Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Node-RED and Home Assistant

| Comments

This is part of a series of blogs that I wrote after IFTTT announced their “Pro” subscription and restrictions on free accounts, which makes it impossible for me to continue my use of their service. Given what they’ve done recently, I would strongly discourage everybody from using IFTTT.

If you’re interested at all in detail how I got to this point, check out these blogs too:

  1. Ditching IFTTT for Home Assistant
  2. Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Automations in Home Assistant

So Far, Half of My Automated Tasks Have Been Recreated in Home Assistant

When I deleted all of my applets on IFTTT, I essentially had four different automated processes that I was using on a regular basis. In my prior blog, I recreated the first two of those automated tasks in Home Assistant

  1. Porch and Staircase Lights: Turn the lights on just before sunset and off just after sunrise.
  2. Office Lights: Turn on my office’s lights when I get home and turn them off when I leave the house.
  3. 3D Prints: At the completion of a 3D print, turn the red cherry light above my printer on for 30 seconds.
  4. Pat’s Tweets: Send a notification to my phone with links to Pat’s tweets.

In my research into Home Assistant, I saw a lot of people supplementing it with Node-RED and decided that I’d try both the built-in automation scripting and then also with Node-RED when creating my automated tasks.

What Is Node-RED?

I consumed a lot of people’s guides for using Home Assistant, and a number of them had complimented Home Assistant with Node-RED, and spoke very highly of it. While I was aware of Node-RED’s existence prior to embarking on this journey, I don’t think I could’ve answered this question very well. Now that I’ve tried to tackle working with Node-RED, please understand that I’m still probably not qualified to answer the question well!

On Node-RED’s web page, they say that “Node-RED is a flow-based programming tool…” In consuming the content I’d come across, I liked the flowchart-like interface and immediately recognized that I would prefer developing my automated tasks inside this interface more than I would inside of a text editor.

At one point, I asked Pat, “Hey, do you think I should check out Node-RED?” and Pat answered my question with a question (Don’t you hate that?!), “What does Node-RED do that Home Assistant doesn’t do?” At the time, I didn’t have an answer to Pat’s question. I figured that the best way to find an answer was to create a few automated tasks using Node-RED.

3D-Printing Lighting

IFTTT isn’t really designed to handle automations with multiple steps as easy as it is to create a single piece of automation. When I created my 3D-printing automation, it was using multiple services (eWeLink, Google Drive, YouTube, Twitter, and more) to accomplish a number of tasks, which resembled a Rube Goldberg machine, but nothing as elegant as this one @notnooted shared on Instagram.


The automation I put together wound up being convoluted enough that I instantly deleted all of the steps except these: turning the red cherry light on, waiting a few seconds, and then turn it back off.

Even then, with those 2—3 steps, it wasn’t all that reliable and then a few months later that simpler automation mysteriously stopped working entirely. The cherry light would turn on, but never turn off. My office is on the front side of my house, and I was more than a little worried a 3D print would finish late at night and the cherry light would go off all night, potentially worrying my neighbors. As a result, I unplugged that light a couple of months ago and it has been dormant since.

Since originally writing that automation, I installed an IKEA Tertial lamp at my 3D printer to improve the lighting for my time-lapse photography of the 3D prints. Naturally, I plugged this new lamp into a Sonoff S31 smart outlet and wanted to incorporate the new lamp into my automation.

To start off, I decided that this new automation would perform the following steps.

  1. When the print begins
    1. Turn on the IKEA Tertial lamp.
  2. When the print ends:
    1. Turn on the Cherry light.
    2. Wait a few seconds.
    3. Turn off the Cherry light.
    4. Turn off the IKEA Tertial lamp.

In creating this automation, I got to flex one of the benefits of Node-RED. I could use one node to monitor the state of OctoPrint Printing and then use the switch node based on the two possible states (on and off) and create two different sequences of nodes to execute based on those two states.


Even better yet, debugging my new 3D-printing automation was infinitely easier using Home Assistant and Node-RED! Between the inject node and debug node, I was able to understand exactly what was going on inside my sequence.

So how did it turn out?

Pat’s Tweets

I’ve been using IFTTT combined with Pushover to send myself a push notification with each of Pat’s tweets for a really long time. This task doesn’t really fit under the umbrella of “home automation,” and I was a bit apprehensive that it wouldn’t be possible using Home Assistant. Home Assistant definitely has Twitter integration, but in my initial tinkering, I did not discover a painfully obvious way to trigger some automation based off Pat’s Twitter activity.

At first, I was complacent and thought I’d just leave this running as one of the three free applets that IFTTT was allowing. However, by this time I was really motivated to delete my IFTTT account and I wanted to demonstrate to others that there are options available that complement what Home Assistant does.

A little bit of tinkering quickly made it obvious that I’d be able to move this automation from IFTTT using Node-RED. Essentially, what I needed to do was to use up the Twitter node, a function node, and the Pushover node to replace what I’d been doing in IFTTT. Within the function node, I wrote a little bit of code to set the message variables that the Pushover node was needing using the Tweet object returned by the Twitter node.


Creating Automated Tasks in Node-RED vs. Home Assistant

In comparing and contrasting the built-in scripting in Home Assistant with the features and functionality in Node-RED, I think that Node-RED is hands down the better choice. In my very basic discovery, here are a few of the things that I liked about creating these automated tasks in Node-RED:

  1. Node-RED’s interface is much nicer to work in.
  2. Node-RED’s scripting features seems to be broader than what Home Assistant can do.
  3. You’re able to hook into seemingly anything that Home Assistant is capable of from Node-RED.
  4. Node-RED has a wide array of functionality which isn’t available in Home Assistant’s scripting (for example: polling Twitter for Pat’s tweets!)

However, there were a couple minor observations that I had after working with both. I’m not experienced enough to know if these are actual limitations of using Node-RED with Home Assistant, or if it’s just an uninformed suspicion that I have.

I suspect that as I learn more about using Node-RED and Home Assistant together, I’ll find these aren’t actual limitations and that more experience will allow me to develop better automation that accounts for these observations.

  1. Node-RED is running aside Home Assistant, but independently.
  2. None of my Node-RED sequences show up in Home Assistant’s Logbook as being executed the way Home Assistant’s built-in automations show up in the Logbook.

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve completely replaced and enhanced my old IFTTT automations, I get to do more fun things with Home Automation. Even though my whole family is now working from home permanently, most of the energy savings we’d have for home automation have been negated. But there are other benefits to home automation other than energy savings. In no particular order, here are a few things I’d like to start working on:

  1. Expose my Home Assistant server using Tailscale: Pat and I have both been interested in Tailscale for a while, and Pat’s experience has me encouraged about using Tailscale to access a number of things in my network remotely.
  2. Convert all my Home Assistant Automations to Sequences in Node-RED: I’m definitely impressed with Node-RED and I’m way happier doing the development inside its interface.
  3. Get Home Assistant working with Google: My home security system is working with Google Home, and there’s a bevy of sensor data out there that I’d like to be able to work with. Most importantly, the exterior door sensors.
  4. Level up to using Smart Light Switches: One of my best home automation ideas is to use the temperature data from my idle 3D printer and smart thermostat to turn my office ceiling fan on (or off). I also want to use smart switches to control the lighting on my house’s exterior.
  5. DIY Some Smart Things?!: The Internet is chock-full of DIY-able projects to enhance Home Automation: bed sensors, remotely opening/closing blinds, temperature data, motion detection, etc.

All of these things will help me start making my home smarter! I’d like to get to the point where much of the house’s lighting is automated to the point where someone rarely has to touch a light switch in the rooms we use most frequently.

Adios, IFTTT!

When I received the email from Sonoff about eWelink’s “VIP” service, I was discouraged—but I was not surprised. Having learned IFTTT was trying to make more money by charging vendors to use their platform, I begrudgingly accepted that I should expect to see the hardware I wanted to use be more expensive if it worked with IFTTT. I was not surprised when IFTTT announced their paid model. If they had success charging the hardware vendors, why wouldn’t they also try and charge the consumers of their service?

I wanted to delete my IFTTT account when:

I attempted to be pragmatic and retained my IFTTT account as I used Home Assistant and Node-RED to automate all the things that my IFTTT applets had been responsible for. Once I had them recreated and working, it freed me to follow through with what I had set out to do!

Don’t Miss Out on the Giveaway!

In my first blog about Home Assistant, I tested getting things running on a RaspberryPi Kit that I’d purchased. But since I don’t really have a need for it, I’m going to be giving it away on Halloween.

briancmoses.com: Home Assistant + Raspberry Pi 4 Kit Giveaway

Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Automations in Home Assistant

| Comments

Much to my chagrin, IFTTT implemented a subscription model and greatly restricted what it’d allow users to consume for free, and the hardware vendor for my favorite smart switches also announced that only its paid subscribers would be able to access their IFTTT integrations.

Because I didn’t want to pay to subscribe to a service and then pay for an additional subscription to use my hardware with that service, I decided to ditch IFTTT entirely and switch to Home Assistant.

The setup of Home Assistant and getting it configured to be able to automate the same tasks that IFTTT was assisting with was simple and straightforward.

Would transferring over my automated tasks to Home Assistant be as easy?

Things I had automated in IFTTT

It took 2—3 dozen different applets in IFTTT to automate a few tasks at my house:

  1. Porch and Staircase Lights: Turn the lights on just before sunset and off just after sunrise.
  2. Office Lights: Turn on my office’s lights when I get home and turn them off when I leave the house.
  3. 3D Prints: At the completion of a 3D print, turn the red cherry light above my printer on for 30 seconds.
  4. Pat’s Tweets: Send a notification to my phone with links to Pat’s tweets.

Moving my automation off IFTTT is good, but enhancing it is way better!

I like all of these automations, but they were each shaped by the restrictions in IFTTT. The downside of IFTTT’s simplicity is that it made it cumbersome and difficult to do more things with different services without creating multitudes of applets.

This convoluted nature is demonstrated in my blog about incorporating my 3D Printer into my IFTTT home automation. For each print, I was turning lights off/on, and sharing a time lapse video of the print in a tweet. But due to IFTTT’s offerings, it took a number of different services (my smart outlets, Google Drive, YouTube, Twitter, etc…) and dozens of applets strung together in a Rube Goldberg device-like manner. It was complicated and error-prone enough that I immediately turned off most of the applets in the automation.

Recreating these automated tasks would also give me the opportunity to explore how they could be further simplified and improved.

Creating new Automations within Home Assistant

One of the things that initially drew me to IFTTT was that it was incredibly easy. I could set up and create really simple automated tasks from inside a mobile app. I didn’t need to be insanely familiar with a particular scripting language as a pre-requisite for getting started.

Sharing how easy it was to get Home Assistant installed and working is helpful, but that work is a drop in the bucket with regards to the amount of effort to create and maintain the automated jobs. I ended my previous blog with these questions left unanswered:

  • Would I have to abandon any of my automated tasks on IFTTT?
  • How difficult was it to recreate my automation in Home Assistant’s interface?
  • Would developing more complex automations become convoluted like they had using IFTTT?

Porch, Staircase, and Office Lights

I have smart bulbs and smart outlets that I use to light a few areas in our house: my office’s complementary lighting, the porch, and a small table lamp near the staircase in our house. As my first automations in Home Assistant, I figured I could create rule(s) for each of these groups of lights.

Essentially, the automation is all very simple: an event (my location or the position of the sun) triggers the devices to turn on or off depending on the type of trigger. In total, I created 6 automations to automate all of these lights. In this blog, we’ll walk through the automation that I use to turn on the lights in my office when I arrive home.

Brian’s Office: Turn on lights when Brian enters Home

I wrote, modified, and rewrote some of these first few automations more than one time. As I progressed, I realized that I would need a better naming convention and descriptions so that the automated tasks were grouped together better.


Triggers

When I installed Home Assistant, I set up my home’s address and created a user for myself. When I installed the Home Assistant app on my iPhone, I logged on as that user. As a result, Home Assistant could then track my location well enough to know when I’m entering or exiting my home. I used this trigger to kick off the automation to turn on my office’s lights.


Conditions

Because I’m only interested in recreating my crude IFTTT applets, I didn’t have any need to delve into Home Assistant’s conditions. As a result, I didn’t use conditions in any of the automations that I first created.


If I wanted to—and I do—I could use conditions to hone in whether or not the lights in my office actually needed to be turned on when I return home. As an example, because I like to capture time-lapse recordings of my 3D prints, I leave the lights in my office on during a 3D print. Conditions could be added to my office lighting’s automation to check on whether a 3D print was going and to avoid needlessly turning the lights off or on.

Back when I used IFTTT, a number of the 3D print’s time-lapse videos were impacted because I left the house mid-print. I will be able to avoid that in the future thanks to Home Assistant’s conditions.

Actions

Next up was adding action(s) to be executed when the automation is triggered. At first, I tinkered with the idea of adding an action for each individual device I wanted to turn on in my office. But ultimately I wound up deciding that what using a group made more sense and kept the action simpler.


Two Down and Two More to Go!

I created, modified, and tested these first new rules an hour or two after hitting the publish button on my blog about ditching IFTTT for Home Assistant. Hopping in the car, driving down the block, looking at my Home Assistant logs (from the mobile app), driving back home, and looking at the logs again broke up a bit of the weekend’s COVID-19 monotony.

Really the only gotcha that I encountered was realizing that I needed to expose my Home Assistant installation to the Internet. This was discovered the first time I left the house, I was so fast that I was off my WiFi before the mobile app could feed the GPS data to Home Assistant for it to determine that I was leaving. The DuckDNS Home Assistant add-on for Home Assistant made all of this easy and even has its own Let’s Encrypt features built in to equip SSL encryption between Home Assistant and its clients.

If I’d been a little more patient, I would’ve been excited [to try and use Tailscale to access my Home Assistant server remotely][tail], like Pat had done with his own machines. But I opted to go with DuckDNS because I was already moving so much faster than I could write blogs about!

What’s Next?

I managed to recreate half of my automated tasks from IFTTT in a matter of minutes, which was all the encouragement I needed. As I put the finishing touches on this blog, I’m already developing the remaining pieces of automation and I’ll capture their creation in the next blog. Rather than using the Home Assistant’s built-in scripting, I’m going to evaluate authoring and executing these other two automated tasks in Node-RED.

Node-RED

When I was surfing through the videos, how-tos, and other guides that I came across in my Home Assistant research, I saw lots of people mentioning Node-RED and sharing development of their own automation from the Node-RED interface. The automated tasks that I saw were impressive in both their complexity and the ease of developing them, especially because of the flowchart-like interface.

As I prepared to publish my first Home Assistant blog, a few people suggested that I check Node-RED. Because of their recommendations, I decided that I’d make sure to author half of my automated tasks using Node-RED and share what I thought as part of this blog. But as I started tinkering, I realized that using Node-RED was going to require its very own blog!

To be continued…

Setting up automations within Home Assistant was very straightforward and easy. I was able to create these six automations to accomplish what it took dozens of applets in IFTTT to accomplish. What I was able to create was simpler and more straightforward and best of all it was all being orchestrated inside my own network by Home Assistant, instead of mish-mash of cloud-based services with IFTTT stitched between them all.

Before I started, I was supremely confident that I’d be able to easily migrate all of my lights’ and 3D printer’s automated tasks from IFTTT to Home Assistant without any difficulty. The fact I had these new automations created, tested, and functioning in a matter of minutes confirmed my assumption.

I asked a few questions to start off this blog, let’s see if I’ve been able to answer them!

  • Would I have to abandon any of my automated tasks on IFTTT? To Be determined—but probably not!
  • How difficult was it to recreate my automation in Home Assistant’s interface? Not difficult at all.
  • Would developing more complex automations become convoluted like they’d had using IFTTT? Creating automations in Home Assistant is a little less user-friendly, but less complicated—especially when multiple actions are required.

This is the second blog of a series, make sure you keep reading my the other blogs in this series!

  1. Ditching IFTTT for Home Assistant
  2. Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Automations in Home Assistant
  3. Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Node-RED and Home Assistant

Make sure you also check out the details below on the RaspberryPi Kit that I’m giving away! The winner will be picked on Halloween!

briancmoses.com: Home Assistant + Raspberry Pi 4 Kit Giveaway

Ditching IFTTT for Home Assistant

| Comments

For the past five years, my home automation has been pretty basic. I was happily using a few Sonoff S31 smart outlets and IFTTT to do some really simple things like turn off my office lights when I left the house and back on again when I returned home.

But then in the past couple months two things have happened:

  1. eWeLink announced their VIP plan for about $10/year and that all of their IFTTT integrations would only be available as part of this plan.
  2. IFTTT was going to restrict the number of “applets” you could run for free to 3 and that if you wanted more, you’d have to sign up for their $9.99/month professional plan.

Basically, what I had been doing for free was now going to cost me $10 a year from the eWeLink/Sonoff team and another $120 a year from IFTTT. I always assumed that IFTTT would eventually try and entice me to pay for their services, but I expected it’d be by offering more features—not by extorting the hardware vendors and me into paying for what we’d already been using.

There isn’t really another way to say this. I think how IFTTT has operated recently is flat-out scummy. They’re trying to double-dip by charging both hardware vendors and their users to use their platform. That’s their decision to make, but my decision in response is to spend my money elsewhere.

On top of that, their value proposition isn’t even all that valuable to me. I subscribe to a lot of monthly services that are around $5—10 a month: Netflix, YouTube Music, Hulu, etc. I get infinitely more use out of each of them than I ever would from IFTTT. IFTTT’s value proposition isn’t even playing the same sport, let alone in the same ballpark.

It became glaringly obvious that I needed to migrate away from IFTTT—and fast!

This wasn’t even what I wanted to be working on!

Most of the traffic to my website is related to my yearly builds of DIY NAS machines, and I’ve had the parts for the DIY NAS: 2020 Edition picked out and waiting to be built for a really long time. So far this year, that blog has been delayed a bit each time I turn around! Something equally important or exciting always seems to be capturing my attention. Whether it was COVID-19, building a new quadcopter, a weekend of eSkateboard fun, or finding a new “day job,” I keep getting distracted from the DIY NAS: 2020 Edition!

If you’re interested in the DIY NAS: 2020 Edition, keep reading! There’s a little bit of DIY NAS overlap in my home automation interests and a surprise at the end of the blog that you might both be interested in and familiar with!

What was I looking for in my Home Automation?

In thinking about what I wanted to do with my home automation next, I tried to set up a little criteria. I wanted to be able to:

  1. Recreate the crude automation accomplished in my applets on IFTTT.
    1. Turning the lights in my office off and on based on my location
    2. Turning the smart bulbs on my porch on and off based on the sun’s position in the sky.
    3. Briefly turn on the cherry light above my 3D printer after every completed print.
  2. Reduce (or eliminate) my dependence on “freemium” services from 3rd parties.
  3. Orchestrate the home automation on my own hardware within my own network.
  4. Cost less than $130/year, preferably a lot less.

Enter Home Assistant

One of my drone-flying friends, Tom (aka SpacePants FPV on YouTube), is in the process of buying a house. A few weeks back he asked Pat and I about our own home automation. Pat’s been using OpenHAB for quite a while and shared some of his experiences and advice. I confessed to Tom that my home automation was rudimentary at best and that I didn’t necessarily recommend that he follow in my footsteps.

Tom came back a few days later and announced in our Discord server that he had decided he was going to use Home Assistant. Tom also suggested that I look into it. So you know what? I did check it out, and I was impressed! I have wanted to level up my home automation for a long time, but I let my lack of knowledge intimidate me and keep me complacent. But what I saw in looking at Home Assistant’s documentation and the content that other enthusiasts have shared convinced me to give Home Assistant a detailed look.


I punched ‘Home Assistant Sonoff’ into Google and one of the first results was this video claiming that Sonoff devices can work with Home Assistant without changing the Firmware! on DrZzs’ YouTube Channel. By the end of the video’s introduction, I had already made up my mind to give Home Assistant a try.

Installation

One of the things that instantly drew me to Home Assistant was its plethora of installation options—both the number of installation methods supported by Home Assistant and the variety of installation guides crafted by its community.

Brian’s Kludge Virtual Machine

As you might know, I built a dual Xeon homelab server four years ago. In that time, I’ve tinkered with a few virtual machines, but the only thing my homelab server has been doing on a regular basis is hosting my Plex media server. Both my Plex server and my Homelab server have been woefully under utilized. I was excited to try Home Assistant because they had a virtual machine image for the KVM hypervisor, which is what’s running on my homelab machine.

Normally for my virtual machines, I wind up creating an iSCSI device(s) on my DIY NAS and use that for the new VM’s storage. However in my haste and excitement about getting started, I wound up accidentally hosting the Home Assistant KVM image in a random Samba share on my NAS. While it works just fine, it bothers me that I’m not adhering to my own standards.

Upon realizing I’d set up my own Home Assistant VM in a bit of a kludge manner, I intended to delete it and start all over from scratch. But I was quickly surprised to see that Home Assistant had discovered some sensor inputs automatically. I quickly got distracted, and started tinkering with Home Assistant. Eventually, I will add the iSCSI device and move the contents of the hard drive over to that iSCSI device—but that’s not until later. Right now I’m having too much fun with Home Assistant to work on sorting that out.

Raspberry Pi

Of the recommended options, running Home Assistant on a Rasperry Pi is among the most popular. For the sake of writing this blog, I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 4GB Starter Kit. The kit includes nearly everything you need to host a Home Assistant server on: the Raspberry Pi 4 4GB, a 32GB MicroSD card, a USB MicroSD card adapter, a case, a power supply, heat sinks, a fan, and a mini HDMI to HDMI cable.

I was excited to see that the Raspberry Pi 4 kit was sufficient to run Home Assistant and that the kit was less expensive than the projected yearly cost for IFTTT (about $120/year). My own hardware cost to adopt Home Assistant was $0.00 thanks to prior investments in my homelab machine. But I was still encouraged to learn that buying hardware dedicated to Home Assistant would still be a better option than continuing on with IFTTT’s premium plan.

From past tinkering with other Raspberry Pi images, I suspected that getting Home Assistant to run on a Raspberry Pi 4 would be much easier than my somewhat-convoluted virtual machine. I wasn’t surprised at all to confirm that it was every bit as easy I expected it to be. I wrote the image to the SDCard, assembled the kit, put the MicroSD card into the Raspberry Pi, plugged it into my network, and turned it on. It booted up, started loading Home Assistant, and its web interface was available to start configuring a few minutes later!


Observe all the Things!

I’ve tried to encourage Pat to write more blogs about his home automation. Many of the things he has done with his OpenHAB server have been fascinating to listen to him talk about. For example, he created automation which detected when he launched a full-screen game in Steam which dimmed the lighting in his office for a better gaming experience.

Pat had a great tidbit of advice for Tom and I, and I want to share it: “Don’t worry initially about writing automation, instead focus on getting as much data input as possible.” This is great advice because ultimately the key difference between what Pat’s achieved and what I’ve achieved with our respective bits of automation is the amount of actionable data. If I had as many data points as Pat had plumbed into my home automation, I would’ve quit using IFTTT years ago! The amount and data that Pat has available to him in his OpenHab simply wasn’t available to me in my variety of cobbled-together 3rd-party services.

With a tiny bit of manual configuration and a bit of automated wizardry, my Home Assistant is now currently monitoring:

  1. A couple network devices thanks to uPNP allowing their discovery. (Note to self, disabling uPNP might be a good idea!)
  2. All sorts of data points from my mobile phone via the Home Assistant iOS mobile app.
  3. My Prusa I3 MK3 3D printer via Home Assistant’s OctoPrint configuration
  4. My Ring doorbell via Home Assistant’s Ring integration
  5. My Tile Bluetooth trackers via Home Assistant’s Tile integration
  6. All of my Sonoff smart outlet devices using the SonoffLAN project installed via HACS (Home Assistant Community Store).
  7. Our two different iRobot Roomba vacuums using Home Assistant’s iRobot Roomba integration.

Setting up Home Assistant to work with these devices was surprisingly easy. I didn’t have to re-flash any of my devices’ firmware. I didn’t have to do any work at the command-line on the Home Assistant virtual machine. I didn’t really have to do much at all—I added integrations and it just worked. Frankly, I was—and still am—amazed at how easy it was to get hooked into my devices.


What’s up next?

  1. Rebuild and enhance all of my IFTTT automation: I had a few tasks that I automated twenty or so IFTTT “applets”: I would toggle my office lights based on my location, I would toggle the smart light bulbs in my porch at sunset and sunrise, and I would set off the red cherry light above my 3D printer whenever it completed a print.
  2. Level-up my Home Automation: So far, my home automation has been pretty simple. I’d really like to make it smarter and expand its use outside of my office. I’d like to start looking at smart light switches to replace the switches throughout the house and maybe start using some door sensors. That way when I go out at midnight to let the dogs out before bed, the house’s light in the back yard could automatically come on.

Conclusion

If you’re using IFTTT today, you really need to check out Home Assistant. So far, everything about it has impressed me and I’ve really only started scratching the surface.

I’m assuming that most folks reading this blog don’t have an under utilized homelab server like I do. But even if you have to buy a Raspberry Pi 4 4GB starter kit, the hardware is a more cost-effective expenditure than continuing on and using IFTTT’s paid model.

But beyond that, moving away from IFTTT makes everything a bit simpler. IFTTT’s ease of use was a big benefit, but its simplicity is also a hindrance. It was incredibly convoluted to automate turning on my cherry light, waiting 30 seconds, and turning it off each time a 3D print completed. It took six applets in IFTTT to accomplish this, it took three different services, and it wasn’t always reliable.

What sorts of hardware are missing from my home automation that I need to incorporate next? What kinds of automation do you think I should look into adding with the hardware that’s currently available? I’d love to hear about your own home automation projects and goals down in the comments below!

This is the first blog of a series, make sure you keep reading my the other blogs in this series!

  1. Ditching IFTTT for Home Assistant
  2. Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Automations in Home Assistant
  3. Replacing my IFTTT Applets with Node-RED and Home Assistant

Giveaway

I’ve been burned in the past where I recommended things that I thought would work—but didn’t. Ever since, I’ve been buying and trying things before I recommend them whenever I possibly can. I bought the Raspberry Pi 4 4GB Starter Kit knowing that I would want to recommend using it with Home Assistant, but I’m not going to be using it.

You might be asking yourself “What happens when Brian doesn’t need the things he buys for his blogs?” and the answer to that is easy! I give them away! If you’re interested at all, here are the details on the giveaway. I’ll be drawing the winner on Halloween. Good luck!

briancmoses.com: Home Assistant + Raspberry Pi 4 Kit Giveaway

Building a Swiss Army Knife Quadcopter: my 3-inch Toothpick

| Comments

If you recall, I reviewed an Exway X1 Pro Riot eSkateboard at the beginning of the year. Since then, I’ve been getting more and more active with the skateboard—especially once Pat leveled up the shenanigans with his electric unicycle a few months ago.

Because I’m a Type 1 Diabetic, I have been bringing along a small backpack on our rides and loaded down with my Diabetic supply carrying case (a.k.a. “The Diabetes”), some assorted snacks, and my water bottle. Once Pat bought his newest electric unicycle, he showed up with his own small backpack laden with his quadcopter and FPV gear—and I was very envious, as it had never occurred to me to bring along my quadcopter gear before!

The next time we went out, I extracted all of my critical diabetic supplies from their case and left it at home. I had just enough room in my small backpack to also include:

What we’d stumbled upon is that not only could we have a decent time going out on our personal electric vehicles, but we could use them to get to places where we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) reach on foot with our usual bulky quadcopter bags.

There’s always a catch!

Don’t get me wrong, the Tinyhawk Freestyle is a fantastic little quadcopter at its price. I routinely encourage my friends who are curious about getting into FPV quadcopters to seriously consider buying this as their first quadcopter. Note: Now that the Tinyhawk Freestyle 2 is out, I’ll be encouraging people to buy it instead! As much as I liked my Tinyhawk Freestyle, I had a couple complaints:

  1. The video transmitter (VTX) is underpowered: At only 25mw, the VTX was underpowered enough that I was constantly having issues flying out of range in the places that we have been flying while on rides.
  2. It is fragile: The quadcopter’s electronics are mounted in nylon screws and standoffs and the motors haven proven to be quite soft. As a result I’ve found that the Tinyhawk Freestyle has needed a number of repairs.

I’d realized that I’d simply outgrown my Tinyhawk Freestyle and started plotting my own custom micro-quadcopter build to replace it. I was tempted to try the Tinyhawk Freestyle 2 since it addresses one of my major complaints by upgrading the VTX, but I decided it wasn’t that much more money to build something way better.

An upgrade was on the horizon

In riding my skateboard with Pat, I’d discovered that I wanted a small quadcopter that I could easily carry in on a ride, on a hike, or as carry-on luggage to take with us on vacation. I started listing out things that I wanted to see in my next quadcopter:

  • Something small and light with 3-inch or smaller propellers
  • Flight characteristics more comparable to my 5-inch quadcopters
  • As—or more—durable than my 5-inch quadcopters
  • As few compromises in VTX and camera quality as possible.
  • Using a TBS Crossfire receiver
  • Capable of recording stabilized high definition video

Right off the bat, I knew everything except the quality high definition video was doable. However, I was extremely skeptical on getting decent high definition video out of something so small. Both Pat and I had built HD-capable 3-inch quadcopters before using his Kestrel frame and been incredibly disappointed in both Caddx’s and Runcam’s high definition products—they just really couldn’t compete with our GoPros.

I immediately said that the stabilized high definition video was a pipe dream, that investing the money or time in it would be a fool’s errand. Regardless, I was disappointed—I’d really wanted the option of capturing video of places that I might not be as able to bring my other quadcopters to.

Enter the Toothpick

KababFPV is one of my favorite quadcopter content creators. My 5-inch favorite quadcopter is built around one of his frames, and I’m a Patron of Kabab’s on Patreon. Kabab has been talking about Toothpick quadcopters build for a while, and he actually came up with the Toothpick term, defining a whole new class of quadcopters. In Kabab’s own words, he describes the Toothpick as “…intended to be this super fun, super light, super safe, super legal thing you can fly everywhere.” In listening to what I wanted my new quadcopter to be, Pat suggested I pay closer attention to Kabab’s toothpick build, and it did not take me long at all to decide that I wanted to incorporate Kabab’s concepts into my own toothpick build.

Frame

I think the most important and impressive part of my new quadcopter is the Toothpick 3 Frame (TP3). It is small, it is light, and for as small as it is, it is quite sturdy. The arms are made out of 2.5mm carbon fiber which are sandwiched between a 1.5mm carbon fiber top plate and bottom plate.

As a result, the TP3 frame should be pretty easy to disassemble and repair, which is a huge benefit considering how difficult/annoying it can be to work with micro quadcopters.


Motors and Propellers

When it comes to the performance of the quadcopter, the motors are probably equally as important as the frame. I opted to adhere to Kabab’s recommendation and went with the FPVCycle 1303 5000KV Motor, a motor that Kabab himself helped design and test specifically for his toothpick build.

The motors are super smooth, and the secret sauce for this quadcopter’s performance is its power-to-weight ratio. The power that these motors put out makes the quadcopter feel as if it is performing at much like one of my 5-inch quadcopters.

For propellers, I’ve picked up a handful of the Gemfan Bi-bade 3018 and Gemfan Tri-blade 3016 propellers. For the battery size I picked—3 cell 450mah—Kabab had recommended using the bi-blade propellers, which are the only propellers I’ve used so far the 20 or so times I’ve flown it.

Flight Controller

In choosing a flight controller, I deviated from Kabab’s suggestions. I opted to go with the BetaFPV Toothpick F4 V2. At the time that I started buying parts, the recommended flight controllers were becoming difficult to find and the BetaFPV Toothpick F4 V2 was a new product that’d been well reviewed in a number of places. I was also curious about its higher amperage rating. Particularly in that it might mean an additional degree of reliability for my own build—or to prove out that this might be a good choice for an even bigger build, like something with motors big enough to drive 4-inch propellers.

FPV Camera, Video Transmitter, and Antenna

Because I’d decided that the high definition video was a feature I was going to have to compromise on, I decided that I’d be happy to just record my FPV footage using my DVR, the ImmersionRC PowerPlay. Because of this, I decided that I wanted both a premium camera and video transmitter (VTX) to improve that DVR footage as much as I possibly could.

For the camera, I chose the Caddx Baby Ratel over the recommended Runcam Nano 3 largely because our friend, Brian, had built. We call him “young Brian,” but he’s more well known by attackthedefault on YouTube. I was impressed by the quality of the picture when I had tuned my goggles into his quad and even more impressed when I learned that the camera only weighed 4.6g.

When it came to choosing a quality micro video transmitter, the TBS Unify Pro32 Nano 5G8 is regularly identified as the best. The fact it can broadcast at 400mw and barely weighs anything (1g) made choosing it a simple decision. Especially since it is a tremendous upgrade over what’s currently in my Tinyhawk Freestyle.

In fact, this weekend I found just how impressive the TBS Unify Pro32 Nano 5G8 really is. I’ve been having issues for weeks with the video feed in my goggles: I keep losing signal and running into degraded signal in places where I didn’t use to have problems. However, I didn’t have any of those problems with my tiny quadcopter and simply assumed that I needed new VTXes for my other quadcopters. I confirmed this weekend that it was my goggles’s video receiver that was the issue by borrowing Pat’s goggles. But I’m really impressed that the TBS Unify Pro32 Nano 5G8 performed well enough that I was fooled into thinking my other quadcopters’ VTXes were to blame.

Lastly, for the FPV antenna I picked the Lumenier Micro AXII U.FL 5.8GHz Antenna (RHCP). I use a smorgasbord of different AXII antennas for sending and receiving video signals in my quadcopters and on my goggles. In fact, after using Lumenier Micro AXII in this quadcopter, I’ve decided that it’s probably going to be what’s used on all of my quadcopters in the future, not just this micro one.

Receiver and Antenna

I’m a big fan of the TBS Crossfire radio module added to my Taranis X9D+, and I use a variety of Crossfire receivers in nearly all of my quadcopters. As a result, one of my biggest complaints about whoop-style quadcopters has been the fact that none of them came with Crossfire as an option. Sure, it could be added separately—but why go through that work to make the micro quadcopter heavier with redundant hardware? Especially in a quadcopter class where weight is incredibly important.

Building my own Toothpick meant I had the freedom to add a TBS Crossfire Nano receiver. And by manufacturing the TBS FPVCycle MiniMortal T Crossfire Antenna, TBS seems to be realizing there’s a demand for their products on micro-sized quadcopters too.

Canopy and Battery

Kabab’s suggested parts list included using a BeeBrain V2 Canopy which is both super lightweight and an inexpensive option. I chose instead to put my 3D Printer to work and use something different. I wound up choosing to print the Toothpick PicklePod. I preferred its design and features—especially the camera mounting options—over the BeeBrain.


To power my Toothpick quadcopter, I wound up buying a bunch of the GNB 3S 11.4V HV 450mah batteries to add to my battery collection. There wasn’t any special reason that I picked this particular 3S 450mah battery other than the fact that it was one that was readily available when I was ready to make a purchase.

High Definition Camera

You might be asking yourself right now, “Didn’t Brian say he scrapped the idea of high definition video recording?” And you know what? I did! I apologize if I’ve misled you. As I was waiting for parts to get back in stock and to ship, I learned that Insta360 had upped the maximum recording length on their Go camera to 5 minutes, which immediately made the Insta360 Go camera a viable option for my toothpick quadcopter!

The Insta360 Go is a high definition action camera which allows you to process and stabilize the recording in either a mobile app or desktop application. The stabilization is very much like what I already do with Reelsteady Go and the footage from my GoPro cameras taken atop my 5-inch quadcopters. I’ll tackle this in a future blog, but I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities opened up by the Insta360 Go.

Final Parts List

Component Name Count Weight Cost
Frame ToothPick 3 Frame 1 10g $17.99
Motors FPVCycle 1303 5000kv 4 6g $12.99
Flight Controller BetaFPV Toothpick F4 V2 1 6.63 $59.99
Propellers Gemfan 3018 Bi-blade Props 1 0.75g $3.99
FPV Camera Caddx Baby Ratel 1 4.6g $30.99
Video Transmitter TBS Unify Pro32 Nano 5G8 1 1g $29.95
Video Antenna Lumenier Micro AXII U.FL 1 1.6g $19.99
Receiver TBS Crossfire Nano RX 1 0.5g $24.95
Receiver Antenna TBS FPVCycle MiniMortal T 1 0.9g $3.99
Battery GNB 3S 11.4V HV 450mah 6 42g $10.49
Canopy Toothpick PicklePod2 1
HD Camera Insta360 Go (optional) 1 18.3g $199.99
TOTAL 107g $254.29

Please Note: The total weight comes from being weighed after we got done assembling it and that weight does not include the Insta360 Go. In a similar vein, the calculated total price only includes one battery and one set of propellers.


Hidden Costs

Before rendering a verdict on whether or not I think that I did a good job (Spoiler Alert! I did a good job!), I think it’s prudent to make sure to mention hidden costs. We wound up spending quite a bit of time and frustration assembling this quadcopter and getting it configured and tuned. But beyond that, extra frustration was spent on waiting for parts to be in stock and dealing with the world’s economy hitting a major speed bump.

I don’t know about you all, but I place a tremendous amount of value on my free time. That’s why I’ve been such a big fan of the Tinyhawk Freestyle and would’ve seriously considered the Tinyhawk Freestyle 2 had it been released before I had convinced myself to build my own 3-inch Toothpick quadcopter.

But did I really do a good job?

I think I did, yes. I accomplished everything that I set out to do—even something that I’d said wasn’t going to be feasible: recording stabilized high definition video. I’ve managed to build a Swiss Army knife of a quadcopter, the Toothpick quadcopter:

  • is small enough I can carry it lots of places I wouldn’t want to take the rest of my quadcopter gear
  • performs quite similarly to my 5-inch quadcopters
  • can capture stabilized high definition video
  • performs well at longer ranges
  • will be durable

I’ve been trying really hard to think of a good way to write this, but each time I have tried rewriting it, it sounds like a backhanded compliment. My 3-inch Toothpick build doesn’t fly better than my bigger quadcopters and it doesn’t record better high definition video than my bigger quadcopters either, but it enables me to lightly pack my quadcopter gear, hop on my skateboard, ride six or seven miles, and fly my quadcopter somewhere I may never have even considered—and may never have the opportunity to fly again. I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. It’s a jack of all trades, but master of none. Mission accomplished!

How do you all think I did? Does a tiny 3-inch quadcopter that can record stabilized high definition video interest you at all? Let me know what you think in the comments below!



The Saros: A Quintessential Everyday Carry Knife

| Comments

Whether you’re watching something like Peter McKinnon’s Everyday Carry vlog or reading through somebody’s list of their opinion on the most useful tools, the one tool that everybody seems to agree on is some kind of pocketknife.

The Swiss Army CyberTool has been dutifully stowed in my laptop backpack or quadcopter bag for years now. If you’ve watched the videos from any of my DIY NAS builds, you’ve probably seen the CyberTool make numerous appearances throughout the videos. I’ve only had two complaints: I wish that I had one for each backpack I carry, and I wish that it wasn’t so bulky.

As a result, I’ve never really kept a pocketknife in my actual pockets. I’ve usually had one nearby—assuming it was in the correct backpack—but I’ve never really truly enjoyed the convenience of having a pocketknife readily available in my actual pockets.

When I found out about the Saros from Hathaway Knives, I immediately knew that I was going to find a way to incorporate the sleek and sturdy knife into my everyday carry. Considering how few things are actually in my pockets, this is quite the honor!

Disclaimer!

Before I launch into my review of the Saros from Hathaway Knives, I wanted to issue a disclaimer. I really want you to like this knife. Gabe Hathaway is my cousin and because I care for him, I’m wishing for nothing short of monumental success in this endeavor—and all others.

The minute Gabe announced he was exploring the possibility of producing and selling a knife of his own design, I told him I wanted to buy a few for myself to review on my blog, give to my friends, and give away to one of my readers.

I want Gabe to be successful. I hope my review directs some interested viewers to his website, and I’d be ecstatic if the results of my review generated a number of sales.

I mostly wanted you all to be aware of my bias and my hopes. There’s no financial benefit to me when the Saros is a success. The only benefit I’ll be collecting is the pride in supporting an exciting effort of a loved one—and that’s really the only benefit I need!

The Saros from Hathaway Knives

I’ve already admitted that I don’t even really carry a knife in my pockets every day, so please keep in mind that I’m not any kind of a cutlery expert. If you’re here for some connoisseur’s well-refined and keen understanding of the knife-making skillcraft, I’m sorry, but you’re probably in the wrong place!

Initial Impressions

Each of the four Saros knives came hand-wrapped in a nice cloth material which reminded me quite a bit of a microfiber cloth. In fact, I’m saving the packaging after I found it especially helpful in making sure the knives’ handles and blades were mostly fingerprint free in my photos. I like that this packaging can be used for another purpose.

As an option, each of the handles on my orders had been anodized in different colors: a darker blue, a light blue, gold, and a prismatic rainbow—each of the colors looked fantastic, and from what I’ve also seen on Hathaway Knives’ Instagram account, the bare titanium looked equally sharp.

Handle and Hardware

I am an amateur 3D-designer and fabricator of my own 3D-printed designs, so naturally the first piece of the Saros to really capture my attention was the knife’s handle. The body of the handle is a single piece made from aerospace-grade titanium. The lock is part of the handle and holds the blade in place quite firmly once the blade is deployed.

It was fascinating for me to ponder about the effort that went into the design and creation of the handle. How it’s transformed from a hunk of aerospace-grade titanium and into something that’s a single sleek, lightweight, functional, and elegant piece is quite wondrous to me.

The hardware of the knife is made of stainless steel. The clip holds firmly. In fact, firmly enough that it’s quite snug on the fabric of my shorts’ pockets, and I think it would double excellently as a money clip—provided you’re not carrying a fat wad of cash and credit cards. My favorite embellishment is found on the joint, embossed with an H for Hathaway Knives.

Blade

The blade is made of S35VN stainless steel, which I’m relatively ignorant about—even after reading the datasheet. But my research suggests that it’s premium material found in quality knives like the Saros. S35VN is durable, wear resistant, and less prone to chipping. The width of the blade is 3/16” wide, has a cut length of 3.0” which gives the blade a total length of 3.625”. Considering its compact nature, the length of the blade was really both surprising and rather impressive. In reading about S35VN steel and its use in knives, I fully expect the blade to be sturdy and reliable while holding its edge.

The flipper on the Saros is incredibly satisfying and well suited to my fidgety nature. Being able to open the knife quickly is fantastic. Since unwrapping the four knives, I’ve been perpetually flipping the blade open. I’ve done this dozens of times as I worked on creating this review. When scrolling through Hathaways Knives’ Instagram feed it was one of the features that I was most excited about. The flick of the blade and the thunk of it getting locked into position is awesome!

Cost

This is absolutely not your typical pocketknife—or at least it shattered my preconceived notion of a pocketknife. I would’ve called you crazy if you’d told me I’d buy a knife that retails for $300 for my own personal use.

When I buy tools, I typically buy the most affordable or best value that I can find. My philosophy in buying inexpensive tools is that if I use something enough to find out that it’s poorly made, then I should probably look into buying a quality replacement. While well-built tools usually carry a significant price premium, they feel better in your hands, they’re up to the tasks they’re designed for, and they reliably perform those tasks.

I’m interested see what other kind(s) of comparable knives are out there and comparing them to the Saros and seeing if they measure up! What’s your everyday carry knife? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Final Thoughts

I preordered my Saros knives long before COVID-19 hit. But in brainstorming quality let-me-help-you-spend-spend-your-stimulus-check type blog ideas, the Saros is exactly the kind of purchase that I had in mind. I’m certain that supporting a small business which creates excellent products like Hathaway Knives is the best kind of purchase you can make in an effort to reinvigorate the economy.

I’m really excited about the Saros and for my cousin’s endeavor into design and manufacture of such a high-quality everyday carry knife. The Saros is small, compact, and sleek. But it also is solid, durable, and feels great in my hands.

In asking Gabe some questions about the Saros, Gabe replied to me that he thinks of the knife as “A unique functional sculpture that I like to carry to remind myself of how complex the world is.”

Given what I’ve learned about the process of making a knife—that each knife is individually machined, refined by hand, and takes roughly a week for Gabe to create, and especially considering how much I marvel at its construction, I’m inclined to agree with him about its artistry.

Giveaway

When I got the chance, I preordered multiple Saros knives to give as a gift and to give away to my blog’s readers. I’ve given one to Pat and he’s already busy Tweeting about it too! The remaining two Saros knives will be given away to two of my blog’s readers. The first person to have their name drawn in the contest will have their choice of the two remaining knives, with the second person having their name drawn getting whichever knife remains. There are multiple different ways to win by viewing and sharing this on social media, please see the giveaway details below!

Saros Every Day Carry Knife Give Away

Diatone MXC Taycan: Caveat Emptor

| Comments

Warning: I’m more than a little agitated with how the purchase of the Diatone MXC Taycan has worked out for me. I generally try and be objective in these kinds of situations, but in this particular case I figured I’d share my unfiltered experience in the hope that it helps other(s) avoid what I have found myself running up against.

Thanks in large part to videos like this one from Paul Nurkkala aka NurkFPV, The National Museum of the U.S. Airforce… FROM THE AIR!, I’ve been very interested in cinematic videos that other much more talented quadcopter pilots than I have been routinely sharing.

When Pat was able to capture this awesome video of me on my Exway X1 eSkateboard using his own cinewhoop build around his Kestrel quadcopter frame, I was pretty much convinced that I wanted a something similar to shoot my own cinewhoop-style footage with.

In working with smaller quadcopters (3” propellers and smaller) previously, I learned that I didn’t particularly enjoy assembling or repairing smallish quadcopters. Shrinking everything down increased the degree of difficulty in building and maintaining the quadcopters. I didn’t want to re-learn lessons from the past, and was hoping a reasonably-priced, already assembled cinewhoop quadcopter was out there waiting for me.

At nearly the exact same time, I saw two of my other favorite sources of quadcopter information, KababFPV and Joshua Bardwell, both reviewed a new quadcopter, the Diatone MXC Taycan. It is a cinewhoop-style quadcopter built around many of the same components that Pat was using in his Kestrel build, and both Joshua and Kabab had nice things to say about it. I anxiously checked all of my favorite quadcopter sites and was disappointed to see it listed everywhere as Coming Soon!

However, I was excited to find that I could order it directly from the manufacturer. And I was busy assuming that if I ordered it directly from the manufacturer, I’d be receiving mine right around the same time that my favorite retailers would be receiving their own.

But then it was the Chinese New Year—and we all know what followed shortly after…

I placed my order on January 15th and thanks to the complications of the celebration of the Chinese New Year and the emergence of COVID-19, it took nearly 6 weeks for it to get delivered to me.

Brian's Taycan Order

I certainly don’t fault Diatone for my order being negatively impacted by the Chinese New Year or by the onslaught of COVID-19. But the six-week wait was definitely an ominous sign.

When it finally showed up on February 27th, I excitedly got to work. We added one of my receivers to it, set up my switches, tested the inputs, and then took it to the park the first chance the weather and my schedule allowed it.

Unfortunately, my Taycan was defective

My first test flight failed. From inside my goggles, I couldn’t quite tell what had happened. But I was giving it lots of throttle, but it wasn’t lifting up off the ground—not even a little bit. I walked over to the drone and tried to fly it line-of-sight and it was painfully obvious to see what was defective—one of the motors wasn’t spinning up at all!

I removed the propellers and did some field diagnostics and wasn’t seeing any response from the malfunctioning motor when the quadcopter was booting up, or when I tried to give it any kind of throttle. This seemed to suggest that the motor wasn’t receiving any signal from the flight controller via its electronic speed controller (ESC).

I remarked at everyone flying with us, “This is the exact kind of trouble I hoped to avoid by buying a pre-built quadcopter.” I explained about how I was expecting to be able and go home, reach out to Diatone’s support, get a replacement Taycan shipped to me, and get back up in the air without having to disassemble and reassemble everything. I reached out to Diatone’s support and the next morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a response waiting for me in my inbox.

Diatone said I’d need to do the work I was trying to avoid by buying a pre-assembled quadcopter

I had expected to hear details about how Diatone’s RMA process works. Specifically, I was hoping to hear that they did advance RMAs provided I had a credit card on file as a deposit to make sure the defective goods were promptly returned.

Rather than offer an exchange, what was actually waiting for me in my inbox was a set of briefly and poorly worded instructions to repeat steps that I’d already said I’d attempted; to disconnect and reconnect both ends of the cable that connected the ESC to the flight controller.

Caught off guard, I decided to just go ahead and repeat the steps that they asked. As expected, disconnecting and reconnecting the cable one more time did not solve the problem. However, their email did note that there should be a spare cable included with the quadcopter. Replacing the cable wasn’t that much work. And wouldn’t you know it—after replacing the cable, I successfully tested all four of the motors. I even managed to get one good battery in chasing Pat while riding his electric unicycle the following weekend!

But then we got disrupted with wet weather and the onslaught of Coronavirus keeping us mostly indoors. This past week, Pat and I snuck out of our COVID-19 shelter-in-place suggestions and went exploring for a place to do some cinematic flying at. The fact that so many popular places were mostly deserted seemed like an excellent opportunity to shoot some cinematic footage.

Except now my Taycan wouldn’t even boot up!

We stopped at the library at Collin College’s Spring Creek campus, which is not too far from Pat’s house. While Pat did some orbits of an Earthly statue in a very Kerbal Space Program-esque fashion, I muttered and cursed while my Taycan wouldn’t boot up at all!


Plugging in the battery would result in the initial ESC boot-up tone, but it’d never be followed by the flight controller’s own boot-up tones. Equally disappointing was the fact that the quadcopter’s FPV camera and video transmitter (VTX) were transmitting just fine, but none of the flight controllers’ firmware components were accompanying what my quadcopter was broadcasting. I should have been seeing the Betaflight splash screen, which should have been followed by my on-screen display (OSD) elements. Moreover, I should have been able to enter into the Betaflight menu to adjust many of the quadcopter’s settings. Instead, the flight controller was utterly non-responsive.

So what came next?

A bit more rudimentary troubleshooting was done that evening back at home. I tried hooking the quadcopter up to my computer, only to find that the flight controller wasn’t being detected at all when I connected it to my computer using a USB cable. Combining that symptom with the fact that the flight controller also wasn’t booting up when powered up by a battery had me pretty convinced that the flight controller was kaput.

Flight Controller Not Detected

What followed was a new email off to Diatone’s support team and a back-and-forth that I can only begin to describe as the beginnings of a wild goose chase. With each reply, I was asked to do even more work and more troubleshooting to prove to them that what they shipped me was defective, including one email where whomever I was corresponding with from Diatone more or less implied that what was causing the issue was that I’d incorrectly flashed the wrong version of the firmware to the flight controller, which I hadn’t done. And even if I had done it, I’m savvy enough to get the flight controller into DFU mode to re-flash it and comfortable enough with my own boneheadedness to admit what I’d done in asking for their assistance.

With each of this past week’s replies, I’ve asked them to provide me a shipping label so that I could either have this defective quadcopter replaced or just straight up refunded. Each time that request has been met with discouragement and further troubleshooting steps.

I’m done with Diatone’s support for the Taycan

In my last email, I told them I was done troubleshooting their defective quadcopter and that I wouldn’t be helping them anymore. They’ve discouraged me enough that I just don’t care. I’ve spent quite a few hours working on their quadcopter and replying to their emails with the results of the work that I’ve done. But that effort hasn’t even inched me towards the hint of a solution.

I’ve more than demonstrated to them that there’s a hardware defect, but for some reason they just seem to want to keep giving me more and more steps to work through.

For some reason, Diatone is unwilling to admit or do anything about the defective quadcopter that they sent me. I suspect that they might eventually send me a new flight controller and wish me luck in repairing their defective quadcopter on their behalf, but that’s just not going to cut it—I had higher expectations.

I purchased the quadcopter two and a half months ago and I’ve only managed to have one decent outing with it. It’s time to cut my losses!

Brian's Disassembled Taycan

How is Brian going to Cinewhoop, then?

This is a good question! I was half-tempted to just buy an entirely different cinewhoop-style quadcopter like the iFlight BumbleBee or perhaps to follow Nurk’s custom build of the Shendrone Squirt. But ultimately I wound up deciding that I didn’t want to straight up throw away the $210 that I had already spent on the Taycan. I figured I might as well scavenge what I could from my defective Taycan and see if I could build something better.

I opted instead to replace the likely defective flight controller and suspect ESC that came with my Taycan. I literally just got done placing an order for the NewBeeDrone Infinity200 Stack (ESC+FC).

I didn’t even bother to listen to what Diatone attempts to do to reconcile the fact they sent me a defective quadcopter. In the best-case scenario, they send me a replacement flight controller and ESC that I can add to my stockpile of spare parts or give to a friend who might need it.

Conclusion

I really thought that I’d be more likely to have a defective quadcopter if I assembled it. I also assumed that I’d receive better support if I bought ready-made and that the entire thing would get replaced. Unfortunately for me, both of those assumptions wound up being wrong.

I would’ve been way better off by just picking out my own components for a cinewhoop-style quadcopter. I’m going to wind up losing money both in the hardware that I opted to replace myself but also in the amount of time that I’ve spent diagnosing and ultimately repairing Diatone’s defective product.

Unfortunately, in the realm of pre-built quadcopters, there’s still definitely the need to keep caveat emptor in mind.

If you happen to be shopping for a pre-built quadcopter because you want to avoid the hassle of assembling the quadcopter or troubleshooting any potential defects, then please use my experience as a cautionary tale!

AOKoda CX610 LiPo Battery Charger

| Comments

Just the other day I was telling Pat, “Man, it’s been a long time since I blogged about drones” as we were driving to a friend, Paul’s, house for an afternoon of indoor flying of our micro quadcopters. It has been over six months since I wrote about Frankenbomber, my 450mm DIY Quadcopter that I attempted to turn into an amusing bomber. Since publishing that blog, I’ve posted quite a bit of drone-related content to my YouTube channel but somehow hadn’t managed to blog about all the quadcopter nonsense that I’ve been up to!

AOKoda CX610

Shortly after arriving at Paul’s house, I bragged about my AOKoda CX610 1s LiPo Charger. It’s the charger that I have been using for the batteries needed for both my EMAX Tinyhawk and EMAX Tinyhawk Freestyle drones. Having explained what I liked about the CX610, it dawned on me what my next quadcopter-related blog should be about: a review of the AOKoda CX610!

The key features of the AOKoda CX610 are:

  • Three different inputs:
    • XT60 (9V to 26V / 3s to 6s)
    • DC 3.5MM (9V-26V at 24W)
    • Micro USB (5V at 1A/2A/2.4A)
  • USB Output (5V at 1A/2A/2.4A)
  • 6 independent charging ports capable of charging from .1A to 1.0A
  • Relatively inexpensive ($16-$20)

One rainy weekend after buying the CX610, Pat and I set up race gates all over my house. While we were flying, we found out that thanks to both the number of 1s 450mah batteries that I carry and my AOKoda CX610, I could barely discharge my batteries faster than they could be charged.

Thanks to the gigantic 10,000mAh 6S batteries that Pat and I each carry in our field-charging setups, there was little to no chance that either of us had the endurance to outlast our ability to keep charging 1s batteries. Plus, as an added bonus, the USB output on the CX610 allows me to keep other devices (primarily phones) charged up too.


Final Thoughts

According to my order history on Amazon, I’ve been using the AOKoda CX610 for a little over a year. All things considered, I’ve been pretty impressed with it. At the time, it was the only micro battery charger that I could find that was able to take up to a 6S battery as an input, capable of charging up to 1amp, and not tremendously expensive. I’m actually a bit disappointed that the AOKoda CX610 doesn’t have more competition by now. I’ve spent the last year telling all my local drone buddies that they should buy the AOKoda CX610, it’s high time that I suggested that my Internet drone buddies do the same!

Exway X1 Pro Riot Electric Skateboard Review

| Comments

Back when my friend, Alex, wrote a guest blog reviewing his Meepo Board, I was more than a tiny bit curious about what Alex would wind up thinking about the electric skateboard that he bought. I also wondered and worried that if after already getting me into quadcopters, Alex would wind up getting me into electric skateboards too. After seeing Alex’s Meepo Board in action, I was pretty confident that I wasn’t going to get sucked into a new hobby. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Alex’s electric skateboard—it looked like a hell of a lot of fun. But I was already at my limit for hobbies that were going to require me learning new skills. Trying to improve as a quadcopter pilot was eating up as much of my free time as I was willing to devote to any one hobby.

But then one Saturday at the abandoned golf course we love to fly our drones at, Pat was talking about exploring all the cart paths with his electric bike, the Hover-1 XLS, and it dawned on me that some sort of electric transportation would allow me to reach different places in parks that I hadn’t seen. A seed had been planted, and it slowly began to take root.

Thanks to Alex’s Meepo Board review, my site began to draw the attention of some other electric skateboard companies and I began to have conversations with people asking if I’d be willing to review their skateboards, and the first of these companies to send me something to review was Exway for their X1 Pro Riot Electric Skateboard.

First, a Bit of a Disclaimer

I don’t know the best way to say this, but the last time I can recall riding a skateboard, Richard Marx was topping the charts with “Right Here Waiting for You” and the fall of the Berlin Wall hadn’t quite happened yet. It has been at least three decades since I’d actually ridden a skateboard. And much like many other things, thirteen-year-old Brian wasn’t a particularly good skateboarder and definitely wasn’t focusing his efforts on becoming a better skateboarder. At that time, about the only thing I was focused on becoming better at was being a more prolific smartass.

Thankfully, my efforts on being a more prolific smartass have proven to be quite valuable in my adulthood—especially when it comes to this blog—the fact that I never really put any effort into becoming a better skateboarder will certainly have an effect on this particular blog. If you’re here for an in-depth review of an electric skateboard from an accomplished skater, this probably isn’t the place for you! Here are a few links that I think might be more along the lines of what you’re looking for:

But if you’re curious about an electric skateboard and want to know a bit more about what this novice thinks, then please read on!

Exway X1 Pro Riot Electric Skateboard

When I was contacted by Exway about reviewing their electric skateboard, the Exway X1 Pro Riot Electric Skateboard, the first thing I did was dig through the links above and check out the board’s specifications.

It didn’t take much reading and research for me to realize that I was pretty excited to get my hands on the X1 Pro Riot. Primarily, I was interested in the skateboard’s range and its weight. How far it could go and how heavy it was were going to be the driving factors in whether or not I could put it to use. The skateboard’s torque and top speed were also things that I was interested in as well. Accelerating and going fast are both things that I enjoy doing!

Specifications
Top Speed29mph (45 kph)Reduction Gear Ratio2.57
Range16 miles (25 km)Braking ModeRegenerative
Max Climbing Grade30% Motor5255-160kV
Weight16 lbs (7.25 kg) BeltContinental (Germany) 5MM
Torque5.2Nm x2Charging Time1:10 (Fast)
2:45 (Standard)
Max Power1200W x2TrucksSeismic Aeon 45 degree
Rated Power750 x2Grip Tape2mm Shock Absorbing
Rated Charger Power75 wattsWaterproof RatingIP55
Battery Capacity12s 193WhWarranty6 months

As pretty much an electric skateboard neophyte, the specifications that really jumped out at me were the top speed of 29mph, the range of 16 miles, the weight of 16 pounds, and the battery capacity of 12s and 193Wh. The range of 16 miles was impressive by itself—if you drew a 16-mile radius around my house, nearly everywhere I go falls within that radius. I’m not necessarily positive that everything within that radius that I’d visit would also allow me access to charge a battery, but I like my chances. Similarly, if I halved the radius down to 8 miles, hardly any fun locations drop off the map.

Exway X1 Pro Riot Closeup

A top speed of 29 miles per hour is a bit boggling to me. Many, many years ago, I learned that my feet were not capable of keeping up with going nearly 30 mph in a foolish attempt to hop out of a moving car. Thankfully, my stupidity only resulted in a bit of road rash and some bumps and bruises. I learned that I was best off staying within any vehicles moving faster than 30 miles per hour that day. I promised my contact I’d do everything that I could to test out the max speed of the Exway X1 Pro Riot, but something tells me that I’ve learned too much from my lessons in the past to achieve this.

Lastly, thanks to my interest in quadcopters, I’ve learned a bit about batteries of different construction and sizes. My favorite quadcopter uses six cell (6s) batteries which are around 1000mAh which converts to about 25.2Wh. The twelve-cell battery in the Exway X1 Pro Riot is rated at 193Wh—nearly 8 times the size as one of my favorite quadcopter batteries. I know there are different rules of physics and chemistry involved here, but I’m impressed that the skateboard’s battery boasts the range that it does.

Exway X1 Pro Riot Breakout

Initial Impressions

I’d seen Alex’s Meepo Board, but declined an opportunity to give it a test drive when I had the chance. I didn’t really know what to expect the first time I hopped on Exway’s top-of-the-line electric skateboard. Thankfully, I’d learned that the higher “gears” are locked out on the Exway X1 Pro Riot, which at least gave me a little confidence that maybe I wouldn’t completely make a fool out of myself. And you know what? I didn’t!

I was probably a bit more wobbly than I remember being thirty years ago, but not tremendously so. The electric skateboard is actually a longboard skateboard and had a much longer wheelbase than anything I’d ridden before. Moreover, there’s quite a bit of heft to the electric skateboard, thanks in large part to its batteries and motorized wheels. The Exway X1 Pro Riot weighs about 16 pounds, and I was surprised at how much more work it was for me to manipulate the skateboard with my feet. I attributed this largely to my lack of practice but I suspect that the boards weight may have also contributed to that.

I started off just by manually skateboarding around, trying to get a feel for the Exway X1 Pro Riot. But I very quickly became confident enough to turn the skateboard on and tinker around in with the 1st and 2nd gears. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first time I engaged the accelerator, I was pretty surprised and nearly lost my balance! Engaging the motors generated enough acceleration and the feeling itself of the motors moving the skateboard without my assistance was unexpected enough that the combination of these two things nearly landed me on my rear end!

At the abandoned golf course where we fly our quadcopters, I took breaks from flying my quadcopters and put a few minutes on the skateboard. Within the first couple days of riding around the pretty jagged asphalt and concrete parking lot at the golf course, I felt like I was ready for my next objective.

Range Test

The Exway X1 Pro Riot website says that for a rider around 150 pounds, the range was expected to be around 16 miles. I weigh in about 25 pounds heavier and I probably plan to be wearing a backpack that adds another 10-15 pounds from potential quadcopter gear. I was curious about what kind of range I’d wind up seeing.

I enlisted Pat’s help along with his Hover-1 XLS Folding Scooter. Pat lives right next door to a series of parks and nature reserves with pretty awesome paved trails throughout. Our goal was to do a bit of riding with me doing some larger loops, while Pat conserved his battery power for if he needed to ride back to grab a car and pick me up if I became stranded.

Altogether, I covered 12.97 miles in what I captured during range test. Even better, after resting for a few minutes and stopping my recording, the battery recovered enough to go another half a mile or so to where my car was parked.

While the 13 miles that I traveled doesn’t quite add up to the 16 miles claimed in the specifications, it’s worth noting that I was roughly 30 pounds (20%) over the 150 pounds that Exway said obtained the 16-mile mark, and more importantly, that their range test was probably done under ideal circumstances and my own test was a much more real-world scenario. All things considered, I was really pleased with the range that I was able to achieve.

Top Speed

Once I was comfortable on the Exway X1 Pro Riot, I shifted into the highest gear I’d unlocked, 2nd, and pretty much had the throttle maxed out the entire time in the range test. Despite this, I wasn’t going anywhere near the board’s top speed. In fact, Pat made sure he pointed out my speed deficiency by passing me and then passed me again as he chased a speedy cyclist.

However, I was pretty much going 17mph the entirety of the range test, which I thought was both impressive and faster than I thought I could bail out and keep my feet safely under me.

One of people’s favorite questions to ask about my quadcopters is “How far will it fly?” and I almost always answer with “Pretty far—and way farther than I want to walk!” I completely expect the most asked question of the Exway X1 Pro Riot will be “How fast will it go?” and the answer to that will invariably be “Faster than I want to run!”

I’ve barely ridden a skateboard at all, so a top-speed run of my own seems a bit foolish right now. As my inner daredevil takes over the controls, I’m sure I’ll be seeing how fast I can get my Exway X1 Pro Riot to go and sharing those updates as they happen.

However, there’s no shortage of top-speed runs on YouTube from more experienced riders, like this one from Ronnie Sarmiento where they each hit speeds near the published top speed of 29mph.

What I Didn’t Like

As far as the Exway X1 Pro Riot goes, I have mostly good things to say so far. About my only complaint is that it’s a bit noisy. It’s especially noisy when you’re in the middle of a pretty quiet park surrounded by walkers, cyclists, and the occasional rollerblader. I felt a tinge of guilt for interrupting their outings at the park with the constant whine of my skateboard’s electric motors. That being said, it wasn’t all that noisy, and I think a case could be made that the fact it’s noisy is helpful in alerting people ahead of you that they’re being approached from behind.

Similarly, I am a bit disappointed by the 6-month warranty. Electric skateboards are not inexpensive, and at its price, I’d expect that the Exway X1 Pro Riot would come with a much longer warranty than 6 months. Given their expense, I’d almost even recommend that people look into purchasing some sort of extended warranty or repair plan for their skateboards.

Final Thoughts

To sum it all up, I think the Exway X1 Pro Riot is actually pretty awesome. It’s lightweight, it’s fast—at least this newbie skateboarder thinks it is, and I was able to ride it for 13-miles during my real world range test. For everything that I’d hope an electric skateboard would enable me to do, it appears to be more than capable. I’m excited that I’m going to be able to throw a backpack together with my quadcopter, goggles, transmitter, and a few other odds and ends and be able to explore different places to fly in some of the area’s bigger parks.

It’s currently selling for $799, so a good Final Thought is this: Would Brian spend $800 out of his own pocket to buy the Exway X1 Pro Riot? And my answer to that question is: Yes.

I don’t think either of my complaints are major enough to talk myself out of purchasing an electric skateboard. However, I’d probably do some research to find out about how difficult it is to repair the skateboard myself or to buy some sort of protection plan before I pulled the trigger.

What do you all think? Have you thought about buying an electric skateboard or do you already have one? What kinds of things do you wind up using your electric skateboards for? Please use the comments below to let everyone know what you think!



DIY NAS: EconoNAS 2019

| Comments

When I built my first DIY NAS back in 2012, I had a specific budget I was working within and I worked really hard to pick out components that would maximize the value out of that budget. As the years progressed and I did other DIY NAS builds, they took two different paths: my idea of an ideal DIY NAS and a more economical build, the EconoNAS. Aspects of each of these types of DIY NAS builds remind me of my very first NAS build, but I’ve known for a long time that my very first NAS build was actually an EconoNAS.

Over the years, the EconoNAS has been strictly focused on the bottom line. I was always trying to cram as much storage as I possibly could into the least expensive build I could manage. This year, I took a step back and tried to focus on what I was interested in when building my first NAS: value.

Making value an emphasis is tricky for a number of reasons, but most of all value is subjective. There are aspects and features of the parts that I shop for that I value enough to spend more money on, and there are others that I am not. I always try and explain and rationalize what I value, but not everyone will agree, which is okay! Use the comments below to explain and justify your own valuation!

With the DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS, I tried to put myself in the mindset I found myself in back in 2012. I strove to make my decisions in choosing the components around fitting as many features as I could into a small budget. This year I didn’t really have a concrete dollar figure in my head when I was shopping, while I knew that I was okay with spending more than $300 but spending $400 seemed like it’d definitely be too much. I think this is probably a smaller budget than I put myself on in 2012—but I’ve learned quite a bit about NAS building in those years!


All the Parts Antec NSK4100 #1 Antec NSK4100 #2 Antec NSK4100 #3 Thermaltake TR2 430W Power Supply ASUS Prime B450M-A Motherboard AMD Ryzen 3 2200G Crucial Ballistix 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4 RAM Sandisk Ultra Fit 16GB x2 Brian's Face Spray Painted #1 Brian's Face Spray Painted #2


CPU & Motherboard

Right off the bat, I knew I was likely to drop one of the main features that I liked about my very first NAS—it was little! For whatever reason, in 2012, I completely lucked out. I found a Mini-ITX motherboard with 5 or 6 onboard SATA ports and an integrated CPU that was passively cooled for well under $100. That motherboard was on sale at the time and nearing the end of its technological relevance. Since then, I’ve rarely found things that match it in both features and price. Similar motherboards exist, just nowhere near that price point. Each of those features carries a price premium that I wouldn’t be able to afford in this year’s EconoNAS.

Unwilling to pay that premium, I looked for value in the motherboard. And right now, I think there’s tremendous value in AMD’s Ryzen motherboards. A lot of that comes from the fact that the AM4 socket supports so many different CPUs, including a generation of CPUs that hasn’t been released quite yet. The ability to be able to upgrade the CPU in the future is promising. I wound up selecting the ASUS Prime B450M-A (specs) motherboard. At just under $80, its feature set was enticing. In particular, the following features caught my eye:

  • Supports AMD AM4 CPUs
  • 6x SATA 6Gb/s connector(s)
  • 1x PCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 (x8 or x16 mode depending on GPU) slot
  • 2x PCIe 2.0 slots
  • Micro ATX form factor

The biggest thing I liked about the ASUS Prime B450M-A is its flexibility. It supports a wide range of CPUs, including CPUs that haven’t been released yet. It has enough SATA ports to build a fine NAS out of, but if you wanted to stick a bunch more drives in it, it’s got plenty of PCIe slots to support the added SATA/SAS controller cards you’d need to expand the drives.

Typically, when building an EconoNAS, I find the cheapest CPU that’ll work in the motherboard I picked out and that’s it. But considering my emphasis on value, I took a step back and looked at the prices and features of a wider set of CPUs. Ultimately, I zeroed in on the AMD Ryzen 3 2200G CPU (specs). Its base clock speed of 3.5GHz and 4 cores seemed well-suited for the NAS tasks, plus I’d hoped it’d be up to the task of acting as the hypervisor for a virtual machine or two under bhyve.

RAM

Choosing RAM for the EconoNAS is usually a bit easy too. I take a look at the bare minimum recommended by FreeNAS and I find as inexpensive of a kit as I can for that amount. Much like I did in selecting the prior components, my focus on value caused me to branch from that approach again in picking RAM. Because I’d hoped that the EconoNAS would be able to run a virtual machine or two, I opted for a 16GB kit of 2666MHz DDR4 memory from Crucial (specs). For the “big” DIY NAS builds, I choose ECC RAM, but I don’t think ECC RAM is necessary for your DIY NAS and it didn’t present enough value to me to incorporate into this EconoNAS build.

Case and Power Supply

The Micro ATX form factor of the ASUS Prime B450M-A motherboard that I picked offers a tempting choice at building a compact EconoNAS, which was nearly as tempting as it was expensive. Unfortunately, small cases that fit six (or more) 3.5” drives are simply expensive. Instead, I saved quite a few dollars in choosing the Antec NSK4100 (specs). The case’s biggest selling point was that it boasted a total of 11 drive bays:

  • 3x external 5.25” bays
  • 1x external 3.5” bay
  • 6x internal 3.5” bays
  • 1x internal 2.5” bay

With the exception of the DIY NAS: 2019 Edition, I’ve only bought 3.5” drives. The fact that the case could support up to 10 different 3.5” drives—with the help of a few drive adapters—was really quite compelling.

Of all the components that I shopped for, the power supply is about the only component where I went bargain hunting. In choosing the Thermaltake TR2 430w, I was simply looking at something which is at least 400 watts, inexpensive (under $50), and fairly well-reviewed. The TR2 comes in 500W and 600W as well, but I can’t really imagine needing that much power. I budgeted about 200 watts to the CPU, motherboard, and RAM, with the remaining 200-230 to support hard drives. I tend to budget around 15 watts per drive. Ultimately, I’m pretty confident that you’d fill up all the Antec NSK4100’s eleven drive bays without needing to upgrade the power supply.

FreeNAS Flash Drive

On my very first DIY NAS, I wound up trying to save space by mounting the USB drive internally and proceeded to put the least-expensive, but well-reviewed, USB drive I could find in there. And that USB drive lasted probably around a year. In buying the drive and the header to plug it directly into the motherboard, I’d spent more money than I would’ve had I just picked a nice and compact USB drive. When I replaced that failed USB drive, I picked up a Sandisk Cruzer Fit and I’ve pretty much stayed true to those USB drives across all my NAS builds.

For this year’s EconoNAS, I went with the 16GB SanDisk Ultra Fit. In this process, I also learned how easy it is to mirror the USB boot drive for FreeNAS and have been regularly putting mirrored USB drives in my regular DIY NAS builds ever since, but not in an EconoNAS until now. In prior years, I was pinching as many pennies as I could and felt every little bit would help, but I think the value of having a mirrored boot device is far greater than the few dollars it winds up saving.

Final Parts List

Component Part Name Count Cost
Motherboard Asus Prime B450M-A/CSM specs 1 $76.99
CPU AMD Ryzen 3 2200G specs 1 $77.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport LT 2666 MHz DDR4 DRAM Desktop Gaming Memory Kit 16GB (4GBx4) specs 1 76.99
Case Antec NSK4100 specs 1 $60.74
Power Supply Thermaltake TR2 430W N/A 1 $49.99
OS Drive SanDisk Ultra Fit 16GB specs 1 $6.49
TOTAL: $355.68

But what about Hard Drives, Brian?!

For the past EconoNAS builds, I’ve had a combination of size and price in mind where I’ve found the most amount of value, and I usually bought as many of those drives as would fit into my budget. However, as I attempted to explain in a blog earlier this year, I’m not buying hard drives for my NAS builds any longer. I’m doing this for a few good reasons, and while saving money was definitely one of the top reasons, what I’ve found over the years is that: How much storage you need and how much you are willing to spend on it is an incredibly personal choice. There’s value to everyone in how much storage they have, how much money they spend, and how much redundancy they get in the end.

What I’ve done in the EconoNAS builds in the past is spend around $50 to $75 per hard drive. And then depending on the drive’s price point, I’d put between four and six hard drives into the EconoNAS. For the most part, I think it’s been a successful enough formula. But I think that maybe I can do better by offering more options, but in offering those options I’d like to share a couple pointers that I’ve come to discover in building my own FreeNAS machines:

  1. There’s more value in buying more quantities of smaller drives: Larger almost always offer larger amounts of storage for your dollar, so they’re tempting. But, because of how arrays are constructed, more space gets reserved for redundancy on arrays with fewer drives. Example: 4x8TB drives vs. 8x4TB drives, in raid-z2 (two drives’ worth of redundancy). The array made up of 8TB drives will have 16TB of usable storage and the array made up of 4TB drives has 24TB of usable storage.
  2. I recommend at least two drives’ worth of redundancy in your array: Google for “RAID 5 is dead.”; there’s lots of good information/discussion out there. I don’t necessarily think RAID 5 is dead, but I value my data and time enough that I’ve simply moved to making sure there’s at least two drives’ worth of redundancy in all of my own arrays.
  3. As a DIY NAS builder using FreeNAS, your upgrade path is drive replacement: Replacing smaller drives with bigger drives and then eventually having the array grow to a larger size is your most likely upgrade path. Adding new drive(s) to an array is possible, but it’s conceptually tricky and potentially wasteful if done poorly.

Here’s a table of hard drive options. I did a bunch of hard drive shopping and built a few fictitious arrays for you to consider. What do you think of the options? Please share in the comments below?

Array Name Hard Disk Drive Model(s) HDD Size Total
Price
ZFS Level Net
Storage
Price
per Net TB
Dangerously
Economical
2x Seagate ST1000VM002
2x WD WD10EURX
2x Toshiba DT01ACA100
1 TB $194.60 raid-z1
raid-z2
raid-z3
5 TB
4 TB
3 TB
$38.92
$48.65
$64.87
Thrifty 3x WD WD2000F9YZ
3x Toshiba DT01ACA200
2 TB $383.97 raid-z1
raid-z2
raid-z3
10 TB
8 TB
6 TB
$38.40
$48.00
$64.00
Value 3x Toshiba MG03ACA400
3x WL 4TB
4 TB $425.82 raid-z1
raid-z2
raid-z3
20 TB
16 TB
12 TB
$21.29
$26.61
$35.49
Hoarder 6x WD Elements 8TB 8 TB $749.94 raid-z1
raid-z2
raid-z3
40 TB
32 TB
24TB
$18.75
$23.43
$33.13


Note: It’s probably worth pointing out here that 1TB, 2TB, and even 4TB drives are beginning to get “old” now. While I don’t know this for certain, I doubt any of the major hard drive manufacturers are making any drives of these sizes any longer. In exploring the reviews and comments left on drives of these size(s) across the Internet, they’re full of people who are reporting that their so-called new hard drive is refurbished, or worse, used. Similarly, what few new drives remain out there are probably starting to flirt with the end of their manufacturer’s warranty period. Caveat emptor!

Hardware Assembly, Configuration, and Burn-In

Assembly

One of the things I’ve always liked better about the EconoNAS is that it is usually easier to put together. My fascination with small motherboard form factors and small cases generally winds up resulting in working in much smaller spaces! Thanks to the cavernous interior of the Antec NSK4100, I didn’t have any of the problems that I had when assembling the diminutive DIY NAS: 2019 Edition. About the only complaint I had was that the two SATA ports in the corner of the motherboard pointed right in the direction of two of the case’s 3.5” drive bays. Routing a cable from so close to the drives was a bit problematic, but not a tremendous hassle.

Altogether, it took me a little over an hour to put the NAS together and have it booted up and ready to burn-in. Even for someone who’s built as many PCs as I have, I was impressed at how easily everything was put together.

Hardware Configuration

It used to be, when building DIY NAS machines out of consumer-grade equipment like the EconoNAS, there were all sorts of gotchas to watch out for. For example, difficulties in getting motherboards to boot from a USB device or having to trick the BIOS into thinking a keyboard and monitor were plugged in if you wanted to run headless. Thankfully over the years, those kinds of hassles have pretty much disappeared!

Pretty much the only thing I had to do in the motherboard’s BIOS was to go in and set the boot order to boot off the USB devices to run Memtest, then the FreeNAS installation, and finally to boot from the dual USB drive setup for the FreeNAS OS. The most frustrating part of configuring the hardware was that the BIOS was a graphical interface and I couldn’t be bothered to figure out if I could even use a keyboard to re-order the boot devices!

Burn-In

For the EconoNAS, I ran Memtest86+ to do my burn-in testing. Because I was busy and distracted over the weekend that I built the EconoNAS, I let Memtest86+ run for nearly 24 hours while I neglected the EconoNAS. In that time, it completed 10 successful tests with 0 errors. That was entirely overkill and unnecessary; 3 to 4 tests should’ve been more than enough for what I needed to prove.

I didn’t do it this time around, because I was too lazy to find my Ultimate Boot CD. But typically I use it to also run some sort of CPU stress-test to try and see how the machine performs under a load. Tormenting the CPU for 20-30 minutes nonstop is also a good way to try and force flaky hardware to come out of hiding and cause instability.

I did discover something a bit unsettling in my burn-in testing. The drives in my test array were all running quite warm with their operating temperatures being above 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit), which is at or outside the recommended operating temperature for enough of the drives I’m using in my test array for me to be concerned, but not concerned enough to stop any of my testing. If this were my NAS, I’d consider one of the following options:

  1. Space the drives out inside the case: there’s room for 10 drives in there, so I’d buy a pair of inexpensive 5.25” to 3.5” drive adapters and put some additional space between the drives.
  2. Add some additional cooling: between the case’s front fascia and the metal frame, there’s room there to add an additional fan. That fan would pull cool air from outside the case and hopefully push it across the drives to help cool them.
  3. Hard Drive Coolers: I’ve seen hard-drive-specific cooling before like this example or this other example, but I’ve never personally used them myself.
  4. Consider Other Case Alternatives: other cases might have easier or better solutions for maintaining your hard drives’ temperatures.

Of the above, I’d probably be tempted to go with the first option I listed. If I was really focused on getting the most out of my money, I’d probably wind up building a NAS with a few large hard drives, rather than my preferred solution of more smaller hard drives. With fewer drives, it’d be easier to space things out in the case and probably not have to worry about the hard drive temperatures.

FreeNAS Configuration

The installation and configuration of FreeNAS is getting to be a bit routine. When I built my first NAS, I was intimidated and concerned by my lack of knowledge and expertise with BSD or anything UNIX-related. I don’t really consider myself all that more knowledgable now, I’ve just benefitted from what an excellent product FreeNAS is and continues to become.

  1. Used the BIOS’s boot menu to boot from the USB device I put the FreeNAS ISO on.
  2. Selected “Install/Upgrade FreeNAS”
  3. Chose two SanDisk Ultra Fit 16GB drives from the available devices.
  4. Chose “Yes” on the warning about the partitions and data on those devices being erased.
  5. Entered and confirmed a password to be used for the root account.
  6. Chose “Boot via UEFI” for the FreeNAS Boot Mode
  7. Removed my FreeNAS Installation USB device and hit OK on the successful installation dialog.
  8. Used the Shutdown option to power down the NAS.
  9. Using the IP displayed in the FreeNAS console, I pulled up the FreeNAS web interface in a browser.
  10. Logged in using root and the password I picked during the installation.
  11. Under Network > Global Configuration, I set the Hostname to “econonas” and the domain to “lan” (the name of my local workgroup)
  12. Under Users, I created a new user which matched my username and password that I use on my local computers at home.
  13. Clicked Storage > Pools and clicked the Add button
    1. Selected all the hard drives listed under Available Disks and then moved them to the right under Data VDevs
    2. Named the new pool “econopool”
    3. Below the Data VDevs I picked Raid-z2
    4. Clicked the Create button.
  14. I edited the permissions of the econopool’s dataset and set the apply user to match my username and checked the apply permissions recursively option.
  15. Under Services I enabled the SMB service, started the service, and set it to “Start Automatically”
  16. I opened the SMB Configuration and made the following changes:
    1. Set the “NetBIOS Name” and “NetBIOS Alias” to: econonas
    2. Set the “Workgroup” to: lan
    3. Set the “Description” to: DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS
  17. Expanded Sharing and selected Windows (SMB) Shares and clicked the Add button.
    1. Set the Path to “/mnt/econopool”
  18. Under Tasks > S.M.A.R.T Tests I added two tasks for all the drives.
    1. A weekly Long Self-Test on Sundays
    2. A daily Short Self-Test
  19. On my desktop, I browsed to \econonas, opened econopool, created a file, modified that same file, and then deleted that file to test my permissions.

Benchmarks

Generally speaking, the two benchmarks I’m most interested in my DIY NAS builds is its power consumption and its throughput. Lots of other benchmarks could be relevant, but these two really stick out to me. With the DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS, I was a bit surprised by the power consumption. Regardless of what the EconoNAS was doing, it was pretty much consistently drawing the same amount of wattage. In fact, I was most surprised that its lowest power draw was when I would’ve expected to see the highest numbers! Perhaps I need to find a better tool to log and measure power consumption?

I was relatively unsurprised with the throughput on the EconoNAS. For a long time nearly all of my builds have been capable of saturating the gigabit interface on reads, and the 2019 EconoNAS is no different. What surprised me the most was that the DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS managed to outperform the DIY NAS: 2019 Edition in both random reads and random writes.

Power Consumption

Bootup Idle NAS Write Test
38.16 watts / 0.48 amps
37.85 watts / 0.45 amps
36.23 watts / 0.46 amps

Throughput

I’ve been all over the road each year, trying to test throughput on my DIY NAS builds. Each year I was simply focused on measuring the throughput for the build, but until a couple DIY NAS builds ago it dawned on me that I also wanted to compare the throughput between my different DIY NAS builds. That’s when I realized I was going to need a standardized set of steps to capture throughput, to document those steps, and then test each NAS build with them. Here’s that set of steps!

  1. Mapped a drive in Windows to the share on NAS that’s being tested.
  2. IOMeter
    1. Set up 2 workers per CPU core. On each worker I set the Maximum Disk Size number of sectors to a number that’d be 2.5 times as big as my total amount of RAM (~512 bytes per sector) and also picked the drive letter of the mapped drive as the Target
    2. Under Access Specifications, I created four different Global Access Specifications all with a 512KB block size:
      1. Sequential Read: 100% Read and 100% Sequential
      2. Sequential Write: 100% Write and 100% Sequential
      3. Random Read: 100% Read and 100% Random
      4. Random Write: 100% Write and 100% Random
    3. I quadruple-check each IOMeter worker because I almost always forget to update one when repeating these steps.
  3. I execute each of my four different tests (described above) individually in IOMeter against the drive mapped above.

I have yet to run these steps on an EconoNAS build, having skipped building one in 2018, but here’s how the EconoNAS stacks up against the other NAS builds I’ve captured these same results for over a gigabit network.

But Brian, You’re Wrong!

I’m not entirely certain that I’d agree with this assertion, but it has merit! Ultimately the “Y” in DIY stands for “yourself.” It’s not a do-it-Brian’s-way NAS, it’s a do-it-yourself NAS. The important part in there is that it’s an approach that lets you find the solution that works best for you! I like hearing about how people have decided to tackle their own NAS needs, even when it’s not totally aligned with what my opinion is.

I’ve taken some time to write up blogs on our new site, Butter, What!? about others’ DIY NAS builds. I enjoyed hearing and writing about Jim’s 100TB NAS as he’s working to fill it full of disks and @Sam010Am’s 48TB NAS in a Node 304 case. Instead of telling me what you think I’ve done wrong, tell us what you think is right about your own DIY NAS and why you made different choices.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m pretty pleased. I’ve managed to build a 6-bay, Ryzen 3 2200-powered NAS, with 16GB of RAM, running an incredibly popular storage OS, for just under $350 without any disks. When you compare that to other current 6-bay off-the-shelf NAS machines like the Synology DS1618+, the EconoNAS beats the Synology DS1618+ in nearly every regard. It’s got a much more powerful CPU, more RAM, it’s more upgrade-friendly, and—above all else—it’s less than half the price of the Synology. The DS1618+ is not without its own merits. It has a smaller footprint, it probably comes with better support, and—best of all—it’s already assembled and ready to go!

I’m a bit bummed that the case’s airflow is poor enough that my test drives couldn’t be stacked atop each other in the bottom six drive bays. While I’m quite confident that adding additional cooling or putting some space between the drives will solve this problem, one of the reasons I was excited about the EconoNAS’s case was the possibility that somebody out there might fill it full of hard drives and build a monster NAS from this blueprint. This seems unlikely now without an extra helping of that do-it-yourself spirit to find methods to cool the hard drives better.

Ultimately, that disappointment in the high drive temperatures was utterly obliterated by the fact that the EconoNAS performed nearly as well as the DIY NAS: 2019 Edition in the sequential read and write tests but then outperformed its expensive older brother in both the random read and write tests quite handily!

In past years, I tried to keep my EconoNAS builds under $500. I can’t remember ever achieving this goal, but I always felt that striving to meet it is part of what kept things affordable in the first place. Had I included hard drives in this year’s EconoNAS, I probably would’ve wound up further away from that goal than I’d ever been. But you know what? I built a much better NAS! This parts list has enough upgrade options down the road that I think you’ll spend less money than had I chosen cheaper parts. I think there’s a healthy amount of value in what I wound up buying for the 2019 EconoNAS.

What do you all think? Is this a good blueprint to recommend for the thrifty DIY NAS builder? Which parts would you have spent less money on? And more importantly, which parts would you have spent more money on? I’m interested to see your feedback in the comments below!

Giveaway

#FreeNASGiveAway Update

01/02/20: Way back—a whole decade ago—I was enjoying a vacation back where I grew up around Christmas and New Years. But I didn’t let my vacation stop me from drawing a winner of the DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS. I’m excited to share that last year’s EconoNAS giveaway saw an increase by around 50% on the number of people who entered the giveaway. The winner of this EconoNAS is Jt Bailey of New Zealand! Congratulations, Jt!

What does Brian do with all of these DIY NAS builds, anyway? Each time he gives them away to his readers! If you’re interested in the full details, please go check out my FreeNAS Giveaway page. But essentially, I will raffle the DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS off to one of my blog’s readers. There are multiple ways to enter the raffle by sharing on different social media platforms and referring your friends.

DIY NAS: 2019 EconoNAS

What the Shuck is Going on Here?!

| Comments

As a DIY NAS builder, there are no two ways around this fact: storage winds up eating up the biggest chunk of your budget. While the other components can be pricey too, the hard drives generally have accounted for 65-80% of the cost in nearly every one of my DIY NAS builds. I don’t generally wind up getting to practice what I preach in my own builds, but I try and encourage people to be methodical and look for special deals in buying their storage as a good way to save money.

However, lurking out there is a great tactic that I’ve never—until now—leveraged in either my own DIY NAS build or any of the ones that I have written about in my blog!


Shucking External Hard Drives

For some completely unknown—at least to me—reason, external hard drives are cheaper than their internal counterparts. Logically, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as there’s more hardware (the enclosure) and cost to the manufacturer in creating an external hard drive. About the best guess I’ve seen to explain this is the fact that oftentimes, the external hard drives have shorter warranty periods than that of an internal drive. In the example below, a Western Digital external 6TB hard disk drive is 33% cheaper than something comparable as an internal drive!

So what does shucking an external hard drive mean? Effectively, it means removing the hard drive from its USB enclosure and then using it inside your machine—just like you would an internal hard drive.

You might be asking yourself, “What’s the catch?” Here are a couple reasons you might not want to shuck an external drive for your own DIY NAS build—or any other PC build either.

  1. You’re likely voiding your warranty: Once you crack open any manufacturer’s seal, that shorter warranty period I mentioned previously is very likely to have come to an end. If that hard drive winds up dying because it’s defective, you’re probably going to have a hard time getting the manufacturer to replace it.
  2. It may not even be possible: For all you know, when you crack open the case, you might find that the draconian manufacturer might have completely removed the SATA connector from the back of the hard drive and soldered it to the USB circuitry, making it next to impossible for you to use in your DIY NAS.
  3. It could look and sound easier than it really is: If I had a dollar for every time I watched a YouTube clip of someone doing something and said, “Hey, that looks simple!” and then four hours later I’m fed up and muttering profanities under my breath, I’d be a wealthier dude.
  4. You never know what you’re going to get: Often-times you’ll hear people share that they got a hard drive from a particular coveted product line ideally suited for DIY NAS duty to the delight and envy of even the snobbiest DIY NAS aficionados, but there’s nothing guaranteeing that you’ll have the same experience. You may just wind up cracking open the case and finding that it wasn’t the primo hard drive you’d read about elsewhere.

All of the above are risks. Assuming that all of the above are true, there are a few scenarios up there where you could find yourself up the proverbial creek without a paddle. There’s a risk-reward calculation in here that needs to be done. If the reward is great enough and the risks can be mitigated, I think it’s something that you should strongly consider.

Your best bit of risk mitigation is probably sitting right at your fingertips: open up Google and type in the external drive’s model number and “shuck” into the search engine and look over the first page or so of results.

Why the shuck haven’t you been doing this all along, Brian?

So why haven’t I been shucking external hard drives all along? I guess above all else, I have striven for simplicity and avoided risk in the creation of my DIY NAS builds. I’ve placed a premium in my builds, hoping to make them seem simple and straightforward. Shucking external drives was an added bit of complexity that I typically avoided.

Up until researching and writing this blog, my own risk-reward calculation said that the money saved on shucked drives was not yet significant enough to offset the risks and effort. However, the price differences between the external drives and their internal counterparts have reached the point to cause me to rethink my position on shucked drives!

Brian shucks an External 8TB Hard Drive

I’ve written about this before, but I’ve been in a long process of replacing all of my 4TB hard drives in my own personal NAS with 8TB hard drives. For the longest time, I’ve had six 8TB hard drives in my NAS and one 4TB hard drive. Because of the drives’ quantities, size, and my own raidz2 (two redundant drives) configuration, I’ve been stuck sitting at 20TB of actual usable storage and wasting 4TB of space on each of those 8TB hard drives.

I finally decided that I would upgrade to that seventh 8TB hard disk drive, and I’ve been keeping an eye on prices, waiting for a good deal to shuck my first external hard drive. Because I’m pretty risk-averse, I wound up doing quite a bit of of research into which enclosures were easiest to shuck and what kinds of hard drives people had found them in. I wound up going out and reading quite a few forum posts, watching a few YouTube videos, and reading quite a few posts on /r/DataHoarder before deciding to buy the Western Digital Essentials 8TB.

Based on my research, the Western Digital Essentials 8TB was likely to have a white-label version that was either the same or very similar to the Western Digital Red 8TB HDD. And based on the Western Digital data sheets for their various hard drive product lines (ie: Blue, Purple, Red, etc…), I wasn’t too concerned if the hard drive that I found inside the enclosure wound up being a bit different than what I’d learned from my research.

Conclusion

I’m a bit less conclusive in my YouTube video about shucking drives, but I now think shucking external hard drives is a no-brainer for DIY NAS builders! As of the writing of this blog, the Western Digital Red 8TB hard drive is over $80 more expensive than the Western Digital 8TB Elements Desktop Hard Drive. At that price, it’s 38 percent cheaper! I wound up picking an external hard drive that has a reputation for being easy to shuck, but it could get considerably more difficult and still wind up being an excellent value in my opinion.

What do you guys think? Does my experience have you interested in shucking drives for your own DIY NAS? Or, if you already used shucked drives in your DIY NAS, what has your experience been like? Have the shorter, and likely voided, warranties come back to bite you? Please let me know how things worked out for you in the comments below!