Studio711.com – Ben Martens

Gadgets

Flume Smart Home Water Monitor Review

A few weeks ago, I watched an Ask This Old House video about laundry room leaks. A few days later, a coworker had to rush home because one of his washer water supply hoses had sprung a leak. This is something I already think about from time to time and I was finally prompted to take action.

The first step was replacing my rubber hoses with some nice braided hoses. I made sure to get specific high efficiency hoses that could supply water quickly enough to our washer. Our existing hoses were ~10 years old so it felt good to replace them.

But that only helped the washer. What about the ice maker supply line? Or the various toilets? I thought about getting a bunch of water sensors and having them around the house, but Tim mentioned the smart meter from Flume Water. After a little research, I was hooked and thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, it was on my doorstep when I woke up the next morning.

The box strapped on to my meter. It just sits next to the meter. No plumbing is required. Most meters work with a magnet that spins as the water flows so this device can read that magnetic field and understand how much water is flowing through. That connects to a WiFi bridge in the house and from there the data gets sent to Flume where it feeds the app on my phone. I can now get minute by minute water usage reports and I can set up rules for alerting me to water leaks. For example, any water that runs for more than 2 hours will send me an alert, or if I have water flowing at more than 6 gallons per minute for 15 minutes, I’ll get an alert. It’s not as nice as the systems that will automatically shut off the water, but it’s considerably cheaper and I have enough neighbors that I could call to have them shut off my water if I wasn’t home.

Most people would stop there, but Tim also mentioned that some irrigation systems will integrate with Flume to detect abnormal usage. I realized I could set that up myself because I’m already pull data from my OpenSprinkler irrigation controller and the Flume device has an API as well. Before too long, I had a program written that would know what zones were watered at each period of the night, look at the total amount of water they consumed, and alert me if there are any oddities. Last year I had a broken irrigation head right near the drain in the curb so I didn’t notice the water dumping down the drain until I got a higher than normal bill. With this setup, I would have known the first morning after that happened.

Even without the geeky add-on, it’s still a pretty neat device. It’s one of those things that probably isn’t worth it if you never have a leak, but if you do, it will pay for itself a thousand times over and the peace of mind is worth something too. Also, I now know that it costs about 2.5 cents to flush a toilet.

Xfinity Mobile One Month Review

It’s been just over one month since we switched from Verizon to Xfinity Mobile. We have two phone lines and I started us with just 1GB of shared data between us. We were used to sharing 2GB before, but during the pandemic, I’ve been working from home and we were only averaging around 0.9GB/month. I really wanted to see if the bill would actually be under $20 so I left my data off all month.

The month is up and *drumroll* here’s the bill…

It actually worked! This feels so much better than the $80/month we were paying for almost exactly the same thing before. (It literally is the same cell network behind the scenes.) At some point in the next couple months, we’ll be in a situation where I think I’ll switch us to unlimited data for a bit but it’s very nice to be able to adjust up and down just by clicking a button in the app on my phone. Our choices right now (before taxes) are:

  • 1GB $15
  • 3GB $30
  • 10GB $60
  • Unlimited $80. Technically we could switch one phone line to unlimited for $45 and leave the other one one the shared 1GB plan but we’ll generally want to switch both phones to unlimited.

Anything that bills us monthly gets extra attention from me so I’m very happy to have this bill be more reasonable and under our control. I do have to say that it annoys me that I didn’t do this last fall when we got our new phones and this carrier switch possibility opened up to us. We easily wasted $300+ by not doing this sooner. Better late than never though!

Switching From Verizon Wireless to Xfinity Mobile

Last week I wrote that I had signed up for Xfinity Mobile. As a reminder, my bill is dropping from $76.40 (including an $8 monthly discount) to $19.70 total for two lines. when we left off, I was waiting for the SIM cards to arrive.

It took a while for them to arrive but we finally got them on Sunday evening. I opened the website and filled out the form to activate my line and switch my number from Verizon and was immediately greeted with an error saying that I needed to call tech support which of course wasn’t open until the next day. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that getting both lines converted wasn’t easy. Here’s what I learned which would have made my life easier:

  • We had “Number Lock” enabled on both of our Verizon lines which means that nobody can switch the number away from our account. That needs to be disabled before activating the new line.
  • I had to generate a Number Transfer Pin from my Verizon account to allow Xfinity Mobile to take over. I assumed there would be one number for each line so I didn’t save the pin after I used it. Wrong. It applies to all lines on your account. Canceling a pin and regenerating a new pin isn’t easy so make sure you write down that number.
  • After getting through all those problems with multiple calls to each side, the transfer process went through but my phone refused to make any calls. It turns out that my two SIM cards had come mislabeled and I was trying to activate Tyla’s SIM card on my phone. There’s no way you could know that ahead of time but it’s something to keep in mind I guess.

I’m thankful that we did this toward the end of our Verizon billing cycle. We have about a week left and I expected a refund for the remainder of the month. No such luck.

So now we’re paying under $20 for two phone lines with 1GB of shared data. That will cover our lockdown life but as we emerge from our bunker I’ll probably bump it up to 3GB which will be $35. There’s an app that lets me make adjustments on the fly without talking to any service reps or signing new contracts so it will be easy for us to bump up to unlimited when we take trips and then save money again when we get home.

I’ll provide an update in another month or two once we have time to use the service for a while, but for now, I love looking at my phone and knowing that I’m saving ~$60/month!

Switching Carriers

I’ve been a Verizon Wireless customer since 2000, partly because I like their coverage and partly because the companies I’ve worked for have always had employee discounts with them. When we were part way through the pandemic, I started wondering why we were paying so much for cell phones when we hardly ever left the house. We had the minimum 2GB plan (shared between both of us) but it was still $83/month. I have known about Xfinity Mobile for a long time but never really dug into it until recently. I should have considered it more seriously months ago! This week, we get our new SIM cards and we’ll be switching over. I dropped down to 1GB shared between the two of us but the grand total for our bill after all taxes, fees, etc? $19.70.

So what’s the catch? The first big one is that if you’re already an Xfinity customer (they provide our internet) then they don’t charge you anything per line. You basically get unlimited calling and messaging for “free” but you have to add on some kind of data. The smallest one is the 1GB chunk for $15/month before taxes and fees. Their service also only works with certain phones. If you’ve got Samsung you’re out of luck but it looked like most recent Google and Apple devices were available.

Here are some reasons why I was willing to give it a shot:

  • Xfinity Mobile is a Verizon MVNO which basically means that they use Verizon’s infrastructure but sell their own service. I should get the same cell coverage that I did before. One downside is that Verizon does have the right to throttle MVNO usage on their network but I’m hoping/expecting that won’t be a problem.
  • There are no contracts. I can change my mind and go back to Verizon at any point.
  • I can adjust my data allotment by the month. 1GB is $15, 3GB is $30, 10GB is $60 and unlimited pricing varies by the number of lines you have but for us it would be $80. So even if we go all the way to unlimited, that’s within a couple dollars of being the same amount that I’m paying right now for 2GB of data on Verizon. (Note that “unlimited” applies to the first 20GB per line and then you are throttled to 1.5 down and 768kbps up.)
  • Some day Elijah will have a phone and this makes it a lot cheaper to add him on. It’s also easier if we want to start adding some tablets, watches, etc on to the plan. Those aren’t all totally free to add on but they’re cheaper than Verizon.
  • They have a deal right now for a $25 prepaid card per line when you switch so that’s $50. Plus I ended up doing it over the phone because I started by asking some questions and agreed to let him get the sale. He tossed in an extra $25 credit since I’ve been an Xfinity customer for a long time.
  • 5G is included. We don’t have 5G phones now but it’s nice to know there’s no goofy “with or without” 5G plan options.

We’ll see if I regret this in the future but even if I use this but it’s going to have to be pretty bad for me to want to pay that much more to go back to my old Verizon contract. As we start to think about traveling again, I’m excited to have the option of easily going to unlimited data for a month and then flipping to a lower setting when we get back.

Denon AVR-S540BT Review

Believe it or not, it’s been quite a while since we’ve had good surround sound in the theater room upstairs. It’s mainly used for watching a sitcom episode or two with Tyla in the evenings, but still, it would be nice to have when we watch a movie. I never paid much attention until recently when I figured out that all the streaming services are using Dolby Digital Plus and my old receiver can’t decode that. So unless I’m running it through the Xbox One (which has been moved downstairs), there’s nothing to transcode it down to something simple enough for my receiver to handle. On top of that, I have dreams of moving all these electronics to 4k over the next couple years and this receiver can only do 1080p. It was time for an upgrade.

After some research, I landed on the Denon AVR-S540BT. It’s a fairly low end receiver from a good company. It’s not going to set any records for specs, but it fits the bill and doesn’t make too big of a dent in my wallet. It has 5 HDMI ports which makes it much easier to handle the various devices, will support 4k video and handles most of the latest codecs except some of the very latest extra-speaker codecs that I’m highly unlikely to use. And the nice thing about it being on the cheaper end is that I won’t feel bad if I need to replace it in 5 years.

One bonus feature that I wasn’t expecting to use much is the Bluetooth support. The receiver turns on automatically when a Bluetooth connection is made and then shuts off after 15 minutes of no use. I have my office in this room so I can just connect from my phone and play music on the nice sound system. It’s a good setup.

This has always been a budget theater room so I think this new receiver fits right in, and honestly, I’m not enough of an audiophile to know the difference. This one is a winner in my book.

Google Pixel 4a Review

If you look through my history of cell phones, you’ll see that that my last purchase was a Samsung S7 in October of 2016. That was our first Android phone and I went for a top of the line experience. I wanted to see the best of Android as I switched platforms.

Fast forward almost FOUR YEARS and those phones are still chugging along, but they’re getting pretty sluggish and the batteries are annoyingly week. By lunch time I’m lucky to have a 30-40% charge. Last fall when we hit the three year point, I decided to push the purchase out a bit longer and wait for the Pixel 4a. That announcement usually happens in May but COVID. Yada yada yada, we finally got our new phones! After having them for a couple weeks, here are some thoughts:

Pros

  • Google gave us $58 each for our old S7’s. That brought the total with tax to $636.44 for two phones. That’s less than we paid for one of the S7’s. With many flagship phones over $1000, I’m ready to give a mid-range phone a chance and see how that goes. If we got 4 years out of a flagship and we get 2 years out of these, I’ll be happy and ready to upgrade.
  • The camera is gorgeous. I don’t have experience with other modern phones, but the reviews seem to indicate that this is a really solid camera. The Night Sight feature is incredible and really does work as well as the reviews say.
  • The phone doesn’t have expandable storage, but it comes with 128GB. We were living with 32GB internal + 64 SD storage on our own phones and never came close to filling that up so I expect this will be fine for us.
  • MORE POWER! While I’m sure a flagship phone would still trounce the 4a, these are way faster than the S7. For example, I’ve been playing with some autonomous drone software (Dronelink) and it didn’t work at all with the S7. It’s not flawless with the 4a but it’s plenty good. And when Elijah and I play Mario Kart Tour together, I don’t have to think about how his cheapo tablet is so much faster than my phone. Android Auto in my truck is much snappier too.

Cons

  • There’s no water resistance rating on these phones. While we’re careful and wouldn’t expect to take our phones into a pool, it’s nice to not worry about the phone if you’re out in a drizzle.
  • I really loved the wireless charging on my S7. I used it a lot especially as my battery was dying off. I can’t imagine that’s a super expensive part given that the tech has been around for so long, but they left it out of the 4a.
  • The screens are only 1080p. I did enjoy the WQHD (2560 × 1440) resolution on the S7’s but most of the time I don’t notice.

All in all we’re thrilled with these new phones. They’re so much faster than our old ones and the photos are amazing. They’re a perfect fit for us and since they were on the cheaper end of the phone spectrum, I won’t feel as bad about replacing them in a couple years when (hopefully) 5g is more prevalent.

Dronelink

One reason DJI sells the Mavic Mini for less than its other drones is that it doesn’t have as many autonomous features. However, they recently published an SDK do a number of 3rd party companies have added the Mavic Mini to the list of drones that can be controlled by their existing software. I ended up paying $20 for a hobbyist license to Dronelink. The price was low enough that it seemed like it was worth a try.

The main customer of the software seems to be companies who need to get aerial photos of buildings, bridges, etc but they don’t have a stable full of expert drone pilots who can quickly get the shot perfectly every time. With the software, the route planning can be done completely from a website and then executed via a phone app connected to the controller. You can also create simpler programs out in the field directly from the phone.

My old S7 was woefully underpowered and while it would run the software, the drone had barely taken off before it complained about the lag and refused to continue. My new Pixel 4a does a much better job but for a complex curving route where the gimble is constantly adjusting to keep pointed at a specific object, there are noticeable glitches. For simple routes, it seems to do a good job.

Here’s an example of a “trucking shot”. Imagine someone driving along in a truck with a camera pointed out the side. I didn’t make a perfectly straight path so you can see some points where it turns but overall, there isn’t stuttering to the movement.

Now here’s an image of a more complicated route followed by the video that resulted.

You can see the stuttering as my phone tries to chug through all the commands in real-time. I suspect that if I had one of the flagship phones, that stuttering would go away.

For $20, I’m still happy with this purchase. I want to try to plan out a route that is simple enough to capture smoothly and then run it every week or so and try to stitch it together into a timelapse after the construction is complete. I’m guessing I won’t be successful but I suspect I’ll learn a lot in the process.

Davinci Resolve

One of the big reasons I built a new PC recently was to make it easier to edit 4k video footage as more and more of my devices are able to record it. I’ve been using various versions of Adobe Premiere Elements for 10 years, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve outgrown it. The problem is that the next level of video editors is the same stuff the pros use which means it’s complicated and expensive. The main contenders are Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro from Apple. Thankfully there’s a third option: Davinci Resolve.

Resolve initially started as a color correction tool but evolved to include a full editor and special effects tool. The best part is that it is FREE. That’s right. Free! Or at least it’s free until you start editing the next Marvel movie and then you’ll want to shell out a few hundred bucks for the Studio version of Resolve. But there’s no way a mere mortal at home is ever going to get that far.

One downside to Resolve is that it has a very steep learning curve. Thankfully I’m not totally new to editing and our library also includes a free subscription to Lynda.com. I took a ~5 hour course, learned the basics, and then plunged into my first video: a full church service.

Because we’re staying home, we decided to publish as much of a normal church service online as we could. Pastor spent many hours at church recording the various segments and DaveK recorded some organ pieces from home. I was able to get it all pieced together and posted. You can find it on our Facebook page and our YouTube channel.

Other than having to do some searches to find a few very basic things, the experience was good and it didn’t add a huge amount of time to the way I did things before. As I get better I’m confident that I’ll be able to make them look even nicer and do it faster than before. Specific things I’m already enjoying:

  • It has a feature that syncs separate audio and video tracks with a single click! This was a constant source of pain for me before because even if I got them synced up, at some point they might start to drift by a couple frames.
  • The titles are done through their full-blown effects system so the sky is the limit. I stuck with the built-in titles for this first video but I thought even those looked very nice.
  • Rendering is FAST. This software uses both my CPU and video card to get the rendering done as quickly as possible.

The three of us put in a huge amount of time getting this one service done, but it looks like we’ll have a lot more chances to optimize our workflow. The biggest hiccup was transfering ~12GB of files around but it turns out that just dumping them on the PC at church and letting Backblaze put back them up was the easiest and most reliable solution. The upload speed there is very slow (2Mbps) but reliability proved more helpful than raw speed.

It was also really tempting to try to use the special effects to light the candles, but I resisted. We’ll get those lit in real life and made some other small tweaks for next time, but if you’re using these videos and there’s anything we can do to improve your experience, please share them with us!

4k Video Editor Build

When we got our new Go Pro 8, I learned that my PC wasn’t new enough to play back the HEVC encoded video, much less do any editing with it. Sure, I could save the video in a different format, but I’ve been itching to upgrade my PC at home and this, combined with the 2.7K video that my drone records, was a good reason to go for it.

My requirements were that I wanted to be able to smoothly edit 4k video, view video in 4k resolution, and render edited videos as quickly as possible.

Every PC I’ve built or purchased before this point have been Intel CPUs, but lately, AMD has been kicking Intel around the block in terms of price to performance ratio. Just check out what the stock market thinks about the two companies over the last 5 years. The Ryzen 3770 seemed like a good price point for my build. It has 8 hyper threaded cores running at up to 4.4GHz. I built out a nice system around it with 32GB of DDR-3600 memory and an NVMe SSD. I’ve had no personal experience with that kind of SSD but wow, it’s FAST! Remember how much faster your computer was when you switched from a spinning hard drive to an SSD? This new drive is 10 times faster than the SSD in my last desktop. It reads data at a speed of 2.5 GB/second!

Here is the full parts list:

The build went pretty smoothly. The pcpartpicker.com website helped me avoid some incompatibilities. Once I got all the parts together, I flashed the BIOS, tweaked a few settings to get my RAM clocked up to the right speed and then installed Windows. Or rather, I tried to install Windows. It kept getting to about 60% of the way through and dying. As an “I don’t know what else to try” step, I rebuilt the installation media on the USB key and voila, it worked!

I capped it all off with a 4k monitor, the Asus MG28UQ. That felt like a splurge because my existing monitors were plenty good (though not 4k), but wow, once I got this all assembled, I ended up staring at YouTube demo videos and being amazed at the clarity. Plus it’s fun to see my drone footage in its full glory.

For a perf test, I fired up Handbrake on my old desktop and this new one, gave it a beefy video file from the drone and adjusted Handbrake with the same settings on each machine. This new machine got through it almost exactly 3 times faster than the old one. It’s not all roses though. I had a much nicer CPU cooler on the old machine and this new one is noticeably louder (but it has built in RGB leds… oooooo.)

It’s fun to have this new machine and it’s certainly going to make editing all those videos for church less painful. I’m also very excited to start watching things in 4k. I expect this will translate into a 4k TV before too long and then a 4k projector once my current one dies.

As a small reward for reading through all this nonsense (or at least scrolling to the bottom), here’s the first video I edited on the new machine. It’s all 2.7k footage from my Mavic Mini. Elijah and I went down to 60 Acres and took turns flying it around.

Seatback Phone Holder

I spent a few hours watching my phone on a recent flight before and ended up with a sore back from looking down at my phone for so long. That’s when I got the idea to make some kind of a phone holder hanger that would attach to the seatback tray table when it’s folded up.

But of course someone has already done it.

The good news is that there are a few different approaches to the scenario so you can pick your favorite. I used this Unitron World model on my flight to and from Israel and loved it. It worked quite well on all the flights I was on and it made it a lot easier to power through 34 hours of flights. They’re fairly inexpensive it’s not a huge deal if you want to try a couple different versions, but I really liked how solidly this one held my phone at any angle and how small it folded up.