Trade Wars 2002: My First Gaming Addiction

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A long, long time ago in a decade we refer to as “the 80s,” I was a fledgling computer geek—a fire sparked and stoked by my parents when they purchased a used Apple IIe. In the midst of my tween years, one of my older cousins came over with a handful of floppy disks and showed me a number of new things. One of the things he introduced me to was the world of dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS), and by the time he left that afternoon, I was hooked!

In short, a BBS was essentially a very crude social-networking platform. You would use your dial-up modem and a terminal program to connect, and once you managed to log-in, you could post messages, share files, and most importantly to my younger self, play games. BBSes came in all shapes and sizes, from small single-line BBSes operated by hobbyists to great big complicated multi-line BBSes hooked into big messaging and file-sharing nodes.

What really became my obsession in the BBS universe were the BBS door games. A BBS door was essentially a way the BBS handed off a user to an external application. The type of BBS doors that got my attention were the door games. The fact that I could play games against other people without them being present was amazing and exciting to me. Games like Solar Realms Elite, Operation Overkill II, Global War, and even Freshwater Fishing Simulator occupied the majority of my time whilst dialed in to the BBS. Regardless of the games’ subject matter, they all operated pretty similarly: each day you received an amount of turns which were used up as you played the game. A particular genre of BBS Door games wound up drawing the majority my attention: space trading and adventuring.


I played the original Trade Wars before moving on to Yankee Trader and then eventually to what I consider the penultimate game of this category: Trade Wars 2002 (TW2002). The game was built upon each player using a spaceship to buy and sell goods to accumulate wealth. That wealth, in turn, was used to buy bigger and badder ships, colonize planets, and eventually to conquer the universe.

At the time, TW2002 was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of online gaming. Keep in mind however, that it reached its peak in popularity at a time when the term “online gaming” didn’t even exist yet. One of my favorite features of TW2002 was its animated ANSI graphics for some of the game play mechanics. Destroying a ship, a planet, or even getting blown up yourself all resulted in some nifty animations which looked pretty awesome to me over my 2400 baud modem in 1980-something. For comparison’s sake, my Frontier FiOS is capable of nearly 9 million characters per second, while that 2400 baud modem’s maximum throughput was right around 236 characters per second. My FiOS is roughly 38,000 times faster than that modem. Considering the limited transmission capabilities of that age’s technology, I am impressed that anything was animated in the game at all.

Little geeky tweenage Brian played TW2002 on a handful of different BBSes. I’d like to be able to gaze back through my rose-tinted glasses and wax poetic about the mastery of the many universes I demonstrated, how I’d built massive empires in different galaxies and ruled them firmly but fairly. But I’m modest enough to admit that I was a very middling player. I was always excited to crack the top 5 or 10 players on any of my BBSes. It’s this admission that really typifies what a great game TW2002 is—it was so entertaining to me that I enjoyed playing it even though I might not have been very good at it.


Sometime around 2000 to 2002, I got nostalgic about BBSing and I wound up spending a few dollars and standing up my own BBS which ran as a telnet server over my Internet connection instead of using a modem and phone line. I named that BBS “Oober BBS,” which I am surprised to see that it still turns up in Google’s search results. I wound up standing up quite a few of my favorite BBS door games, but my entire motivation around that nostalgia was playing some more TW2002. Sadly, back then I didn’t have nearly the digital reach that I have today, and only a few of my friends even had an idea of what a BBS was. As a result, my own BBS experiment didn’t wind up being very successful.

But the other day, I was discussing Trade Wars 2002 over at the Plano-area Makerspace, TheLab.ms, and I was excited to find out that a handful of the other members had also been into the BBS scene and played some of the games like TW2002. I mentioned to them that I had licenses to the game and asked about their interest in joining me in my nostalgic gaming kick. Enough people seemed interested that I decided to try and get a virtual machine spun up in Azure and see if I could start up a game of Trade Wars 2002 which everyone could play.

Without further ado, I’m genuinely excited to announce that I’m resurrecting a sliver of the Oober BBS by bringing its Trade Wars Game Server back online. The Trade Wars Game Server can function independently of any BBS software now and is accessible over the Internet.

How do I connect?

First you’ll need some sort of a telnet client to connect to the Trade Wars Game Server. There are a plethora of free Telnet clients, but my favorite one has almost always been PuTTY. As an alternative, there’s at least one Trade Wars game client that I’ve found so far that I like: SWATH. Unfortunately, it’s not free, and to be honest I think it’s a bit expensive at $26.00. However, there are quite a bit of features and functionality built into SWATH that are extremely handy. In fact, it has a scripting language of some sort that I hope to use and create a bot that can scrape some information about the game and help me automatically tweet a thing or two about what’s going on.

Brian’s TWGS Info
Addresstw2002.briancmoses.com
Port23
Discord Chathttps://discord.gg/57nGRSF

Play!

I have included a very simple javascript telnet client on this webpage. If you’re serious about playing, then I definitely suggest using an actual telnet client like the ones I suggested above, but if you’re just curious and want to check out Trade Wars 2002, then this will do the trick!


Game Info

At the moment, there’s only one game running. That may change in the future, but you can find the initial game’s settings and info as of 3/3/2018 at 9:45 AM below. Everything is currently set to the default values. What sort of tweaks and adjustments would you like to see in future games? Please make sure to leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Registered to    : Brian's Blog
Version          : 3.34b                Host type           : TWGS v2
Age of game      : 0 days               Days since start    : 0 days
Delete if idle   : 30 days

Players in game  : 0     of max 200     Percent good        : N/A
Aliens in game   : 0     of max 0       Percent good        : N/A
Ports in game    : 380   of max 400     Value of ports      : 0
Planets in game  : 2     of max 200     Percent w/ Citadels : 50%
Ships in game    : 0     of max 800     Corps in game       : 0
Figs in game     : 18000                Mines in game       : 50

Game type        : Open                 Game time           : 10:19:08 AM
Time per day     : Unlimited            Turns per day       : 250
Planetary Trade %: 60%                  Steal from BUY port : Yes
Initial fighters : 30                   Clear Busts Every   : 7 Days
Initial credits  : 300                  Last Bust Clear     : Today
Initial holds    : 20                   Multiple Photon fire: No
Sectors in game  : 1000                 Display StarDock    : Yes
Start with planet: Yes                  Classic Ferrengi    : Yes
Production Rate  : 5% / Day             Max Regen per Visit : 100%
Tournament Mode  : Off                  Invincible Ferrengal: No

Report Settings

High Score Mode    : On demand          High Score Type   : Values
Rankings Mode      : On demand          Rankings Type     : Values + Titles
Entry Log Blackout : None               Game Log Blackout : None
Port Report Delay  : No Delay

Delays

Ship Attack/Move : Third (1/3 s/t)      Planet Move    : None
Other Attack     : None                 Rob/Steal      : Constant (2 s)
Photon Launch    : None                 Photon Blast   : None
Ship IG          : None                 Planetary IG   : None
Dock/Depart      : None                 Land/Takeoff   : None
Drop/Take Mines  : None                 Drop/Take Figs : None
Planet Transport : None                 Ship Transport : None
EtherProbe Move  : None                 GenTorp Launch : None

IO Emulation

Input Bandwidth  : 1 Mps Broadband
Output Bandwidth : 1 Mps Broadband
Latency          : 150 ms    : 150 ms

Sonoff S31: I Cannot Imagine a Better Smart Outlet!

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I’ve been a big fan of the Sonoff lines of products, starting with the Sonoff and Slampher back in 2015 and then again last year with the Sonoff TH and POW products. I’ve liked them primarily for two reasons: they’ve been based on the ESP8266 and because they are comparatively inexpensive. I’ve tried other products, namely the Belkin WeMo, and I’ve found that the Sonoff products compare favorably in nearly every category. I was really excited when the Sonoff S31 became available—it was by far their most appealing product to date.

With the prior Sonoff products, there was a tiny little bit of assembly required. Not too much, mind you. But you did have to hack into the power cords of your devices, or in my case, I’d cut up little power-extension cables and wire them up. I must admit that hacking these power cords up and integrating the Sonoff products actually wound up being a bit of a selling point for me. It was a bit fun to have to do the wiring, but I could see how that might scare off consumers that are not as eager to play with electricity.

Nothing bad ever happened with my Sonoff products, mind you. The worst thing that happened was that I put a couple together poorly and had to deal with some devices losing power after one of the wires worked loose. Electrocuting myself was never an immediate concern, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind from time to time. However, it made me wonder what might happen if my friends at ITEAD were to try and build a product a bit more finished, like the Belkin WeMo. What would that be like? How would it compete against the other devices like the WeMo?

Enter the Sonoff S31

The Sonoff S31 (specs) appears to be ITEAD’s foray into a more consumer-friendly product. Its most exciting feature is obvious to the naked eye: it has been designed into its own enclosure. The enclosure is small enough that you can comfortably fit two Sonoff S31s into a typical outlet here in North America. What I’d had to do with my previous Sonoff TH and Sonoff POW was to screw them into the wall nearby, which wasn’t always the nicest-looking solution. Even though I had enjoyed hacking into electrical cables and wiring up to the prior generations of Sonoff products, it occasionally worried me that things might come loose. Being able to eliminate the potential of my own shoddy work immediately piqued my interest when I learned of the Sonoff S31’s existence, and at around $18.00, I was really excited with how it was more affordable from the comparable units from other manufacturers.

Power Features Built-in!

I borrowed Pat’s Kill a Watt so frequently that it was every bit as likely to be found at my house as it was his! After borrowing the Kill a Watt for the umpteenth time, I went ahead and bought my own. Over the years, I’ve used it in a number of different ways—just about anything I’ve ever expected to use more than its fair share of electricity has found itself plugged into my Kill a Watt. My curiosity about devices’ power consumption was what had me the most excited about reviewing the Sonoff POW last year.

The Sonoff S31 took the advances of the Sonoff POW a step further. Within the app, in addition to displaying the wattage being drawn by the Sonoff S31, the app also displayed the current and the source voltage. Digging into the details of the device in the EWelink app gives you the ability to measure power consumption over time and set up a number of alarms (realtime power minimum/maximum threshold, current threshold, and voltage threshold).

The ability to monitor and report on the power consumed by the device(s) plugged into the Sonoff S31 is a huge selling point to me. I’ve had my Kill a Watt for quite some time, but its price is pretty much exactly what I paid for it a few years ago. The fact that I can get a Sonoff S31 for pretty much the same exact price would make it really easy for me to suggest that people who are interested in measuring the power consumed by their devices check out the Sonoff S31 over the Kill a Watt. Being able to monitor the Sonoff S31 on a mobile phone from anywhere with Internet access makes it a better alternative to the Kill a Watt.

      

Home Automation

The best part of the maturation of ITEAD’s Sonoff products is the integration of services like IFTTT, and products like Amazon Echo and Google Home. The past couple months I’ve been playing with one of the Raspberry Pi-driven Google AIY Kits at home. Apparently, I have been engrossed enough with the Google AIY Kit, that my wife bought me a Google Home as an anniversary present. And just a few weeks prior, Santa had brought an Amazon Echo Spot for my wife this year. The fact that the Sonoff S31 was being advertised as compatible with both the Google Home and Amazon Echo products was a tremendously interesting feature for our whole household.

That being said, I probably wouldn’t define being able to ask Google (or Alexa) to turn my lights on for me as home automation. You’re simply using your voice to replicate what you used your hands to do previously, turn something on and off. In the end, you’re still the one manually turning the lights on or off. If you have a stricter definition of home automation and you’re looking for a much more truly automatic solution, look no further than openHAB, which boasts modules for the Sonoff products. I haven’t had the time yet to dedicate to it, but one of the things I want to run on my homelab machine is an openHAB virtual machine and to create a set of rules to determine whether or not I’m home using a set of conditions like:

  1. If any of our mobile phones can be pinged on the network.
  2. Whether or not our computers’ screensavers are active.
  3. The TV is on.
  4. The time of day.
  5. Etc.

Using those conditions and openHAB will allow for some actual home automation. But all of that’s a topic for another day! I look forward to seeing how my Sonoff S31 and other Sonoff products end up working into those plans!

I used a Sonoff S31 to control my face!

I wanted to experiment with the different ways I could work with the Sonoff S31, both semi-automated and automated. Especially since my darling wife bought me a Google Home for Valentine’s Day. Here’s a couple quick and tasks that I built around using the Sonoff S31’s capabilities.

Using IFTTT

My son, Gunnar, is nearly two years old and is absolutely the current center of our universe. A couple times while commuting home from my day job, I’ve been apprised that Gunnar’s been screaming “Where’s Daddy?!” at my exasperated wife. Back when I was building my keezer, I purchased a silly custom edge-lit LED sign with my face on it. Since buying it, it has dutifully sat on top of a built-in bookcase and perpetually lit up.

I was looking at it just the other day and thought that it’d be neat if I used [IFTTT][ifttt], my mobile phone, a Sonoff S31, and my sign to indicate whether I was close to home or not. Using the GPS on my phone along with its Internet access, I could turn the sign on as I got within a few miles of the house. Or using the EWelink app, maybe my wife could placate Gunnar for an extra few minutes by turning the sign on from her own phone.

Using Google Home

As a Valentine’s Day gift this year, my wife bought me a Google Home smart speaker. I’ve barely had a chance to tinker with it, essentially using it as a fancy kitchen timer for the making of my morning upside-down method AeroPress cofee, playing some music, and telling me whether or not the weather’s going to let me fly my quadcopter this week. Considering the timing of this blog, it only seemed to make sense to try and see how complicated integrating the Sonoff S31 to Google Home’s functionality was.

And you know what I found out? It’s not hard at all! Not only was I able to integrate ITEAD’s latest in the Sonoff S31, but every Sonoff device in my account was pulled in by Google Home and worked right off the bat. Even the protoype of the first Sonoff product that I was given to review nearly three years ago immediately started working with the Google Home. To be completely honest, I was astonished at how easy it was to get my Sonoff devices working with the Google Home.

How does the Sonoff S31 Compare?

I’ve tinkered with quite a few “smart outlets” like the Sonoff, and in the past I’ve preferred the Sonoff’s inexpensive price despite the Sonoff requiring the splicing of electrical cords as part of its installation. A little bit of work on my part was always worth the fact that the Sonoff products were a fraction of the price of similar products. In the Sonoff S31, ITEAD has built something to compete directly with the likes of the WeMo Mini Smart Plug and tp-link Smart WiFi Plug Mini. However, in the case of the Sonoff S31, it is both considerably cheaper than the other products and it includes power-monitoring features that the other two completely lack.

Final Thoughts

I’m pretty excited about the Sonoff S31. It is absolutely everything that I could ask for in a “smart” outlet. It has a small footprint, it has power-monitoring features, it integrates into both the Google Home and Amazon Echo products, it’s bit hackable, and—best of all—it’s inexpensive! In my opinion, the folks at ITEAD have really hit a home run with this product. ITEAD originally offered to send me one free Sonoff S31 to review, but when I saw its cost and features, I went ahead and bought 4 of my own. Now that I’ve had the chance to use the Sonoff S31, I’m pretty eager to buy additional ones and begin automating or monitoring more of the things plugged into my home’s outlets! As a bonus to my blog’s readers, ITEAD has issued a coupon code. Enter S6CUSNS9 for 10% off either a 1 or 2 pack of the S31 when buying them from Amazon (Link:Sonoff S31 on Amazon)!

Meepo Board: An Electric Skateboard Review

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Note from Brian: Ever since my good friend, Alex, taught a dingbat like me how to build a quadcopter, I’ve been telling him that he should start up a blog and share that same knowledge and passion for teaching with the rest of the Internet. My persistence and stubbornness finally paid off when Alex bought a new toy and was finally excited enough to write a blog of his own. To try and encourage him to get started, I told him I’d publish whatever he wrote. Hopefully some day in the future, we’ll see Alex’s content hosting on his own blog. But until then, I’m honored to publish what he wants to share.

The search for my first electric skateboard started about a year ago. The idea to acquire an electric skateboard was born out of my love for snowboarding as a teenager, and the subsequent fact that there is not much snowboarding in or around Dallas, Texas. The experience of carving down (or up) slopes and bike trails that ran through the trees, parks, and underpasses was something that definitely sparked my interest. The utility of an electric skateboard seemed like an afterthought, but was intriguing nonetheless.

The Search Begins

I consider myself a fairly DIY-oriented guy and with the previous endeavors of building computers, 3D printers, racing drones, and the occasional A/V rack, I felt prepared to build my own electric skateboard. Just a short four months ago, a simple Google search for a pre-built electric skateboard would return a few Kickstarter projects and the Boosted Board. At $1,500. the Boosted Board was a bit too rich for my blood, which left me to explore DIY options. Another quick search led me to DIY Electric Skateboards and I began pricing out all of the required parts. This website is a great place to get started in all aspects of the e-skate world, from just trying to familiarize yourself, to building your own complete skateboard through their guides and parts, or sourcing your own.

The Basics

To build an electric skateboard you’ll need the following:

  1. Motor/s ($90 per motor)
  2. A front and back truck ($65 for the pair)
  3. The deck ($40 – $150)
  4. Wheels ($50)
  5. Battery ($120 – $300)
  6. VESC ($100 – $150)
  7. Wireless Remote & RX ($20 – $75)
  8. Charger ($30 – $100)

With a few extra odds and ends, you’ll end up spending $600―$1,100 to build your own electric skateboard. This again was a bit pricey for my budget-minded self. I went back to Google, and some new results had bubbled up to the top.

Kieran, aka the Creator of Meepo

The Meepo board was one of the top results. It seemed to be everywhere, reddit, YouTube, Facebook, and about half a dozen e-skate blogs. The Meepo board had blown up. An interview with Kieran was the first result I explored to find out that Kieran used to be an employee at a budget electric skateboard manufacturing company in China, but had decided to create his own company with a more personal touch. The Meepo Facebook page still posts pictures of YOUR board before being shipped out to you, and replies to any questions or problems within the hour. The best part of the Meepo was the price: $400 shipped. This price came in under the DIY cost, and far below the boosted board and pre-built boards like it. The one downside was shipping time: for me this was 29 days. Some of the reason for this delay was the fact that Kieran himself was building the boards with three of his employees, and had a bit of a backlog of orders to fill. Most of the delay was due to his choice of shipping companies and his relatively new relationship with these services.

The Board

When I ordered my board from the Meepo website, it was the only complete board available, now known as the Meepo v1.0. This board had dual hub motors paired with a dual VESC (the speed controller), a 4.4Ah 10s battery, charger, wall mount, deck, trucks, wheels, taillight, and a 2.4GHz wireless remote. The Meepo board has a top speed of 23 MPH and a range of 11 miles depending on the slope or grade of any hills you may be riding up.

Stepping onto the Meepo for the first time brought back some slight nostalgia from my teenage years of cruising around on a traditional street skateboard. It rolls wonderfully without giving the board any power but right out of the box the trucks seemed just slightly too loose (this means the board will turn too easily). I tightened the trucks with the included tool and looked at my remote. There are three speed settings to use on the remote control: slow, medium, and really, really way too fast. They all behave differently in that the slow and medium settings have a nice smooth, maybe even gentle acceleration, but the fast setting is full torque RIGHT NOW.

I chose the slow mode for starters and wow, that feeling of being pushed forward by the skateboard itself is something that everyone should try at least once. The maximum speed on slow mode is about 6 mph, medium is about 15 mph, and of course fast is top speed capped at 23mph. With slow mode enabled, I pushed the throttle to full and the board eased around the parking lot. Six mph is roughly double a normal walking speed, so it was a nice, gentle introduction to the electric-skateboarding world.

After I got my bearings, I decided to pick up the board with the nicely placed handle and move to some paved bike trails. Slow mode was fun, but I decided that it was time to bump it up a notch to medium speed. The behavior of the board remained the same, but it just kept getting faster and faster until I was riding at the full 15 mph. At first I felt a bit uneasy about the speed I was traveling down the bike path. There were no handles to balance myself as I would on a bike or scooter, and finding my center of gravity, whether I should lean forward or back, was something else I was rather unsure of. I slowly got my bearings and was able to relax and lean into my turns a bit more. It really did start to bring back the feeling of snowboarding down the slopes of Michigan again.

The Good

I’ve had the Meepo board for about two months now. Every part of the board is still in perfect condition even after a few mishaps. The polyurethane wheels and tires on the hub motors has held up perfectly and the battery is still performing as well as it did right out of the box. The board will automatically power on when rolled in any direction, which is handier than you’d think. Not having to pick up the board and press the power button after unloading it onto the sidewalk is a nice touch. The construction of the Meepo is also top-notch. In speaking with Kieran over Facebook chat, he informed me that the control board (known as a VESC) has been sprayed with a water-resistant coating to help with slight splashes from a small puddle or something of that nature. The polyurethane was also upgraded shortly before I had purchased my board, and the wireless remote was improved to add the medium speed settings. Being able to talk to the creator of the company as a normal customer and seeing how he is constantly improving his product through customer interaction just makes the experience of acquiring an electric skateboard so much better.

Extras

On the Meepo board website, all spare parts are available. From batteries, wheels, remotes, decks, and hub motors, Kieran keeps stock of anything that might need to be replaced. The option to purchase your board with a larger battery is also available, albeit at a substantially higher price. These spare parts are shipped from China, so expect the usual two- to three-week total wait time and order ahead if you think you may need a replacement part. There are also videos of Kieran swapping out batteries in about three minutes with the included skate tool if that is of interest to you.

The Bad

I really don’t have much to say here from a functional standpoint. The downsides of the Meepo board really come down to comfort. Traditionally, skateboards have a concave shape to the deck. This allows your heels and toes to rest on the deck at all times and makes steering and cruising a breeze. The Meepo board unfortunately has a convex shape that makes riding the board akin to balancing on a thin bar rather than a nice, wide longboard. I experienced some slight pain in the arches of my feet after about 15 minutes of riding. I believe this is because the convex shape of the board makes it harder to steer. Your really have to lean into your turn and press on the ball or heel of your feet to carve. This should be an easy, almost subconscious action on a standard concave longboard deck. This problem is evidenced by the community of Meepo board riders performing “deck swaps,” where they buy an aftermarket standard longboard deck and move the electric skateboard components to the new deck to regain the nice feeling of riding a true longboard.

Since acquiring the Meepo board and writing this review, Kieran has upgraded the Meepo board to version 1.5. This new board comes with a more concave deck and a stronger battery to address problems stated from the community about the version 1.0 board.

The Verdict

The Meepo board has been a wonderful first electric skateboard. The price is a perfect place to enter the hobby and still have a reliable skateboard to cruise around on whether you are getting groceries from down the street, or just enjoying a nice day cruising around the local park. The customer service and ever-improving product line really shines when dealing with Meepo. This is a budget skateboard, but you get substantially more than what you pay for. I would recommend this board for someone who is just getting into electric skateboarding or for a budget-minded person like myself. I will update this review as time goes on to speak for the longevity of the board, as the community has stated that the hub motors do have a shorter lifespan than your average belt-driven system.

About the Author

Alex Courville is a DIY enthusiast. Originally from northern Michigan, he now lives in Dallas, TX, where he has convinced five grown-ass men to become addicted to building DIY racing quadcopters. Don’t worry, they don’t actually race the drones, unless the finish line of the race is to hit the ground, trees, or any solid object as fast as possible. They do that well. Anyways, Alex enjoys beer, riding electric skateboards, and traveling, as long as it’s outside of Texas.

Mavericks: Elite Grooming Made Simple

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When I started writing my blog, I hoped that eventually companies would find my content interesting enough that they might send me things which they wanted me to review. While this has happened for a few products and items, I’m still primarily purchasing most of the items I wind up reviewing. However, in some cases I’ve been a bit surprised at the kinds of companies that will contact me willing to send me their products for me to review.

As an example, men’s beauty products! I am not what you would call a handsome man. But many moons ago, Pat talked me into trying shaving with Cremo Cream. I wound up being so impressed by Cremo Cream that I just had to write a blog reviewing it. And ever since publishing that blog, I get approached every few months by the maker of some sort of men’s beauty product. Usually, I explain to them exactly how unqualified I am to review that kind of product and that the best I could muster would be to use it and share my experiences with my readers. In many cases, my lack of experience of reviewing these kinds of products wind up scaring off most folks.

But that’s not always the case. My new friends at Mavericks contacted me quite a few weeks ago asking if I’d be willing to review their products Mavericks Shave and Mavericks Face Kit. After trading a few emails with the Mavericks team’s management and reading over their successful Indiegogo campaign, I started looking forward to what I was expecting to see in my mailbox.

I’ve been using the products on a nearly daily basis ever since, and whether I’m qualified to share an opinion on it or not, here goes my review of the two products!

Mavericks Face Kit

The Mavericks Face Kit was sent as a bonus in addition to the Mavericks Shave product, which is covered later in this same blog. The Mavericks Face Kit is a three-stage kit of different products: a protect product to use in the mornings, a wash to use at the end of the day, and a rebuilding concoction which is to be left on overnight.

I’m a creature of habit, and modifying those habits can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially my nighttime and morning-time routines. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to remember to use the wash and rebuild products before bedtime and then the protect product in the morning before I head out to work or my weekend adventures. For the most part, I’ve been successful.

Considering that my typical nighttime routine is to brush my teeth and get in bed as quickly as I possibly can, adding the Mavericks Face Kit to my routine had a pretty dramatic effect. Each night that I used it, I went to bed feeling refreshed a bit. Between the wash and rebuild products, I could certainly tell how much cleaner my face felt the nights that I used the Face Kit.

Mavericks Shave

Ultimately, my Cremo Cream review is what drew the attention to my blog from Mavericks. What they really wanted was a review of the Mavericks Shave. Considering that I’ve currently got a beard, I’m not doing nearly as much shaving every day as when I reviewed the Cremo Cream, but I’ve been using Mavericks Shave exclusively for a few months now.

Just like Cremo Cream, it takes very little of the Mavericks Shave to properly protect your face while shaving. Their directions indicate that a peanut-sized dollop is all that’s needed in order to shave your entire face, a claim which stands up in my own use. I still shave my neck and above my beard on a near-daily basis and I rarely use any more of the Maverick Shave than something the size of a regular M&M, the majority of which goes on my neck and then I save a tiny bit for around my two cheekbones.

Mavericks Shave

In comparison to Cremo Cream, Mavericks Shave is minty and it is also a bit more waxy. In my opinion, neither of these characteristics make it better or worse than Cremo Cream, just different enough. In the months that I’ve been using Mavericks Shave, I’ve routinely used it with dull razor blades that should’ve been swapped out a week or two earlier. I’ve also tried using too little or too much of the product to see its impact. When I’ve used too little, it’s been a tiny bit more difficult to finish shaving, but not extraordinarily so. There’s enough of the Mavericks Shave left on your face after one pass that with a little bit of extra water, you’re still able to shave your face without too much discomfort.

Final Thoughts

After using products like Mavericks Shave and Cremo Cream, I know that I’ll never go back to using a traditional shaving cream or gel again. For starters, when used appropriately, one package of Mavericks Shave/Cremo Cream completely outlasts one package of your traditional gel or shaving cream. And while the upfront cost for the Mavericks Shave might be higher than your traditional shaving creams, I think the value is better because of how long it lasts. I’ve been using Cremo Cream now for almost four years and I think I’m only up to buying my 2nd container.

Are you looking to change up your shaving routine a bit? Do you want to use something other than a traditional shaving cream or gel? I think the Mavericks Shave is a definite upgrade over what you’re probably using. The up-front cost might be a bit more than you are used to paying, but in the long run it may even work out to be less expensive due to how little you have to actually use in order to shave your face.

Similarly, if you’re anything like me, the Mavericks Face Kit is an absolute upgrade over how you’ve been taking care your of face. In my case, just about anything would be an upgrade over what I do to take care of my face. But the benefits of the three-stage system of the Mavericks Face Kit have been readily apparent on each of the days that I’ve used them. It’d certainly seem that my face feels better after using both the Mavericks Shave and Face kit products.

Brian’s Pseudo Micro Quadcopter

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I was hooked on quadcopters the moment I built my first quadcopter. After building that quadcopter, I’ve spent lots of time and money building up a veritable fleet of different quadcopters, equipment, tools, and accessories. The amount of stuff I’ve accumulated since building that quadcopter at the end of 2017 is equally amusing and alarming. I’ve had to buy at least two pieces of furniture just for quadcopter storage.

Both Pat and I have become a bit quadcopter-crazy and we’ve both been a bit perplexed as to why this has happened. Prior to this, neither of us have ever had much interest in any kind of remote-controlled vehicles. But there’s just something about quadcopters that appeals to us. Not only is flying them fun, but we also find a bunch of enjoyment in building them, repairing them, and upgrading them. In discussing this the other day, we nearly simultaneously arrived at the exact conclusion! Building drones reminded us both of two of our favorite past hobbies, which are building our own computers and modifying cars.

My first two FPV racing-style quadcopters were off-the-shelf quadcopters that I both enjoyed immensely and almost immediately started upgrading. Crashes were largely responsible for the first few upgrades. But as my meager piloting skills improved, the upgrades became more performance related. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about what I’d want to do if I were to build my own smaller micro quadcopter from scratch.

The KingKong 90GT was my very first FPV quadcopter and I absolutely loved flying it. It was a small, 90mm quadcopter which fit in the micro quadcopter category. My favorite thing about this little quadcopter was that it was small enough that I felt emboldened to try the things I wasn’t quite ready to do on my bigger and more expensive quadcopters. My only other wish was that I could make my little KingKong 90GT feel a bit more like my bigger five-inch quadcopter, the Holybro Shuriken X1, which was more responsive and far more powerful.

What’s a Micro drone? Size Matters…sort of

Quadcopter-sizing convention is vague and not very well defined at all. Different sites have their own different classifications on what differentiates a mini quadcopter from a micro quadcopter. My Shuriken X1 is a mini quadcopter and the KingKong 90GT is most definitely a micro quadcopter, but determining where exactly the line is drawn between those two classifications is a bit fuzzy. Depending on where you look or shop, people will use the motor’s stator size, the propeller diameter, and even the dimensions of the frame to delineate between the mini and micro sizes.

In picking out the parts for my quadcopter build, I concluded that the motor’s stator size is what ultimately defined whether a quadcopter was either a micro or a mini quadcopter. In my humble opinion, motors with a stator size 13mm or above (13XX) fit in the mini category and anything smaller fits in the micro category. Having decided that, I semi-naively went searching for and selecting parts.

Frame

My first quadcopter had a pretty boring-looking frame; it served its purpose but it didn’t look very impressive and it certainly wasn’t designed for the FPV-racing style quadcopters that I had gravitated towards. I wanted something that was small enough to accommodate a flight controller and four-in-one ESC that used the 20mm x 20mm layout. But it needed to be large enough to fit three-inch propellers. My criteria led me to discover the GEPRC Sparrow GEP-MSX3, a frame with a stretch-X layout that weighed 41g and would easily accommodate the electronics that I wanted to fit in there.

In my haste to place my order, I wound up overlooking the fact that the frame was designed to fit 13XX and 14XX motors. During the assembly of the drone, this wound up presenting a challenge that took a bit of patience and elbow grease to overcome!

Motors

My experience with the KingKong 90GT’s 1103 motors had me really interested in staying well-within the micro quadcopter genre (by my own definition) and sticking with the 11XX motor size. What I opted to do was to find a more powerful and taller motor capable of reaching much higher revolutions than what the 90GT had, and boy did I succeed! I ultimately chose the Brotherhobby Returner R3 1106 7100KV for my motors. In comparing these motors to what was on the 90GT, I knew that I had most definitely eclipsed what the 90GT was capable of when it came to sheer thrust.

Propellers

Among the things we learned about the 90GT was that propeller size really wound up making a difference. The little quadcopter had a ton of hidden potential that we slowly uncovered as we bought bigger and more aggressive propellers. Pat wrote an excellent blog about the 90GT upgrades and talked quite a bit about the advantages of better propellers. For my own little micro quadcopter build, I picked out the DYS 3045 3-inch, 3 hole propellers which seemed about the biggest, most aggressive pitch that I could find that would fit atop the Brotherhobby Returner R3 1106 motors.

Flight Stack

The wheels in my brain started thinking about this build the first time I saw the HGLRC XJB F428 Flytower. The entire stack contained all the computing needed for powering and flying my micro quadcopter all within a minuscule 20mm x 20mm mounting footprint. The stack contained a F4-grade flight controller and a 28 amp 4-in-1 ESC that was capable of supporting between 2S and 4S batteries. The option of being able to power my micro quadcopter with a 4S battery had me salivating about the possibilities of my micro quadcopter.

FPV Camera

I’m a big fan of the Runcam line of FPV cameras; there are about half a dozen (or more) quadcopters in my bag that have all received some sort of Runcam camera as an upgrade at one point or another. With the building of my micro quadcopter, I was excited about my chance to try out one of Runcam’s smallest cameras, the Runcam Micro Swift with a 2.1mm lens on it. I had been led to believe that the quality of the image would remind me the most of the Runcam Eagle that I had been using for ages on my beloved Shuriken X1. About my only complaint with the Micro Swift was its 4:3 ratio, had I realized how much I preferred 16:9 sooner then I probably would have opted for the Runcam Micro Sparrpow instead.

Video Transmitter

For my video transmitter (VTX), I was looking for something that was small, lightweight, capable of broadcasting at 200mw, and had an antenna connection that I could easily swap without having to solder. Much to my surprise, I found the Full Speed TX200, which ticked off all of my requirements and then had an even better feature; it literally installed onto the back of the Runcam Micro Swift. Because I’m hard on things like antennas, I also bought a few tiny cloverleaf antennas that would work with the Full Speed TX200. A lesson that I’ve learned so far in the hobby is that you rarely break the components which you have spare parts for!

Receiver

Building this quadcopter introduced me to my favorite receiver, the Frsky R-XSR. Above all else, it was small and it had antennas that I could swap easily without soldering. Moreover, it paired well with my Taranis X9D Plus transmitter. It was the first receiver that I owned which supported telemetry, which opened me up to all sorts of information about my quadcopters that I could then display on my transmitter, like the quadcopter’s current battery voltage. I opted for the Frsky R-XSR primarily for its small size, but if I could get telemetry working too that’d be the icing on the cake.

Battery

Of all the decisions I made while picking parts out, I agonized the most over picking out the right battery. I had purposefully selected the higher kV version of the Brotherhobby Returner R3 1106 7100KV and I had also picked out an ESC that was capable of handling a 4S battery. The combination of the higher-voltage battery and the faster spinning motors was a potentially risky decision. In picking parts out, I knew there’d be a chance that the 4S batteries would be too much voltage and too much weight for my new little quadcopter.

I decided to split the difference. I ordered two batteries, the BetaFPV 850mAh 3S battery and the ZOP Power 750mAh 4S. My intention was to try both out and then buy a whole mess more of the ones I liked better. To spice things up, Pat loaned me a handful of his variety of 2S and 3S batteries to also try out. I was hoping that in my first few days of flying the new micro quadcopter, I’d wind up stumbling upon which battery felt the nicest with hopefully at least 5 or more minutes’ worth of spirited flight time.

Final Parts List

Component Part Name Count Weight Cost
Frame GEPRC Sparrow GEP-MSX3 specs 1 41g $35.00
Flight Controller HGLRC XJB F428 Flytower specs 1 6.5g $65.58
ESC 4-in-1 28 AMP BLHeli_S ESC 1 4.2g
Motors Brotherhobby Returner R3 1106 7100KV specs 4 7.8g $17.55
Propellers DYS 3045 3 Hole Propellers (XT30453) specs 4 5.44g $6.99
FPV Camera RunCam Micro Swift 600TVL w/ 2.1mm Lens specs 1 5.6g $29.99
Video Transmitter Full Speed TX200 specs 1 2.9g $13.99
Antenna 4-Leaf RHCP Micro Clover Antenna IPX   1 2.9g $4.29
Receiver FrSky R-XSR Ultra specs 1 1.5g $24.99
Battery ZOP Power 14.8V 750mAh 4S 70C 1 78g $11.54
TOTAL: 177.34g $262.57


All the parts

Assembly

Having never really picked out the parts for my own custom quadcopter before, I had a bit of apprehension about putting it together. That apprehension was quickly justified as I laid down the motors next to the GEPRC Sparrow GEP-MSX3. The frame was clearly designed for 13XX- or 14XX-sized motors, and my little 1106 motors weren’t going to fit nicely. But then Pat grabbed my little set of precision files that I use for cleaning up 3D-printed parts and started filing away at the motor mounts. Within a few minutes he had connected each of the four motor holes in a little cross pattern, which allowed the smaller 11XX motor pattern to get mounted to the frame. However, in the process Pat made a mess!

Pat's messy hands after filing

Assembling the remainder of the quadcopter was pretty simple, but we quickly discovered that I am awful at soldering. Prior to building my first quadcopter, I’d hardly ever touched a soldering iron except for a couple of Arduino projects. Building the gigantic 450mm quadcopter was pretty easy. Largely because all the components were nice and spread out from each other. The condensed nature of a micro quadcopter was the absolute opposite. It wasn’t nearly as simple to put together, but that was offset by having a friend nearby to be an added set of hands or available to solder some of the bits I wasn’t quite confident enough to handle.

Ultimately, I was really thankful for the combined 4-in-1 ESC that came part of the HGLRC XJB F428 Flytower. The inclusion of that in the stack helped eliminate a good chunk of the different solder points (a dozen), I’m pretty certain one of those extra twelve would’ve ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back for either myself or Pat.

Brian's Micro Quadcopter

First Few Flights

I alluded to agonizing over picking a battery earlier. Among the things that led me to settle on the ZOP Power 4s 750mAh battery was my initial experience with a myriad of smaller batteries that I tried it with. I had fun flying them, but most of the flight of the smaller batteries fell quite a bit short of my five-minute flight time goal and they definitely felt less zippy than what I was hoping for. However, I was pretty pleased with the performance of the BETAFPV 3S 850mAh battery. Making it four and a half minutes on the battery was pretty impressive and it seemed to have enough oomph to be fun.

When I hooked up the 4S battery, the little pseudo mostly turned into exactly what I was hoping for. It really cooked zipping around the park, dancing in and out of trees. Its smaller size emboldened me into trying things I didn’t normally try. The on-screen display was flashing the low-voltage warnings (more on this later) and the quadcopter beeped at me in protest the entire time. I expected the motors to be extremely hot or the battery a bit puffed up, considering what I’d just put them through, but they were both in pretty good shape. For the most part, I felt like my 4S battery experiment was a success!

We went to our favorite park with wide-open spaces because for Christmas I gave Pat a radar gun. I just had to see what my psuedo micro quadcopter could do. I’d line up Pat out in the middle of the park and then do my best to fly full-throttle flight right at his face. I was astonished when Pat yelled that my little 3” quadcopter registered 72mph on his radar gun! All good, right? As it turns out, not so much!

What happened shortly thereafter was one of the motor screws backed itself out and came out. Because of how we modified the frame the other three mounting points started to wiggle back and forth, and eventually the motor fell right off! It ended my radar gun fun that day, but it wasn’t something a little Loctite Blue couldn’t fix. I was back up in the air the next day!

Final Thoughts

Considering my goal was to build a micro quadcopter that reminded me of my Holybro Shuriken X1, I felt mostly like I accomplished my goal. However, in accomplishing my goal I’d taken some pretty big liberties and probably bent at least two rules of drone building:

  1. I was running a high-kV motor on high voltage batteries. This usually isn’t a wise combination.
  2. I had to use a pretty heavy battery in order to get a decent amount of flight time.

My pseudo micro quadcopter was definitely hard on its motors and batteries. Nearly every single rapid adjustment on the sticks was accompanied by a low-voltage warning beep from the quadcopter. In the first video I shared, the battery was completely done as I came in for a landing, which resulted in a rougher-than-usual collision with the ground. And if you keep an eye on the battery voltage on the on-screen display, you can see how much the voltage sags any time I really got on the throttle.

In the end, I had tried so hard to build a micro quadcopter that I’d made the mistake of building a mini quadcopter and then put tiny little motors on it. It’s a fun little quadcopter—for its size it really screams around—but if I really wanted it to be a micro quadcopter than it should probably be built atop a smaller, lighter frame and running off a 2S or 3S battery

So What’s Next?

Now that I’ve finally admitted this is really a mini quadcopter, I think the appropriate thing to do is to go out and find more powerful motors and angrier propellers. I love the T-Motor F40 motors that are on my Shuriken X1. The T-Motor F20 II (3750kV) is the 1408-sized little brother of the newest generation of F40 motors. It’ll be a full-on mini quadcopter by adding these bigger, heavier, and much more powerful motors but I think I’ll get much better performance and be much kinder on my batteries in the long run. If I’m really lucky, I’ll match or exceed the flight times I was seeing before.

FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer

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Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that my blogging has been a bit sporadic over the past few months. The primary reason for this has been the birth of my son back in 2016 and the fact that I accepted a new job a few months back. But a big contributor to my absence has been my introduction to the world of drones. Almost exactly a year ago, I built a 450mm quadcopter, and ever since then I’ve been pretty quadcopter crazy. In fact, I now have a military-grade 55-liter backpack full of goggles, batteries, tools, spare parts, transmitters, action cameras, and most importantly, anywhere between four to six quadcopters which can be found inside or strapped to the outside.

My friends at Gearbest discovered early on that I’ve been quite obsessed with quadcopters and they’ve sent me a couple to review, starting with the KingKong 90GT micro-quadcopter that I’ve enjoyed so much that I still carry it around with me every time I go flying. When Gearbest offered to send me the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer FPV Racing quadcopter, I leapt at the chance to review it.

At the moment, I have two other different 5-inch FPV racing quadcopters: the Holybro Shuriken X1 and the insanely economical BFight 210. I really like both of these quadcopters. How would the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer measure up with my favorite two racing quadcopters? Which of the two quadcopters do you think the Fire Dancer would be the most similar to?

Specifications and my First Impression

On paper, the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer compares well with both my Holybro Shuriken X1 and BFight 210 quadcopters. While reading over the product’s specifications, my gut seemed to be telling me that the GT 215mm was more likely to remind me of the BFight 210:

Component Description
Frame 215mm X-configuration made of 4mm thick carbon fiber
Flight Controller Omnibus F4
Motors 2306 2400KV brushless motors
Propellers 3-blade 5048
ESC 4-in-1 BLHeli_S 35 amp
VTX 5.8GHz VTX, 48-channel w/ broadcast power 25mW/200mW/600mW
Camera 960 CCD camera with a 2.1mm lens
Weight 325g

About the only thing I’d squabble with from the product’s specifications is their claim about 1080P HD video. Perhaps the lens and camera sensor are indeed capable of 1080P, but there’s nothing onboard to record at 1080P and certainly nothing to broadcast in high definition either. If you’re wanting some HD video recorded on this quadcopter, you better strap a GoPro to it.

Unboxing the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer was pretty exciting. I was impressed with its light, yet sturdy build. The composition of the BFight 210 and the Fire Dancer are pretty comparable, but the frame seemed a bit more rigid than the BFight 210’s frame. More importantly, the Fire Dancer has bigger motors, bigger ESCs to feed those motors, and a better flight controller than you’ll find on the BFight 210.

However, I was not quite impressed with tiny little antennas on the cheap little Frsky receiver that was provided with the GT 215mm Fire Dancer, so I immediately swapped it out with a Frsky R-XSR that I had here in my collection of spare quadcopter parts. I also found that the quadcopter’s VTX was wired into the SBUS on the flight controller. I assume this was done to set up the possibility of controlling the VTX from my transmitter. However, in practice what I found was that my band and channel for the VTX were changing on what seemed to be each and every flight. Because the VTX lacked any documentation to explain why it was wired up to SBUS, I ultimately decided to just clip that wire. I was more than willing to set the VTX’s band, channel, and broadcast power by using the buttons built into the VTX.

Initial Flights

A quick note: as you will soon find out, I am still quite the novice at flying FPV. There’s a lot that I can’t do well, like soft landings or traversing our drone gates (aka kids’ soccer goals sans nets). While I feel like I’ve made a ton of progress since my first few FPV flights with the KingKong 90GT, I definitely lag behind many of my contemporaries. I’m not brave enough to follow in Pat’s shoes and do power-loops over trees, at least not quite yet!

I was super impressed flying the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer. My first flight was uneventful; I zipped around one of our favorite wide-open spaces and didn’t experience any kind of funkiness that can accompany a flaky quadcopter with suspect parts or a bad tune. It stayed up in the air for the entire duration of my 4S 1500mAh battery. If you’ve seen me fly a quadcopter then you’d recognize the magnitude of this accomplishment. My quadcopters seem to find their way to the ground long before their batteries have been drained!

My concern with both my BFight 210 and the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer was definitely durability. Not necessarily because the drones were flimsy, but because I’m hard on my quadcopters, as my BFight 210 can testify to. Moreover, the frames on both quadcopters are sleek and a bit on the slight side. Plus, I’d heard Pat’s horror stories about breaking his beloved BFight 210 in a particularly hairy crash one day.

Given my track record, it wasn’t entirely unsurprising to me that on my first day I wound up wrecking the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer. I was attempting at taking the GT 215 through one of our drone gates and winged the side pretty good—hard enough that it tore the propeller right off the motor. I was pretty pleased when I was able to put the propeller right back on and get flying again. It’ll be quite some time before I’d declare that the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer is durable enough to withstand my treatment, but the fact that it bounced back from this first-day crash so well seemed like a pretty good indicator.

So what does Pat think?

In Pat’s most recent blog about the demise of his own X1 and how awesome he thinks the BFight 210 is, he mentioned the arrival of my FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer. Specifically, he said that he was looking forward to being able to kick its tires and take it for a flight. Naturally, I was excited to hear what he thought, so I handed him my transmitter on the condition that he write a couple paragraphs with his thoughts.

Brian let me try out his new Furibee racing quad. He had the camera angle set lower than I’m used to, but I had no trouble flying it. I did a power loop over a tree, and I hit a few aps in and around “The Lady Tree.” It was fun!

The Fire Dancer reminds me of the BFight 210. They’re both light drones with skinny arms, and they feel quite similar in the air. The Furibee has bigger motors, bigger ESCs, and an upgraded flight controller compared to the BFight 210—I didn’t do a good job putting those to the test in my short flight!

I like the Furibee GT 215, and it doesn’t cost much more than my BFight 210. It seems like a “no-brianer” to pay a few dollars for all those little upgrades!

Conclusion

There were two things about reviewing the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer that really stuck out. For starters, I really thought that GT 215 was excellent both in its features as well as its value. Like Pat said, it is only a few dollars more than the BFight 210, but it has bigger motors, can use bigger batteries, and has a better flight controller.

My biggest complaint was with the FrSky receiver that it came with. It was cheap enough that I simply decided to replace it before even trying it. I think my advice to others would be to buy the receiverless “plug and play” version of the quadcopter and spend the few dollars you save to buy a better receiver like the FrSky R-XSR.

But altogether, I think it’s a pretty fantastic quadcopter. To be able to find such a powerful and entertaining racing quadcopter for as little as $160 seems pretty incredible to me—especially when you consider the cost of quadcopters like my beloved Holybro Shuriken X1.

Naturally, Gearbest is selling the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer with a variety of receiver types:

But more importantly, with the help of the FuriBee GT 215mm Fire Dancer I was able to put together what I think is easily my “best” FPV flights so far. Perhaps I’m beginning to get enough stick-time in that my piloting skill is improving, or the GT 215mm is just that nicely put together and tuned than a clumsy novice like me would be able to fly it. Whatever the reason, it resulted in what I think is my best FPV video to date.

DIY NAS: EconoNAS 2017

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Ever since building my first NAS over five years ago, I’ve been keeping current by building a pair of new NAS builds each year: a powerful, budget-oblivious NAS build and an economical, price-efficient NAS build in an effort to demonstrate to prospective do-it-yourself NAS builders that a NAS can be built and assembled to suit their needs and budget. The DIY NAS: 2017 Edition was off the charts in storage, processing power, throughput, and also price! It was fun to build and blog about and even though its price tag was incredible, I thought it still had a pretty good price-to-performance ratio.

For 2017’s more budget-friendly NAS build, I decided to double down on my yearly goal to exceed the prior year’s EconoNAS performance while keeping the total price as close to $500 as I can. Every year I set this difficult goal and every year I wind up missing that goal. Will I wind up hitting that goal in 2017?

CPU & Motherboard

In shopping for the motherboard, I found out right off the bat that my new dedication to my budget goal was going to likely make this year’s EconoNAS remind everyone a bit of last year’s EconoNAS. I wound up picking an ASrock B150M-DVS R.20 (specs), which ultimately wasn’t all that different in specifications from the 2016 EconoNAS build, the Asus B150M-K D3. Chief among its feature set for me was the support for Intel’s LGA 1151 CPUs, its support for up to six SATA 3.0 devices, and its affordable price point. I’ve built a few DIY NAS machines (including my own) using ASRock motherboards and I’ve been pretty pleased with the results so far.

I am always stingy when it comes to paying for a CPU in the EconoNAS machines. I usually wind up seeking out the least expensive CPU that I think can handle taking care of FreeNAS and that fits in the motherboard. For this year’s EconoNAS, I wound up picking the Intel® Pentium Processor G4400 (specs). The Pentium G4400 wound up being a tiny bit more powerful than the G3920 which was used in the prior year’s EconoNAS.

RAM

As I did in 2016, I decided to go with 16GB of RAM. In the FreeNAS hardware requirements the minimum requirement is 8GB of RAM, but the recommended amount of RAM is 16GB. With my $500 budget in focus, I was tempted to dial the memory back down to 8GB in an effort to save some dollars, but then I decided against that. The two Kingston Technology ValueRAM 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 DIMMs (specs) were also an additional tiny upgrade over the 2016 EconoNAS, coming in at a few hundred megahertz faster at 2133MHz.

Case, Power Supply, and Cables

In looking for a case, I had one thought in mind: value! I pinched as many pennies as I could and sought out the least expensive case and power supply that I could find which would accommodate a decent number of 3.5” hard drives. My search turned up a manufacturer that I hadn’t been aware of before, Logisys. The Logisys CS305BK (specs) is a mid-tower ATX case that features a total of 10 bays (six 3.5” bays and four 5.25” bays). In my goal of being thrifty, I couldn’t avoid the temptation of this very inexpensive 10-bay case. At 480 watts, the included power supply should be more than enough to drive the rest of the components I picked out for the EconoNAS.

As it often happens, being thrifty came at an expense. In order to hook everything that I bought up, I wound up needing a set of extra SATA cables, a 3.5” to 5.25” drive bay adapter, a molex to SATA power adapter, and a 4-port SATA splitter. Regardless, I would’ve had to buy more SATA cables because motherboard manufacturers are notoriously skimpy in sending SATA cables with their motherboards. However, I did wind up spending another ten dollars buying adapters that I may not have had to buy if I’d chosen a different case entirely. Is it possible that this very inexpensive case was deceptively more expensive in the long run?

Storage

I go about buying storage for each NAS system with two goals in mind: first, to exceed the prior build’s storage capacity, and second, to spend less money on storage than the prior year. As you can imagine, these two goals conflict with each other. Bigger hard drives are a better value in terms of dollars per terabyte, but bigger hard drives carry a bigger sticker price too. Considering how similar the 2017 EconoNAS was winding up to the prior version, I wound up spending most of my effort shopping for hard drives.

FreeNAS Flash Drive

As is the case nearly with every NAS I’ve built since my first one, the SanDisk Ultra Fit 16GB was my choice for using to store FreeNAS on. I was tempted to add a second drive so the EconoNAS could have a mirrored pair of OS drives, but I opted to save the few bucks a second USB drive would wind up costing. I originally wound up picking the SanDisk Fit because of its compact size and reliability and because their performance over the years has earned my loyalty.

NAS Hard Disk Drives

To say I agonized over shopping for hard drives would be putting it mildly. The 2016 EconoNAS featured 6x2 TB harddrives for 12 TB of RAW storage. Adding a seventh 2TB hard drive in 2017 seemed like too much of a cop-out, and unsurprisingly, the prices of 2TB HDDs had not really changed much since building the 2016 EconoNAS.

Instead, I wound up going with generic “White-label” 3TB HDDs for the same price as the Hitcahi 2TB HDDs I’d purchased the prior year. In seeing them, I asked nobody in particular, what exactly is a “white-label” hard drive? Wikipedia defines a white-label product as “A product or service produced by one company that other companies rebrand to appear as if they had made it.” So effectively, the hard drives were manufactured by an unspecified, but well-known manufacturer likely intended for the use inside other products or by anyone who buys hard drives in volume.

This seemed like a riskier option, but at only $4 more per hard drive than I paid for the storage drives in the 2016 EconoNAS, it seemed like a risk worth taking. Having decided to buy the White Label 3TB hard drives, I then had to pick how many to put in the system. I wound up opting to buy five hard drives, for a raw total of 15TB of storage. Because I advocate at least using two drives of redundant data, the net storage will wind up being 9TB.

In comparison to last year’s build, it’s an increase of 3TB raw storage (15 vs 12), and 1TB of net storage. But I actually wound up spending less money on hard drives this year (~$300) than I did last year (~$340) because I bought one fewer drive total and their relatively close price points. Final Parts List

Final Parts List

Component Part Name Count Cost
Motherboard ASRock B150M-DVS R2.0 specs 1 $64.19
CPU Intel® Pentium® Processor G4400 specs 1 $53.60
Memory Kingston Technology ValueRAM 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 Memory specs 2 $89.95
Case and Power Supply Logisys Corp CS305BK w/ 480W PSU specs 1 $36.11
SATA Cables SATA Cable 26AWG SATA III 6.0 Gbps with Locking Latch for HDD 10 inch SATA Cables (10 pack) N/A 1 $8.50
Power Adapter StarTech.com 6in 4 Pin Molex to SATA Power Cable Adapter N/A 1 $2.74
Power Splitter StarTech.com 4x SATA Power Splitter Adapter Cable N/A 1 $6.27
OS Drive SanDisk Ultra Fit 16GB specs 1 $9.99
Storage HDD White Label 3TB 7200 RPM Hard Drive N/A 5 $59.99
TOTAL: $652.24

Hardware Assembly, Configuration, and Burn-In

I’ve been pretty proud that I’ve yet to hit a serious issue when assembling my different NAS builds. They typically go right together, boot up, and burn-in without any problems. It would seem that in 2017 my lucky streak would hit a bump in the road. How big of an issue do you think that I ran into?

Assembly

My very first thought about the assembly came in working with the case. The Logisys CS305BK is inexpensive for a reason: it’s cheap! The first case I received got abused in transit and the fascia of the case had completely shorn off its posts. The power supply wound up coming loose and had banged around hard enough to bend the sheet metal that held the power supply in place and bowed the hard drive cage a tiny bit. The metal used in the case is so incredibly thin, that I jokingly referred to it as foil on a number of times—it almost seems like it should be protecting a pumpkin pie rather than a host of computer components. That being said, I expected this case to have warts. No matter what way you look at it, it’s an inexpensive case with a ton of room inside for a plethora of hard drives.

Everything went together quite easily and I didn’t have any issues assembling the computer, but I did wind up having an issue on its first boot up. It wouldn’t post at all! After quadruple-checking all of my work and removing/disconnecting everything but the CPU, a single stick of RAM, and the power, I had no luck whatsoever. I swapped in a known good power supply that I had lying around, hoping that I’d just received a defective power supply. But that different power supply didn’t solve my problem.

I wound up being in a bit of a pickle, because I didn’t really have any way to verify whether the CPU, RAM, or motherboard was to blame for my problem. In doing some research into the ASrock B150M-DVS R.20, I learned that a BIOS update was required in order to support the newest Kaby Lake CPUs and I just so happened to have originally picked the Intel Celeron G3920, a Kaby Lake CPU. Without a spare Skylake CPU laying around, I wasn’t going to be able to flash the BIOS in order to support the CPU that I’d originally bought. Instead, I opted to buy an additional CPU, the Intel® Pentium Processor G4400 . The price was a few dollars more, but it had the dual benefits of being supported by the motherboard in its current form and it benchmarked a little higher than the Celeron G3920 that I picked.

Overall, not a huge issue. But I was a bit bummed that it snapped my lucky streak in building NAS machines for my blog! Onward to the next lucky streak, I hope.

White-Label Hard Drive Roulette

Among the things I was most interested about was exactly what kind of hard drives I was going to wind up receiving. One of the things I do in my the DIY NAS series of builds is buying hard drives from multiple manufacturers to try and avoid a bunch of drives that could’ve come from the same bad batch at the same manufacturer. When I placed the order for my five white-label drives, I briefly imagined receiving hard drives from three or four different manufacturers and getting the best of both worlds.

In looking at the five different drives, it was quite obvious to me there were two distinct models of drives. I had four of one model of drives, and one of a different model. This wasn’t quite ideal, but it is an upgrade from EconoNAS builds in the past where I’ve frequently bought what seems like the most amount of storage for the fewest dollars.

A little bit of detective work in the BIOS and taking a peek at the drives’ S.M.A.R.T data showed me that I wound up with:

  • 4 of MaxDigital MD3000GBDS
  • 1 of Hitachi HUS724030ALE64

The MaxDigital drives are a bit of a surprise to me. To be completely honest, I hadn’t heard of MaxDigital prior to my white-label hard drive roulette experiment in building the 2017 EconoNAS. When I ordered the hard drives, I bought the absolute best deal I could find on the 3TB hard drives.

My bottom line on hard drives is that I’ve been burned and massively disappointed in every single hard drive manufacturer at one point or another. I’ve had failed hard drive experiences and painful RMA process war stories to carry a grudge against all of the hard drive manufacturers at one point or another. My preference would be to use the hard drives from a manufacturer I’m at least familiar with, so I’m not entirely sure how I feel about these MaxDigital hard drives.

I am happy with the price I got; they were by far the best deal among 3TB hard drives when I did my shopping. Ultimately, the EconoNAS is all about deciding how much risk you’re willing take in order to save a few dollars. I’ll be curious to see how these drives perform and how reliable they wind up being.

Hardware Configuration

When I built my first NAS, getting the BIOS configured to boot up only via USB was tricky enough that I dedicated a paragraph or two to the hardware configuration. But in the years since, this has gotten better and simpler. Pretty much the only change I wound up making in this year’s EconoNAS was setting it up to boot off the FreeNAS USB drive. Beyond that, I didn’t make any other changes.

If I wanted, I could’ve theoretically updated the BIOS and switched back to the original CPU that I purchased for this year’s EconoNAS. But that CPU’s only benefit was being a CPU-generation newer and saving between $5 and $10. Personally, I would’ve been happier to spend the extra money and not have to deal with swapping the CPU. Ten bucks to save myself some time and frustration seems like a good deal. I decided to leave the older, but more powerful CPU in the machine and decided to forgo updating the BIOS.

Burn-In

For burn-in, I really like to focus in on the RAM and the CPU, primarily because they’re kind of a hassle to replace and because there’s no redundancy for this hardware. If I were truly anal-retentive about the burn-in, I’d also try and run some sort of burn in test on the network card and also the storage array once it is put together. But, I think that burning in the NIC and the hard drives might be a bit over the edge of reasonable. This is just my opinion, I wouldn’t blame any of you for wanting to also burn in those other components too.

My first boot is almost always into Memtest86+ to check the system’s RAM. This is for any computer I buy, but in particular for my NAS builds. I always have a bit of lingering doubt in my mind about the RAM until I’ve seen Memtest86+ complete at least three passes without any errors. Because I usually wind up doing something else, like flying drones, I usually wind up doing quite a few more passes than just three. Keep this in mind when you see the number of passes of Memtest86+ I wind up going through—I think anything over 3 is pretty much overkill.

For the CPU, I use my UltimateBootCD—but on USB—and I run the Mersenne Prime Test. My goal in running the test is to peg the CPU at 100% for a long time and look for any kind of instability or lock-ups. I usually do my testing in “waves” a shorter test of only 5 minutes or so and then subsequent tests of 10, 20, and finally 30 minutes. I’ll usually hop over into another console and monitor CPU usage and temperatures to keep an eye on anything getting out of hand.

As I expected, the 2017 EconoNAS survived my round of burn-in tests and was ready for the installation and configuration of FreeNAS.

FreeNAS Configuration

Installing FreeNAS is a snap. I always wind up downloading the latest FreeNAS ISO and then writing it to a USB drive, since I always seem to have about half a dozen USB devices floating around. I then boot up off that USB device, and then installing to the actual intended USB drive for running the FreeNAS OS. The trickiest part of this is remembering which USB device holds the FreeNAS installation and which USB device is going to hold the FreeNAS OS. Once the installation is finished, I remove the USB drive with the FreeNAS ISO on it and let the machine boot up for the first time.

Once it’s booted up for the first time, I do almost everything from the FreeNAS web interface. The default server name is FreeNAS, so you should be able to pull it up entering in the URL of http://freenas. On occasion, I’ve been industrious and figured out the IP address by logging in to my router and reviewing what IP addresses have been handed out to which machines via DHCP. Once the FreeNAS web interface has been pulled up, I usually go through these steps:

  1. On the first screen of the Initial Wizard, I hit exit because Initial Wizards aren’t complicated enough to make me feel like I’m accomplishing something.
  2. I set the hostname to: my machine name.my local workgroup name (example: econonas2017.lan)
  3. Create a new volume under storage. I always add all of the hard drives to the volume and I pick RaidZ2 for my Volume Layout. I opt for RaidZ2 because the data gets written to the different drives in such a way that you have two hard drives’ worth of redundancy.
  4. Add a group to contain all the users who’ll be able to access my share.
  5. Create a user for myself. Because I want to keep things simple for authentication, I make sure my username and password matches that of my computer(s) I’ll be accessing the NAS from and I also add myself to the group that I created in the prior step.
  6. Create a dataset belonging to the volume created earlier. I fill out the Dataset name and Comments, set the Share type to Windows, and made sure the Compression level is set to Inherit.
  7. Update the permissions on the dataset I just created, setting the Owner (group) to the group I created earlier. I set the Permission Type to Windows and I check the box for Set permission recursively
  8. Underneath the Sharing > Windows (SMB) Shares, I add a new share pointing at the path of the Dataset created earlier. I updated the Name and make sure Apply Default Permissions is checked.
  9. Following the share creation, I choose to enable the Windows SMB Service
  10. Under Services > SMB I configure the service by making sure the NetBIOS name matches the server name and the workgroup matches what I put in before (in step 2.)
  11. Because I’ve had luck in improving performance in the past, I choose to Enable Autotune under System > Advanced.
  12. I’m lazy, so at this point I just go ahead and reboot the NAS after making all of these configuration changes. This probably isn’t necessary and everything that I accomplish in a reboot can probably be achieved by releasing/renewing the IP address from your DHCP server.
  13. Following the Reboot, I go browse to the NAS from Windows Explorer and I validate that I can see the share and make changes to it.

Initial Wizard Updating Hostname Creating a Volume Adding a Group Adding a New User Create a Dataset on the Volume Setting Dataset Permissions Creating a SMB Share Enabling SMB Service Configuring SMB Enabling the wizardy of Autotune Reboot! Exploring the Share


Way back when I built my very first FreeNAS box, I was really surprised at how simple it was for a dingbat like me to install FreeNAS, get it configured, and be able to access the shares from my Windows machines. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten a bit better at it and hopefully it shows in the few steps above. But I think it’d be negligent if I didn’t also point out that this is only beginning to scratch the surface at what you can do with FreeNAS.

Benchmarks

When it comes to my NAS builds, only two numbers matter to me: power consumption and throughput. Power consumption is interesting to me because I intend to run my NAS perpetually. The only time my NAS is off is when the power is off at my house and the battery in my UPS has drained. Because of that, I like to keep an eye on how much electricity it uses. And beyond that, I like to see throughput numbers. I especially like to see the NAS builds fully utilizing the NIC on the NAS during a file transfer.

Power Consumption

Electricity is a sneaky, hidden cost of owning a NAS. Typically, I’m so eager to try and hit my $500 goal that I completely ignore the cost of electricity. I wouldn’t be surprised that spending a few dollars more for a low-power CPU and motherboard wouldn’t ultimately wind up being a cheaper option once you calculate in the cost of electricity over the lifetime of the device. To help everyone make a better decision on their own with regards to power consumption, I did a little bit of power-consumption benchmarking.

I’ve been using my Sonoff POW for these power benchmarks for quite some time. I really like being able to check and see how much power a particular outlet has used just by pulling it up from my mobile phone. I monitored the power consumption remotely and grabbed the highest number that I saw (while monitoring) during each of the following scenarios:

  1. Boot Up
  2. Idle
  3. Memtest86+ burn-in
  4. CPU burn-in
  5. NAS write throughput testing
Bootup Idle Memtest86+ Mersenne Prime NAS Write Test
116 watts
75 watts
98 watts
102 watts
80 watts

Altogether, I was satisfied with the power consumption. Using 80 watts during the sequential file write (more on that below) seemed like a pretty decent number for making the disks work. Ultimately, I felt that 2017 EconoNAS was up to the task of fulfilling it’s primary function without causing exorbitant utility bills.

Throughput

When benchmarking a NAS, it is important to remember that your primary bottleneck is going to be your network interface. For example, the 3TB HGST Ultrastar 7K4000 HDD in this year’s EconoNAS has a sustained throughput of 171MB/s which converts to about 1.368 Gbps. All by itself, that single hard drive is capable of saturating a gigabit connection all by itself.

I like to do a throughput test to see how the NAS performs on a sequential write and a sequential read. I use IOMeter to perform the test. I used my primary desktop computer to perform the test, so I set up 2 workers for each of my 8 CPU cores (16 total). And I ran two different tests: a sequential write and a sequential read, both of which used a 512Kb transfer request size.

  • Sequential Write: 92.21 MB/sec with transfer speeds as high as 810Mbps
  • Sequential Read: 91.24 MB/sec with transfer speeds as high as 876Mbps
Sequential Write Throughput: 92.21 MB/sec Sequential Write Performance: 810Mbps Sequential Read Throughput: 91.24 MB/sec Sequential Read Performance: 876Mbps

Overall, I though that the throughput testing was a bit of a mixed bag. I was pretty bummed out that I wasn’t fully utilizing the 2017 EconoNAS’s Gigabit link. It’s certainly something that I’ve accomplished in prior years’ EconoNAS builds, including last year on the 2016 EconoNAS. But I was pretty pleased to see the write tests perform in the same neighborhood as the read tests.

Conclusion

Quite a few things disappointed me this year about putting together the 2017 EconoNAS. For starters, I was going to miss my $500 price point … again. I thought the case was pretty chintzy and cheap enough that one was even damaged while it was shipped to me. I was more than a little bummed when it didn’t completely saturate my gigabit link. And most of all, I was extremely let down when it seemed like there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between this year’s EconoNAS and last year’s EconoNAS.

I think that the 2017 EconoNAS is a fine machine. For right around $650, you get 15 TB of raw storage, an Intel Pentium G4400, 16 GB of RAM and quite a bit of room to grow with 3-4 empty drive bays inside the case. If you’re looking to get the most storage possible for as few dollars as you can, I think this build is a very good direction to go and that my disappointment shouldn’t wind up also being your disappointment. Compared to the current pricing of the 2016 EconoNAS, this new build is better in nearly every way and a better value to boot!

The root of my disappointment is that I’m simply building these NAS machines too fast. Newer hardware isn’t pushing the prices of older hardware down fast enough to justify a new EconoNAS build every 12-18 months. I even purposefully postponed the EconoNAS build several times to see if the parts got any better or the prices got any lower—they didn’t! This also probably applies to my “regular” DIY NAS builds too. In 2018, I imagine that one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to come up with a new approach on the frequency of DIY NAS builds.

How do you guys think I did? Where would I be able to trim some money, but also exceed what was built 18 months ago for the DIY NAS? Or should I have spent even more money to truly set it apart? Do you think I’ll ever build a $500 EconoNAS?!

Giveaway

#FreeNASGiveAway Updates

02/06/18: Congratulations to James Viray of the Phillipines! Of 2,958 entries from 949 different people he was randomly selected and became the first international winner of the #FreeNASGiveaway! James’ subscription to the briancmoses.com RSS feed wound up being the entry that won him the #FreeNASGiveaway. Once you calculate in the cost of shipping the NAS overseas, the EconoNAS turned out to be not-so-economical for me, but it wound up being a great deal for James! Thank you all for entering, I appreciate the attention and interest in my NAS builds. If we continue seeing this much interest, perhaps I need to start giving away more than one?

briancmoses.com’s 2017 EconoNAS #FreeNASGiveaway

My Thoughts after Upgrading to FreeNAS 11

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Just over two weeks ago, iXsystems made the announcement of the release of FreeNAS 11. Naturally, this announcement had my full attention because I’ve been using FreeNAS since building my first DIY NAS over five years ago and continue to use FreeNAS on my current DIY NAS, which I beefed up significantly about a year ago.

A major release like this is always going to get my attention, but I was initially a bit hesitant after a rather bumpy release and subsequent un-release of FreeNAS Corral. Setting aside what happened with FreeNAS Corral, my opinion on major release of software like FreeNAS is that it’s always good to let someone else take it out for a spin and see what they think of it. There can be a lot of pain associated with an upgrade, especially a problematic one. My advice is always that you tread carefully on major upgrades and weigh benefits of the new features versus the costs of a potentially painful upgrade.

Typically speaking, I’m pretty cautious in adopting the latest releases of FreeNAS. But this time around, I thought I’d reverse course by being adventurous and becoming a somewhat early adopter of FreeNAS 11 in order to share my experience and thoughts on the upgrade. It’s a bit risky to volunteer to be a guinea pig, but I thought the rewards justified the risk. In particular, two of the many new features in the FreeNAS 11 (release notes) ultimately convinced me to be an early adopter: virtualization and the user interface improvements.

Virtualization

I was especially excited about the incorporation of virtualization into FreeNAS on behalf of many DIY NAS builders, but not necessarily for myself. I built my own dual-Xeon homelab server less than a year ago and it’s been working well! However, this doesn’t make the new virtualization feature any less exciting to me. About my biggest complaint of FreeNAS is that, because it runs on FreeBSD, you can be a bit handcuffed in finding utilities which run natively in FreeBSD. It’s been my experience that many of the things I want to try running on my own DIY NAS box frequently didn’t have FreeBSD ports available.

Prior versions of FreeNAS had some virtualization options and a decent library of plug-ins, but if you wanted to add functionality to your FreeNAS machine, it was a bit more problematic—not necessarily impossible, but ultimately more work than I typically wanted to do. It’s entirely possible that I was being lazy, but having virtualization seamlessly integrated into FreeNAS 11 is an exciting feature!

The addition of virtualization through the bhyve hypervisor makes it easier for a DIY NAS builder to leverage the unused CPU cycles of their NAS to add functionality that may not be readily available on the FreeBSD yet. The DIY NAS: 2017 Edition was built specifically with the fact that a hypervisor was being shipped with the latest versions of FreeBSD and that eventually the FreeNAS UI would soon support the management of its hosted Virtual Machines.

The inclusion of bhyve among the things that can be managed via the FreeNAS user interface is an incredibly exciting new feature. I decided to create a virtual machine just so that I could share my thoughts as part of this review. Thanks to a video I found on YouTube, I found that creating a virtual machine in FreeNAS 11 was incredibly easy. I downloaded a Ubuntu Server ISO and stuck it on an SMB share. Then I created a zvol for the virtual machine’s storage. Following that, I created a virtual machine and added two devices: a hard drive using the zvol I’d created earlier and a CD-ROM drive that I pointed at the Ubuntu Server ISO. I started my new virtual machine up and used a VNC client to work through the installation of the operating system.


I found creating a virtual machine inside the FreeNAS user interface to be every bit as easy as on my own homelab server. It’s exciting to me that virtualization will be more accessible to FreeNAS users than it was in the past. There’s no shortage of tasks that can be done using FreeNAS’s new virtualization features. Home automation, media servers, web servers, etc.—the list is endless!

User Interface

A lot of the people in both my personal and professional networks are experienced systems administrators who have amassed an amazing amount of knowledge and experience with the different features and technologies of the various server operating systems. Almost each and every one of them has looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why did you choose FreeNAS?” Each time my answer to them has been because of the FreeNAS user interface. Ultimately, the FreeNAS UI enables me to build and manage my own NAS server without having to toil at the command line—for guys like me, this is huge!

As I understand it, one of the complaints of the prior FreeNAS releases was that the user interface was dated and stale. Thankfully for me, I lack the discerning eye and style for interface design. I found the FreeNAS UI to be completely satisfactory. I personally didn’t have any particular issues with the old user interface, but I was curious when I read that another major feature of FreeNAS 11 was going to be an included sneak preview of a new Angular-based user interface.


I checked out this new user interface and found it to be to my liking. It felt like it was more responsive in my browser and visually it was more appealing. It’s my understanding that it’s not yet feature-complete and won’t be the default interface until a future minor release.

According to the FreeNAS 11 release announcement, the new user interface is expected to be customizable—I’m excited to see what kinds of neat options the FreeNAS community is able to come up with to supplement or replace the default interfaces.

Other Interesting New Features

A brand-new user interface and the addition of the bhyve hypervisor are what really mattered to me in this upgrade, but there are quite a few other updates included in FreeNAS 11 which might not have tickled my fancy, but may be interesting to you! Use the comments below if you think some of these other features should be discussed in further detail as part of future blogs.

  • Kernel improvements 20% faster than FreeNAS 9.10
  • FreeNAS is now compatible with Amazon S3
  • A new Alert Services page which allows the sending of critical alerts from FreeNAS to other alerts applications
  • Everything else included from FreeBSD 11.0

My Upgrade to FreeNAS 11

A couple of Saturday nights ago, it was late, quiet, and I was incredibly bored. Everybody in the house had gone to sleep for the night, but I wasn’t tired yet. I’d seen the FreeNAS 11 release announcement and decided that I’d ignore my conservative tendencies and give the upgrade to FreeNAS 11 a shot. All of my virtual machines on my homelab server use my NAS machine for all of virtual machines’ storage. Consequently, the VMs all needed to be shut down before I started my upgrades. Once I had the VMs powered down, I went ahead and kicked off the FreeNAS upgrade. I had intended to intently watch the upgrade in order to keep an eye on it and get an understanding of how long it’d take, but then Pat distracted me when he asked me to play some Team Fortress 2.

I checked back in on my upgrade after a few matches of TF2 and was happy to see that the upgrade appeared to have gone quite smoothly. I logged in and out using both the legacy user interface and the new interface. I checked my inexpensive 10gb network connectivity between my desktop and my NAS box, and the NAS’s connectivity to my 1Gb network. As far as I could tell that night, the upgrade had gone incredibly smoothly. Aside from the issues caused by rebooting the NAS, primarily the disconnection of mapped drives on my Windows machines, you wouldn’t have even known that a major upgrade had taken place on my NAS.

For an added bit of intrigue, a few days later I decided I’d put some stress on my NAS by replacing two of my older 4 TB hard drives with Western Digital Red Pro 8TB and Seagate 8TB IronWolf NAS SATA drives. I replaced the first drive, waited for the array to rebuild, and then replaced the second drive. Unsurprisingly, replacing these two drives and the subsequent rebuilds of my array were completed without any kind of issues. Hopefully over the next year or so, I’ll slowly replace the remaining 4TB hard drives with 8TB drives.

Lastly, after about a week (and as I worked on writing this blog), I went ahead and upgraded my ZFS Pool. This is significant, since upgrading the ZFS pool pretty much makes it impossible for me to go back to FreeNAS 9.10. With regards to each of my FreeNAS upgrades, I always hold off on this particular step until I’m happy with the latest version, and I consider the FreeNAS upgrade to be a success. As far as I can tell so far, I haven’t had any issues whatsoever with my upgrade to FreeNAS 11.


Overall, I thought the new features justified accelerating my typical upgrade adoption. And considering how smoothly it’s gone so far, being an early adopter hasn’t bit me in the ass—I sure hope I haven’t jinxed myself!

How did your FreeNAS 11 upgrades go? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments!

An Economical Introduction to Drones: Tianqu XS809W

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If you were interested in drones and followed my advice, you’d wind up buying a King Kong 90GT quadcopter, a Taranis X9D Plus transmitter/controller, and an inexpensive set of FPV goggles. This setup would have you well-suited for flying your first quadcopter and then have you in the position of buying and flying bigger and faster quadcopters in the immediate future. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

At today’s prices, the gear above would wind up running you nearly $300. We may need to tap the brakes a little bit here! That’s quite a lot of money to spend on a brand-new hobby—especially a hobby that winds up taking practice, determination, and some skill. I don’t know about you, but I’d have to be pretty excited about a new hobby to be willing to invest so much money up front. Especially when I’ve learned that as a newbie pilot, you continue to invest time and money into your quadcopters, replacing parts after crashes.

Thankfully for me, taking the plunge and spending hundreds of dollars to get started building my own 450mm quadcopter worked out really well. I’ve enjoyed myself quite a bit and I’ve amassed quite the collection of quadcopters in little to no time.

But what if you’re on the fence, not wanting to invest hundreds of dollars, lacking experience with remote-control vehicles, and without the access to experts that I had? A different, more budget-friendly alternative is a good idea. An ideal solution for that person might be an introductory-type drone that’s inexpensive enough that if you spent a couple hours on it and decided that quadcopters aren’t for you, it wouldn’t fill you with regret when you completely walked away from the hobby.

Enter the Tianqu XS809W

The Tianqu XS809W is a budget-friendly, camera-equipped, WiFi-enabled, foldable quadcopter. Its best feature is its all-in price of around $50. For that low price, you get a beginner-friendly quadcopter that includes everything that you need to start flying and even taking some pictures. For its size and wingspan, it’s quite compact when folded up, and it’s also incredibly lightweight. The styling of the quadcopter, especially the foldable arms, is a direct clone of the DJI Mavic Pro—but that’s in looks only. The Tianqu XS809W’s price tag is a mere 5% of the DJI Mavic’s—but it’s not like they’re playing the same ball game.

Here are Tianqu XS809W’s primary features:

  • Inexpensive
  • Foldable design
  • WiFi FPV camera
  • Included transmitter/controller, plus you can control it from your phone via an iOS or Android app
  • Variable-speed switch
  • Headless Mode (more on this below)
  • One Key Return (more on this below)

One day this past week, Pat and I met up to fly drones in one of our favorite nearby parks. I charged up the Tianqu XS809W’s battery and put 3 AA batteries into the transmitter and was flying in a matter of seconds! The only difficulty that I wound up having was on actually due to my phone. The drone uses WiFi to communicate with your phone, so your first step is to connect your phone to the drone’s WiFi access point. But because of that, my phone was complaining about the fact the drone’s WiFi lacks an internet connection. The problem wound up being that my phone was refusing to actually connect to the drone’s access point. That particular problem was resolved when I selected the option to remain connected anyways when prompted by my phone.


I snapped my Pixel XL into the transmitter’s spring-loaded holder, used my phone as a display for the Tianqu XS809W, and I was up in the air without great difficulty. I flew it near, I flew it far, I flipped it, I took some pictures, I recorded some video, I crashed it, and repeated through all these things until I drained its battery. Here are my impressions:

The Good

  1. Extremely Inexpensive: At an all-in price of $50 and a coupon-discounted (Coupon: GBXS809) price of $39.99, the Tianqu XS809W is a budget-friendly way to introduce yourself to quadcopters.
  2. Flight Time: It comes with a one-cell, 900mah LiPO battery. Between the battery power and the quadcopter’s light weight, I was able to get over 10 minutes of flight time on a single battery.
  3. Beginner-friendly: At its lowest speed setting, the quadcopter is pretty easy to fly, and the controls are forgiving. LEDs under each motor and at the front of the quadcopter help you understand its orientation when flying line of sight.
  4. Mobile App: The mobile app, XSW UFO, is interesting. It a nearly real-time view of the quadcopter’s camera. The app also features some rudimentary controls and it could be piloted via the app, if necessary.

    The Bad

  5. Headless Mode and One-Key Return: Ether they don’t seem to work, or I don’t know how to use them. There wasn’t anything helpful in the user manual to explain how they should work.

  6. Picture and Video buttons on the transmitter: These also don’t work at all; you have to use the XSW UFO app in order to take snapshots or record video.
  7. There’s a picture of a MicroSD card slot on the bottom of the quadcopter, but there’s no MicroSD card reader in there at all: Don’t put a MicroSD card in there, you might lose it! Other similar models of this drone with different features exist, they must all use the same body.
  8. Picture and Video Quality: There’s no getting around this, the quality of the captured images and video (below) leave a lot to be desired. This is due to the fact that the camera is a meager .3MP and also what I assume is a loss of connectivity between the quadcopter and the phone. The “videos” that I wound up recording (see below) resembled slideshows more than videos.
  9. Battery: The battery comes in a proprietary case/cartridge that includes the battery charging. And it’s unfortunate that there’s no indicator at all of whether or not your battery is fully charged on its little cartridge.
  10. Brushed Motors: This is inescapable on inexpensive quadcopters, but it’s worth mentioning. Brushed motors have a much shorter lifespan than brushless motors, but they’re also considerably more inexpensive. If you own this quadcopter and fly it frequently, be prepared to eventually need to replace a motor.

FPV Camera Snapshot

A snapshot from the X809SW after landing in the parking lot.

FPV Camera Video

Final Thoughts

My biggest two complaints about quadcopters have been that it’s an expensive hobby in terms of both monetary and time investments. Getting to where I’ve gotten has required a lot of cash and a lot of time. While I think it’s been a worthwhile investment of both, others might not agree with me. I’ve been hesitant to encourage some of my friends to get into the hobby because I don’t want them spending hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours getting into a hobby that they might not wind up liking. I think the Tianqu XS809W is a potential solution to this problem.

If you keep the cost (regular price of $50, and $39.99 using the coupon below!) in mind, I think the Tianqu XS809W is an excellent value, especially in the hands of someone who is curious about getting into quadcopters. The XS809W has enough of the features of more expensive drones to give someone an idea of whether they’re going to like the hobby or not. The quality of those features is definitely not comparable to more expensive drones, but at its price point, that quality probably should not be expected.

If you’re on the fence about buying a quadcopter and giving the hobby a try, then I think the Tianqu XS809W might be right up your alley. If you do wind up buying the XS809W, I do have a couple suggestions of extra parts that you should buy to enhance your fun.

  1. TIANQU 3.7V 900mAh 30C Lithium-ion Battery for the XS809W: The 10+ minutes I got out of one battery is the longest flight time that I currently get out of any of my quadcopters. But 10 minutes still isn’t very long. The extra batteries are inexpensive enough that I’d recommend buying at least 1 or 2 extras.
  2. TIANQU ABS Propeller – BLACK for the XS809W (set of 4): The Tianqu XS809W does contain an extra set of propellers. But if you’re anything like me, you’re going to wind up crashing your quadcopter, and crashes break propellers. Having a couple spare sets will have you back up in the air in no time.

Are you interested in this quadcopter? Use the coupon code ‘GBXS809’ to get the Tianqu XS809W for $39.99 as a special deal for readers of my blog. As I understand it, the coupon is good until 7/19/2017!

Weaponizing the DIY 450mm Quadcopter with the help of my 3D Printer

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Due to my curiosity in drones, I built a DIY 450mm quadcopter at our local makerspace, TheLab.ms. I didn’t really have a clear objective when I got into drones, but one of the things I’ve been interested in is doing some aerial photography. While I still would like to do some aerial photography, lately I’ve been a bit distracted by first-person-view piloting (FPV) and haven’t gotten around to buying the necessary remote-controlled gimbals to hook up to my GoPro HERO3 yet.

One day a couple weeks ago, our friend Alex said he had some spare servos from another vehicle and wanted to know if I was interested in a 3D-printed drone drop-release mechanism. At first I was hesitant, since it included adding gear to my 450mm quadcopter that could potentially preclude me from adding the camera gimbals. But after about five minutes of thinking of the kinds of shenanigans that I could potentially get into dropping things from my quadcopter, I quickly changed my mind!

Drop Release-Mechanism Parts and Installation

Because I had plenty of spare channels on my Taranis X9D Plus transmitter and receiver, adding the payload-release mechanism wound up being rather inexpensive in terms of parts cost. Here are the parts that I wound up buying and/or making:

Parts

  1. Drone Drop Release Mechanism from Thingiverse
  2. A remixed version of the drop mechanism’s cover
  3. SG90 Micro Servo (specs)
  4. Paper clip
  5. Some sticky Velcro tape (not pictured)
  6. Superglue and superglue accelerator

Installation

Because the SG90 micro servo is physically 10% bigger than the servo used in the drone drop release mechanism on Thingiverse, I wound up using my slicer to scale it up by 10% before I used my 3D printer in order to print it. We used super glue to hold the servo in place inside the release mechanism. We put the appropriate gear on the servo and used the paper-clip to attach the gear to the release pin.


We wired the servo up to my FrSky transmitter, mapped a channel to it in Betaflight, and tested out to watch the release pin work. Having seen it work, I used superglue to put my customized cover. Because I wanted to be able to easily add and remove the drop mechanism, I used sticky-backed Velcro tape to affix the mechanism to the bottom of the quadcopter. My hope is that in the future, when I add camera gimbals, I can swap between the drop mechanism and camera gimbals without too much difficulty.

Lastly, I capped it all off with an assortment of rubber bands, miscellaneous key rings, and these fantastic leather pouches that Tinkers Leather made for me. This assortment of gear has been used to secure my different payloads to the bottom of my 450mm quadcopter.


Dropping All the Things!

Over the course of the next two or three times we went out flying, we dropped a great number of things from my DIY 450mm quadcopter: a whole division of toy paratroopers, a number of water bottles that we found littered at our favorite parks (which we cleaned up, naturally), a wooden stake from some sort of temporary fencing, and lastly, we dropped drones from my drone!

Paratroopers

I picked up an entire division of toy paratroopers and dropped them from the quadcopter first. Winding their parachutes tightly sure wound up causing for exciting (and likely fatal) attempts early on. Several paratroopers hit the ground without their parachutes opening up at all. At the time, we were just using rubber bands and a keyring, which led to it being a bit tricky to perfectly drop the paratroopers.

Water Bottle

Our favorite park has a few water fountains and even more litterbugs. Due to the latter, we were able to find a plethora of old plastic bottles and caps. We cleaned up quite a few bottles before we were able to find a couple different ones with their lids intact. At a nearby water fountain, we filled the bottles full of water, flew to great heights above the parking lots, and then dropped the bottles. When we were done enjoying the resulting watery explosion, we cleaned the bits of the water bottle up—this is my kind of community service!

On one attempt, we even captured a slow-motion video of the water bottle’s descent and untimely demise.

Wooden Stake

This is probably my favorite of all the things we’ve dropped from my DIY 450mm quadcopter. In scavenging for intact water bottles, one of us found a wooden stake. The stake was probably about ¾” around, mostly straight, and nearly six feet tall. Unfortunately, we didn’t seem to have any way to fasten it to the quadcopter’s drop mechanism. Thankfully, someone recalled having a bungee cord in his trunk. We wrapped one end around towards one end of the stake and knotted it tightly and the other end of the bungee cord we put around the release pin of the drop mechanism.

Once the stake was released, the weighted end with the bungee cord pointed down, and the stake plummeted towards the ground. It hit the ground with such velocity that it stuck from the ground nearly perpendicular and certainly entertained those of us in attendance.

Other Drones

Most recently, we decided to try and drop some drones from my 450mm DIY quadcopter. Because we’re cautiously reckless, we first dropped Pat’s KingKong 90GT. The drops of Pat’s 90GT were particularly routine, and the most exciting point of the video is when the wind pushed Pat’s quadcopter towards the park benches everyone was sitting at and he nearly missed hitting someone in the head at the end of the video!

After successfully hauling a tiny drone up into the sky and dropping it, we were determined to drop something even bigger. We secured Alex’s Blade Vortex 250 to the bottom of my quadcopter and took off. The added weight of Alex’s Blade Vortex 250 made my DIY 450mm quadcopter struggle mightily as it went skyward, but it managed to do the trick. The most dramatic part of this video was imperceptible in what we recorded, but the DIY 450mm quadcopter gained so much altitude after freeing itself of the weight of the Vortex 250 that I was genuinely concerned it’d shoot out of my line of sight.

Conclusion

Dropping things from my drone wound up being inexpensive, easy to put together, and a tremendous amount of fun! We haven’t done it yet, but Pat has a GoPro knockoff (faux pro?) action camera that met an unfortunate accident in a drone wreck, but still records. We’re thinking of packing it in its case and dropping it from as high up as we’re brave enough to do.

And what about my plans for aerial photography? I’m not quite certain that it’s going to be as much fun as dropping things from my quadcopter. However, I was wondering about mounting an FPV camera to the underside of the quadcopter so that I can have a bird’s-eye view of what I’m dropping. That’s technically a form of aerial photography, isn’t it? I’m still pretty interested in doing the aerial photography but it’s definitely slipped down my “things to do with a drone” list.

What should I drop next? Here’s the output of my brainstorming, what am I overlooking?

  • Water balloons
  • Balloons full of flour/chalk dust
  • Produce (oranges? cantaloupe? small watermelon?)
  • Computer components that make me mad.
  • Others? Share yours in the comments section below!