that hurt my ears a lot. After prying them apart with a hammer and screwdriver to fix the wires a few times, they look like they've been through a wood chipper. I love those things but it is time for retirement.

Researching headphones can suck up months of your time if you let it, especially if you believe the bullcrap. Going to an "audiophile" site like Head-Fi is like entering a new world. I have no idea what any of the vocabulary means.

"Detailed", "neutral", "open soundstage", I can figure those out to some degree. But what the hell do "sweet" and "dark" and "thick" and "smooth" mean with regard to headphone quality? Are we talking about music or chocolate? What do "forward" and "recessed" and "transparent" and "analytical" mean? These are rhetorical questions, I don't care what they mean. I have my doubts that they even mean anything objective.

Then there are strange beliefs, like that letting your headphones run for 100 hours to "burn them in" when they're new will make them sound better. I'd really like to see that theory put to a proper scientific test. I have strong doubts that it's anything more than people's minds fooling themselves. It sounds like voodoo. At least it's not as bad as $7,000 speaker wires.

I can definitely and easily tell the difference between cheapo $5 headphones and my Grado's, but beyond that I really start to doubt that it matters. Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on headphones seems like insanity to me.

For this reason I decided to do next to no research, and went and bought the first pair that I found online that looked comfy, got mostly good reviews, got a couple good reviews on head-fi (as far as I could decipher) and had a price of around $100. I ended up ordering ATH-AD700's from Amazon. Should be here in a week.

This post is related to My Poor Headphones
August 05, 2009 @ 3:17 PM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

Crackberry Acquired

All I ever wanted out of life was to SSH to my computer from a cell phone. That dream has finally come true.

Up to this point I have not owned a cell phone. I bought one a few years back, then I returned it and got a refund because it was pointless. Communicating with other human beings via spoken voice? How trite. My current employer gave me a phone for free but I never used it.

But nowadays cell phones are pretty much mini computers that happen to be able to make phone calls as a side effect. I almost got an iPhone, but I am very wary about hype. Apple's business practices turn me off; the app store is a shystering waiting to happen, their crappy proprietariness makes me puke, their overblown marketing and "image" makes me puke even more. I don't want an MP3 player in my phone; my Cowon D2 is far superior to any silly iPod. And as I tried the touch screen keyboard, I quickly realized that the Blackberry's physical keys win in that category by a mile.

So I got a Blackberry Bold and I'm pretty happy with it so far. I have yet to make a single phone call, but I've put it to good use. I installed all kinds of silly stuff on there, including an SSH client so I can do system maintenance while driving. (Not really, don't worry.) I can look at Google maps when I get lost, which happens embarrassingly often in my car. I can look at Slashdot from the sushi restaurant. I can get the weather updated every 15 minutes, which saves me from rotating my head 25 degrees and looking out the window.

I still object to certain cell phone things on principle. Paying $3 for a 15-second song clip as a ring tone for example; the insanity of this is almost physically painful to me. The Blackberry let me set any old MP3 I wanted as the ring tone though, which is nice.

Paying for text messages is almost as painful. How can it cost a quarter to send 160 bytes of text to another phone, when the whole freaking internet costs orders of magnitude less? How do cell phone companies get away with this? It's such a racket. But I can put IM clients on my phone and use email and I have "unlimited" data transfer each month, so that's nice. (And I really grilled the salesperson about what "unlimited" means. She said some people go into the gigabytes of transfer each month without consequence, so it looks like I need to find a torrent client now!)

Maybe one of these days I'll call someone. What a novel concept.

May 07, 2009 @ 11:26 AM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

Unicomp Customizer keyboard review

I got my Unicomp Customizer 105 in the mail today. This is a keyboard using the same technology as the infamous IBM keyboards of yore.

Why?

The Customizer is an enormous blocky hunk of hard black and grey matte plastic. It is the very antithesis of modern, soft, rounded, Apple-esque fashion. It has no "multimedia" keys, it doesn't glow in the dark, it doesn't have a built-in USB hub, it looks distinctly 80's-ish, and it costs $70. Why on earth would anyone want this thing?

/screenshots/photos/thumbs/customizer.png

A couple of reasons... one is that it's a status symbol of grizzled old hackers. This keyboard has gotten a lot of good reviews, e.g. last year on Slashdot, but I've heard the sentiment repeated elsewhere. There are stories of people rescuing old IBM keyboards out of dumpsters and selling them on ebay.

If it was simply a status symbol I would look away without a second glance. (Which is why I own a Cowon D2 and not an iPod. I like to research my purchases to the point of paranoia.)

But the popularity seems to be backed up by real functionality and build quality. These keyboards have a reputation for being great to type on due to the unique feel of their buckling spring "clicky" keys, and for being indestructible, with some keyboards still in use after two decades. So I decided why not see for myself?

A keyboard is the main tool of my livelihood and one of the main tools of most of my hobbies. It makes sense to try to get the best tool for the job. The three most important parts of a computer in my opinion are the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. CPU? RAM? Hard disk space? I'll take whatever you give me. But the things I interact with on a constant basis, I want those things to be comfortable.

Clicka clicka clicka

Yeah, this thing is clicky. Even after all the reviews, I was unprepared for just how clicky it is. You can feel the click of each keypress in your fingers and hear the clicking from 3 miles away.

I tried pushing a key down slowly to make it click without activating a keypress, and I found it very difficult if not impossible. You can always tell when you've successfully pressed a key on this keyboard: if it clicked, you did; if it didn't click, you didn't.

One bad thing about the clicking is annoying everyone in the room with you. I'm a bit worried I'm slowly going to drive my wife insane.

Finger workout

The keys have a lot of weight to them compared to the mushy feel of modern keyboards (which usually use some rubber or plastic dome under the keys). The Customizer's keys have little springs in them, and you can feel the keys pushing back on your fingers as you type. It feels much different than any other keyboard I've used.

Is it a good or bad feel? I'm undecided. It does feel pretty good, there's a lot of response to the keyboard and you can more easily tell when you miss a key or flub a keypress and hit two keys at once. I think this probably aids accuracy. I don't type more accurately but I more easily notice my mistakes.

I'm afraid the weight might lead to fatigue though; the keys are harder to press than other keyboards and my hands feel like they're getting a workout in comparison. However I've had a few long nights of typing on this keyboard and haven't noticed any more fatigue than usual, so the worry may be unfounded. On the other hand, I do often notice how annoying it is to type on a laptop which has no resistance and no distance to the keys at all. The resistance in this keyboard is a nice change of pace.

Built well?

I think "indestructible" is probably an apt word. I've only had mine for a couple days, but just hefting the thing, you can tell it's built like a tank. Very thick hard plastic all around. It weighs a ton. If I had to choose a keyboard to use as a weapon in a pinch, I'd grab this one immediately.

The keys come off easily; every key is just a cap over a smaller plastic key beneath, and that cap is a simple piece atop a tube with a spring in it. There isn't a lot of room for mechanical failure here unless you lose the springs. Everything comes off and goes back on very easily, which is nice for when I need to clean out the gunk in a year.

I have heard that if you spill a cup of milk into one of these keyboards, you may find it hard to drain. So don't do that.

Lack of features is a feature

Multimedia keys suck. I've never used them. They waste space and the only time I remember they exist is when I push them accidentally.

The Customizer is very "traditional". There are no multimedia keys, no volume controls, no programmable (i.e. useless) macro keys, no email or internet shortcuts. Just the standard 105 keys. This is a plus in my book.

Caps Lock is slightly shortened with a gap between itself and the A key, which is nice to avoid hitting it accidentally. The version of the keyboard I got has a modern Super ("windows") modifier key, but you can get a version without even that, if you like. Otherwise there are no frills.

Speed typing

I took a couple of silly online typing tests, and I got between 75 and 95 WPM with 98% accuracy, which is as good as I've ever gotten. My six-fingered typing style is a bit odd but this keyboard suits me well.

WPM is a terrible measure of programming speed, because programming has a much higher punctuation-to-letter ratio than English prose. So I also tried an Emacs session and a bunch of Vimming, and I experienced no problems. I forgot I was using this keyboard almost immediately, which is a good thing. It means it wasn't annoying me.

Very important to me, as a Vimmer, is the position and size of the Escape key. I have one other keyboard that has Escape offset to the right a half inch, which is horrendous and messes up my Vimming all the time. My other other keyboard has a tiny little Escape key, half as big as a normal key, which is equally bad.

On the Customizer, Escape is positioned off by itself in the corner as it should be, with a ton of space between itself and the number row, and the Escape key itself is freaking enormous. This is a huge plus in my book. You can't miss Escape on this keyboard.

Similarly, all the other keys are the right sizes and in the right places.

Verdict

So how is the Unicomp Customizer?

It's solid, standard, unique, and has a nice retro, minimalist style that I personally enjoy.

It's also huge, loud, and expensive. Is it worth buying? If you have the money to spend, I think it is. I don't regret the buy after a few days. When I come home from work and start typing on this guy, I'm always pleasantly surprised.

April 16, 2009 @ 12:52 PM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

My Poor Headphones

My precious Grado SR-80's needed some emergency surgery a while back, resulting in this disaster. They still work today, in the sense that sound is still emitted from them, but in terms of aesthetics, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. I've got bare wire and sticky electrical tape hanging all over the place. Also I'm probably one good yank away from snapping the wires off again.

If anyone reading this has a good tutorial or information on re-wiring a set of headphones, it'd be appreciated. I've never soldered anything in my life. I don't know where to acquire the wires; I imagine any wire will do, but I'm clueless when it comes to such things. I think I might like to do something like this mod and run the wire up over the top, to prevent the inevitable twisting from destroying the wires in the future, but I'm uncertain I could pull it off without complete destruction.

(At least I know enough about these things to cringe when people start talking about the "performance" of their headphone wires. $400 for a hunk of wire? Wow.)

This post is related to Crap... I fixed them
April 02, 2009 @ 4:45 AM PDT
Cateogory: Hardware

I can't figure out my phone

Bjarne Stroustrup said:

I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone.

I have to agree. My phone at work is indecipherable. What do these buttons do?

  • PROG
  • Call Park
  • DND
  • VM Transfer
  • AUTO
  • DND/CF
  • EXT
  • FLASH
  • Some kind of little squiggle

To the best of my knowledge, there are only so many things you can DO with a phone. It rings, and then you pick it up and talk. Or it rings, you don't pick it up and it goes to voicemail. There are also HOLD and CONF (conference call?) buttons which I never use, but I'll allow that they can be useful. But the rest of those? In my wildest imaginings I can't fathom what they might do.

The phone also has a bunch of lights all over it. Sometimes they light up one color, sometimes another. Sometimes they blink and sometimes they light up steadily. There must be some kind of pattern to them but I don't know it. When lights start lighting up I start pressing buttons and talking to the empty room like a madman, and when someone talks back to me or the lights go out (whichever comes first) I consider that a victory.

What pioneer came up with hidden voicemail options? I call my voicemail, it tells me "To listen to messages, press 1, to do blah blabbity blah, press 2", etc. But there's a HIDDEN OPTION 0 to configure the voicemail, which the disembodied phone demon never tells me about. Why is this knowledge hidden? Is it too powerful for the average phone-user? Do you have to prove yourself worthy of the knowledge first?

I'd like to read a manual for the phone, but I don't think a manual exists. No one knows how the phones work at my job. What knowledge actually exists is sort of spread around via word-of-mouth, like the tribal history of some primitive civilization passed down from generation to generation by village elders telling stories around a campfire.

Is this what people who aren't good at computers feel like when they sit down at a keyboard? Do they look at a screen and see a bunch of meaningless squares and colors and words, where I see buttons and menus and useful GUI widgets?

February 16, 2009 @ 4:36 AM PST
Cateogory: Hardware

Stylus DIY, hand health

The stylus that comes with a Nintendo DS is a very mild form of hand torture. Not sure whose hands those were designed for, but not mine. In googling for a good replacement, I chanced upon a blog post which suggests finding a nice big ballpoint pen and jamming a DS stylus inside so just the tip sticks out. This works amazingly well. It's not as portable, but I will make that sacrifice to prevent being crippled.

I am in fact always a bit worried about preserving the health of my hands. I have no hard data to support this, but I suspect my generation may have major hand-related problems in the coming decades. What with computer keyboards and tiny cell-phone and PDA keys and lots of other techy things. Many of us use our hands to communicate almost as much as our voices. Until we have Star Trek voice-recognition software, this will be a problem.

I started experiencing a lot of aches and pains in my hands and wrists a decade or so ago, and I attributed it to computer use. Since I started paying more attention, things are better. I maintain a very comfortable typing position for my hands. I have a nice big comfortable mouse. And so on. My hands don't hurt any longer nowadays, which is nice. If I become unable to type someday, I'm completely screwed. How can I work as a programmer if I can't input text into a computer? And I won't be able to draw or do origami or play video games or do many other things I enjoy.

February 01, 2009 @ 6:39 AM PST
Cateogory: Hardware

Cowon D2 = awesome MP3 player

I finally broke down and replaced my crusty old Creative Muvo2. Like any self-respecting geek, I agonized over which to buy. I settled on a Cowon D2.

I did tons and tons of research before settling on this. I knew exactly what I was looking for and the D2 met my requirements almost to the letter. So maybe I can save you some time and effort if you share my tastes. My requirements, which the D2 satisfies:

  • 16 GB flash memory. More importantly, expandable via SD / SDHC cards. This means this thing is going to last me a good long time. 8GB of flash memory is $20 or less nowadays, and there are already 32GB cards though they're crazy expensive. The price is going to drop fast though, giving me almost unlimited storage space.
  • Shows up as a simple FAT partition. This is essential for me. (Also supports MTP, if you can stomach it.) Music transfer via Devices in Amarok 1.4 works just fine.
  • Folder browsing or ID3 tag browsing. I obsessively tag my music, so I like that way.
  • Supports non-Latin alphabet filenames and tags. Most of my music is Japanese, so this is also essential for me. Cowon is a Korean company anyways, so they've got this down. The interface itself can be switched to many different languages, which is nice.
  • Audio codec support: MP3, FLAC, OGG, WAV, WMA, APE. You can't beat that. All I needed was MP3, OGG and FLAC, but the others are a nice bonus.
  • 52 hours of battery life for music, optimally. You'll never hit this in real life, but you're still likely to get almost two days worth of playtime. Comes with an A/C adapter, charges in 3.5 hours. Can also be charged via USB, of course. (The USB connector is a standard cable, no proprietary garbage, which is also nice.)
  • Displays album art, including embedded art in MP3 tags.
  • FM radio.

The only one of my requirements the D2 didn't meet was to have a replaceable battery. From what I've read of people who disassembled this thing, the battery is screwy and may be difficult to replace, but I'm not too worried.

The D2 does lots of other things I don't care about, like playing movies and displaying pictures and text files and Flash, and it has a scientific calculator and displays the time and so on. All I wanted this for was to play music, and it does that amazingly well.

The sound quality on the D2 is noticeably better than my old Muvo. It sounds very good. There are a lot of equalizer settings, bass boost, and a bunch of things I don't understand. I turned them all on, and everything sounds awesome. I can turn this thing up VERY loud (ear-shatteringly loud) before getting any distortion. With my Grado SR80's, music on the D2 sounds as good as or better than the sound card in my computer.

The touch-screen interface is good enough for me. I'm not thrilled by such things and I'm smart enough to adapt to any usable interface; "user-friendliness" was not on my list of priorities. I'd rather have power than simplicity, and this gives me the power I want.

This player is like the KDE of MP3 players; there are options for almost everything you can think of. The interface is crammed full of information but the stylus works well to get through it. If you like a dumbed-down minimalist iPod click-wheel kind of interface, the D2 isn't for you. The D2 also has three hardware buttons, two for volume and one for menu, and their function can be customized.

All of this for $175 from amazon.com. This is a very good time to buy a D2, because the next generation of Cowon players is right around the corner. The D2 is likely to be discontinued in favor of fancier, flashier, more expensive but less awesome players. I couldn't let this pass.

AnythingButIpod has a good review of this player including videos.

January 13, 2009 @ 10:33 AM PST
Cateogory: Hardware