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Cool Hardware

Frankenmac 2017: The Beginnings

It’s been almost exactly nine years (wow!) since I last ventured into the land of Hackintoshes, or homebuilt PCs that can run macOS.

Back then, I built and used one, then wrote about the machine for Macworld, and they even lab tested it, where it held its own against real Macs costing much more.

Fast forward to 2017, and I’ve decided to tackle the project again. Why? Oddly, because there is a new Mac Pro coming, but it’s a ways away. I want something I can use in the interim, without spending a huge amount of money on. When the new Mac Pro ships—assuming it’s not an enhanced trash can design—I plan on upgrading, and the homebuilt Mac will become a gaming PC.

As I’m not writing about the project for Macworld this time around, I’m going to document things here on the blog as I go along. In today’s installment, I cover the first steps in the process: online resources and parts decisions.

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The magic corner cabinet

As yesterday was a cabinet-related post, I thought I’d stick with a theme and share this one I saw in a friend’s home a while back. It’s the perfect solution for those useless corner cabinets where most people stick a lazy susan, thus giving up on a bunch of storage space.

If we ever move and I have a chance to specify the cabinet hardware, I’m making sure one of these things goes into the corner cabinet!

(Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into a home remodeling blog; tech tips and stories return tomorrow.)

The end of the banging of the cabinet doors

I really hate the bang when a cabinet door closes. Years ago, I’d looked into soft-close mechanisms and found them pricey and a bit fussy to install. But this weekend, we were at Home Depot when I stumbled across these Liberty soft-close dampers. On a lark, I bought the 10-pack to see how well they’d work. The short answer: very well.

Installation is a breeze; they go into the corner of the cabinet with one screw—and the screw hole is angled at 60 degrees, so the pre-drilling goes quickly and at the proper angle. Here’s how one looks installed:

I think it took me about 20 minutes to install all 10, and I probably spent five of that on the first one, making sure I did it right. These are not metal pieces; the body is metallic-painted plastic. However they have decent reviews on Amazon, and were reasoinably priced. There are other brands, too, but I haven’t used any of those. All I know is that I’m thrilled with how they work…

Ah, the blissful sounds of a non-slamming cabinet door!

Out with fluorescent garage lights, in with LEDs

I’ve converted most of our home to LED lighting—costs have plummeted in recent years, and when you combine LED lights’ long lives with low energy costs, the payback period is incredibly short. Newer LEDs are also warmer in tone—we found some “soft light” 60W equivalent bulbs that are nicely warm (and warmer when dimmed). Through all of this, though, I had one area of the house I’d ignored: The garage.

Our garage has six (five overhead, one over a workbench) 48″ long fluorescent hanging fixtures. I hate fluorescent bulbs, but the cost to replace them with LED-equivalent fixtures was high—about $300 to do all six. But the other day at Costco, I noticed they had two-pack FEIT 4′ LED replacement bulbs—like these at Amazon—for only $18 (versus $28 at Amazon as I write this).

A “normal” 48″ fluorescent tube light, as in this Sylania four-pack is around $6 or $7 per light. So while the LED bulbs are more expensive, a $3 difference isn’t much at all given the lower engery usage and long life. (And the fluorescents in my garage go out quite often, even compared to indoor incandescents.) So I bought one box, as a test to use over the workbench.

Within a couple minutes of installing the LED tubes, I was headed back to Costco to buy five more boxes—the difference is that notable. Instant on, brighter and more-even light distribution, no flicker, and they should last nearly forever.

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Hardware: Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner

In mid-2015, I decided I wanted to get rid of the mass of paper we’d been accumulating for years. Much of it could be recycled, but there was still a substantial stack of important yet rarely looked at paper that we needed to keep. If anything was ripe for a digitization project, it was this stack of paper. But there were thousands of pages to scan, and that’s not something you’re going to want to do on your $99 all-in-one printer/scanner/coffee maker.

After talking with some people and reading some reviews, I bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner. This was not an inexpensive purchase—it lists for nearly $500, though typically sells for just over $400.

Note that there are two versions of this scanner: The PA03656-B005, which is what I have, and the newer PA03656-B305. The newer one is actually less expensive ($415 vs $490 as I write this), and apparently the sole difference is the bundled third-party software. I haven’t seen the newer scanner’s bundle, though, so I can’t comment.

I’ve been using this scanner pretty much every day since October of 2015, and I can say it’s one of the best pieces of hardware I’ve ever purchased. (The software is also very good, but the UI is far from lovely.) So far, I’ve scanned over 8,500 pages with this scanner, and I haven’t had any issues with it at all. If you’re interested in document scanning, read on for my thoughts on why this Fujitsu is an excellent tool for the task…

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Revisiting ripping Blu-ray discs

A couple years back, I explained how I rip Blu-ray discs. A lot of time has passed, and I now use a slightly different procedure that results in much faster rips—with the caveat that the resulting file will be larger than the “slow” method, and is technically of slightly lower quality, though I can’t visually distinguish the two.

The new method uses Don Melton’s amazing video transcoding tools, a set of Unix programs that optimize video conversion in ways you cannot do (or easily do) in the Handbrake GUI. If you’re new to Unix, but would still like to try these tools, I wrote a detailed set of instructions that should help get you up and running.

Using these Unix programs, you can rip a disc with various parameters, including one to optimize for speed (with good image quality) and another that tries to minimize the file size.

Here’s a quick comparison of all three methods, as tested with the three-hour Hamlet Blu-ray. The ‘Handbrake GUI’ rip was done using, well, the Handbrake GUI as described in my original article. The second and third rows use Don’s tools set to quick and veryquick modes, and the final row uses Don’s tools set to optimize the file size.

Method Data Copied Convert (hrs:mins) File Size
Handbrake GUI 47.5GB 3:52 6.8GB
transcode – quick 40.1GB 2:20 9.2GB
transcode – small 40.1GB 3:12 6.5GB

Tested on a late 2014 27″ iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 and 24GB of RAM.

Using Don’s tools in “quick” mode, you save time two ways: 7GB (15%) less data is copied to the hard drive, and the conversion process is over 90 minutes (38%) faster. The downside is that the final file size is 2.4GB (35%) larger. And that’s what they call a tradeoff.

Using the “small” mode in Don’s tools, you still save the 7GB (15%) of data copy, and still save 40 minutes (17%) over the original method. In addition, the file size is smaller than the Handbrake GUI version.

To summarize, regardless of whether you care more about file size or ripping speed, Don’s tools provide an advantage over the Handbrake GUI: Either method is notably faster, and the small option generates smaller (or probably at worst, very similar) file sizes. (There’s also a “big” option, if you don’t mind somewhat larger files at a higher quality level.)

Keep reading to see some examples of the image quality of each method, and information on how to install and use Don’s video transcoding tools.

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Review: Canmore G-Porter GP-102+ data logger

I recently bought a new big-size camera, bucking the trend of simply using one’s iPhone for photographs. That’s not to say I don’t use my iPhone; it is my main picture taking device. But I wanted a camera that could capture native retina iMac images (at least 5120×2880), and the iPhone can’t do that.

After much looking and sweating over the costs, I chose a Nikon D5500, mainly because I already had a Nikon and didn’t really want to replace all my lenses. While this is an excellent camera, it was a bit of a budget compromise—it didn’t have all the features I really wanted. In particular, it lacks a built-in GPS to geocode all the pictures I take.

As a workaround, I decided to buy a GPS data logger, which is just a small GPS receiver that records GPS coordinates at some interval. Toss the logger in your pocket (make sure it’s on and receiving the GPS signals first!), then go take pictures as you normally do. When you return, you can use an app like HoudahGeo to sync the recorded GPS track with the timestamps on each photo. (I’ll have more to say about this whole sync process in a future post.) Presto, instant geocoded images!

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A unique lava lamp time-lapse

We occasionally take our kids to a local place, Big Al’s, which is one of those bowling/arcade places that give out tickets as rewards from the arcade games. Being good parents, we too sometimes play the games (you know, to spend time with the kids…yea, that’s it). Over the years, we amassed quite a bunch of tickets, but weren’t quite sure what to spend them on.

The last time we were there, I was smitten by a lava lamp, similar to this one, but ours has a black base and blue “lava.” I don’t know why (childhood flashback?), but I decided some of our points cache would go to this mesmerizing but otherwise useless device.

When I got it home, I was surprised at just how long it takes to warm up: It can take nearly an hour before any “lava” starts flowing, and about two hours before it really looks like a traditional lava lamp. During the first hour, though, the melting wax in the lamp makes some really cool abstract bits of art, as seen in the photo at right.

I thought this might make a neat time lapse, so I set out to record it with the iPhone. My first attempt failed, due to the iPhone’s auto-adjusting time-lapse feature. Because the lamp takes so long to get going, the gap between frames winds up being quite long. Long enough that when stuff does start happening, the iPhone’s time-lapse gaps are too wide to make for an interesting video.

I needed another solution, so I headed to the iOS App Store to see what was available…

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Presenting the Apple TV (4th Generation) Password Tester

Earlier, I sent out this hopefully-humorous tweet about the difficulty involved in clicking one’s passwords into the new Apple TV password input screen:

Presenting LIMNOPHILE, a 10-character yet easy-to-type Apple TV password.

The chart is just an Excel file, with absolutely no logic—I just colored the squares and counted to fill in the data. But then I got this reply…

So I thought “Why not?,” and created an actual spreadsheet that will “click check” any all-letter password you feed it. Here’s what it looks like in action:

Just replace RIDICULOUSLYLONGWORD with whatever you like, and see how it’ll “click out” on your Apple TV. Obviously, this tool is totally tongue-in-cheek!. Any password built with this tool will be weak as heck. It’s just for fun, so don’t take it seriously.

Feel free to share and modify, but I’d appreciate a credit back if you do so.

Download Apple TV Password Tester (44KB)

Please note that this is an Excel 2011 file, and it relies on conditional formatting, so it may not work in Numbers.

New technology at the auto service center

I took our truck in for service at the local Toyota dealer yesterday. When I drove in, I had to drive over one of these big black things:

I figured it was just a speed bump to get drivers to slow down as they entered the service bays. But when I inquired as to their purpose, the answer was more technologically interesting: It’s a tire tread depth scanner. As you drive over, lasers shine on each tire, measuring the remaining depth in each tire’s tread. Quoting the immortal Dr. Evil … “lasers!”

Of course, when I parked, the technician went around to each tire, sticking his finger in the tread to check the depth. I said, “What about the fancy machines?” ‘Oh, they’re not quite ready yet; still have to do it the old fashioned way for another few days.’ Oh well. Next time.

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