Protect Your MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro with SkinLike the character Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, I have a designated spot in my living room. I often do online shopping from my couch and my default device is a MacBook Pro that I have had for a very long time. This is the 2010 model and it still has a working battery since most of its lifetime has been spent plugged in. This MacBook was replaced with a new MacBook Pro 16 last year. Both of these laptops are near and dear to me and represent a significant investment, so I want to protect them and keep them for a long time.

The most immediate danger is to the MacBook Pro that I use in the living room. There is a curious and very needy dog that lives in our house and he considers the living room his domain. In order to protect my Apple laptop from his paws, I decided to try and skin my laptops. Unlike a hard cover, a skin is more like a protective thin layer that you can apply to the top and bottom of your laptop. It won’t overheat your laptop and it is removable in case you want to sell your laptop or go back to its original look. Skins can be applied to all areas of your laptop, but overall the best benefit is to to the top and bottom of your closed laptop. This will protect the outer shell from scratches and may even prevent a dent. Another benefit, is that you can easily wipe off dust, hot sauce, cookie crumbs, and other things you might happen to spill on your closed laptop.

There are multiple websites that specialize in skinning. Almost all of theses skins are made from the same material and they are not exactly cheap. For the MacBook, I visited the forums on Macrumours.com and did a search for skins and found multiple threads on skinning your Apple devices. I tried three different skins, and found that ColorWare to have the better quality product. You may find a cheaper seller.

Once you get the skin, you can watch a couple of youtube videos that show you how to install the skin. You will need a hair dryer if you end up wanting to remove the skin. Lining up the skin perfectly will take some trial and error and you will want to be careful. Stretching the skin can rip it or deform it so that the end result will not look good. One skin I tried ended up ripping, so I do think ColorWare had better results due to it being a slightly better product. If you do purchase skins for the sides or other areas of your laptop, I think there is minimal return for the time that you put in. I would recommend just doing the top and bottom. Removing the skin is very easy to do, just use a hair dryer on low and a plastic tool (plastic credit cards or guitar picks will work as well).

After you have your laptop skin, you can rest assure that your laptop is a bit more protected from curious pets and your own carelessness at times.

Paradigm Premier 800F Speakers

Paradigm Premier 800F SpeakerIn college one of my many part-time jobs was working at BestBuy in the Audio department. At that time, that meant selling home audio systems, car audio, and for some reason we also handled the cell phone sales. Believe it or not, one of the top phones we would sell was a bag phone that looked like an actual home phone! Back in the G1 days, cell phones had very limited range and so the bag phone was a good choice for people who wanted a phone for their car or tractor. Anyway, the big takeaway from that job was my addiction to high-end audio. There is just something cool about having massive speakers and a high-end receiver (that only appeals to the male gender). Over time, I would go through several home theater receivers, from Pioneer, Sony, Yamaha, Onkyo, to my personal favorite: Denon. Each had its strengths: the Pioneer was powerful and loud but ended up breaking, the Sony was just okay, the Yamaha was impressive but did not work well with my speakers, Onkyo had a bad HDMI board. Denon always sounded the best to me and my first Denon receiver is in my man cave. It is hooked up to a Raspberry Pi for music streaming.

The latest Denon is setup to drive a 7.2 home theater setup. Most people today do not setup home theater systems anymore. BestBuy does not even have a speaker listening room anymore. Customers usually only want a flat screen TV and maybe a sound bar. Since no one really buys blu-ray movies anymore, high quality audio is something most people don’t even experience. Streaming audio from NetFlix and Disney can’t compare to the lossless audio on a blu-ray 4K disc. For my 7.2 channel setup, the main speakers were the Eosone RSF-1000 towers that I had purchased while working at BestBuy. After multiple decades, one of the towers started to tick. The built-in amp for the subwoofer had blown and so it was time to replace the towers. These giant tower speakers had been responsible for reproducing the incredible sound stages of some of my favorite films: the opening scenes of Matrix Reloaded, the Gandalf vs Balrog battle in The Lord of The Rings, and pretty much every Star Wars movie action scene. Unplugging them and moving them down to the basement for storage was both physically and emotionally tasking.

Klipsch

The center channel speaker is the most utilized speaker in any setup. From all my speakers, my Klipsch center speaker is my newest speaker, so I figured why not match it with some new tower speakers. After some quick looking online, I found some very affordable Klipsch R-28F towers. Since the Eosone towers had built-in subs, I had to also find a subwoofer solution. I eventually ended up getting a pair of Klipsch R-12SW Subwoofers. In all these new additions were all pretty affordable and at first I was impressed with he new sonic clarity and booming bass of my Klipsch setup, but over time, I kept thinking it could still be improved upon. Klipsch speakers have an excellent bass sound to them and this makes them sound immediately loud to me. From years of headphones, my hearing has dropped off in the treble range and so I have trouble hearing the voices in movies at times. This moved me to find a more neutral sounding speaker setup. I should stress that the Klipsch R-28F towers in combination with the two R-12SW subwoofers was a huge improvement. The Eosone built-in subwoofers have always sounded a bit muffled and not as clear. This is why I had to return the Yamaha receiver, as it made the smaller subwoofers on the Eosones sound worse.

Paradigm

The problem with internet shopping is that there are things that you must try out before buying them. Sometimes it is trivial, such as the color of the new iPhone is not visible in any online pictures. You have to see it for yourself and then hold it in your hand to see if it fits. How does the functionality work for you. In the case of speakers, they will sound different to you than they will to me. There is also your environment. How and where you place a speaker matters. This means that if you are making any kind of investment in audio equipment, you really need a test drive. After reviewing some audio sites, I focused on Paradigm speakers. Paradigm is a Canadian based company, located in Toronto. You won’t find their speakers in many online sites; they mostly sell through local dealers and a couple of online sites.

Paradigm Demo

Lucky for me, there was a local dealer that was an hour away and which would allow me an opportunity to listen for myself. My friend and I went on a Friday afternoon for a listening session. When we arrived, I found that they did not have any of the Premier line speakers. They did have their lower end line of speakers. The Premier line is their middle tier of speakers. For the demo, the dealer played some titles on an AppleTV. We watched the opening scene of Thor Ragnarok and a couple of concert titles. A demo through an AppleTV is disappointing because it is not the highest quality audio signal. Instead, it would have been better to use a 4k blu-ray player. However, the AppleTV is what I use most often, and so while it won’t produce the best audio, it is convenient and will be closer to everyday use. I compared the Premier towers to a couple of other brands they had in the store. Of all the speakers we listened to, the Paradigms were exactly what the online reviews concluded: neutral sounding. You could hear sharp and distinct dialogue in the Thor movie and the sound effects were crisp and separate. The other brands resembled the Klipsch or worse, over-pronounced the S sounds in dialogue. Once you notice the over-pronounced S sounds in a movie, you can’t stop listening to them. It ruins the experience. My friend confirmed my observations and agreed that the Paradigms were the best sounding speakers. While we were demoing the lower end series of Paradigms, I figured the Premier line would be a slight improvement, but equally neutral. The decision was pretty easy, if you don’t mind opening your checkbook. I asked the dealer to match the online price of one of the two online sites that carry the Premier series. He agreed to match the price and my new Paradigms would arrive in about a week in the store.

Paradigm Setup

The immediate difference between newer tower speakers and the older Eosone towers is the weight. The Klipsch were much lighter and the Paradigms seem even lighter. The bottom of the speakers come with either spikes for carpet floors or flat knobs if you do not have bare floors. Unlike the Klipsch, the Paradigms would work with banana plug speaker wires. I bought new wires from Amazon that have the banana plug ends. A few minutes to hookup and then it was time to try out the new speakers with some music. Using some CDs instead of blu-ray movies to hear what the Paradigms could do, is the best way to calibrate your speakers and to burn them in. I tried a few different selections.

I started with the best song of all time to use for figuring out how loud to set your subwoofers: Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. The song features one of the best bass lines and gives you a consistent base line. Once you adjust your subwoofer levels to where you can hear the bass and listen to Jackson’s vocals at the same time, you know you have hit the sweet spot. You can do sound calibration with a physical meter or with your receiver’s setup mic, but I find that these calibrations are close they still don’t match your listening preferences.

The next selection was a collection of Rush: Red Sector A, Subdivisions, 2112, you can go deeper, but I default to these most often. Here I am looking for clarity of all the instruments, the drums, guitar, and bass. It may be that the subwoofers will need to be lowered a bit. Finally, I went back and tried some newer music. For this Dua Lipa’s Levitating is one of my favorite songs. Music made in the last few years is balanced for headphones and not tower speakers. This makes it sound different when you play it in your living room. At this point, Dua Lipa sounded good to me without any more adjustments.

It was time to see how the AppleTV and blu-ray player performed with Paradigms driving the main 2 channels of the 7.2 setup. The obvious choice for a movie was Thor Ragnarok, since that is what the original demo in the store was. The opening scene and final battle scene were what I watched first. The 4K blu-ray was of course better than the AppleTV and was immediately impressive. The difference that the Paradigms added was the neutral clarity, higher treble sounds were evident. Listening position was a bit wider as well. You did not need to be in the center or right in front of the speaker. It was possible to sit just to the left or right of the each speaker. I think I am going to work on moving the Klipsch subwoofers a bit back, but other than that the physical location of the speakers was good. Now that I had the volumes right, it was time to sit back and do some binge watching. My friend had recommended The Expanse series on Amazon. I don’t watch Amazon shows very much, so I was not aware of this series. The sci-fi series was an excellent show to start with. The Paradigms made for a great listening experience and I ended up watching the entire series.

Final Notes

The next upgrade will be replacing the center channel speaker with Paradigm to match the towers. Unfortunately the width of the Paradigm center channel will not work with my current media stand. I’ll have to build a new media stand. Until then, I will stay with the current setup. A combination of Paradigm towers and Klipsch center channel and subwoofers.

Additional Information:

pfSense UPS Widgets

APC BE550G UPSLast month I walked into my home office and heard the buzzing of a UPS. After switching it out with another smaller UPS, I wiped off the dust and found the model number on the bottom to be: BE550G. These older UPS models are no longer even supported by APC anymore. After doing a search online, I found BatteryPlus.com had a replacement battery and they have a store nearby. I ordered the Duracell Ultra 12V 9AH High Rate AGM SLA Battery with F2 Terminals [SLAHR12-9FR] and then picked it up the same day. After letting the battery charge overnight, I had to hook the UPS up to my Windows machine to set the Battery Date using the PowerChute software. For some reason this is not possible on other operating systems and open source software that I could find. Once I had this done, I moved the UPS over to my pfSense firewall and connected it directly to one of the USB ports on the firewall.

There are a couple of different packages for pfSense that you can install. pfSense is FreeBSD based, so you can install the software natively or use the pfSense packages to install. Once you configure the setup, the packages offer dashboard widgets that you can add to the pfSense dashboard. Here is what each one looks like.

Apcupsd

Developed for only APC UPS units, apcusd features a better looking widget.

pfSense Apcupsd dashboard widget

Network UPS Tools

Known as the NUT package, this open source software has a more simplistic dashboard, however Network UPS Tools supports more devices and has extensive features for UPS units directly connected or on the network.

pfSense UPS dashboard widget

Additional Notes

Setting up either package requires reading the setup documentation online. I was able to run both packages for a direct USB connected device.

For apcupsd set UPS Cable and UPS Type to “USB” and leave the Device field blank. If you are using NUT, set the UPS Type to Local USB and driver to usbhid.

Overall I am glad that I could salvage the UPS and keep it in service. This keeps perfectly good equipment working and prevents waste. The plus, is that my firewall and internet connection will run a bit longer and not reset during a power spike.

My Home Office Setup

Dell Monitor UP2716DThe COVID19 pandemic had multiple impacts on everyone personally and I have to admit that mentally it was difficult for me to not be able to leave the house and go to the mall or dine out. However, the time at home did allow me some time to clean-up the home office space and do some upgrades. This space has become the work space and I spend at least 50% of my time now in my home office.

Connectivity & Networking

The first significant upgrade was to our Internet. The DSL connection that we utilized for more than a decade was not capable of providing access to work VPN connections, online schooling sessions, and streaming. We had to utilize cell phones for work VPN connections and even then, the internet was spotty and unusable most days. Lucky there was a new ISP in town that was providing fiber connections and so a few weeks into the Summer, we upgraded to a new, faster internet. This allowed us to VPN for work and at the same time allow for Zoom school sessions. We have two network access points in our house. These were eventually upgraded as well. The current models are a NETGEAR Nighthawk AX5400 and a NETGEAR Nighthawk R7350 AC2400. Both of the wireless access points are wired. I try to keep most devices wired, so the access points see mostly mobile device traffic. My work laptop is wired, but the rest of the family mostly use wireless connections, but can connect directly to the access points for faster connections if they need to. The access points, along with a firewall, network switches all keep up very well with the new faster internet connection. Note that a previous NETGEAR Nighthawk (R7000) – AC1900 access point limited the upload speeds of my new 100Mbps connection.

It is simply amazing to be able to download an Apple update and watch HBO Max in 4K all at the same time.

Displays & Screens

The 24-inch monitor is the standard, the 27-inch monitor is the better upgrade, and the 32 or higher is not affordable: all of these are better than anything your work laptop has though. Monitors are weirdly frustrating and at the same time amazingly cheaper these days. However, my eyes have not gotten better, but worse as I mostly look at text all day long. Achieving crisp and readable text on a screen is a combination of science and art. If you utilize Windows 10 and MacOS X, you will see that Microsoft and Apple have different ideas on how to achieve this. MacOS X provides shadows and stresses the shape of the font letter as it scales, while Windows focuses on accurate pixels and scales worse in my opinion.

The frustration for me is that on a 27-inch monitor that has a display resolution of 2560×1440, is that I can’t really see fonts very well in Windows10. Changing the font scale to 125% makes fonts more readable but then throws off the size of Window elements. Windows10 just looks bad to me at this resolution and scale. I have thought about getting a 27-inch monitor with a typical FHD resolution of 1920×1080, but this seems like going backwards to me technology wise. The other option is to try a 27-inch 4K monitor or a larger display with the same display resolution of 2560×1440 with 100% font scaling. These options are more expensive and may introduce other problems such as dock connections, video card limitations of my work laptop.

At this time, the current setup consists of two Dell Ultrasharp U2719DX 27-Inch IPS Monitors connected via one display port cable to an OWC 14-Port Thunderbolt 3 Dock (OWCTB3DK14PSG). This is an excellent setup, as you connect the first monitor to the dock and then there is a display port out on the first monitor that you then connect to the second monitor. There is a setting you have to change on the display itself to make this work for an expanded display; by default the two monitors will come up in mirror mode. Similar to HDMI connections, DisplayPort connections to a Thunderbolt Dock are not perfect. Occasionally one of the monitors will come up in a lower resolution and the only solution that I can find is to disconnect the laptop from the dock and reconnect it. It is annoying when it occurs, but other than that it works well. Thunderbolt has its own strangeness. The display connections just work, but the rest of the dock can be disabled depending on your laptop settings in the BIOS/firmware. Security settings for Thunderbolt can disable your dock ports by default, except for display connections. Different docks will also have different display ports, so pay close attention to what ports are available for displays and I won’t even get into the whole cable discussion of what USB-C, Thunderbolt cable to get.

Input Devices

After taking an inventory, I found that pretty much everything I have for input devices is about one company: Logitech. Although I do not think Logitech has the best quality in hardware and software, they do seem to make affordable devices and I tend to gravitate to Logitech no matter what other brands I find on Amazon.

For pointing and clicking, my favorite mouse is the Logitech M720 Wireless Triathlon Mouse. What this mouse has over the competition is the bluetooth connectivity. Forget using the transceiver and instead utilize the bluetooth feature on your laptop that is probably not even being used. I have switched the rest of my computers to this mouse. It just works and feels solid compared to anything cheaper.

The most used device of all is your keyboard. It is the device that you first touch to begin your workday and it is the most neglected of all. From dust, to cookie crumbs, most of us don’t even clean the keyboard and it shows. Think about your hands and how badly they can suffer from a cheap keyboard or that terrible laptop keyboard, and you will soon discover that investing in a new keyboard is the best thing you can do for your work space. After trying a few cheaper gaming keyboards, on a whim I ended up treating myself with a Logitech G915 Wireless Mechanical Gaming Keyboard (Tactile). This keyboard is wireless and it will last about 2-3 days without a charge, but for the most part I keep it wired to the OWC Dock. The upsides with the G915 is that it has lighted keys, so I can work in dimmed light. It is super responsive to my typing and overall construction is heavier than the cheaper keyboards out there. If you do not care for the wireless feature or the full size layout there are cheaper models to choose from in the Logitech G line. I have to state that the G915 is the best keyboard I have ever used and I would have a hard time switching to something cheaper. The minor issue I do have with it is that some of the keys are only partially lighted: the “?/” key for example only have the slash lighted.

Further Considerations

Lighting is still on my list of things to change. I have typical LED tube lighting and it feels harsh on most days. I am picky about lamps and so I have not really found the perfect lighting solution for the office.

The Desk has not changed since 1996. I am still using what I had in college. I’ve considered doing a butcher block desk similar to one I put together for my son, but after looking at the time and effort I put into that project, along with the prices for wood lately, I have decided to forestall this for a bit longer. Plus I have a garage that needs a lot of work of late, so that will probably need a work table.

In closing, I hope this gave you some ideas about what to look at for your home work space.

Lexmark E260dn Filter Error on MacOS Big Sur

Lexmark E260dn ErrorOver the Summer I got a new MacBook Pro 16 to replace my current MacBook Pro from 2010. Due to the COVID19 pandemic, I had to start working from home full time, so my home office has had to go through a lot of changes to accommodate this change. This has meant, that my new MacBook has been sitting in a box for a couple of months while my desk has been taken over by my work laptop. The other hesitation has been Apple; they have been focused on iOS 14 and product launches around it, that MacOS 11, otherwise known as macOS Big Sur was released in the Fall instead of late Summer. Now with macOS Big Sur 11.1 installed, I have been slowly moving over to the new MacBook.

The first real problem I have encountered has been with my Lexmark E260dn monochrome laser printer. Lexmark no longer provides updates for this printer and since the printer still works fine and I use it sparingly throughout the year; I see no reason to replace it. The E260dn replaced a similar Lexmark printer, which died a few years ago, unexpectedly on the day I needed to print some tax documents. I suspect a power surge or electrical short killed the board. Upon downloading the printer drivers for MacOS X from Lexmark, running the installer, and adding the printer in System Preferences – Printers & Scanners, and then attempting to print an email, I got a Filter Error in the Printer Status.

After researching the problem, I was able to to fix the issue.

Reset Printing System

First open up System Preferences – Printers & Scanners. Hold down the Control key and drag your pointer over the Printers area. The option to Reset Printing System will appear. Go ahead and click on the option.

Download Lexmark Drivers

You will need to get the last updated drivers from Lexmark. Here is the direct link to the download page: Print Driver for 10.6.8 and later Mac OS. Once you agree to the download, open the installer and run through the installation process.

Add Lexmark Printer

In System Preferences – Printers & Scanners, click the plus sign and add your printer. It should come up and you should see it added. If you try to print something, it should result in the Filter Error.

Modify Settings

Use the Go to Folder… option under the Go menu to open the following location: /Library/Printers/Lexmark/filter/

Next you will need to edit the file psoptionreroute with a text editor. I recommend using BBEdit, as it will let you modify system files easily. Right Click on the file and choose Open With – Other and choose BBEdit. In the file psoptionreroute, look for the line:

use POSIX qw(tmpnam);

Comment this line out by adding a pound sign in front of it and then directly underneath add the text below:

use File::Temp qw(tmpnam);

File and Save and close the file. At this point, go ahead and attempt to print something and the error will no longer appear and you should hear your printer turning on and spitting out a page or two. Further discussion on this issue can be found on the Apple Support Forums.