Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Way Overdue Review: A Fanless Windows Mini-PC

As I went to blog about my new Mac-Mini, I searched for a post describing the Windows computer that would be the Mini's neighbor. To my surprise, I apparently never got around to blogging about it. And it's not because the Windows computer was forgettable, on the contrary, it's quite a zippy little machine deserving of a review. So here it is, better late than never.

First off, I got the idea for purchasing what amounts to a Windows-Mini computer from this post: The Scooter Computer. Like all nearly everything on CodingHorror.com, it's impeccably researched and smartly written. While the use case for the computer in that article was markedly different than what I was after, I was intrigued enough to learn more.

What finally got me to hit the buy button was the form factor of the computer. For years, I'd purchased laptop after laptop. And while I still do occasionally need both the power and portability of a laptop, most days I can make do with either. That is, I'm either in front of my dual monitor setup (power!); or hacking away on my portable keyboard and cell phone (portability!). Better to invest the money in processing power and RAM than purchasing a slick laptop which would serve to do little more than power my existing monitors and keyboard.

I started my purchase process on a page much like this one:

(Note: the above screenshot shows a computer with one HDMI port and one VGA port. My model has two HDMI ports.)

I recall being psyched I could deck the machine out with 16GB of RAM, something that was unusual to find in a laptop. I also choose to up the other specs as much as possible and hit the buy button. At around $460, I figured I might as well splurge.

A few weeks later, my Mini-PC showed up. That was back in February of 2016. Here's how the computer looks now:

(The silver case is the laptop, the black rectangular device next to it is an external hard drive. Not shown is the beautiful traditional Chinese Knot, represents good luck always with you, that the listing promised and was indeed delivered with the computer.)

I'd never purchased anything on Ali Express, so I didn't really know what to expect. To my delight, the customer service was quite good, with the seller answering many of questions and offering to tweak the order as I needed it. This was the first time I'd purchased a non-major brand PC, and given my experience I'd gladly do it again.

After about a year of use, here's what I can say I like about it:

  • The computer is silent. The Mac-Mini makes this tiny tinkling noise, which I'd never notice, except I was putting it next to an even quieter computer. Gone are the days of loud laptop fans preparing for take off. Whoo!
  • The device is USB port heaven - there are 4 ports on the front and 4 ports on the back. Again, compared to my Mac-Mini, this thing is luxurious.
  • The SD Card slot is a win for me, as is the dual HDMI ports
  • It (Mostly -- see below) Just Works. Windows runs well on this bad boy, and most days I don't have to think about hardware, which is sort of the point.

And after a year of use, here's what I don't like about the device:

  • At times I've struggled with mouse stuttering and lag. I've tried replacing batteries and mice. I've tried USB vs. Bluetooth. These days it's not a huge problem, but occasionally the problem strikes again. I always assumed it was due to limited processing power. Though, I've struggled with the same exact issue on my Mac-Mini. Mice are awful.
  • The 256GB SSD is fast and all, but its capacity is tiny. In just a few months I managed to fill it up. As a quick fix, I was able to plug in a random 1TB USB hard drive which I had lying around. However, file access times can be horrendously slow with the derive. I've found that I basically use the external drive as a sort of swap space, storing less used projects and files there. At some point, I really do need to fix this and upgrade *something*. For years, hard drives kept getting bigger and bigger, so I never gave a second thought to them. With these tiny SSD drives, it's back to being an issue.
  • Webcam, Microphone and Speaker not included. Well, duh. Ultimately, the fact that the computer needs an external camera, mic and speaker is probably a good thing, as these accessories are cheap and easy enough to upgrade. But if you do plan to take the computer out of the box and use it on a Skype call, don't be surprised when you're not able to fully participate.

After nearly a year of use, I can say that this no-name Mini-PC is really working out quite well. When it's time to retire this bad boy (probably at the end of the year), I'll probably opt to purchase a similar one as a replacement.

Incidentally, if you're looking for a computer that you can just use for surfing, checking mail and watching YouTube, here's a better option: ChromeBit. But if you want to do actual computing, this device should have you covered.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fun in the Sun: A Weekend Bahamas Cruise

[Composed 2/20/2017]

This past weekend was spent cruising the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean with our friend's 7 year old, J. Shira and I had been both cruising, and on a trip to the Bahamas, but this was our first experience combining the two, and doing so in a weekend no less.

Friday started with, among other quick stops, a run into Walmart to buy a chess set. J is apparently part of the chess club at school, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity for me to truly learn how to play the game. So with our $10 chess set in hand, we boarded the Royal Caribbean ship that would be our home for the next three days.

This would be our 3rd time cruising, and I have to say, there's just something special about stepping on board. There's so much promise and excitement in the air. Much of cruising is a thin veneer of luxury that doesn't take much to see past, but what a fine veneer it is!

We found our way to our state room where J found he was sleeping on an upper bunk that folded down from the wall. This was a massive highlight of his trip. As for me, I found the room quite satisfactory, and Shira found it too tight for her liking. In my mind, the cramped state room is all part of the quirkiness of cruising.

We then made our way to the ship where we arrived at the pool on the top deck. It was here that we found ourselves comparing this Royal Caribbean cruise to our last experiences on Norwegian, a pastime we found ourselves doing fairly regularly. The water slide was smaller, the pool colder, the free food noticeably absent. J was un-phased. He and one of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle characters found their way to a hot tub and were in heaven.

I sat in the hot tub too, and struck up a conversation with the fellow sitting next to me. Before I knew it, I was 30 minutes into a Trump "discussion" and it was time for us to extract ourselves from the tub. Yeesh, it was like being back in DC, where political talk is basically non-stop.

Saturday we docked in Nassau, Bahamas. This was our second time in Nassau, the first being just about 19 years ago a few days after Shira and I got hitched. Much of that trip is hazy, but I can clearly recall landing in the evening, stepping off the plane, and being hit by a crazy hot and humid wall of air. That's what we got for going in July. For this year's trip, however, the weather was absolutely perfect.

From the ship, we made our way past the crowds to Fort Fincastle, about half a mile away. This tiny structure gave us a chance to learn a little bit about the island and play with the cannons. We can do a beach bum vacation and all, but it's going to be punctuated with history the first chance I got.

After Fort Fincastle, we made our way to the Pirate Museum. But alas, it was closed. We settled instead for hitting an ice cream parlor, and I counted my Guava Cheesecake flavored ice cream as a cultural experience.

From the ice cream parlor we made our way to Junkaroo beach, which has the distinction of being the closest beach to the cruise terminal. There are far more pristine beaches on the island, but for a weary 8 year old, location trumped everything else.

After a few hours of splashing in the chilly water and playing in the sand, we made our way back to the ship. The first order of business, once back on board, was to take a soak in the hot tub. See a theme yet?

After dinner we enjoyed one of the best luxuries offered by the ship: Kids Club. For all the nit picking we could do about our boat, I've got to say, Royal Caribbean nailed the kids activities. J was excited to attend them, and until 10pm (way after all our bed times), they're all free. After 10pm, babysitting is just $7.00/hr, which is a quite the value (considering a bottle of water is $3.50).

Sunday was to be spent on Coco Cay, a private island belonging to Royal Caribbean. One of the best parts: to get there you, you need to take a tender boat. That's sort of a mini-adventure to get to the adventure, and it didn't disappoint.

Once on the island, we grabbed a couple of beach chairs and started exploring the our little chunk of shoreline. J quickly made some new friends, and they found all manner of hermit crab and sea snail.

I'd been looking forward to visiting the island to try my hand at snorkeling. The water, like the day before, was chilly, but not too bad. Shira, J and I made our way out into the main swimming area, and fairly quickly caught site of a variety of different types of fish. Ultimately, I'd go out two or three more times on my own, getting further and further out from the shore and seeing more and more types of fish. I recall snorkeling in Hawaii and being blown away by the sheer quantity of life below water. This wasn't really the case here, but there was still plenty to see and even the smallest amount of effort yielded interesting discoveries.

We rented a floaty mat thing, and J climbed aboard while Shira I snorkeled, pulling him along for the ride. It was quite the sight to see.

After an impressive lunch, we went in search of the nature trail. What we found was a 1/2 mile path that led into the woods and away from civilization. We saw a number of 3+ foot iguanas along the way, and came out at a far more secluded set of coastline. For our purposes (read: entertaining and feeding an 8 year old), being close to where the boats dropped us off and the crowds collected worked well. But I could imagine if I ever came back with Shira alone, it would be fun to hike the nature trail in the morning and set up our own little piece of beach heaven away from the rest of our shipmates. Definitely something to consider if you find yourself on Coco Cay.

After a tender ride back to the ship we hit, you guessed it, the hot tub.

Which brings us to Monday, today. If boarding the ship has that special feeling of excitement and promise, leaving it comes with a corresponding dose of sadness and finality. It's like we're all leaving summer camp or something, yet it's been a mere 3 days of togetherness. Still, we were all sad to wave goodbye to the ship as we departed.

From there, we made our way to J's grandparents home, where they had food and the perfect setting to recount our adventures. They were even able to bust out one of their photo albums and show J the time his Mom, Uncle and Grand Parents went to Nassau. Including photos of Fort Fincastle, the water tower and the Christopher Columbus statue that he'd been standing in front of just 48 hours earlier. It was all so special.

On our drive from the Cruise Ship to his Grandparent's house, I helped J come up with his top ten list for our adventure. Here's what he came up with:

10. Discovering secret compartments in the stateroom
9. Laying out on the floaty mat, while the floaty mat was on dry land.
8. The tender ride to and from the ship and Coco Cay.
7. Collecting shells and searching out sea life with friends on Coco Cay.
6. Floating on the mat while we snorkled.
5. Eating Ice Cream in Nassau.
4. Playing 'frisbee' using my hat in the onboard pool.
3. Sleeping in a folding bunk bed.
2. Playing at Kids Club.
1. Hot Tub Time!