Optiplex 760 USFF

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Every day I check multiple web sites for “deals”. I had already spent a lot of money this month on gadgets, so why not go for broke and get one more.

Newegg had advertised a Dell Optiplex 755 refurbished computer for $185. I love this machine, it has been my linux workstation at the office for the last few years. Getting one for home would be great, but how good a deal was this?

A quick search on Ebay proved not that good. However, I did come across a Dell Optiplex 760 USFF for $72 shipped. Now we are talking. It needed a hard drive and ram, both of which I had in my spare parts bin. It has double the processing power of my current machine, and the ultra small form factor was a cosmetic bonus.


I tried to share my enthusiasm with friends, but they couldn’t understand the value in 3 year old hardware. You can’t buy an equivalent speed CPU for under $50 and I got a whole system for an extra $22! Whatever.

When I get used equipment I like to clean all the sticker goo, fan dust, pop stains, etc to make it look as close to new as possible. Goo Gone is my preferred cleaner, but I couldn’t find it so I used a can of Goof Off instead.

Warning: Goof Off is apparently just turpentine, which ate the paint right off the plastic case. I might be able to live with the big smudge, but if not at least it is under $20 for a new side panel.

So I maxed out the ram at 4GB, added a 1TB 7200 RPM drive, and for the first time in years went with a XFCE Desktop instead of KDE. Most Dell hardware is Ubuntu Certified, so everything was detected without issue. I was right, this box runs great even before any tweaks.

Now the fun of moving all my data over begins.


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Last week Microsoft had refurbished Surface RT 32G models with Touch Keyboard for $199 shipped. I had to get one, even though I have zero need for one, as the price was too good to pass up. I should have listened to all the negative reviews, but I am a gadget junky and need help.

Now don’t get me wrong, the hardware is pretty well thought out. Nice clear touch screen, stereo sound, USB/HDMI/SDXC ports, wi-fi/bluetooth, and a keyboard that doesn’t need separate power. The down side here is the OS, and even more so the lack of developer support.

This is marketed as a 32gig device, but there is really only about 13gig free as the OS takes the rest. Luckily ARM applications are small and getting additional storage for media via USB/SD isn’t a problem. Still, I am not sure how Microsoft gets away .. oh right, answered my own question there.

Unlike many reviews, the Tegra 3 processor does not feel sluggish to me. Most of the apps load fast, which leads me to believe the few that do not are slow because of sloppy programming. It is also unfortunate Windows RT does not take full advantage of the chipset, unlike its Android counterparts, or there would be better graphic capabilities.

The big problem? The only good programs for the RT platform are those which come pre-installed. Ok, there might be a half dozen apps I loaded from the store that work well, but everything else is junk that looks thrown together. Even worse, the only programs you can install have to come from the store … well at least without some clever hack.

I am curious to see how the release of Windows 8.1 next month improves the tablet. MS Exchange support will be a nice addition to the existing Word/Excel/PowerPoint suite. Better customization of widgets and the return of a “start” button should help too. Unfortunately, I also read the clever hack might be blocked.

I am going to try and use this at work until then, but unless Microsoft can get people to write more applications, my Nexus 7 has no fear of being replaced.


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At a price of $35 it was hard not to buy one of Google’s latest toys, but including free Netflix for three months made it a no-brainer.

I have been very pleased with my other ‘straight from google’ devices, and the Chromecast is no different. Usability is still hindered by the lack of app support, but I expect that to change once the SDK is released.

Currently both Netflix and You Tube work perfect when launched from my Nexus 4 phone. Until the latest update, using a third party program called Fling would let the Chromecast play any supported video from your PC. Although this no longer works, Google said blocking the video playback was not on purpose. So for now, using your Chrome web browser is the only other way to get content on your TV.

Unfortunately as my Apple TV currently provides the above services, and until the SDK is available to make more apps, the Chromecast is going to patiently sit in the drawer. I have no doubt that it will eventually become my go-to device for TV media playback.


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Buying things for the new house does not leave much cash in my gadget budget. I really didn’t need to get this, but when the hype around a product is high and on release day it sells out within hours I can’t help but jump in for the ride.

Ouya markets itself as a game console, but it is really a customized android device. Because of this, unlike regular game systems, the little cube ships open from the manufacturer allowing any 3rd party software to be installed … and thus the cool factor.

Not having internet at home I was unable to get past the boot screen which was disappointing. The next day at work I logged in, downloaded all the patches, and created my user account. Ouya requires a credit card to be entered in order to continue, which I do not agree with but had to comply (too bad I misplaced my zero balance pre-paid Visa during the move).

So far I have installed XBMC, which in my opinion runs fast and was able to play back a few MP4 videos I had without issue. The other reason I wanted this device was to play classic games via emulator on a TV with a joystick, so those will be configured next.

A good community behind this device will determine its success as I don’t think it will be able to compete in the game market as intended. Time will tell, and luckily I can play along.

HP ProLiant N40L

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I have had my eye on this little box since the last time it was on sale in February.

There was an article about how VMware made their ESXi Hypervisor software available for free. Being a fan of virtualization, I couldn’t wait to download and try this out.

Unfortunately, ESXi is only supported on mainly high end servers with limited device driver support. Although maybe not production capable, the HP N40L is an official ProLiant which uses all the supported server hardware.

First thing I did was to install a Lite-On DVD burner and upgrade to 8gig ram, the maximum officially supported. Next, I took out the included 250gb Seagate which I will swap for the 1TB drive currently in my desktop PC. I also installed an old 80gb and 120gb drive to be used for virtual machines.

HP included a bootable internal USB port, accessible right next to the drive bays. A nice feature as I can then install ESXi to a 2gb thumb drive (or other software like FreeNAS) keeping all hard drives available for data.

My only complaint is VMware’s client software to manage the server is Windows only. A web interface exist, but it is not part of the free version. I don’t expect this to be a huge issue, being able to directly access the VM’s once built, but time will tell.

Raspberry Pi

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My latest gadget, the Raspberry Pi. A quick boot of Raspbian impressed me enough that I need to make the time to further explore what this little $35 computer can do. Oh, and construct some sort of Lego case for it.

GoFlex Home

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While doing research on the PogoPlug, I found there were different devices that utilised the same base technology. One of these, supported by the Arch Linux Arm project, is the Seagate GoFlex Home. Staples had the 1TB version on sale for $80, which is a decent price due to the floods in Thailand causing higher drive costs right now.

I read the SATA interface would be faster then USB, and the integrated drive will save desk space. Also, with the OS booting from SATA, I can configure a nice swap file and have plenty of room to compile binaries. The main goal is to make this a Samba Server, hosting all my media files for XBMC endpoints.

I never used Arch Linux before, so I tried a standard install in VirtualBox to see how it worked. There are a few new commands to learn, but overall it runs very well. I also tested the GoFlex with Seagate’s surprisingly fast default disk sharing solution. After a few days of use I almost wasn’t going to modify the device. That changed, however, when I needed to do some remote work, at which point you fully realise the limitations without a proper OS.

Following these excellent instructions resulted in a default Arch Linux Arm install. I would point out the suggestion to make two partitions, which at first seemed unnecessary. However, if you need to start over, being able to format the OS drive without touching your data is a huge perk. The MAC address not saving and having to manually add the second partition to fstab were the only post-install issues.

Next, I went through the first steps guide to do some house keeping, and then the Samba guide which took care of my immediate sharing needs. I am very happy with the results, as the low power, near silent device sits on my desk. Time will tell if the little guy can keep up, but I have high hopes of long term success.


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This little device qualifies as one of my best impulse purchases to date. For under $30 I now have a full Debian Linux system running 24/7 that uses about 4watts of power.

One thing to mention is there are many different versions of the Pogoplug. The model I am using is POGO-E02, which sports a Marvell Kirkwood 1.2GHz ARMv5te Processor, 256MB Ram, 128MB Nand, 4 USB Ports, and Gigabit Ethernet. I splurged with a 16gig Flash Drive to be my boot device and main storage.

Out of the box Pogoplug allows the user to add external hard drives via USB, which are then made available both locally and over the Internet. However, thanks to the effort of many individuals, there are two prominent OS replacements which can be loaded to expand the capability of these devices. Arch Linux ARM is a popular choice, supporting many of the Pogoplug devices and backed by an active community. Debian Linux has always been my preferred distribution, so I was happy to find there was support for my particular model.

Jeff Doozan hosts what seemed to be the definitive guide to installing Debian onto a Pogoplug device. However, I found out during install that due to updates at Debian some of his scripts were now out of date. Luckily, another forum user Shyd was able to modify the install script to support the latest stable release, which at this time is Squeeze.

After running the script you are presented with a base Debian install to do with as you please. I configured some default options as suggested by Luke, and then installed Lighttpd, PHP5, and MySQL following this guide. Lastly, I took some ideas from mewbies to customize my shell MOTD to display prominent information at login.

I am very pleased with the results and would recommend this as a great low cost learning solution to anyone wanting to dabble in the world of Linux.


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So a week ago a friend of mine read an article on Engadget about setting up a home file server using FreeNAS. He asked my opinion about the software, not knowing I have been running my own FreeNAS server with great success.

The FreeNAS version at the time of this writing is 8.0.3. It has some pretty hefty requirements for what I would consider necessary for home use. I am still using the last stable release of FreeNAS 7 which runs on lower end hardware, and has a few more features then its newer incarnation.

When they were on clearance, I purchased a MSI Wind Nettop bare bones system in hopes of making a Hackintosh. It had similar hardware to the Dell Mini 9 but unfortunately the dual core Atom 330 was not supported, so I put it in the closet.

Shortly there after I began having issues with my Apple Time Capsule and needed a replacement. While researching options I found FreeNAS had an embedded install feature. The Nettop sitting in my closet was equipped with a bootable Compact Flash card expansion slot.

So I found an old CF card, 1GB ram, and purchased a Green 2TB SATA hard drive. Installing the FreeNAS software was a snap, and after the initial setup all other configuration is done via web page so the machine sits headless in a corner.

I formatted the hard drive as a single UFS partition. I then mapped mount points depending on the protocol being accessed. SMB for Windows, AFP for OSX, and RSYNC for Linux took care of my immediate needs. After setting up various user accounts, I set the spin down time for the disk and was ready to go. The only down side with this unit is the lack of redundancy. This was not a concern as I use it solely for backups, but I would at minimum mirror the single drive if it was going to be my primary central storage.

Tomato USB

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Over the years I have developed a need to modify most things that I purchase to make them more than the manufacturer intended. In fact, I now go out of my way to buy items that I can ‘hack’ whenever possible. A good example is my home Internet router, which currently is a Linksys E2000. I say currently because I also own a Netgear WNR3500L, but that is my testing router so the main network connection doesn’t suffer.

While talking to a colleague at the office, he stated it would be beneficial if his home wireless channel would auto change as needed. Happily, he said that the open source firmware Tomato was already installed, but he did not see said feature. I pointed out that this particular firmware had not been updated for many years, but was picked up by the TomatoUSB group. Unfortunately, that firmware is also over a year old, but various people have continued to modify it and add features. Toastman is one of those individuals, and my build of choice.

I have been very pleased with the stability and feature set of the Tomato open source firmware. Another excellent alternative is dd-wrt, which a build by Kong is running on the above mentioned Netgear. Either choice accomplishes the need to make my low cost device perform like high end hardware.

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