A Puzzled Solved – macOS Webserver, Carbon Copy Cloner Backups and Let’s Encrypt SSL Certificates

It was New Year’s Eve, doing routine maintenance on my cylindrical 12-core Mac Pro (Late 2013) and checking how all my webserver applications were doing when something unusual happened.

In the process of updating a few pages for 2021, Rapidweaver (the software that creates the pages of my main website) alerted an update from version 8.6.2 to 8.7, which was mostly additional support for the latest macOS, “Big Sur” or version 11.

Although, RW have safety provisions -in case of incompatibilities- to either ‘Skip This Version’ as well as ‘Remind Me Later’, I went ahead and did the update.

Rapidweaver is one of the better web-development applications for the Mac.
Rapidweaver 8 has a new version update – from v8.6.2 to v8.7

No problems there and I continued to open up the file (.rw8) …and, bam! Another update prompt came up on the screen.  This time, a plugin (or, API – application program interface) within Rapidweaver called Stacks, prompted me that there’s a new version, from V4.0.4 to V4.1.3 (Build #5361).  Again, and how stupid of me, I went ahead and did the update.

The Stacks V4.1.3 update came to haunt me as I found out later that majority of the web pages no longer worked.  This had happened before (from Stacks 3 to Stacks 4) and I can’t seem to learn my lesson from the past. Ouch!

YourHead Software Stacks had evolved together with Rapidweaver.  But always proceed with caution with their updates.
Always try the updated version of a plugin inside Rapidweaver on your backup drive first! This V4.1.3 update for Stacks 4 rendered most of my web pages useless!

But, hey, no problem.  I have an ever-dependable-for Mac-only backup in Carbon Copy Cloner – I had been using this backup software since time immemorial.  I had scheduled the backup to run early Sunday of every week and that should contain the exact replica of my entire main boot SSD before I did those updates!

So, I launched System Preferences > Startup Disk > switched to the backup SSD, and restarted the Mac Pro. And, the backup worked, as usual, like a champ.  Problem solved???  Well, not so fast.

While all my web pages now worked- at least, while I re-tested under RW- after I reverted to prior versions using the backup SSD, this time, a bigger issue came up – my website is no longer accessible on the Web! 

How is this possible? Aren’t backups, especially a cloned version, bit-by-bit copies of their originals?  A bit alarmed now because of the looming task of debugging the entire webserver application, I hied off to the kitchen to brew a full carafe of my favorite blend.

To maintain my presence on the Web, I switched over to an older version of my website that runs on a Mac mini, then tackled the issue:  why did the backup webserver on the Mac Pro fail to connect to the Internet when the source drive worked?  Everything else worked properly on the backup drive except the ability of my AMP (Apache-MySQL-PHP)-based webserver to connect to the Web.

Here’s what I did to troubleshoot the issue:

1). Checked the router, access points & all settings (especially port forwarding) — OK

2). Checked the IP gateway/Dynamic DNS -the one that renders your dynamic IP address given by your ISP to a static IP address needed to host a website at your choice location- for incorrect settings. At no-ip.com, I fiddled with different domain name resolver configurations —only to find out that my previous setting was correct. All OK.

3). Reviewed all the steps when I configured the AMP-based webserver via Brew – no problems, all OK.

So, what’s wrong?

Before I resign my fate to begin 2021 with long hours recoding my webserver for macOS Big Sur (and, yes, I need to buy a new M1 processor-based Mac since my 2016-bought “trashcan” Mac Pro (Late 2013) may be compatible only in 2 or 3 more future macOS releases), I tried again to stop, start and restart the webserver using Terminal.

Again, no issues until I tried to diagnose for any error when Apache starts via the Terminal command:

  tail -f /usr/local/var/log/httpd/error_log

The error log revealed a few script errors with the WordPress login –all related to PHP handling.

Those errors are understandable as my WordPress site is also tied to my main website – https://www.marcoscarpio.com, as an offsite page within Rapidweaver.

Finally, it dawned on me why I didn’t run the MOST BASIC of all Apache commands in Terminal.

  apachectl configtest

And, there it was, right in front of my 28” LED monitor:

   AH00526: Syntax error on line 46 of /usr/local/etc/httpd/extra/httpd-     vhosts.conf:

   SSLCertificateFile: file ‘/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.marcoscarpio.com/fullchain.pem’ does not exist or is empty

Although, I was fully aware that the secure version (https) of my website is due to the free SSL certificates from Let’s Encrypt -which you have to renew every 90 days- it did not dawn on me that you MUST either renew or request a reissue of those certificates after you switched over to your backup web server!!!

At Let’s Encrypt Community Board, I got this good explanation:

The distinction between copying all of /etc/letsencrypt (with symlinks) and just copying privkey.pem and fullchain.pem is that in the former case, you can run certbot renew on the new system to renew the certificates, while in the latter case Certbot will not be able to renew the copied-over certificates. So it’s not a distinction about whether the certificates will work on the new system (just copying these two files is sufficient for that), but specifically about whether certbot renew on the new system will know they’re present and be able to renew them (copying the whole /etc/letsencrypt tree is recommended in this case)”.

Let’s Encrypt utilizes an easy-to-use client called Certbot to simplify the issuance of SSL certificates (yes, they’re free) on a variety of webserver software of various OS platforms.  If you had tried to install (and, maintain) your own SSL certificates —well, that’s another blog entry in itself.

Long story short: Let’s Encrypt Certbot won’t automatically sync the certificates it had issued on your web server that’s located on your main hard drive and your backup hard drive.

New Year. New lesson.  But, it’s always good to learn.

A Deal Better Than Black Friday – $17 Linksys Router

Once in a rare while, while shopping, you will find an item that is priced so ridiculously low that you’ll have to convince yourself that a). there’s an obvious pricing mistake made by an employee, b). a mischievous person switched price tags, c). there must be something wrong with the item, or, d). you must be just plain lucky to be at the right time and place.

Exactly two weeks before Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) of this year while doing my early morning grocery shopping at the retail chain store that made someone from Oklahoma spectacularly rich and famous, two (2) sealed boxes of Linksys AC1200+ Gigabit Router sat among other gadgets atop one of the shelves in the electronics department.

This $17 Linksys router may not be a top-of-the-line model, but the price tag is simply too good to pass up on

I was there to get some eggs, milk, a few cans of Spam & some other ingredients for a seafood dinner as well as new SkinGuard razor blades. But, definitely, not shopping for any electronics that particular day.

But, for a tech-junkie, how can I pass-up and not buy a brand-new, in still-sealed-box Linksys dual-band router with 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports & a USB 3.0 port — for just $17 ????

It’s an older model alright -after I checked on the product specs on my phone- but, nonetheless grabbed a box and headed off to the nearest price scanner to verify the price. It was not a mirage. It was really $17.

Back at home, I pondered what to do with my latest score. I already have two latest model Netgear routers as well as indoor & outdoor Hawking WiFi extenders – already a bit too much for such a small area of about 5K square feet.

Three days after my purchase, I had decided just to store the still-sealed router in the attic –as a backup unit.

It was only after three weeks that I would find out that the $17 Linksys router would serve as my new indoor WiFi extender after I discovered that the Hawking was no longer functioning.

Operating as a WiFi extender, this $17 dual-band Linksys router has 4 gigabit Ethernet ports to hook up even more devices

Tying it up with my other 2 Netgear routers & making it operate as a dedicated WiFi extender -to the 2nd NG router that serves as an access point– was a bit tricky and took a bit of time.

But, the effort was well worth the $17 price tag.

Second Impressions: The Tesla Model 3

Last week, Don, my brother-in-law picked up his metallic deep-blue  Tesla Model 3 from one of the company’s showrooms –they sell their cars direct and not through a dealership–  in Fremont, California.

A year ago, he had put up a US$ 1,000 deposit for the promised US$35, 000 Model 3 unit that had just gotten off Tesla’s designers’ drawing boards and into production mode at that time.

The Tesla Model 3  was supposed to catapult the fledgling company into the mainstream car market.

All their previous models, the Roadster, the Model S  as well as the Model X (an SUV – sports utility vehicle) are relatively expensive that only a few middle-income American consumers could afford it.

Tesla had been in the forefront in the rebirth of the all-electric vehicle boom that had seen the release of competing models from the big Japanese and European carmakers  -notably Nissan (the ‘Leaf‘) and BMW (the i3 – with the latest release, a 2-cylinder ‘range extender’ engine is now just optional )- as well as from the top 2 American car firms — General Motors (the Chevy ‘Bolt‘) and Ford (coming up with its ‘CUV‘).

Tesla Model 3 interior - driver seat perspective
The Model 3’s simple interior and almost bare dashboard is both a boon and a bane

As it turned out, Tesla’s promised consumer-friendly price tag of US$35,000 for the Model 3 ‘base model’ ballooned to almost US$57,000 after the company failed in its promise to offer one with the ‘standard batteries‘ during the consumer rollout.

Eager to drive home with his Model 3, Don was literally compelled to buy a more expensive unit with long-range (up to 310 miles) batteries + premium exterior with rear-wheel drive.  His choice of color, deep blue metallic (extra $1500), alloy sports wheels (extra $1500) set him back another $3,000 plus all the taxes and fees.

The price would have gone even so much higher had he opted for one with an all-wheel-drive (extra $6,000 for the ‘basic’ all-wheel drive and extra $15,000 for the ‘performance’ all-wheel drive) & enhanced Autopilot (extra $5,000).

After all the extras, a fully loaded, top-of-the-line Model 3 goes for about $75,500 before all the taxes and fees –and that’s not a price for the average consumer.  For all that money, you could buy four (4)  brand-new (latest model) Toyota Corollas and still have a few thousand left in your pocket.

Charging the car at home via a dedicated 240V outlet.

So for the US$57K price, he shelled out -before Federal & State tax incentives- Don’s Model 3 car should, at least, be impressive.  It is but not without some drawbacks.

Most electric cars have impressive torques and the rear-wheel-drive Model 3 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.1 seconds.  The car’s handling was also impressive as the 19″ wheels were big enough to mitigate some road imperfections.

You can’t say enough praise for all the tech goodies inside and outside the car with its gaggle of radars, sensors, cameras, software updates for the touchscreen control panel as well as the very impressive all-glass roof.   All of the Model 3’s glass parts including the windows were made by Saint-Gobain Sekurit which traces its roots all the way back to 1665 in France as the Royal Glass Works.

The Model 3’s all-glass, UV protective roof is very impressive. Those 2 micro-LED pin lights provide just enough illumination for the passengers at the back

And, as this is an all-electric vehicle, you tend to rely less on the brakes to slow down the car —just release your foot on the accelerator and you accomplish two things: 1). slows the car down to a halt and 2). you charge the batteries (regenerative braking).

Let’s get to the things that I didn’t like about the Tesla Model 3:

Firstly, the door handles.  Opening a door is a two-handed affair.  What??? You have the push the recessed handle with one hand and grab the handle’s end once it pops out with your other hand —yes, just to open a door.

If you’re quick, you can grab & open Tesla’s Model 3 doors with one hand. For most others, opening a door is a two-handed affair.

Second, there is no manual override just to open the glove box compartment.  To open it, you have to turn on the touchscreen tablet (which acts as the sole instrument panel and controls everything inside the car) and push the ‘open glove box‘ button.  Too cool but also too dumb.  Any determined thief can simply use a screwdriver and force it open.

Third, and as mentioned above, the car relied too much on the 15″ touchscreen tablet located right smack in the center of the dashboard.  I honestly believe that Tesla did it to cut costs in the guise of the ‘cool factor’.

Truly functional or just for the 'cool factor'???
This 15″ touchscreen tablet is the only instrument panel inside the Tesla Model 3.

This is especially too distracting when driving around the city as you have to deal with all the functionalities of the car on a touchscreen panel.  As if texting while driving is just not bad enough.

Fourth, for the steep price tag on any premium variants of the Tesla Model 3, real leather seats should be standard.  As it is, the ‘premium interior’ model could only boast of faux leather in black.

Lastly, except for topping-off the windshield washer fluid, there’s nothing a Tesla Model 3 owner who’s keen on maintaining the car himself can do much.  Most of the other end-user replaceable parts & fluids are either hidden underneath the car’s chassis –where the engine sits in your typical internal combustion vehicle is now a front luggage compartment-  or, not that easily accessible.

This means that if ever the car needs even the most simple maintenance, you may have to take it back to a Tesla dealership.  Bottom line: costlier upkeep. 

There are other minor flaws that need no mentioning and can be ignored but the ones above are just simply too obvious to be overlooked.

After all, Tesla’s mass production model cars -starting with the 2012 Model S- had only been around for just a few years.  Improvements should come in their next iterations of those models.

That is, if  -with their massive debt and government subsidies in the form of tax incentives that are ending soon-  they will remain viable and, most importantly, become profitable, as a company in the coming years.

Fun Little Drone: Ryze Tello Adventures

Old habits die hard and R/C flying is one of them.

Since I caught the aerial remote-control bug during my almost 4-year stint in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s, I had really never forgotten this sometimes expensive hobby.  They say that in the heart of hearts of adventurous people lies the extreme desire to fly like birds.

R/C flying had come a long way since the days of gas-powered COX engines and radio controllers with telescopic antennas –with small banners attached to them that denoted the radio frequencies.

In today’s world dominated by computers, software, cell phones, and other Internet-connected devices, it comes as no surprise that the hobby of R/C flying had also evolved to take advantage of them.

Today, you no longer need a dedicated controller to operate an R/C device –a smartphone and the appropriate app will do it for you.  Changing crystals (to change radio frequency transmission) inside the transmitters are so passé –almost all new R/C these days have Wi-Fi built-in (mostly, at 2.4 GHz) and utilize that same wireless frequency to connect to the smartphone.   Bluetooth is also built-in for pairing with a dedicated remote controller for easier flying.

Just attach a smartphone (with the Tello app) to the controller and you're all set!
A Wi-Fi extender (shown here attached to a battery pack) and a Bluetooth controller for extra fun.

More sophisticated but expensive models incorporate a GPS, 1080p, or 4K cameras propped on small but high-end gimbals as well as a gaggle of extras for easy maneuvering even at long-range distances.  Not to mention longer flight times as well as apps with sophisticated features.

Currently, a Chinese company called DJI dominates the aerial R/C market and had relegated the term ‘R/C’ into something more futuristic — ‘drone‘.

The drone market had literally exploded in the last six or so years after amateur and professional photographers alike had made them an essential part of their toolkits to take visually-stunning aerial photos and video footages.

This unedited photo was taken with the DJI-Ryze Tello at 15 meters up in the air.

DJI not only makes a variety of off-the-shelf hobbyist drones that caters to everyone’s budget but also custom-made ones depending on the application — be it in military, science, agriculture, engineering, and of course, the movie industry.

To capture the lowest end of the hobbyist drone market, DJI partnered with Intel and Shenzhen, China-based Ryze Tech, and brought out the Ryze Tello.

You could dress-up the Ryze Tello with skins to make your unit stand-out!!
The fun-to-fly Ryze Tello drone (shown here with a packet of some unique ‘skins’)

It’s a vision positioning system-equipped US$99 toy-hobbyist drone with a programmable Intel processor as well as a 5-megapixel 720p camera (at 30 fps) -not sure though, if some Hasselblad technologies were incorporated after DJI bought into the Swedish camera company in 2015- as well as some other tech goodies packed in 80 grams -battery included- of good-quality plastic and miniature circuit boards.

It’s basically a very, very small home computer with a nice webcam that flies.

What makes this little toy drone so fun is that it won’t hurt your pocketbook so much if ever you crash or lose it.  But, it’s so stable to fly that the only way you can lose or damage it is to fly it in very windy conditions.

In actual use, the Ryze Tello flies for a good 10 minutes -specs say 13 mins.- on a full charge with a range of about 100 meters.  But hacks like using a US$10 Wi-Fi repeater or range extender improves not only the range but also the video quality transmission.

Also, software hacks like TALS (free) and Altitude Limit for Tello (US$ 0.99) – but both are available only for iOS devices– can extend the 10-meter height limit of this little drone to 10x or 100 meters.  Be careful though as the vision positioning system of the drone gets compromised at over 10 meters.

Accessories for the Tello are also inexpensive like the US$29 GameSir T1d Bluetooth controller and about US$ 15 to $25 for a 3 to 4  battery-charging hub.  Extra original batteries -made by FullyMax– are about US$19.

These prices might be even lower if you get the Ryze Tello in ‘bundle deals‘.  I once saw a DJI stall inside a very popular shopping mall in downtown San Francisco selling the Ryze Tello with an extra battery for as low as US$ 89.

These Tello accessories, a power bank and your smartphone are all you need to master flying this fun drone!
Inexpensive Ryze Tello accessories: GameSir T1d Bluetooth controller, Wi-Fi extender (on the right of the silver packet), extra original battery, and Tello battery charging hub

All in all, for about US$ 200, you can truly enjoy the thrills of R/C flying -or, shall I say, drone flying- without the nasty additional expenses associated with the learning experience alone.

Once you had mastered -it’s so easy-flying this tiny toy drone or, simply has grown tired of it but truly enjoys aerial photography, then, you could upgrade to a DJI Spark…and then to a Mavic Air, Mavic 2, or Pro.

April 2019 update:

In late 2018, a new app -available only for Android- called Tello FPV + RTH was released by a German hobbyist called Volate!lo.  Priced at $5.49, the feature-rich app made the Ryze Tello drone much more capable particularly the return-to-home feature in spite of the unit’s lack of a GPS.

Last November 2018, Ryze sold their Tello Boost Combo at a discounted price of only $99 (plus tax) from the current/regular price of $149 (plus tax) at DJI’s website.

The package includes the Tello drone, two (2) sets of spare propellers, three (3) original FullyMax flight batteries, a 3-battery charging hub, and the USB cable.

All the contents in the Boost Combo set would have easily cost between $150 to $170 if purchased individually.

It was such a steal that I couldn’t resist but to get one as a spare unit.

A new app -currently available only for Android- called Tello FPV + RTV by Volate!lo makes this beginner drone uber fun!
Ryze Tech ‘Boost Combo’ package includes the Tello aircraft, two (2) sets of spare propellers, three (3) original FullyMax aircraft batteries, a 3-battery charging hub & the USB cable — all for US$ 99 during their 2018 November sale

Also, early this year, Ryze Tech released an Iron Man Edition of their best-selling beginner drone for die-hard Marvel fans and currently sells for US$ 129 (plus tax).

It is essentially the same Tello unit except for the Iron Man-themed protective shell, colors, and trims of predominantly metallic-red and gold.   This special edition Tello also comes with its very own app called Tello Hero.

Note that you can use the standard Tello app to fly the Iron Man Edition Tello aircraft but you can’t use the special Tello Hero app to fly the $99 ‘ordinary edition’ Tello.

But, of course, you can also use the much better Tello FPV +RTH app by VolaTe!lo on the Iron Man Edition unit.

A must-buy for all Marvel fans and avid Tello flyers!

Fire TV Cube = Logitech Harmony + Amazon Echo

Today, I received my Amazon Fire TV Cube right at my doorsteps and was able to set it up in about half an hour including the installation of all my apps — mostly to watch TV shows and movies all over the web.

I would admit it’s fascinating yet cheap -got it at the pre-sale price of $89– device but only if these factors are present in your setup:

  • Very fast internet connection – the unit has dual-band WiFi ac built-in but an Ethernet (10/100) adapter is included  with the set
  • A Smart 4K (UHD) TV (recommended) or any TV that uses an HDMI input
  • And, if you have an AV system, the receiver(s) -the TV provider box and/or the home theater receiver- must be compatible

It was only a few years back -January 2015 to be exact- when Amazon launched their very first salvo in the home automation market with the Amazon Echo.

The Fire TV Cube
Amazon’s latest play in the very lucrative “smart home” market

They had since integrated the core Alexa ‘far-field voice control and recognition’ technology from the Echo into almost all their line-up of devices including the cheapest Fire TV Stick.

Now with the Fire TV Cube, Amazon had one-upped again the competition by crossing-over an Echo with the capabilities of today’s web-connected TVs and audio systems.

While the Echo was such a ground-breaking gadget in itself that led Apple and Google to release their own incarnations in the HomePod & Google Home respectively, the Fire TV Cube clearly targets a market segment dominated by the Lausanne, Switzerland/Newark, California-based Logitech: the smart-universal remote control.

Fire TV Cube has buttons for volume control, microphone muting as well as an ‘action’ button

Although the Fire TV Cube set includes the similar remote that comes with any Alexa-built-in Fire TV devices (note: the first 2 generations of the Fire TV devices didn’t have Alexa), its main use is for inputting information like usernames & passwords to services like Hulu, Sling, Netflix, YouTube, etc., as well as to install and to operate open-source apps.

Amazon advertises the Fire TV Cube as a device to “control your TV hands-free from across the room” but the applications and possible uses are so much more than that — all in a very, very small package.

Update:  Sometime in October of 2018, Amazon came up with a new version of the Alexa Voice Remote (2nd generation) with TV control for the Fire TV series and now comes bundled with the latest Fire TV Stick (4K) and the Fire TV Cube.  By itself, the new remote costs $30.

It now has dedicated buttons for power, mute & volume (up/down) –  to control some TV functions.

However, the new remote is compatible only with newer versions of the Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Stick (4K), Fire TV (3rd gen – pendant style), and the Fire TV Cube.

Amazon had also discontinued the original, square Fire TV with built-in Ethernet series as well as the Fire TV (3rd-gen, pendant style).

The 2nd Generation Alexa Voice Remote for Fire TV with TV Control

A Tale of Two SSDs: OCZ-Toshiba and PNY Customer Supports Story

While we don’t want our computer hardware to fail at all or even while still under its warranty period but it’s a fact of life that some of them do.

In my case, I thought solid-state drives (SSDs) would be more reliable than a conventional one because the former has no mechanical or moving components.

I was dead wrong.

In a span of a week, two (2) – one (a 120 GB PNY CS1311)  was used as a back-up in a Mac while the other (a 480 GB OCZ-Toshiba ARC100)  was the primary drive in a custom-made PC- of my SSDs failed that left me scrambling to look for their invoices up in our attic.

Luckily, I had saved those receipts, and that both SSDs are still within their warranty periods.  The majority of SSD manufacturers these days offer a 3-year warranty for their entry-level to mid-range models.  Some high-end units (usually the ‘enterprise’ models) get from 5 to 10-year warranty periods.

So this was my RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) experience for the two products:

For the 480 GB ARC100 by OCZ-Toshiba, my expense was zero and I had my replacement SSD in hand just after four (4) days of filing the RMA.   Currently, they have the best warranty program in the industry with their  “Advanced Warranty Program” for most of their SSDs including some ‘legacy‘ (aka: obsolete) models.

After they had received a copy of the receipt (proof of purchase as well as to confirm if it’s still under warranty)  via email, a UPS Ground return label was included with the RMA number.  The next day, they promptly shipped a replacement SSD via UPS 2-day service.

OCZ-Toshiba’s customer support was very professional, straightforward, and excellent. No nagging and unnecessary questions.  Moreover, you are constantly notified via email of the entire RMA process.  This is what customer service/support is all about.

OCZ-Toshiba RMA turnaround was very fast and free!!!
The defective 480 GB OCZ ARC100 (left) and the replacement 480 GB OCZ Vertex 460A. The replacement SSD was received just 4 days after I requested an RMA number from OCZ-Toshiba. Thanks to their “Advanced Warranty Program”.

For the 120 GB CS1311 made by PNY, my expense came to about $10 shipping back the defective unit via USPS Priority Mail to their support center in Parsippany, New Jersey- and I had the replacement SSD in hand eleven (11) days after I filed for an RMA number.

It could have taken more time had I not sent the defective unit back via USPS Priority Mail which usually take just two (2) business days.  PNY shipped the replacement only after they had received the bad SSD and utilized the cheaper but slower UPS Ground service.

To its credit, PNY’s customer support was also prompt and straightforward but it lacked the same attention to details as OCZ-Toshiba.  And, they didn’t send follow-up emails to inform how the entire RMA process had evolved.   You had to constantly go to a link they had provided after the RMA # was issued to check on its status.

Verdict: Hands down, OCZ-Toshiba was the winner with its “no cost to the consumer approach” and very fast turnaround.

That’s why a product’s warranty is the only protection consumers have for their hard-earned money.

And, how companies go about honoring their warranties spell the difference between respectability and plain money-grab.

So, when buying a solid-state drive make sure that you save those receipts and keep them inside an envelope as most of them are printed out in thermal paper.  Prolonged light exposure will erase all the information and render it useless.

NOTE: Both OCZ-Toshiba and PNY replaced their defective units with brand-new, retail-box sets.

Sony Dash Resurrected

Sometime in May of this year, my six years old (purchased in January 2011) Sony Dash Personal Internet Viewer  (HID-C10) received a control panel update to inform me that service for the device would end in July.

The last firmware update (from version 1.7.1461 to 1.7.1526) was done on April 08, 2016, after the device had issues “downloading the main control panel” and rendered it useless.

Over the 6+ years that I had owned the unit, there were intermittent issues with Sony’s backend servers that kept it inactive. But, Sony was always able to come up with firmware updates to keep the service going — until July of this year.

Sony Dash
Sony Dash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sony Dash is a small tabletop alarm clock-radio-weather/gadget with a 7″ touchscreen that sold for $199 when initially released in April 2010.  Its functionality relied 100% on the Internet, hence, WiFi (a/g) is built-in.

Aside from the beautiful design, the main attraction of the gadget, just like a smartphone, is its capability to load additional “widgets” (or, apps) via its built-in memory.  It enabled owners to stream videos and music from content providers like Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Pandora, Slacker, Sony Music, etc.  There are also thousands of other useful widgets that ranged from the arts to zoology.

And so, one day in July of this year, I saw the dreaded firmware update – 1.7.1604– that would turn an otherwise very useful device into a door stopper.

Don’t hit the OK button!!! The dreaded Dash firmware update -1.7.1604- that would stop all functionality to the unit

Of course, I did not do the firmware update but, instead, called Sony’s customer service (in the U.S., it’s: 1-800-222-7669) to ask them what to do with a useless unit.

To the company’s credit, it promptly replaced a product that had reached its ‘end-of-life’ (aka, planned obsolescence), with a choice of either an alarm clock/AM-FM radio (ICF-C1) or a Bluetooth speaker (XB10) after I e-mailed the image of the unit’s serial number.

When the replacement ICF-C1 clock-radio arrived a week later via FedEx (shipping also paid by Sony), I grabbed the Dash that sat atop one of my stereo speakers – still with the ‘Update available’ screen- and yanked out its power supply.

Sony sent this free ICF-C1 clock-AM-FM radio (or, the XB-10 Bluetooth speaker) as a way of recompensing owners of bricked Dash units

Meanwhile, somewhere in the coastal city of San Diego, California, a guy had been very busy writing code to port the Dash (running firmware 1.7.1526) to make it work with Chumby.com’s server(s) after Sony’s May software update alert.

Chumby (now, operated by Blue Octy, LLC) is a small company behind a line of very affordable “Internet viewers” similar to the Dash. In fact, the Dash runs on an OS that was simply modified from the Chumby OS.

Finally, in early August, Blue Octy released the software patch (but only for the Dash HID-C10 model) that resurrected some Dash units.  The patch is chumby-HIDC10-1.0.0.zip.  It could also be downloaded here.

So, if you have an HID-C10 Sony Dash, just make sure that your unit is running firmware 1.7.1526.  If you had accidentally installed firmware 1.7.1604 and bricked the unit, simply revert back to firmware 1.7.1526 via the instructions here before applying the patch.

All set to install the patch to the Sony Dash (for model HID-C10 only) to enable it to run off Chumby.com’s server

If you applied the patch correctly, you should have restored some usefulness to your Dash such as the clock, weather, and a few radio stations.  A $3 monthly subscription fee would enable one to get numerous apps as well as multiple channels on this gadget that — simply, refuses to go away.

Sony Dash back in business with a new Blue Octy channel/control panel interface!!!

ALLFLAC and High-Definition Audio Players

If you’re a hard-core music enthusiast but still listens to your collections on your phone, then, you’re missing out a lot.

And, if you’re an Apple fanboy still buying songs through the iTunes Store and listening to them through your iPhone or iPad, then, you’re simply paying a hefty premium for the brand.

Songs bought from the Apple store are encoded in Apple’s version of the venerated (especially during the Napster years) MP3 format, AAC (Apple Audio Codec). It is streamed at 128 kbps bit rate with a sample rate of 44.100 kHz.  AAC (and, MP3) is a ‘lossy’ format but is very popular due to its small file size as a result of compression.

Although you could rip all your CDs to a lossless format within iTunes using ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), the resulting files are huge and are playable only in, of course, Apple’s devices.

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an open-source musical format that will give you bit-perfect copies of CDs.  Not only that but also supports ‘tags’ that enable you to retain artists, album covers, lyrics, etc., on the format.

With FLAC, you’re not only getting half the space occupied by a CD with no loss in quality but you’re also going to be able to get up to 24-bit at 192 kHz of music.  That’s studio-master quality.  Clearly, MP3 and AAC are no match for FLAC.

Rare is the true high-definition audio enthusiast that listens to his FLAC collection on a smartphone.  For Android phone users, even with the rock-bottom prices of microSD cards these days, it’s just so obvious that smartphone makers are just too focused to make the camera features better.

And for iPhone users, it’s going to look ugly if you want to stick-in a Lightning-capable microSD card adapter to expand the memory capacity of the unit as there’s no memory expansion slot on those phones.  And, the saddest part of all, you can only transfer pictures and videos using the adapter –no music files.   Apple simply wants you to pay $970 for their top-of-the-line unit with 256 GB built-in.

Picture of a MicroSD Card with its Adapter. Fr...
Picture of a MicroSD Card with its Adapter. Frontal and Back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But even most high-end smartphones from Samsung and Apple don’t have the top-tier, audiophile-grade chips to support FLAC at 192 kHz/24-bit nor they offer native DSD (direct stream digital) decoding which is the best way to listen to streaming music.

While high-quality audio always comes with a price, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to break your piggy-bank.  So, what are the cheaper options?

For content, there’s nothing that will beat allflac.com.  The U.K-based music website has one of the cheapest rates around and you’ll be surprised to find some of the songs that you can’t find elsewhere including the iTunes Music Store.

ALLFLAC contends to have the world’s largest lossless music collection

What’s more, not only they have albums for as low as $1.99 but you can also download them in either FLAC, M4A, and MP3 (or, all) format.  There is no membership fee and you can fund your account for as low as $10 with no balance expiration.

There are a handful of high-definition audio players available especially in Asia, Europe, and the North American markets including the Kickstarter-funded, Neil Young-backed PonoPlayer as well as from well-known companies like Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, and others.

But one company stands out because of its low price without sacrificing quality: FiiO. 

Highly recommended to budding audio enthusiasts with limited budgets would be the FiiO X1 (2nd generation) model It retails for US$120 but could be had for as low as US$80 discounted if you shop around.

It’s a mid-entry model but surely not lacking in features found in their more expensive ones.  Most importantly, it supports microSD cards up to 256 GB or approximately 8,700 plus FLAC songs (at 30 MB per song).  That’s a lot of studio-master quality tunes to keep you in the groove.

The FiiO X1 (2nd generation) high-def audio player in action

The company’s catchphrase is “Born for Music and Happy” and, indeed, you’ll be more than happy once you had listened to some of your music collections – in the FLAC format.  Of course, using one of their portable high-definition players.

The difference in sound quality will astound you.

Why Wearable Gadgets Have a Short Life Span…. (Or, Why the Apple Watch is so Overpriced)

Never had the consumer been inundated with so many gadgets than today.  They had become so compelling and so affordable that people change phones like they change their socks.

Just look at your power strip and see how many device chargers you have plugged in there.

Tablets, phones, cameras, range extenders, personal hotspots, GoPros, activity trackers, Bluetooth this and that, GPSes, and other devices that have little screens in them that you can wear.

While the GPS had become a norm in our daily lives when it got incorporated in cell phones, wearable gadgets like the Apple Watch, Microsoft’s Band, Google’s Glass, and other wearable technologies are doomed to fail until they find a solution on how to: 1) Power them for a very long time before recharging them  2) How to recharge them really, really fast and,  3) The battery should be end-user replaceable.

Wearable gadgets have the same dilemma as pure electric car makers. Who wants to drive an electric car across America and wait for an hour or two each time when recharging their vehicles?  As if waiting for that car ahead of you in a Costco gas station is not long enough.

And, what happens to the car when the battery drains out and could no longer hold a charge?  Unless they make pure electric cars very, very cheap, but, you don’t want to throw away that car when the batteries drain out  — like the way you dispose of a tablet or phone with a non-end-user replaceable battery.

Early adopters of pure electric cars either have a lot of money (AKA: status symbol) or just like to take advantage of the Federal and State incentives like rebates and access to carpool lanes.

So, the issues plaguing wearables – most specially, watches – today is that end-users don’t like to charge these gizmos each and every night or day after using them.

Our power strip is too full already of those power bricks — don’t give us another one just for a freaking watch.

In the same way that it makes more sense to buy a hybrid than a pure electric car, buying that wearable gadget makes more sense if the next time you’ll recharge it would be after a month or more.

Until then, I’ll stick with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.

The Story of 4K (UHD) Monitor and Windows 10

After almost nine years of faithful service, my beloved 20″ Princeton monitor finally had to be handed over to the recycler. It was hooked-up on most occasions to my server – that had seen three (3) revisions – located in one of our bedrooms.  I was able to save it in its 5th year, after simply replacing a couple of bad capacitors.

As a replacement, I yanked away from the 24″ Acer HD monitor that was attached to one of the PCs in our living room.  And since it happened only in late August of this year, it is running the latest version of Windows — 10 but I couldn’t recall what build it was then.  Currently, it’s version 10.0 Build 10586.

I had been longing to set my hand on a 4K monitor for quite a while but their prices had been very prohibitive for the casual user.  Compared to conventional HD (1920 x 1080) monitors that had seen their prices fall to their lowest these days, a 4K monitor will still set you back at about the US$400 – $700 range for the 27″-28″ varieties.

It is also worth noting that bigger-sized 4K (UHD) television prices are incredibly much lower than their smaller-sized 4K monitor cousins.

To my surprise,  in early September, while checking my e-mails, I stumbled upon an offer by the old, reliable electronics store chain store in the Bay Area for a 28″ 4K monitor for a reasonable $250 if you’ll buy it using their new marketing gimmick — promo codes.

A few hours later after I hopped on the car, I had already unboxed and connected the shiny 28″, 4K monitor to the living room PC.

It has inputs for two (2) DisplayPort, two (2) HDMI, one (1) DVI, one (1) headphone, and a power connector.  The set also came complete with the necessary cables for the three (3) types of video inputs mentioned above.

My enthusiasm was cut short after I found out that my video card, although it has both DisplayPort and HDMI connectors, can’t handle the requirements needed to power the 4K monitor at the higher 60 Hz screen refresh rate.

Using DisplayPort, it only ran the 3840 x 2160 resolution at 30 Hz which rendered the entire Windows 10 experience very, very frustrating:  the screen was erratic and raggedy.

The video card only has the DisplayPort v 1.1 while v 1.2 is needed –  DisplayPort versions don’t apply on the cables as long as it’s certified to comply with the DP standards – to drive the 4K monitor at the proper refresh rate of 60 Hz.

After another trip to the same store to purchase the correct video card (an AMD Radeon R9-390X – and, ok, this cost me a lot more than the bargain 4K monitor), a more robust power supply from Thermaltake to drive all the components without hiccup plus a new, slimmer version of DisplayPort cable which I made sure was certified, I was all set.

I booted the PC and found out that I was now running at 3840 x 2160 at 60 Hz with everything looking sharp but very small.

No problem.  This is the latest baby of Microsoft and Windows 10 Pro should easily handle the idiosyncrasies of display-scaling.  Just click the Windows icon, Settings, Display, and ‘Change the size of text, apps, and other items’, slide it to, say, 200% and everything’s reasonably bigger. Well, except for a few 3rd-party apps.

To further test it out, I ran all the experimental ‘El Fuente’ 4K clips on Netflix as well as on other sites that host 4K video clips.  I was in 4K heaven.  Or, so I thought.

The issues started to show up when the PC comes out of hibernation or sleep mode.  It was specially noticeable in Microsoft’s Edge browser.  The fonts in the address bar in all the open tabs as well as on the window prompt when you try to close the browser were all gibberish.

On occasions, the fonts also become weird on other functions like when you try to shut down the PC.  There were also times when the AMD video driver would suddenly terminate for no reason at all.  And, I had no recourse but to stop an application and/or restart the PC.

The issue is definitely DisplayPort hardware related since all these problems disappeared after I tried running the PC using the HDMI cable at 1920 x 1080.  But what’s the whole point of getting a 4K monitor and that other expensive hardware only to run the unit at the same HD resolution?

The techie in me tried all the possible solutions like reinstalling the latest video drivers, updating the BIOS, trying out the other DP and HDMI ports on both the monitor and video card, using an app called ‘Windows 10 DPI Fix’, modifying the registry, swapping out video cables as well as tweaking all the possible combinations in the 4K monitor’s on-screen menu settings.

These woes went on for almost a month until I decided to just use the HDMI cable at the lower 1920 x 1080 resolution for the entire day.  Since I just left the other video cables – DP and DVI – dangling at the back of the 4K monitor, I also connected the DP cable to the video card.

Back of monitor showing HDMI, DIsplayPort and DVI connectors
HMDI (2), DisplayPort (2), and DVI

Back of PC showing graphics card ports
Simultaneous use of DVI and DisplayPort ports on an AMD Radeon graphics card

Typically, you only use either DisplayPort or HDMI but not both on the same monitor.  However, since XP, Windows has the ability to detect and configure multiple monitors.

Connecting both the DisplayPort and HDMI cables at the back of my video card and configuring Windows 10 in the display settings to output the seemingly dual monitor settings to ‘Show only on 1’ helped boost the video signals going to the 4K monitor after the PC emerges from hibernation or sleep mode.

While the above-mentioned procedure did not totally fix the font-garbling issues, it had not only eliminated most of the problems like the self-terminating video drivers, constant lock-ups, and reboots but also improved the overall clarity of the 4K monitor.

And, while I wait for the next Windows 10 and video driver updates, I’ll keep looking for the ultimate solution to totally enjoy ultra high definition on the PC.