Scott Hanselman

Review of the Surface Book 3 for Developers

May 14, '20 Comments [25] Posted in Reviews
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I was offered a Surface Book 3 to use as a loaner over the the last 5 weeks. I did a short video teaser on Twitter where I beat on the device with a pretty ridiculous benchmark - running Visual Studio 2019 while running Gears of War and Ubuntu under WSL and Windows Terminal. I have fun. ;)

Size and Weight

My daily driver has been a Surface Book 2 since 2017. The new Surface Book 3 is the exact size (23mm thick as a laptop) and weight (3.38 and 4.2 lbs.) as the SB2. I have had to add a small sticker to one otherwise I'd get them confused. The display resolutions are 3000×2000 for the 13.5-inch model and 3240×2160 for the 15-inch one that I have. I prefer a 15" laptop. I don't know how you 13" people do it.

Basically if you are a Surface Book 2 user the size and weight are the same. The Surface Book 3 is considerably more power in the same size machine.

CPU and Memory

They gave me an i7-1065G7 CPU to test. It bursts happily over 3.5 Ghz (see the compiling screenshot below) and in my average usage hangs out in the 2 to 1.8 range with no fan on. I regularly run Visual Studio 2019, VS Code, Teams, Edge (new Edge, the Chromium one), Ubuntu via WSL2, Docker Desktop (the WSL2 one), Gmail and Outlook as PWAs, as well as Adobe Premiere and Audition and other parts of the Creative Suite. Memory usually sits around 14-18 gigs unless I'm rendering something big.

Task Manager with a Surface Book 3

It's a 10th gen Intel chip and as the Surface Book 3 can detach the base from the screen, it's both a laptop and tablet. I gleaned from Anandatech that TDP is between 10 and 25W (usually 15W) depends on what is needed, and it shifts frequencies very fast. This is evident in the great battery life when doing things like writing this blog post or writing in Edge or Word (basically forever) versus playing a AAA game or running a long compile, building containers, or rendering a video in Premiere (several hours).

FLIP THE SCREEN AROUND? You can also when docked even reverse the screen! Whatever do you mean? It's actually awesome if you want an external keyboard.
Flip the screen around

All this phrased differently? It's fast, quickly, when it needs to be but it's constantly changing the clock to maximize power/thermals/battery.

SSD - Size and Speed

The device I was loaned has a Toshiba KXG60PNV2T04 Hard Drive 2TB NVMe M.2 that's MASSIVE. I'm used to 512G or maaybe a 1TB drive in a Laptop. I'm getting used to never having to worry about space. Definitely 1TB minimum these days if you want to play games AND do development.

I ran a CrystalBenchmark on the SSD and it did 3.2GB/s sequential reads! Sweet. I feel like the disk is not the bottleneck with my development compile tests below. When I consulted with the Surface team last year during the conception of the Surface Book 3 I pushed them for faster SSDs and I feel that they delivered with this 2TB SSD.

GPU - Gaming and Tensorflow

The 13.5-inch model now comes with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 memory in its Core i7 variant, while the 15-inch unit features a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q with 6GB of GDDR6 memory. When running the Gears 5 Benchmark while plugged in (from the Extras menu, Benchmark) is has no issues with the default settings doing 60fps for 90% of the benchmark with a few dips into the 57 range depending what's on screen.

It's not a gaming machine, per se, but it does have a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti so I'm basically able to 1080p 60fps AAA games. I've played Destiny 2, Gears of War 5, and Call of Duty Modern Warfare on default settings at 60 fps without issue. The fan does turn on but it's very manageable. I like that whenever we get back into hotels I'll be able to play some games and develop on the same machine. The 15" also includes an Xbox Wireless Adapter so I just paired my controller with it directly.

Gears at 60fps

I was also able to run Tensorflow with CUDA on the laptop under Windows and it worked great. I ran a model against some video footage from my dashcam and 5.1 gigs of video RAM was used immediately and the CUDA engine on the 1660Ti is visible working in Taskman. The commercial SKU has an NVIDIA Quadro RTX 3000 that is apparently even more tuned for CUDA work.

NVidia CUDA engine is engaged

Developer Performance

When I built my Intel i9 Ultimate Desktop 3.0 machine and others, I like to do compile tests to get a sense of how much you can throw at machine. I like big project compiles because they are a combination of a lot of disk access and a lot of parallel CPU work. However, some projects do have a theoretical maximum compile speed because of the way the dependences flesh out. I like to use Orchard Core for benchmarks.

Orchard Core is a fully-featured CMS with 143 projects loaded into Visual Studio. MSBUILD and .NET Core supports both parallel and incremental builds.

  • A warm build of Orchard Core on IRONHEART my i9 desktop takes just under 10 seconds.
    • My 6 year old Surface Pro 3 builds it warm in 62 seconds.
  • A totally cold build (after a dotnet clean) on IRONHEART takes 33.3 seconds.
    • My Surface Pro 3 builds it cold in 2.4 minutes.

I'll do the same build on both my Surface Book 2 and this new Surface Book 3 to compare. I've excluded the source folders from Defender as well as msbuild.exe and dotnet.exe. I've also turned off the Indexer.

  • A cold build (after a dotnet clean) on this Surface Book 3 takes 46 seconds.
    • A warm build is 16.1 seconds
  • A cold build (after a dotnet clean) on my Surface Book 2 takes 115 seconds.

It's WAY faster than my Surface Book 2 which has been my daily driver when mobile for nearly 3 years!

Benchmarks are all relative and there's raw throughput, there's combination benchmarks, and all kinds of things that can "make a chart." I just do benchmarks that show if I can do a thing I did before, faster.

.NET working hardAll the CPUs are working

You can also test various guesses if you have them by adding parameters to dotnet.exe. For example, perhaps you're thinking that 143 projects is thrashing to disk so you want to control how many CPUs are used. This has 4 physical cores and 8 logical, so we could try pulling back a little

dotnet build /maxcpucount:4

The result with Orchard Core is the same, so there is likely a theoretical max as to how fast this can build today. If you really want to go nuts, try

dotnet build -v diag

And dig through ALL the timing info!

Webcam Quality

Might be odd to add this as its own section but we're all using our webcams constantly right now. I was particularly impressed with the front-facing webcam. A lot of webcams are 720p with mediocre white balance. I do a lot of video calls so I notice this stuff. The SB3 has a 1080p front camera for video and decent light pickup. When using the Camera app you can do up to 5MP (2560x1920) which is cool. Here's a pic from today.

WIN_20200514_15_16_32_Pro

Ports and Power and Sound and Wi-Fi

The Surface Book 3 has just one USB-C port on the right side and two USB 3.1 Gen 2s on the left. I'd have liked one additional USB-C so I could project on stage and still have one additional USB-C available...but I don't know what for. I just want one more port. That said, the NEW Surface Dock 2 adds FOUR USB-C ports, so it's not a big deal.

It was theoretically possible to pull more power on the SB2 than its power supply could offer. While I never had an issue with that, I've been told by some Destiny 2 players and serious media renderers that it could happen. With the SB3 they upped the power supply with 65W for the base 13.5-inch version and a full 127W for the 15-inch SKUs so that's not an issue any more.

I have only two Macs for development and I have no Thunderbolt devices or need for an eGPU so I may not be the ideal Thunderbolt consumer. I haven't needed it yet. Some folks have said that it's a bummer the SB3 doesn't have it but it hasn't been an issue or sticking point for any of my devices today. With the new Surface Dock 2 (below) I have a single cable to plug in that gives me two 4k monitors at 60Hz, lots of power, 4 USB-C ports all via the Dock Connector.

I also want to touch on sound. There is a fan inside the device and if it gets hot it will run. If I'm doing 1080p 60fps in Call of Duty WarZone you can likely hear the fan. It comes and goes and while it's audible when the fan is on, when the CPU is not maxed out (during 70% of my work day) the Surface Book 3 is absolutely silent, even when running the monitors. The fan comes on with the CPU is bursting hard over 3Ghz and/or the GPU is on full blast.

One other thing, the Surface Book 3 has Wi-Fi 6 even though I don't! I have a Ubnt network and no Wi-Fi 6 mesh points. I haven't had ANY issues with the Wi-Fi on this device over Ubnt mesh points. When copying a 60 gig video file over Wi-Fi from my Synology NAS I see sustained 280 megabit speeds.

The New Surface Dock - Coming May 26th

I'm also testing a pre-release Surface Dock 2. I suspect they wanted me to test it with the Surface Book 3...BUT! I just plugged in every Surface I have to see what would happen.

My wife has a Surface Laptop 2 she got herself, one son has my 6 year old old Surface Pro 3 while the other has a Surface Go he got with his allowance. (We purchased these over the last few years.) As such we have three existing Surface Docks (original) - One in the kids' study/playroom, one in the Kitchen as a generalized docking station for anyone to drop in to, and one in my office assigned me by work.

We use these individual Surfaces (varying ages, sizes, and powers) along with my work-assigned Surface Book 2 plus this loaner Surface Book 3, so it's kind of a diverse household from a purely Surface perspective. My first thought was - can I use all these devices with the new Dock? Stuff just works with a few caveats for older stuff like my Surface Pro 3.

RANDOM NOTE: What happens when you plug a Surface Pro 3 (released in 2014) into a Surface Dock 2? Nothing, but it does get power. However, the original Surface Dock is great and still runs 4096 x 2160 @30Hz or 2960 x 1440 @60Hz via mini DisplayPort so the Pro 3 is still going strong 6 years out and the kids like it.

So this Surface Dock 2 replaces the original Dock my office. The Surface Dock 2 has

  • 2x front-facing USB-C ports (I use these for two 4k monitors)
  • 2x rear-facing USB-C ports
  • 2x rear-facing USB-A 3.2 (10Gbps) ports
  • 1x Gigabit Ethernet port
  • 1x 3.5mm audio in/out port
  • Kensington lock slot - I've never used this

First, that's a lot of USB-C. I'm not there yet with the USB-C lifestyle, but I did pick up two USB-C to full-size DisplayPort cables at Amazon and I can happily report that I can run both my 4k monitors at 60hz plus run the main Surface Book 3 panel. The new Dock and its power supply can push 120 watts of power to the Surface with a total of 199 watts everything connected to the dock. I've got a few USB-C memory sticks and one USB-C external hard drive, plus the Logitech Brio is USB 3, so 6 total ports is fine with 4 free after the two monitors. I also Gigabit wired the whole house so I use the Ethernet port quite happily.

Initially I care about one thing - my 4k monitors. Using the USB-C to DisplayPort cables I plugged the dock into two Dell P2715Q 4ks and they work! I preferred using the direct cables rather than any adapters, but I also tested a USB-C to HDMI 2.0 adapter I got in 2018 with some other Dell monitors in the house and that worked with the Surface Book 3 as it had previously with the Book 2.

SURPRISE NOTE: How does the super-thin Surface Pro X do when plugged into a Surface Dock 2? Amazing. It runs two 4k monitors at 60 Hz. I don't know why I was shocked, it's listed on the support page. It's a brand new device, but it's also the size and weight of an iPad so I was surprised. It's a pretty amazing little device - I'll do another post on just the ARM-based Surface Pro X another time.

One final thing about the new Dock. The cable is longer! The first dock had a cable that was about 6" too short and now it's not. It's the little things and in this case, a big thing that makes a Dock that much nicer to use.

Conclusion

All in all, I'm very happy with this Surface Book 3 having been an existing Surface Book 2 user. It's basically 40-50% faster, the video card is surprisingly capable. The SSD is way faster at the top end. It's a clear upgrade over what I had before, and when paired with the Surface Dock 2 and two 4k monitors it's a capable developer box for road warriors or home office warriors like myself.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Review: Logitech MX keyboard and mouse - MX Keys and MX Master 3

April 28, '20 Comments [18] Posted in Reviews
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Logitech makes some beautiful keyboards and mice. Frankly, for me there's just Logitech and Microsoft in the keyboard and mouse game. I've never been a big fan of mechanical keyboards. I like a soft touch and a clear soft key throw.

I've gone back and forth between Microsoft classic keyboards like the Ergo 4000, but for Mice, I've been Team Logitech for YEARS. The MX Master Vertical is a fantastic product. Rock solid, long battery life, great vertical ergonomics, and USB-C to recharge batteries that last over two months. Lovely.

NOTE: Logitech recently give me their latest MX Master series - Keys, Palm Rest, and the 3rd gen MX Master 3 Mouse to review. As is with all the rare times a company sends products for review, I donate the gifted products to a local charter school. If I truly like the product, I will - and do - purchase the products directly with my own money.

Logitech MX Master Mouse

These are premium devices and they have a weight to them that was surprising. I don't mean weight like heavy, more like substantial. The keyboard is about 2 lbs which means it doesn't feel cheap and it'll stay put, but it's not an unruly weight.

The MX Master 3 mouse is 10 ounces and pushes smoothly. I have long ago standardized on the Wow!Pad Graphite Gaming Pad as it's cheap and lasts forever and the MX glides nicely on it with minimal friction. The scroll wheel - they call it magspeed - uses electromagnets and can switch between the clicky ratchet tactile scroll and a disturbingly smooth frictionless scroll. It's a click to switch between them. I like Ratchet for code and Smooth for long form reading. There's a center scroll and clever configurable thumb-scroller.

The mouse is multi-OS and supports Bluetooth, natch, but also the long time Logitech Universal Receiver standard. If you already have a Logitech receiver, adding a new device is trivial.

Logitech MX Master Series

Logitech MX Keys

Let me gush about this keyboard for a second. It's got substance. I don't like a cheap plasticky feel and the MX Keys has a solidity to it, a concreteness that you kinda have to feel to appreciate. It's nearly 2 lbs and I like that. This isn't a cheap keyboard and it doesn't feel cheap. I also expect a keyboard that costs $100 to last for YEARS. I feel this will.

I noticed that the "Windows Key" isn't a Windows key. This is a non-denominational keyboard that loves everyone and every OS. In fact, their Logitech Options (optional) software can even let you move from machine to machine in the same room, copy paste across operating systems, and move the mouse from screen to screen quite happily. So if you, like me, appreciate more than one operating system you'll also appreciate that little detail.

The MX keys basically assumes that you're a multi-computer office and has three dedicated keys to that fact. It, too, charges on USB-C quickly and easily and I just keep a cable around to top off the keyboard and mouse on the rare occasions they need the topping up.

As a touch typist I didn't think I'd care about illuminated keys but it's a lovely accenting touch adds something.

Logitech MX Keys

Frankly my only complaint is that this isn't an ergonomic or split keyboard. If they could just pop it into two pieces that would angle off to either side, it'd be the perfect keyboard. I added the palm rest but it doesn't attach to the keyboard, it is a secondary "along for the ride" floating accessory.

The keys have convex dips that feel nice and your fingers comfortably slip into them. The throw is shallow, more than a laptop, less than a Microsoft Ergo keyboard. The throw is similar to the Microsoft Surface keyboard line, but a bit crisper. They keys are soft and low-profile and sharp, never squishy.

Software

Logitech Options Software is clear and easy to use, unified across the product line and allows you to easily mix and match your new mouse with your old keyboard, or vice versa. Everything can be remapped and customized.

The optional Logitech Flow is similar to long time OSS options like Synergy but takes it to the next level with file-sharing. If you have two or three machines in your office that you regularly need to control (especially if you're mixing Windows and Mac) this may be the perfect keyboard+software solution for you.

Logitech Options Software

I'm very happy with this keyboard and mouse and I'm sold on the mouse already. I'm going to give it another month before I decide to purchase the keyboard. Both are excellent high-end products that you won't go wrong with. Again, the only caveat with the keyboard is that it's not ergo, but that's up to your taste.

The MX Mouse isn't vertical but it's extremely comfortable. If you prefer a right-handed ergo MX option, the MX Vertical Mouse is amazing and long ago replaced my Anker Vertical Mouse. In a word, Logitech's mice are unstoppable.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Review: UniFi from Ubiquiti Networking is the ultimate prosumer home networking solution

August 20, '19 Comments [20] Posted in Hardware | Reviews
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UniFi mapI LOVE my Amplifi Wi-Fi Mesh Network. I've had it for two years and it's been an absolute star performer. We haven't had a single issue. Rock solid. That's really saying something. From unboxing to installation to running it (working from home for a tech company, so you know I'm pushing this system) it's been totally stable. I recommend Amplifi unreservedly to any consumer or low-key pro-sumer who has been frustrated with their existing centrally located router giving them reliable wi-fi everywhere in their home.

That said...I recently upgraded my home internet service provider. For the last 10 years I've had fiber optic to the house with 35 Mbp/s up/down and it's been great. Then I called them a a few years back and got 100/100. The whole house was presciently wired by me for Gigabit back in 2007 (!) with a nice wiring closet and everything. Lately 100/100 hasn't been really cutting it when I'm updating a dozen laptops for a work event, copying a VM to the cloud while my spouse is watching 4k netflix and two boys are updating App Store apps. You get the idea. Modern bandwidth requirements and life has changed since 2007. We've got over 40 devices on the network now and many are doing real work.

I called an changed providers to a cable provider that offered true gigabit. However, I was rarely getting over 300-400 Mbp/s on my Amplifi. There is a "hardware NAT" option that really helps, but short of running the Amplifi in Bridged Mode and losing a lot of its epic features, it was clear that I was outgrowing this prosumer device.

Give I'm a professional working at home doing stuff that is more than the average Joe or Jane, what's a professional option?

UniFi from Ubiquiti

Amplifi is the consumer/prosumer line from Ubiquiti Networks and UniFi (UBNT) is the professional line.  You'll literally find these installed at business or even sports stadiums. This is serious gear.

Let me be honest. I knew UniFi existed. Knew (I thought) all about it and I resisted. My friends and fellow nerds insisted it was easy but I kept seeing massive complex network diagrams and convinced myself it wasn't worth the hassle.

My friends, I was wrong. It's not hard. If you are doing business at home, have a gigabit network pipe, a wired home network, and/or have a dozen or more network devices, you're a serious internet person and you might want to consider serious internet networking gear.

Everything is GREAT

Now, UniFi is more expensive than Amplifi as it's pro gear. While an Amplifi Mesh WiFi system is just about $300-350 USD, UniFi Pro gear will cost more and you'll need stuff to start out and it won't always feel intuitive as you plan your system. It is worth it and I'm thrilled with the result. The flexibility and customizability its offered has been epic. There are literally no internet issues in our house or property anymore. I've even been able to add wired and wireless non-cloud-based security cameras throughout the property. Additionally, remember how the house is already wired in nearly every room with Cat6 (or Cat5e) cabling? UniFi has reintroduced me to the glorious world of PoE+ (Power over Ethernet) and removed a half dozen AC wall plugs from my system.

Plan your Network

You can test out the web-based software yourself LIVE at https://demo.ui.com and see what managing a large network would be like. Check out their map of the FedEx Forum Stadium and how they get full coverage. You can see a simulated map of my house (not really my house) in the screenshot above. When you set up a controller you can place physical devices (ones you have) and test out virtual devices (ones you are thinking of buying) and see what they would look like on a real map of your home (supplied by you). You can even draw 3D walls and describe their material (brick, glass, steel) and their dB signal loss.

UniFi.beginner.950

When you are moving to UniFi you'll need:

  • USG - UniFi Security Gateway - This has 3 gigabit points and has a WAN port for your external network (plug your router into this) and a LAN port for your internal network (plug your internal switch into this).
    • This is the part that doles out DHCP.
  • UniFi Cloud Key or Cloud Key Gen2 Plus
    • It's not intuitive what the USG does vs the Cloud Key but you need both. I got the Gen2 because it includes a 1TB hard drive that allows me to store my security video locally. It also is itself a PoE client so I don't need to plug it into the wall. I just wired it with a single Ethernet cable to the PoE switch below and left it in the wiring closet. There's a smaller cheaper Cloud Key if you don't need a hard drive.
    • You don't technically need a Cloud Key I believe, as all the UniFi Controller Software is free and you can run it in on any machine you have laying around. Folks have run them on any Linux or Windows machine they have, or even on a Synology or other NAS. I like the idea of having it "just work" so I got the Cloud Key.
  • UniFi Switch (of some kind and number of ports)
    • 8 port 150 watt UniFi Switch
    • 24 port UniFi Switch - 24 ports may be overkill for most but it's only 8 lbs and will handle even the largest home network. And it's under $200 USD right now on Amazon
    • 24 port UniFi Switch with PoE - I got this one because it has 250W of PoE power. If you aren't interested in power over ethernet you can save money with the non-PoE version or a 16 port version but I REALLY REALLY recommend you use PoE because the APs work better with it.
      PoE switch showing usage on many ports

Now once you've got the administrative infrastructure above, you just need to add whatever UniFi APs - access points - and/or optional cameras that you want!

NOTE/TIP - A brilliant product from Ubiquiti that I think is flying under the radar is the Unifi G3 Flex PoE camera. It's just $75 and it's tiny but it's absolutely brilliant. Full 1080p video and night vision. I'll talk about the magic of PoE later on but you can just plug this in anywhere in the house - no AC adapter - and you've got a crystal clear security camera or cameras anywhere in the house. They are all powered from the PoE switch!

I had a basic networking closet I put the USG Gateway into the closet with a patch cable to the cable modem (the DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem that I bought because I got tired of renting it from the service provider) then added the Switch with PoE, and plugged the Cloud Key into it. Admin done.

Here's the lovely part.

Since I have cable throughout the house, I can just plug in the UniFi Access Points in various room and they get power immediately. I can try different configs and test the signal strength. I found the perfect config after about 4 days of moving things around and testing on the interactive map. The first try was fine but I strove for perfect.

There's lots of UniFi Access Points to choose from. The dual radio Pro version can get pretty expensive if you have a lot so I got the Lite PoE AP. You can also get a 5 pack of the nanoHD UniFi Access Points.

These Access Points are often mounted in the ceiling in pro installations, and in a few spots I really wanted something more subtle AND I could use a few extra Ethernet ports. Since I already had an Ethernet port in the wall, I could just wall mount the UniFi Wall Mounted AP. It's both a wireless AP that radiates outward into the room AND it turns your one port into two, or you can get one that becomes a switch with more ports and extends your PoE abilities. So I can add this to a room, plug a few devices in AND a PoE powered Camera with no wall-warts or AC adapters!

NOTE: I did need to add a new ethernet RJ45 connector to plug into the female connector of the UniFi in-wall AP. Just be sure to plan and take inventory. You may already have full cables with connectors pulled to your rooms. Be aware.

There are a TON of great Wireless AP options from UniFi so make sure you explore them all and understand what you want.

In-Wall AP

Here's the resulting setup and choices I made, as viewed in the UniFi Controller Software:

List of Ubnt devices

I have the Gateway, the Switch with PoE, and five APs. Three are the disc APs and two are in-wall APs. They absolutely cover and manage my entire two story house and yards front and back. It's made it super easy for me to work from home and be able to work effectively from any room. My kids and family haven't had any issues with any tablets or phones.

As of the time of these writing I have 27 wireless devices on the system and 11 wired (at least those are the ones that are doing stuff at this hour).

My devices as viewed in the UniFi controller

Note how it will tell you how each device's WiFi experience is. I use this Experience information to help me manage the network and see if the APs are appropriately placed. There is a TON of great statistics and charts and graphics. It's info-rich to say the LEAST.

NOTE: To answer a common question - In an installation like this you've got a single SSID even though there's lots of APs and your devices will quietly and automatically roam between them!
Log showing roaming between APs

The iPhone app is very full-featured as well and when you've got deep packet introspection turn on you can see a ton of statistical information at the price of a smidge of throughput performance.

iPhone StatsiPhone Bandwidth

I have had NO problem hitting 800-950Mbs over wired and I feel like there's no real limit to the perf of this system. I've done game streaming over Steam and Xbox game streaming for hours without a hiccup. Netflix doesn't buffer anymore, even on the back porch.

a lot of bandwidth with no drops

You can auto-optimize, or you can turn off a plethora of feature and manage everything manually. I was able to twitch a few APs to run their 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi radios on less crowded channels in order to get out of the way of the loud neighbors on channel 11.

I have a ton of control over the network now, unlimited expandability and it has been a fantastically stable network. All the APs are wire backed and the wireless bandwidth is rock solid. I've been extremely impressed with the clean roaming from room to room while streaming from Netflix. It's a tweakers (ahem) dream network.

* I use Amazon referral links and donate the little money to my kids' school. You support charter schools when you use these links.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Piper Command Center BETA - Build a game controller from scratch with Arduino

May 23, '19 Comments [0] Posted in Reviews
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Piper Command CenterBack in 2018 I posted my annual Christmas List of STEM Toys and the Piper Computer Kit 2 was on the list. My kids love this little wooden "laptop" comprised of a Raspberry Pi and an LCD screen. You spend time going through curated episodes of custom content and build and wire the computer LIVE while it's on!

The Piper folks saw my post and asked me to take a look at the BETA of their Piper Command Center, so my sons and I jumped at the chance. They are actively looking for feedback. It's a chance to build our own game controller!

The Piper Command Center BETA already has a ton of online content and things to try. Their "firmware" is an Arduino sketch and it's all up on GitHub. You'll want to get the Arduino IDE from the Windows Store.

Today the Command Center can look like a Keyboard or a Mouse.

  1. In Mouse Mode (default), the joystick controls cursor movement and the left and right buttons mimic left and right mouse clicks.
  2. In Keyboard Mode, the joystick mimics the arrow keys on a keyboard, and the buttons mimic Space Bar (Up), Z (Left), X (Down), and C (Right) keys on a keyboard.

Once it's built you can use the controller to play games in your browser, or soon, with new content on the Piper itself, which runs Minecraft usually. However, you DO NOT need the Piper to get the Piper Command Center. They are separate but complementary devices.

Assemble a real working game controller, understand the basics of an Arduino, and discover physical computing by configuring a joystick, buttons, and more. Ideal for ages 13+.

My son is looking at how he can modify the "firmware" on the Command Center to allow him to play emulators in the browser.

The parts ot the Piper Command Center Parts and Wires for the Piper Command Center

The Piper Command Center comes unassembled, of course, and you get to put it together with a cool blueprint instruction sheet. We had some fun with the wiring and a were off by one a few times, but they've got a troubleshooting video that helped us through it.

Blueprints for the Piper Command Center

It's a nice little bit of kit and I love that it's made of wood. I'd like to see one with a second joystick that could literally emulate an XInput control pad, although that might be more complex than just emulating a mouse or keyboard.

Go check it out. We're happy with it and we're looking forward to whatever direction it goes. The original Piper has updated itself many times in a few years we've had it, and we upgraded it to a 16gig SD Card to support the latest content and OS update.

Piper Command Center is in BETA and will be updated and actively developed as they explore this space and what they can do with the device. As of the time of this writing there were five sketches for this controller.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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The 2018 Christmas List of Best STEM Toys for Kids

November 28, '18 Comments [11] Posted in Reviews
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Hey friends! This is my FIFTH year doing a list of Great STEM Christmas Toys for Kids! Can you believe it? In case you missed them, here's the previous years' lists! Be aware I use Amazon referral links so I get a little kickback (and you support this blog!) when you use these links. I'll be using the pocket money to...wait for it...buy STEM toys for kids! So thanks in advance!

OK, let's do it!

littleBits

I've always liked littleBits but when they first came out I thought they were expensive and didn't include enough stuff. Fast forward and littleBits have dropped in price and built a whole ecosystem of littleBits that work together. This year the most fun is the littleBits Marvel Avengers Inventor Kit. At the time of this writing, this kit is 33% off at Amazon. You can built your own Iron Man (or Ironheart!) gauntlet and load it up with littleBits that can do whatever you'd like. One particularly cool thing included is an LED Matrix that you can address directly by writing code with the iOS or Android app.

littleBits Marvel Avengers Inventor Kit

Kano - Computer Kit and Wand

Both my kids love the Kano Computer Kit, now updated for 2018. It's a complete Raspberry Pi 3 kit that includes the keyboard, mouse, case, LED lights, and everything you'd need to build a Pi. This year they've branched out to the Kano Happy Potter Coding Kit that you can use to build a wand and learn to code. The "wand" is a custom PCB with codeable LEDs, buttons, and batteries that the kids put inside a wand. The wand is Bluetooth and includes lots of tech like an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and a vibrating rumble pack. All of this tech is controllable with laptops or smart devices and code with JavaScript.

Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit and Wand

UbTech JIMU Robot - Unicornbot Kit

UbTech has a whole series of Technics-style Robot kits. There's the usual tanks and cars, but there's also some more creative and "out there" ones like this 400-piece Unicorn Robot. It includes color sensors, server motors, a DC motor, and a light up horn. It's also codeable/controllable via an iOS or Android app. Very cool!

I'd really like their Lynx Alexa controllable walking robot but it's way out of my price range. Still fun to check out though!

Unicornbot

Erector by Meccano Kits

We've found these Erector by Meccano Kits to be inexpensive and well-built. The 25-in-1 kit is great and includes a container and over 600 pieces. I like these metal kits because they feel like the ones I had in my childhood. Kids learn how to use motors, pulleys, and other explore functional motion.

Erector Set

NatGeo's Space Atlas and the 2019 Nat Geo Almanac

Both of these great books from National Geographic are spending a lot of time in my kids' hands. The National Geographic Almanac 2019 is amazing every year. It's an annual with facts, photos, and infographics that have my kids saying "did you know?" on long car drives constantly. That's a good thing.

We are also enjoying the hardcover Space Atlas with maps of the whole solar system. 350+ pages of space, charts, maps, photos, it's both deep for adults and accessible for kids. I recommend both of these books and have them on my coffee table now.

image

Osmo Genius Kit for iPad

The Osmo Genius is quite clever and based on one deceptively simple idea - what if the iPad camera faced downward and could see the table in front of the child? It came with a base and a reflector that directs the front-facing camera downwards. Then the educational games are written to see what's happening on the table and provide near-instant feedback. You can start with the base kit and later optionally add kits and games.

Osmo Genius Kit for iPad

Elenco 130-in-1 Electronic Playground and Learning Center

I like classic toys and while toys with bluetooth and fancy features are cool, I want to balance it out with the classics that let you explore the physical world. These also tend to be more affordable as well.

I really like this classic electronic trainer with 130 experiments like an AM broadcast station, Electronic Organ, LED strobe light, Timer, Logic Circuits and much, much more. The 50-in-One version is just $16! Frankly all the Elenco products are fantastic.

image

Piper Computer Kit (2018 Edition)

I had this on the list last year but my kids still love it. We have the 2016 kit and it's been updated for 2018.

The Piper is a little spendy at first glance, but it's EXTREMELY complete and very thoughtfully created. Sure, you can just get a Raspberry Pi and hack on it - but the Piper is not just a Pi. It's a complete kit where your little one builds their own wooden "laptop" box (more of a luggable), and then starting with just a single button, builds up the computer. The Minecraft content isn't just vanilla Microsoft. It's custom episodic content! Custom voice overs, episodes, and challenges.

What's genius about Piper, though, is how the software world interacts with the hardware. For example, at one point you're looking for treasure on a Minecraft beach. The Piper suggests you need a treasure detector, so you learn about wiring and LEDs and wire up a treasure detector LED while it's running. Then you run your Minecraft person around while the LED blinks faster to detect treasure. It's absolute genius. Definitely a favorite in our house for the 8-12 year old set.

Piper Raspberry Pi Kit

I hope you have a great holiday season!

FYI: These Amazon links are referral links. When you use them I get a tiny percentage. It adds up to taco money for me and the kids! I appreciate you - and you appreciate me-  when you use these links to buy stuff.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.