In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
I am always looking for a better flash drive and my current favorite is the Mushkin Atom. The Atom is not the smallest physical size drive, but it is faster than most of the competition. I use my flash drive with PortableApps, which allows me to have most of my apps on a flash drive. This is a great way to keep all your apps when switching between two Windows computers. The only downside I have found is that Google Chrome does not work as well. It is a bit slower for some reason. Firefox is my preferred browser and the PortableApps version works very well. As to the Mushkin Atom performance, I ran a quick test with USBDeview for Windows and read results were a third faster than my previous Sandisk drive.
This test was run on the Mushkin Atom 32GB USB3 flash drive with USBDeview 64. Your results may vary depending on your computer and USB port.
I have been using the Atom for about 3 months without any issues on a Windows 7 laptop.
Last year I broke down and bought a Dell PowerEdge T105 Server because it was relatively inexpensive and I needed a new Windows box at home. While it came out of the box with a modest Dual Core Opteron 1.8GHz cpu, I definitely wanted something faster in the future. Well the time came this week and I found the AMD Opteron 1224SE 3.2GHz on Newegg.com simply too good to pass up. At $115.99, the price is just right for an AMD based processor. This was an OEM processor, so it came as is, no heatsink or instructions included.
The PowerEdge T105 is pretty easy to upgrade. Since this was a processor upgrade, make sure your T105 Server has the latest BIOS update from Dell, if it needs it. Dell provides no documentation that I could find that the 1224SE is supported or not, so I had to gamble that it would work for me. You will want to look the Dell manual for uninstalling the Dell heatsink if you are haven’t removed the heatsink before. There are two screws you will need to remove and then plastic case surrounding the heatsink, comes loose when you lift it up and back. Once you have the heatsink off, you might want to clean it off and apply a small amount of Arctic Silver to the new cpu. In all the upgrade took less than 20 minutes.
So far the differences in speed are apparent when launching applications, however if you have not upgraded the memory, you probably should do that too. With the 8GB of RAM and Dual 3.2GHz Opteron the server feels a lot more responsive than the stock configuration from Dell. You can get the memory relatively cheap from Shop.Kingston.com and cheap AM2 processors from Newegg.com.
It is pretty much agreed upon that in the Windows world of computing running a computer without anti-virus software is like jumping onto a busy highway and expecting to not get hit. No other platform has as many viruses and now spam infections as Windows. Given that, most Windows users will need to setup some sort of anti-virus application. In this review I will cover why ESET NOD32 should be considered one of your top choices as well as why buying anti-virus software in general can be difficult.
All software makers pretty much distinguish between two classes of software these days. You either buy personal software for home use or you spend more and purchase business (sometimes referred to as enterprise) software. It use to be that ESET offered one solution that you could install on Windows2000, WindowsXP workstations and Windows Servers, but they recently changed their software pricing model to make a clear distinction between personal home software and what they call the business edition. It is now no longer possible to buy just 1 license of NOD32 Business Edition so that you can run it on your server. You must instead purchase 5 business licenses and then you will be able to download the Business Edition. The Home Edition no longer installs on any type of Windows Server, it will only install on Windows Workstations! My biggest problem with this is that I run a home server and so I can no longer buy cheap anti-virus software. Almost every vendor now requires a 5 business license limit, so even if I just wanted one or two licenses, I no longer have that privilege.
However if you are not like me, and just have Windows XP or Vista workstations, then you can buy ESET NOD32 Home Edition pretty cheaply. The cheapest way to buy the Home Edition is to just purchase an OEM version. You should be able to find OEM versions for sale on Newegg.com and save yourself a few dollars in the process.
Other than the Home versus Business editions, you can purchase ESET Smart Security which is both an anti-virus and anti-spyware utility. The Smart Security suite is more expensive than NOD32 alone, but it will save you the expense of buying a separate commercial spyware utility.
The software takes a few minutes to install and by all accounts is a relatively easy install. The installer will require the usual Windows restart. From this point on, any time you start Windows, you will get a NOD32 splash screen once Windows gets to the desktop, letting you know NOD32 loaded. The green logo will then appear in your systray and you can click on it to bring up NOD32. Version 3 of the software differs from version 2.7, in that version 3 gives you a nicer looking interface and hides the old style 2.7 setup screens. You can even configure NOD32 to show a simple interface if you think the Advanced Interface is still too cluttered.
Other than NOD32, I have tried Computer Associates Anti-Virus products which are very inexpensive compared to other vendors. However it is my opinion that NOD32 is the top anti-virus product in quality for Windows at this time. Business users though might want to look at Sophos who offers enterprise class anti-virus and spam solutions with a good reputation for quality. For home user though, NOD32 is still my best recommendation.
A few months ago I decided to retire my SN41GV2 Shuttle Box PC. The Shuttle Box, which is named Titan, has served me well as a home server, but I had grown tired of the noise level associated with its power supply fans. I worried too that after being upgraded to an Athlon XP 3200, it would one day overheat and take my data with it. Considering price as the most limiting factor, I set out to setup a new Windows Server and found some interesting choices along the way. For example new Intel based Shuttle Box models were intriguing, but the small form factor is limiting and not all that cheap. Intel based servers are fast and reliable, but their price ranges are high for all but entry level Celeron based systems. I have had good experiences with AMD’s Athlons, so I decided to give AMD another chance and looked for Opteron based servers.
The Flavors of AMD Opteron
Seems like AMD is quite popular in the small business server market. You have choices, like the HP ProLiant ML115 Server and at the time I was able to find a lowend Opteron based IBM System X server as well. Almost all of the Opteron servers used an NVidia based chipset and featured similar motherboard specs, so the only decision came down to price and extras. The HP ProLiant had one major difference on the Dell PowerEdge T105, it came with built-in SATA RAID. In end, I waited for Dell to have a sale and the price range ended up being significant. The T105 on sale goes for $349, while everyone else had a $500 or more price tag. At this price it is hard not to buy a Dell. Note that this does not include an operating system or any hardware upgrades like more memory and bigger hard drives. Do not forget to add $20 for shipping, so we are now at around $380.
For computer upgrades, you really cannot beat Newegg.com. They have great service and their site has pretty much everything you could ever want when it comes to components. I ended up ordering a 500GB Western Digital SATA hard drive for around $105. The only problem with buying an Opteron based machine is that it uses ECC memory and not regular DDR memory. This ended up costing me twice as much. Instead of the $40 or so for 2x1GB DIMMs, I had to pay around $80 for the same memory and only Kingston has DD2 800 memory ECC DIMMs. The same ECC DIMMs now cost around $50, so they have gotten cheaper in the last six months.
Eventually I will upgrade the DVD Drive and add another internal hard drive. I am still waiting for 2GB ECC DIMMs to become cheaper. The T105 can take up to 8GB of RAM.
Windows2003 Server Performance
At first I had a lot of problems with Windows2003 stability on the new server. Hard drive access especially was slower than expected. The fix ended up being to go into Device Manager and for disk drive, choose Optimize for Performance. This ended fixing the weird pauses I saw in Explorer. Comparing the system to the old Athon XP 3200, which ran at 2.2GHz, the dual core Opteron 1210 18GHz is more stable and application wise feels faster. Some apps do perform better than others, so performance is always relative to the application and if both cores are being utilized. Since this is a server, other than terminal server RDP, I really do not run much in the way of desktop applications. Apache 2 is definitely better on dual cores.
Overall the new server was a good bargain. It is quiet enough for the home office and while the size factor is that of a normal tower, it is very expandable compared to a small form factor PC. I guess it is true, you can’t beat Dell on price.