Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Your Digital Pinball Machine

I've had something of an obsession with digital pinball for years now. That recently culminated in me buying a Virtuapin Mini.

OK, yes, it's an extravagance. There's no question. But in my defense, it is a minor extravagance relative to a real pinball machine.

The mini is much smaller than a normal pinball machine, so it's easier to move around, takes up less space, and is less expensive. Plus you can emulate every pinball machine, ever! The Virtuapin Mini is a custom $3k build centered around three screens:

  • 27" main playfield (HDMI)
  • 23" backglass (DVI)
  • 8" digital matrix (USB LCD)

Most of the magic is in those screens, and whether the pinball sim in question allows you to arrange the three screens in its advanced settings, usually by enabling a "cabinet" mode.

Let me give you an internal tour. Open the front coin door and detach the two internal nuts for the front bolts, which are finger tight. Then remove the metal lockdown bar and slide the tempered glass out.

The most uniquely pinball item in the case is right at the front. This Digital Plunger Kit connects the 8 buttons (2 on each side, 3 on the front, 1 on the bottom) and includes an analog tilt sensor and analog plunger sensor. All of which shows up as a standard game controller in Windows.

On the left front side, the audio amplifier and left buttons.

On the right front side, the digital plunger and right buttons.

The 27" playfield monitor is mounted using a clever rod assembly to the standard VESA mount on the back, so we can easily rotate it up to work on the inside as needed.

To remove the playfield, disconnect the power cord and the HDMI connector. Then lift it up and out, and you now have complete access to the interior.

Notice the large down-firing subwoofer mounted in the middle of the body, as well as the ventilation holes. The PC "case" is just a back panel, and the power strip is the Smart Strip kind where it auto-powers everything based on the PC being powered on or off. The actual power switch is on the bottom front right of the case.

Powering it up and getting all three screens configured in the pinball sim of your choice results in … magic.

It is a thoroughly professional build, as you'd expect from a company that has been building these pinball rigs for the last decade. It uses real wood (not MDF), tempered glass, and authentic metal pinball parts throughout.

I was truly impressed by the build quality of this machine. Paul of Virtuapin said they're on roughly version four of the machine and it shows. It's over 100 pounds fully assembled and arrives on a shipping pallet. I can only imagine how heavy the full size version would be!

That said, I do have some tweaks I recommend:

  • Make absolutely sure you get an IPS panel as your 27" playfield monitor. As arrived, mine had a TN panel and while it was playable if you stood directly in front of the machine, playfield visibility was pretty dire outside that narrow range. I dropped in the BenQ GW2765HT to replace the GL2760H that was in there, and I was golden. If you plan to order, I would definitely talk to Paul at VirtuaPin and specify that you want this IPS display even if it costs a little more. The 23" backglass monitor is also TN but the viewing angles are reasonable-ish in that orientation and the backglass is mostly for decoration anyway.

  • The improved display has a 1440p resolution compared to the 1080p originally shipped, so you might want to upgrade from the GeForce 750 Ti video card to the just-released 1050 Ti. This is not strictly required, as I found the 750 Ti an excellent performer even at the higher resolution, but I plan to play only fully 3D pinball sims and the 1050 Ti gets excellent reviews for $140, so I went for it.

  • Internally everything is exceptionally well laid out, the only very minor improvement I'd recommend is connecting the rear exhaust fan to the motherboard header so its fan speed can be dynamically controlled by the computer rather than being at full power all the time.

  • On the Virtuapin website order form the PC they provide sounds quite outdated, but don't sweat it: I picked the lowest options thinking I would have to replace it all, and they shipped me a Haswell based quad-core PC with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, even though those options weren't even on the order form.

I realize $3k (plus palletized shipping) is a lot of money, but I estimate it would cost you at least $1500 in parts to build this machine, plus a month of personal labor. Provided you get the IPS playfield monitor, this is a solidly constructed "real" pinball machine, and if you're into digital pinball like I am, it's an absolute joy to play and a good deal for what you actually get. As Ferris Bueller once said:

If you'd like to experiment with this and don't have three grand burning a hole in your pocket, 90% of digital pinball simulation is a widescreen display in portrait mode. Rotate one of your monitors, add another monitor if you're feeling extra fancy, and give it a go.

As for software, most people talk about Visual Pinball for these machines, and it works. But the combination of janky hacked-together 2D bitmap technology used in the gameplay, and the fact that all those designs are ripoffs that pay nothing in licensing back to the original pinball manufacturers really bothers me.

I prefer Pinball Arcade in DirectX 11 mode, which is downright beautiful, easily (and legally!) obtainable via Steam and offers a stable of 60+ incredible officially licensed classic pinball tables to choose from, all meticulously recreated in high resolution 3D with excellent physics.

As for getting pinball simulations running on your three monitor setup, if you're lucky the game will have a cabinet mode you can turn on. Unfortunately, this can be weird due to … licensing issues. Apparently building a pinball sim on the computer requires entirely different licensing than placing it inside a full-blown pinball cabinet.

Pinball Arcade has a nifty camera hack someone built that lets you position three cameras as needed to get the three displays. You will also need the excellent x360ce program to dynamically map joystick events and buttons to a simulated Xbox 360 controller.

Pinball FX2 added a cabinet mode about a year ago, but turning it on requires a special code and you have to send them a picture of your cabinet (!) to get that code. I did, and the cabinet mode works great; just enter your code, specify the coordinates of each screen in the settings and you are good to go. While these tables definitely have arcadey physics, I find them great fun and there are a ton to choose from.

Pro Pinball Timeshock Ultra is unique because it's originally from 1997 and was one of the first "simulation" level pinball games. The current rebooted version is still pre-rendered graphics rather than 3D, but the client downloads the necessary gigabytes of pre-rendered content at your exact screen resolution and it looks amazing.

Timeshock has explicit cabinet support in the settings and via command line tweaks. Also, in cabinet mode, when choosing table view, you want the bottom left one. Trust me on this! It supports maximum height for portrait cabinet mode.

Position each window as necessary, then enable fullscreen for each one and it'll snap to the monitor you placed it on. It's "only" one table, but arguably the most classic of all pinball sims. I sincerely hope they continue to reboot the rest of the Pro Pinball series, including Big Race USA which is my favorite.

I've always loved pinball machines, even though they struggled to keep up with digital arcade games. In some ways I view my current project, Discourse, as a similarly analog experience attempting to bridge the gap to the modern digital world:

The fantastic 60 minute documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball has so many parallels with what we're trying to do for forum software.

Pinball is threatened by Video Games, in the same way that Forums are threatened by Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Snapchat. They're considered old and archaic technology. They've stopped being sexy and interesting relative to what else is available.

Pinball was forced to reinvent itself several times throughout the years, from mechanical, to solid state, to computerized. And the defining characteristic of each "era" of pinball is that the new tables, once you played them, made all the previous pinball games seem immediately obsolete because of all the new technology.

The Pinball 2000 project was an attempt to invent the next generation of pinball machines:

It wasn't a new feature, a new hardware set, it was everything new. We have to get everything right. We thought that we had reinvented the wheel. And in many respects, we had.

This is exactly what we want to do with Discourse – build a forum experience so advanced that playing will make all previous forum software seem immediately obsolete.

Discourse aims to save forums and make them relevant and useful to a whole new generation.

So if I seem a little more nostalgic than most about pinball, perhaps a little too nostalgic at times, maybe that's why.

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Discussion

Can Software Make You Less Racist?

I don't think we computer geeks appreciate how profoundly the rise of the smartphone, and Facebook, has changed the Internet audience. It's something that really only happened in the last five years, as smartphones and data plans dropped radically in price and became accessible – and addictive – to huge segments of the population.

People may have regularly used computers in 2007, sure, but that is a very different thing than having your computer in your pocket, 24/7, with you every step of every day, fully integrated into your life. As Jerry Seinfeld noted in 2014:

But I know you got your phone. Everybody here's got their phone. There's not one person here who doesn't have it. You better have it … you gotta have it. Because there is no safety, there is no comfort, there is no security for you in this life any more … unless when you're walking down the street you can feel a hard rectangle in your pants.

It's an addiction that is new to millions – but eerily familiar to us.

The good news is that, at this moment, every human being is far more connected to their fellow humans than any human has ever been in the entirety of recorded history.

Spoiler alert: that's also the bad news.

Nextdoor is a Facebook-alike focused on specific neighborhoods. The idea is that you and everyone else on your block would join, and you can privately discuss local events, block parties, and generally hang out like neighbors do. It's a good idea, and my wife started using it a fair amount in the last few years. We feel more connected to our neighbors through the service. But one unfortunate thing you'll find out when using Nextdoor is that your neighbors are probably a little bit racist.

I don't use Nextdoor myself, but I remember Betsy specifically complaining about the casual racism she saw there, and I've also seen it mentioned several times on Twitter by people I follow. They're not the only ones. It became so epidemic that Nextdoor got a reputation for being a racial profiling hub. Which is obviously not good.

Social networking historically trends young, with the early adopters. Facebook launched as a site for college students. But as those networks grow, they inevitably age. They begin to include older people. And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist. I apologize if this sounds ageist, but let me ask you something: do you consider your parents a little racist? I will personally admit that one of my parents is definitely someone I would label a little bit racist. It's … not awesome.

The older the person, the more likely they are to have these "old fashioned" notions that the mere presence of differently-colored people on your block is inherently suspicious, and marriage should probably be defined as between a man and a woman.

In one meta-analysis by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips of Columbia University, a majority of 18–29 year old Americans in 38 states support same sex marriage while in only 6 states do less than 45% of 18–29 year olds support same-sex marriage. At the same time not a single state shows support for same-sex marriage greater than 35% amongst those 64 and older

The idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn't an opinion; it's a statistical fact.

Support for same-sex marriage in the U.S.

18 - 29 years old    65%
30 - 49 years old    54%
50 - 64 years old    45%
65+ years old        39%

Are there progressive septuagenarians? Sure there are. But not many.

To me, failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage. Which was not that long ago, to the tune of the late 60s and early 70s. If you want some truly hair-raising reading, try Loving v. Virginia on for size. Because Virginia is for lovers. Just not those kind of lovers, 49 years ago. In the interests of full disclosure, I am 45 years old, and I graduated from the University of Virginia.

With Nextdoor, you're more connected with your neighbors than ever before. But through that connection you may also find out some regressive things about your neighbors that you'd never have discovered in years of the traditional daily routine of polite waves, hellos from the driveway, and casual sidewalk conversations.

To their immense credit, rather than accepting this status quo, Nextdoor did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: they changed their software. Now, when you attempt to post about a crime or suspicious activity …

… you get smart, just in time nudges to think less about race, and more about behavior.

The results were striking:

Nextdoor claims this new multi-step system has, so far, reduced instances of racial profiling by 75%. It’s also decreased considerably the number of notes about crime and safety. During testing, the number of crime and safety issue reports abandoned before being published rose by 50%. “It’s a fairly significant dropoff,” said Tolia, “but we believe that, for Nextdoor, quality is more important than quantity.”

I'm a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves. And this is a textbook example of doing it right.

Would using Nextdoor and encountering these dialogs make my aforementioned parent a little bit less racist? Probably not. But I like to think they would stop for at least a moment and consider the importance of focusing on the behavior that is problematic, rather than the individual person. This is a philosophy I promoted on Stack Overflow, I continue to promote with Discourse, and I reinforce daily with our three kids. You never, ever judge someone by what they look like. Consider what they do instead.

If you were getting excited about the prospect of validating Betteridge's Law yet again, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I truly do believe software, properly designed software, can not only help us be more civil to each other, but can also help people – maybe even people you love – behave a bit less like racists online.

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Discussion

The Raspberry Pi Has Revolutionized Emulation

Every geek goes through a phase where they discover emulation. It's practically a rite of passage.

I think I spent most of my childhood – and a large part of my life as a young adult – desperately wishing I was in a video game arcade. When I finally obtained my driver's license, my first thought wasn't about the girls I would take on dates, or the road trips I'd take with my friends. Sadly, no. I was thrilled that I could drive myself to the arcade any time I wanted.

My two arcade emulator builds in 2005 satisfied my itch thoroughly. I recently took my son Henry to the California Extreme expo, which features almost every significant pinball and arcade game ever made, live and in person and real. He enjoyed it so much that I found myself again yearning to share that part of our history with my kids – in a suitably emulated, arcade form factor.

Down, down the rabbit hole I went again:

I discovered that emulation builds are so much cheaper and easier now than they were when I last attempted this a decade ago. Here's why:

  1. The ascendance of Raspberry Pi has single-handedly revolutionized the emulation scene. The Pi is now on version 3, which adds critical WiFi and Bluetooth functionality on top of additional speed. It's fast enough to emulate N64 and PSX and Dreamcast reasonably, all for a whopping $35. Just download the RetroPie bootable OS on a $10 32GB SD card, slot it into your Pi, and … well, basically you're done. The distribution comes with some free games on it. Add additional ROMs and game images to taste.

  2. Chinese all-in-one JAMMA cards are available everywhere for about $90. Pandora's Box is one "brand". These things are are an entire 60-in-1 to 600-in-1 arcade on a board, with an ARM CPU and built-in ROMs and everything … probably completely illegal and unlicensed, of course. You could buy some old broken down husk of an arcade game cabinet, anything at all as long as it's a JAMMA compatible arcade game – a standard introduced in 1985 – with working monitor and controls. Plug this replacement JAMMA box in, and bam: you now have your own virtual arcade. Or you could build or buy a new JAMMA compatible cabinet; there are hundreds out there to choose from.

  3. Cheap, quality IPS arcade size LCDs. The CRTs I used in 2005 may have been truer to old arcade games, but they were a giant pain to work with. They're enormous, heavy, and require a lot of power. Viewing angle and speed of refresh are rather critical for arcade machines, and both are largely solved problems for LCDs at this point, which are light, easy to work with, and sip power for $100 or less.

Add all that up – it's not like the price of MDF or arcade buttons and joysticks has changed substantially in the last decade – and what we have today is a console and arcade emulation wonderland! If you'd like to go down this rabbit hole with me, bear in mind that I've just started, but I do have some specific recommendations.

Get a Raspberry Pi starter kit. I recommend this particular starter kit, which includes the essentials: a clear case, heatsinks – you definitely want small heatsinks on your 3, as it dissipate almost 4 watts under full load – and a suitable power adapter. That's $50.

Get a quality SD card. The primary "drive" on your Pi will be the SD card, so make it a quality one. Based on these excellent benchmarks, I recommend the Sandisk Extreme 32GB or Samsung Evo+ 32GB models for best price to peformance ratio. That'll be $15, tops.

Download and install the bootable RetroPie image on your SD card. It's amazing how far this project has come since 2013, it is now about as close to plug and play as it gets for free, open source software. The install is, dare I say … "easy"?

Decide how much you want to build. At this point you have a fully functioning emulation brain for well under $100 which is capable of playing literally every significant console and arcade game created prior to 1997. Your 1985 self is probably drunk with power. It is kinda awesome. Stop doing the Safety Dance for a moment and ask yourself these questions:

  • What controls do you plan to plug in via the USB ports? This will depend heavily on which games you want to play. Beyond the absolute basics of joystick and two buttons, there are Nintendo 64 games (think analog stick(s) required), driving games, spinner and trackball games, multiplayer games, yoke control games (think Star Wars), virtual gun games, and so on.

  • What display to you plan to plug in via the HDMI port? You could go with a tiny screen and build a handheld emulator, the Pi is certainly small enough. Or you could have no display at all, and jack in via HDMI to any nearby display for whatever gaming jamboree might befall you and your friends. I will say that, for whatever size you build, more display is better. Absolutely go as big as you can in the allowed form factor, though the Pi won't effectively use much more than a 1080p display maximum.

  • How much space do you want to dedicate to the box? Will it be portable? You could go anywhere from ultra-minimalist – a control box you can plug into any HDMI screen with a wireless controller – to a giant 40" widescreen stand up arcade machine with room for four players.

  • What's your budget? We've only spent under $100 at this point, and great screens and new controllers aren't a whole lot more, but sometimes you want to build from spare parts you have lying around, if you can.

  • Do you have the time and inclination to build this from parts? Or do you prefer to buy it pre-built?

These are all your calls to make. You can get some ideas from the pictures I posted at the top of this blog post, or search the web for "Raspberry Pi Arcade" for lots of other ideas.

As a reasonable all-purpose starting point, I recommend the Build-Your-Own-Arcade kits from Retro Built Games. From $330 for full kit, to $90 for just the wood case.

You could also buy the arcade controls alone for $75, and build out (or buy) a case to put them in.

My "mainstream" recommendation is a bartop arcade. It uses a common LCD panel size in the typical horizontal orientation, it's reasonably space efficient and somewhat portable, while still being comfortably large enough for a nice big screen with large speakers gameplay experience, and it supports two players if that's what you want. That'll be about $100 to $300 depending on options.

I remember spending well over $1,500 to build my old arcade cabinets. I'm excited that it's no longer necessary to invest that much time, effort or money to successfully revisit our arcade past.

Thanks largely to the Raspberry Pi 3 and the RetroPie project, this is now a simple Maker project you can (and should!) take on in a weekend with a friend or family. For a budget of $100 to $300 – maybe $500 if you want to get extra fancy – you can have a pretty great classic arcade and classic console emulation experience. That's way better than I was doing in 2005, even adjusting for inflation.

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Discussion

The Golden Age of x86 Gaming

I've been happy with my 2016 HTPC, but the situation has changed, largely because of something I mentioned in passing back in November:

The Xbox One and PS4 are effectively plain old PCs, built on:

  • Intel Atom class (aka slow) AMD 8-core x86 CPU
  • 8 GB RAM
  • AMD Radeon 77xx / 78xx GPUs
  • cheap commodity 512GB or 1TB hard drives (not SSDs)

The golden age of x86 gaming is well upon us. That's why the future of PC gaming is looking brighter every day. We can see it coming true in the solid GPU and idle power improvements in Skylake, riding the inevitable wave of x86 becoming the dominant kind of (non mobile, anyway) gaming for the forseeable future.

And then, the bombshell. It is all but announced that Sony will be upgrading the PS4 this year, no more than three years after it was first introduced … just like you would upgrade a PC.

Sony may be tight-lipped for now, but it's looking increasingly likely that the company will release an updated version of the PlayStation 4 later this year. So far, the rumoured console has gone under the moniker PS4K or PS4.5, but a new report from gaming site GiantBomb suggests that the codename for the console is "NEO," and it even provides hardware specs for the PlayStation 4's improved CPU, GPU, and higher bandwidth memory.

  • CPU: 1.6 → 2.1 Ghz CPU
  • GPU: 18 CUs @ 800Mhz → 36 CUs @ 911Mhz
  • RAM: 8GB DDR5 176 GB/s → 218 GB/s

In PC enthusiast parlance, you might say Sony just slotted in a new video card, a faster CPU, and slightly higher speed RAM.

This is old hat for PCs, but to release a new, faster model that is perfectly backwards compatible is almost unprecedented in the console world. I have to wonder if this is partially due to the intense performance pressure of VR, but whatever the reason, I applaud Sony for taking this step. It's a giant leap towards consoles being more like PCs, and another sign that the golden age of x86 is really and truly here.

I hate to break this to PS4 enthusiasts, but as big of an upgrade as that is – and it really is – it's still nowhere near enough power to drive modern games at 4k. Nvidia's latest and greatest 1080 GTX can only sometimes manage 30fps at 4k. The increase in required GPU power when going from 1080p to 4k is so vast that even the PC "cost is no object" folks who will happily pay $600 for a video card and $1000 for the rest of their box have some difficulty getting there today. Stuffing all that into a $299 box for the masses is going to take quite a few more years.

Still, I like the idea of the PS4 Neo so much that I'm considering buying it myself. I strongly support this sea change in console upgradeability, even though I swore I'd stick with the Xbox One this generation. To be honest, my Xbox One has been a disappointment to me. I bought the "Elite" edition because it had a hybrid 1TB drive, and then added a 512GB USB 3.0 SSD to the thing and painstakingly moved all my games over to that, and it is still appallingly slow to boot, to log in, to page through the UI, to load games. It's also noisy under load and sounds like a broken down air conditioner even when in low power, background mode. The Xbox One experience is way too often drudgery and random errors instead of the gaming fun it's supposed to be. Although I do unabashedly love the new controller, I feel like the Xbox One is, overall, a worse gaming experience than the Xbox 360 was. And that's sad.

Or maybe I'm just spoiled by PC performance, and the relatively crippled flavor of PC you get in these $399 console boxes. If all evidence points to the golden age of x86 being upon us, why not double down on x86 in the living room? Heck, while I'm at it … why not triple down?

This, my friends, is what tripling down on x86 in the living room looks like.

It's Intel's latest Skull Canyon NUC. What does that acronym stand for? Too embarrassing to explain. Let's just pretend it means "tiny awesome x86 PC". What's significant about this box is it contains the first on-die GPU Intel has ever shipped that can legitimately be considered console class.

It's not cheap at $579, but this tiny box bristles with cutting edge x86 tech:

  • Quad-core i7-6770HQ CPU (2.6 Ghz / 3.5 Ghz)
  • Iris Pro Graphics 580 GPU with 128MB eDRAM
  • Up to 32GB DDR4-2666 RAM
  • Dual M.2 PCI x4 SSD slots
  • 802.11ac WiFi / Bluetooth / Gigabit Ethernet
  • Thunderbolt 3 / USB 3.1 gen 2 Type-C port
  • Four USB 3.0 ports
  • HDMI 2.0, mini-DP 1.2 video out
  • SDXC (UHS-I) card reader
  • Infrared sensor
  • 3.5mm combo digital / optical out port
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

All impressive, but the most remarkable items are the GPU and the Thunderbolt 3 port. Putting together a HTPC that can kick an Xbox One's butt as a gaming box is now as simple as adding these three items together:

  1. Intel NUC kit NUC6i7KYK $579
  2. 16GB DDR4-2400 $75
  3. Samsung 950 Pro NVMe M.2 (512GB) $317

Ok, fine, it's a cool $970 plus tax compared to $399 for one of those console x86 boxes. But did I mention it has skulls on it? Skulls!

The CPU and disk performance on offer here are hilariously far beyond what's available on current consoles:

  • Disk performance of the two internal PCIe 3.0 4x M.2 slots, assuming you choose a proper NVMe drive as you should, is measured in not megabytes per second but gigabytes per second. Meanwhile consoles lumber on with, at best, hybrid drives.

  • The Jaguar class AMD x86 cores in the Xbox One and PS4 are about the same as the AMD A4-5000 reviewed here; those benchmarks indicate a modern Core i7 will be about four times faster.

But most importantly, its GPU performance is on par with current consoles. NUC blog measured 41fps average in Battlefield 4 at 1080p and medium settings. Digging through old benchmarks I find plenty of pages where a Radeon 78xx or 77xx series video card, the closest analog to what's in the XBox One and PS4, achieves a similar result in Battlefield 4:

I personally benchmarked GRID 2 at 720p (high detail) on all three of the last HTPC models I owned:

MaxMinAvg
i3-4130T, HD 4400322127
i3-6100T, HD 530503239
i7-6770HQ, Iris Pro 580965978

When I up the resolution to 1080p, I get 59fps average, 38 min, 71 max. Checking with Notebookcheck's exhaustive benchmark database, that is closest to the AMD R7 250, a rebranded Radeon 7770.

What we have here is legitimately the first on-die GPU that can compete with a low-end discrete video card from AMD or Nvidia. Granted, an older one, one you could buy for about $80 today, but one that is certainly equivalent to what's in the Xbox One and PS4 right now. This is a real first for Intel, and it probably won't be the last time, considering that on-die GPU performance increases have massively outpaced CPU performance increases for the last 5 years.

As for power usage, I was pleasantly surprised to measure that this box idles at 15w at the Windows Desktop doing nothing, and drops to 13w when the display sleeps. Considering the best idle numbers I've measured are from the Scooter Computer at 7w and my previous HTPC build at 10w, that's not bad at all! Under full game load, it's more like 70 to 80 watts, and in typical light use, 20 to 30 watts. It's the idle number that matters the most, as that represents the typical state of the box. And compared to the 75 watts a console uses even when idling at the dashboard, it's no contest.

Of course, 4k video playback is no problem, though 10-bit 4K video may be a stretch. If that's not enough — if you dream bigger than medium detail 1080p gameplay — the presence of a Thunderbolt 3 port on this little box means you can, at considerable expense, use any external GPU of your choice.

That's the Razer Core external graphics dock, and it's $499 all by itself, but it opens up an entire world of upgrading your GPU to whatever the heck you want, as long as your x86 computer has a Thunderbolt 3 port. And it really works! In fact, here's a video of it working live with this exact configuration:

Zero games are meaningfully CPU limited today; the disk and CPU performance of this Skull Canyon NUC is already so vastly far ahead of current x86 consoles, even the PS4 Neo that's about to be introduced. So being able to replace the one piece that needs to be the most replaceable is huge. Down the road you can add the latest, greatest GPU model whenever you want, just by plugging it in!

The only downside of using such a small box as my HTPC is that my two 2.5" 2TB media drives become external USB 3.0 enclosures, and I am limited by the 4 USB ports. So it's a little … cable-y in there. But I've come to terms with that, and its tiny size is an acceptable tradeoff for all the cable and dongle overhead.

I still remember how shocked I was when Apple switched to x86 back in 2005. I was also surprised to discover just how thoroughly both the PS4 and Xbox One embraced x86 in 2013. Add in the current furor over VR, plus the PS4 Neo opening new console upgrade paths, and the future of x86 as a gaming platform is rapidly approaching supernova.

If you want to experience what console gaming will be like in 10 years, invest in a Skull Canyon NUC and an external Thunderbolt 3 graphics dock today. If we are in a golden age of x86 gaming, this configuration is its logical endpoint.

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Discussion

Your Own Personal WiFi Storage

Our kids have reached the age – at ages 4, 4, and 7 respectively – that taking longer trips with them is now possible without everyone losing what's left of their sanity in the process. But we still have the same problem on multiple hour trips, whether it's in a car, or on a plane – how do we bring enough stuff to keep the kids entertained without carting 5 pounds of books and equipment along, per person? And if we agree, like most parents, that the iPad is the general answer to this question, how do I get enough local media downloaded and installed on each of their iPads before the trip starts? And do I need 128GB iPads, because those are kind of expensive?

We clearly have a media sharing problem. I asked on Twitter and quite a number of people recommended the HooToo HT-TM05 TripMate Titan at $40. I took their advice, and they were right – this little device is amazing!

  • 10400mAh External Battery
  • WiFi USB 3.0 media sharing device
  • Wired-to-WiFi converter
  • WiFi-to-WiFi bridge to share a single paid connection

The value of the last two points is debatable depending on your situation, but the utility of the first two is huge! Plus the large built in battery means it can act as a self-powered WiFi hotspot for 10+ hours. All this for only forty bucks!

It's a very simple device. It has exactly one button on the top:

  • Hold the button down for 5+ seconds to power on or off.
  • Tap the button to see the current battery level, represented as 1-4 white LEDs.
  • The blue LED will change to green if connected to another WiFi or wired network.

Once you get yours, just hold down the button to power it on, let it fully boot, and connect to the new TripMateSith WiFi network. As to why it's called that, I suspect it has to do with the color scheme of the device and this guy.

I am guessing licensing issues forced them to pick the 'real' name of TripMate Titan, but wirelessly, it's known as TripMateSith-XXXX. Connect to that. The default password is 11111111 (that's eight ones).

Once connected, navigate to 10.10.10.254 in your browser. Username is admin, no password.

This interface is totally smartphone compatible, for the record, but I recommend you do this from a desktop or laptop since we need to upgrade the firmware immediately. As received, the device has firmware 2.000.022 and you'll definitely want to upgrade to the latest firmware right away:

  • Make sure a small USB storage device is attached – it needs local scratch disk space to upgrade.
  • You'd think putting the firmware on a USB storage device and inserting said USB storage device into the HooToo would work, and I agree that's logical, but … you'd be wrong.
  • Connect from a laptop or desktop, then visit the Settings, Firmware page and upload the firmware file from there. (I couldn't figure out any way to upgrade firmware from a phone, at least not on iOS.)

Storage

For this particular use, so we can attach the storage, leave it attached forever, and kinda-sorta pretend it is all one device, I recommend a tiny $32 128GB USB 3.0 drive. It's not a barn-burner, but it's fast enough for its diminutive size.

In the past, I've recommended very fast USB 3.0 drives, but I think that time is coming to an end. If you need something larger than 128GB, you could carry a USB 3.0 enclosure with a traditional inexpensive 2.5" HD, but the combination of travel and spinning hard drives makes me nervous. Not to mention the extra power consumption. Instead, I recommend one of the new, budget compact M.2 SSDs in a USB 3.0 enclosure:

They run absolute circles around large USB flash drives in performance! The larger the drive, believe me, the more you need to care about this, like say you need to quickly copy a bunch of reasonably new media for the kids to enjoy before you go catch that plane.

Anyway, once you get this storage plugged into the HooToo it will automatically set up a DLNA share for you:

However, you must explicitly move the files and folders into the Share folder created by the HooToo to browse them via DLNA.

In theory you could do this directly to the filesystem on the USB drive, but since we're already there, I found it was just as easy to use the built in Explorer tool in the web browser, linked from the HooToo homepage:

  • Select the files and folders you want to move
  • Tap the wrench icon, then Cut
  • Tap to enter the Share folder
  • Tap the wrench icon, then Paste

Anyway, once you get the folders and files you want into the Share folder, you're good to go for DLNA!

Settings and WiFi

Let's continue setting up our HooToo Tripmate Titan. In the web interface, under Settings, Network Settings, these are the essentials:

  • In Host Name, first set the device name to something short and friendly. You will be typing this later on every device you attach to it. I used van and airplane for mine, since that's where we plan to use them.

  • In Wi-Fi and LAN

    • pick a simple WiFi password, because you'll need to tell people to type this in when they connect, or type it in for them. I'd keep it simple. High security is not needed here.

    • set the WiFi channel to either 1, 6, or 11 so you are not crowding around other channels.

    • set security to WPA2-PSK only. No need to support old, insecure connection types.

There's more here, if you want to bridge wired or wirelessly, but this will get you started.

iOS

Update: since I originally wrote this, I've switched to the Infuse app. It's fantastic for media consumption, and although it is a little expensive at $9, there's a reason: it supports tons of different audio and file formats, including the ones that your iPhone and iPad don't understand, including Dolby and so on.

Infuse supports the DLNA standard built into the HooToo. So all you have to do is connect to the HooToo's wireless network, press the add files plus button at upper right, and connect to the one that automatically appears — in this case, DLNA-Van, there at the bottom.

With DLNA, no login is required! Once connected, you can scan through videos easily, with rather nice thumbnail and summary support.

For more than just media, you can also use the File Explorer app for iOS (or similar). See the instructions below for Windows, as the process is very similar.

Windows / Mac

Connect to the HooToo's WiFi network, then type in the name of the device (mine's called van) in Explorer or the File Run dialog, prefixed by \\.

The default user accounts are admin and guest with no passwords, unless you set one up. Admin lets you write files; guest does not.

Once you connect you'll see the default file share for the USB device and can begin browsing the files at UsbDisk1_Volume1.

I also figured out how to browse the HooToo filesystem from a Mac as well:

  • Connect to the HooToo's WiFi network
  • Open a Finder Window
  • On the "Go" menu select "Connect to Server..."
  • Enter the HooToo device name, e.g. van
  • When prompted enter admin or guest credentials

Caveats

For some reason, with a USB 3.0 flash drive attached, the battery slowly drains even when powered off. So you'll want to remove any flash drive when the HooToo is powered off for extended periods. I have no idea why this happens, but I was definitely able to reproduce the behavior. Kind of annoying since my whole goal was to have "one" device, but oh well.

This isn't a fancy, glitzy Plex based system, it's a basic DLNA share. Devices that have previously connected to this WiFi network will definitely connect to it when no other WiFi networks are available, like say, when you're in a van driving to Legoland, or on a plane flying to visit your grandparents. You will still have to train people to launch the Infuse app, and the right device name to look for...

... or, if you're on a desktop / laptop, create a desktop link to the proper share.

But in my book, simple is good. The HooToo HT-TM05 TripMate plus a small 128GB flash drive is an easy, flexible way to wirelessly share large media files across a ton of devices for less than 75 bucks total, and it comes with a large, convenient rechargeable battery.

I think one of these will live, with its charger cable and a flash drive chock full of awesome media, permanently inside our van for the kids. Remember, no matter where you go, there your … files … are.

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