Chuck's Cool Reviews and Info

Projects, news and stuff going on. Pictures link is to the right.

Required Components:

  1. A reasonably current Intel CPU with Intel Quick Sync Video capabilities. Check your processor capabilities here:
  2. Plex Pass Subscription

  3. Licensed VMware environment with vCenter. This guide is using ESXi 6.5, but 6.0 will work also. I have not tried other versions. -A setup with the free version of ESXi installed on a standalone host would work here. Check Ebay for cheap vCenter licenses.

Background: I have been running a Plex server for years and never really paid much attention to transcoding in hardware mainly because it was a feature reserved for Plex Pass Subscribers, (which I was not) and I didn't have many friends and family accessing my media. I recently became a Plex Pass user with a lifetime subscription deal that they sent me via email. I always run my Plex servers inside of a VM because I run a home lab and have VM resources always available and ready to do work.

My homelab consists of two I3-6100U processor 6th generation Intel NUC VMware ESXi hosts. These NUCs are perfect for me since they were affordable, low power, quiet, extremely tiny, and easy to add to by stacking on another NUC. Also, if you are in a situation where you are regularly moving apartments, home, dorms, etc. You cannot beat a space optimized home lab. Plus ESXi installs on the 5th gen NUC with no need for additional work. My home lab, like most others is not a big consumer of CPU most of the time.

enter image description here

Home lab shown. The cardboard is there to keep the drive trays from vibrating and making noise. 6x 8TB drives for media storage, 2x 1TB SSD drives for VM datastore storage, unmanaged 8 port gigabit switch, 2x Intel NUC6i3SYK NUCs configured with 32 gigs RAM each.

I did some reading and experimentation with transcoding because I was getting more friends and family hitting my Plex server recently. I felt like I needed to monitor performance and make sure that I had enough resources for this additional load. Most outside users were transcoding due to bandwidth limitations, whereas home users almost always are doing direct play. I was surprised with the results of my testing. Plex has a ton of information about transcoding. I took a look at this page and learned how to enable hardware transcoding, the requirements and how to experiment with forcing transcoding:

To experiment, I began streaming a 1080p movie and watched my Plex VM by logging in and running the HTOP command. (It is an Ubuntu Server VM.)

Direct Play didn't hit the CPU much at all. I then changed to a transcoding resolution and my Plex VM saturated all of the CPUs granted to it (2) for quite some time. The video played just fine, but I need to avoid this saturation if possible. After the initial CPU spike for upwards of 1 minute, it calmed down a bit to about 60% usage during the video playback. I tried giving the VM 4 virtual CPUs since my I3 has two physical CPU and two hyperthreaded virtual cores. As you can imagine, this didn't do much. So now that I knew this was happening, I needed to enable hardware transcoding at all costs, but I didn't want to incur a cost. Plex says in the link above that hardware transcoding is not possible inside of a VM. Damn! But let's not take their word for it, let's try it anyways. I went to Direct Access settings in my host, and I saw the video card available and configured it for access.

enter image description here

enter image description here

This change required a restart of the ESXi host, so I did that. Then I shut down the Plex VM and added the direct access device. Looking good so far.

enter image description here

Upon booting of my Plex VM, I got back into the Plex interface and tried watching the same movie. I made no changes to the Plex VM. I didn't look for drivers nor try to install anything on my Plex VM. I am running Ubuntu Server 18.04 LTS. Direct Play worked as expected, but then I switched to a transcoding resolution and was immediately impressed. It switched over very fast and I saw the indicator that I was transcoding in hardware: (hw) was showing on the Plex web interface server status. Wow. That's it? That was easy.

What does this mean for performance? Huge for me, as I am running on underpowered CPU hardware in the first place. After the change, transcoding took nearly zero CPU resources since it was all being done by the onboard video processor portion of the Intel CPU. There was just a slight hit well under 100% CPU consumption while the video started streaming, and nearly zero hit after the initial spike.

What is the drawback for the VM and general VMware functionality? Well, this is the trade-off. 1. You can't do a live vMotion of the VM because it has direct attached hardware. 2. It requires you to reserve RAM for the VM. Not a ton though. I have 4 gigs RAM allocated to my Plex VM, and it is not using that much. I could probably allocate 2 gigs and be fine. I set a RAM reservation to 4 gigs. 3. You can't do a snapshot of the VM.

For me, these are acceptable trade-offs since I was considering setting up a dedicated NUC for Plex serving to take advantage of the hardware transcoding. This avoids needing to do that and allows me to run additional VMs on this ESXi host like I already was, I just need to shut down the Plex VM if I need to do any ESXi host maintenance.

***Followup on this. I was curious if this will allow me to transcode 4k video. I don't have any 4k content, so I got a sample 1 minute of Elysium from

Even with transcoding confirmed to be done in hardware now, I could not watch the 1 minute video without the video buffering twice and then crashing. It started strong, but couldn't really make it past 30 seconds. Oh well..... 4k aint no joke.

Solar install and Calculations

- Posted in Blog Entries by

I finally got my 5,000 watt solar system installed and running.

enter image description here

See My Live System Stats Here

Let's review some figures and see if this was a good investment:

5kW kit from Go Green Solar is $7450 (No sales tax on solar gear in Florida is the only state sponsored incentive currently.) Add $450 for the engineered drawings Add $800 for permitting, wiring and an electrician's help Add $50 for some cheap beer for your buddies that are gonna help you install

Total Damage: $8750 Subtract the 30% tax incentive offered by Uncle Sam: Subtract $2625.

Actual cost to you: $6125

Lets say this will generate 800 kWh of power per month averaged over the year and your power company charges $.117 per kWh of power. This equals $1123 of savings per year.

Now, you are looking at your investment and thinking it is a bad one because it will take 5.5 years to pay off. This is correct, but on the 6th year, it is paying more than if you had invested $6,125 in some bank that pays 2% interest. (Most 5 year CDs right now are paying 2%)

$6125 invested at 2% for 6 years will be $6905

$6125 invested into solar on year 6 will be $7248

Every single year after the 6th year, you are continuing to earn. Add to this the real possibility that your power company is gonna raise their rates. Also, your solar panels are going to reduce in efficiency at a rate of 1% per year. Both are a factor, but I betcha that the utility is going to raise their rates at more than 1% per year, so you will still win, but we will call it a wash and say that you will save $1123 for the duration of the system's life.

At 20 years: $1123 x 20 years = $22,460 - $6125 investment = $16,335

At 30 years: $1123 x 30 years = $33,690 - $6125 investment = $27,565

For comparison from above, $6125 invested at 2% for 30 years would equal: $11,094.59

Subtract minor maintenance costs and a replacement inverter in there if you want, but you are still ahead.

So this is only worth a damn if you keep the house for 20 years right? Heck no. You have added value to the home that is more, or at least even to what you have into it. So we will call that a wash. Even if you were to sell the house a week after you install your solar, you are not going to lose money.

Solar is a winning investment in my book as long as you are willing to put in the initial outlay of money and labor. Just don't install it in August in Florida.....

Investing additional information that whips the Solar investment in the butt.

Where it gets interesting though is the $6125 invested in an S&P 500 index fund. Not counting investing fees, (which should be very low for this type of fund) and considering the fund making an average gain of 8% for the next 30 years, the amount is legit: $61,633.77

enter image description here

Lets do some maths because I am curious why anyone would think driving a Leaf is a good idea. It is like driving a normal car with 2 gallons of gas in the tank all of the time. This is stupid right? Well, as a second car, and for most people, this is perfect. A guy at work bought a Leaf, and I bought a Leaf. He has taken 1 road trip in his current Civic, otherwise it is a get to work and get home and run some in town errands car that he is ok with only charging at home via a normal 110 volt power outlet. He could buy a 220 volt charger and have the 220 volt outlet installed at his house. This would charge 2 to 3 times as fast as 110 volt and cost him about 800 bucks installed. He can get by fine with the 110 charging overnight for the forseeable future however, so this cost is optional and has not been factored below.

Wayne got his certified preowned 2013 Leaf for $13,700 out the door. (Not sure if that includes the extended warranty he got. Let's assume it does not.)

A comparable 2013 Civic LX with 30k miles certified preowned NADA's for $18,750 plus tax, tag and title. Lets add $1500 for tax, tag and title.

Let's assume that the Civic calls for timing belt replacement at 75k miles at $650 bucks and there are oil changes every 5k miles at Jiffy Lube for a cost of $40 each. Tires, wiper blades and other comparable items cancel each other out for these cars.

Lets assume that each car is owned for 100k miles, but also calculate for 200k miles.

Leaf Costs:
13,700 out the door.
Electricity costs $.12 per kilowatt hour. This will go up, but probably so will gas, so let's call the fuel increase equal for both cars. Civic Costs: 20250 out the door.
Gas costs 2.50 per gallon. This car will average 32 MPG.

Here is a calculator to figure out the savings. Yes it is a Nissan calculator. Feel free to figure this out on your own if you want. If calculated that Wayne will drive 32 miles a day (12,000 per year) he will save $491 per year over the Civic in fuel. 100k totals:

Civic = $20,250 20 oil changes per 100k miles = 800

1 timing belt = $650

CPO, so no risk of blowing an engine or tranny.

3,125 gallons of gas = $7812

Other dealer maintenance, repairs and inspections = $500

Total cost for 100k miles = 30012

Leaf = $13,700

Electricity = 8.8 years to get to 100k miles, so savings of $491 per year x 8.8 = 4320.
Subtract this from 7812 = $3492.

Other dealer maintenance, repairs and inspections = $500

Total cost for 100k miles = 17692.

Let's say his battery capacity degrades to a worst case scenario, which is doubtful but why not. It is warranted against failure 100k miles, but it will reduce in capacity over time just like a laptop battery and he wants 'like new range' at the 90k mile mark. Replacement battery retail cost = $5500

Leaf at 100k miles total with new battery replacement = $23192

200k totals= Hypothetically, the Civic will have had 2 catastrophic failures to the tune of a $4500 repair bill. This is generous. It will undoubtedly be falling apart otherwise at the same rate as the Nissan, so let's say other repairs are a wash, although electric with fewer parts ought to be ahead in reality. Civic @ 200k miles= $14262 (oil changes, timing belt, fuel and repairs) Leaf cost @ 200k miles without another new battery = 3992. Maybe add a battery in there, maybe not. The car is getting old and reaching the end of its useful life. Also, there are probably people rebuilding the battery packs for significant savings. Lets assume the battery still works, but at reduced capacity. Wayne lives with it because he is ready for a new car. He will be around 55 year old at this point, maybe a nice new caddy or something.

I just recently came across this issue with a 2006 Prius that I was doing work on. I had disconnected and taken out the hybrid battery and after putting it back in and reconnecting it, the car would not go into either Reverse nor Drive. I did a bunch of googling, and couldn't find the fix. The car drove fine before I took the hybrid battery out.....

The problem was the hybrid battery disconnect wasn't properly inserted by me. This is an orange plastic piece that goes in and locks in place. Well, I thought that I knew how to do it. Turns out, you have to slide it in and lock it and then press it down to make the connection. The pressing down was the step that I was missing....

So, to help get this information out there on google for the next dummy like me, I am adding this to my blog.

Here is a youtube video about what I am speaking. Fast forward to 1:00 to see the press down portion of the operation that I skipped.

I have always been intrigued by the Raspberry Pi mini computer. It was designed to be an affordable means for people to learn programming and Linux. Starting at $29 and having sold millions, it has accomplished its goal and more.

When it was first released, there were waiting lists for months to get one You can now get one any time from Amazon with free 2 day Prime shipping. They have also released version B, which adds more RAM to the original's 256 megs. Version B has 512 megs of RAM.

enter image description here

Pictured is the Raspberry Pi and clear case with the following items added for scale: Last night's mostly eaten pizza, Miller High Life Tall Boy, 12 oz retro Miller Lite.

Here we will discuss setting a Raspberry Pi up as an XBMC (Xbox Media Center) computer for playing stored video files either locally attached to your Pi via USB or located on your network share. Never heard of XBMC? It is way cool and is the OS that the Boxee device is based on. It is free Linux software. Here is a mega guide for XBMC installation, tips tricks and customizations: Guide

Why do we want to do this? Well, because we can and it is a learning experience. Also, we love getting the most out of the least. My Pi is streaming 1080p video in the form of the movie "Need For Speed 6" from my network storage device (Synology) perfectly right now. During the streaming, the Pi is drawing between 2-3 watts of electricity according to the killawatt meter it is plugged into. Using it this way, it is a living room device you shouldn't need another remote control for, as we will be using a cell phone for remote control functionality via the XBMC Remote App.

For our Raspberry Pi project, here is a list of what you will need: -Raspberry Pi computer. I recommend the B model with 512 megs of RAM for $39.

-Some case for your Raspberry Pi. There are tons of options for sale on Amazon or elsewhere that cost a few bucks depending on your style. I chose a clear case.

-A Flash Memory Card for storing and running the Raspberry Pi operating system. (It must boot from this flash device) Here is one that should work, and is a Class 10 (fastest spec currently) access drive. Capacity is not so much of a concern here since you will be streaming files over the network or attaching a separate USB drive with files on it for playback.

-An Android device cell phone charger with the Mini USB connector. Most any modern, name brand charger will do. This is the power supply for your Raspberry Pi.

-An HDMI cable for connecting to your TV -USB Mouse and keyboard for initial config and setup -Memory card reader for initial loading of the operating system from your computer. This one is cheap and should work:

-XBMC Operating system for Rasberry Pi Here are instructions for installation:

-Cell Phone or other device with an app store where the app: XBMC Remote is available for download (free). This is what you will use for remote control of your XBMC system.

-Wired network connection that can get to the internet.

-Chilled Beer of your choosing. I like the retro Miller Lite cans as my personal preference at this moment. Liquor works well too, or you can mix them. I like to start the night off right with an Irish Car Bomb (1/2 glass Guinness with a shot of 2/3 Baileys Irish Creme, 1/3 Jameson). Drink as a shot by dumping mix into Guinness and then pounding. Nothing gets the party started quicker and easier.

Lets Roll! Step 1: Collect your memory card reader, flash drive and beer Step 2: Plug reader and flash drive into your computer Step 3: Follow directions here for installing XBMC boot environment on your flash drive: LINK Step 4: Plug Flash drive into Raspberry Pi and drag over to your TV. Plug HDMI cable in to TV and Raspberry, plug keyboard and mouse in, connect network cable, and connect power to your Pi.

Raspberry will boot up and present its status on the screen for you. It will connect to the internet and download the operating system and any updates needed. This will take 15 minutes. It suggests drinking coffee. Do this if you are lame or are on the 12 step program.

It will then reboot your Pi and present your shiny new XBMC user interface. Boom you are there. Pour some beer out for the homies that don't have a Raspberry Pi with XBMC because as of now, that aint you.

Now on to configure, customize and have some fun with. Hook up your media by following the prompts and entering your relevant info, hook up your cell phone as the remote by entering the IP address of your Pi and you are home free. See first Guide link up top for more in depth configuration and customization options. Watch a movie. I recommend something 1080p right off the bat to make sure your Pi is up to the task.

Construct A Portable Cooler Stereo

- Posted in Blog Entries by

enter image description here

--Chuck Update from the future-- 1-26-2022 - I still use this cooler every time I am in the garage. It is still awesome. I did have to replace the amp in it at some point along the way, but it is still operating great with the same speakers and battery from 2009 when this was built.

I saw something similar to this awhile back at a tailgate and decided that I wanted to make my own cooler modified into a speaker system capable of playing audio from any MP3 player. Below is how I went about constructing this and will soon contain pictures of the end result.

Here is what you will need:

  • Cooler with a latching lid. - I choose an Igloo brand sold at Target. I wanted one with wheels for easy transport.
  • Car Speakers - I chose marine grade 6x9 inch speakers made by Polk
  • Car Amplifier - I chose a Pioneer model that was 2 channel and about 70 watts per channel. You will want to be sure you get one small enough to fit in your cooler. Watts output isn't such a big deal here, as more will suck your battery quicker and even 20 watts will put out lots of sound. I recommend getting one with bass boost, as you might want that.
  • Battery - I chose a smaller sealed deep cycle battery from Battery Source. You will want a sealed battery regardless since you will be transporting this rig and don't want an acid spill.
  • Some charging mechanism for the battery - I am using a battery tender that will charge and keep the battery charged as long as it remains plugged in.
  • Power wiring for the battery and amp including a fuse
  • On off switch
  • Caulk
  • Stick-on plastic wall hooks
  • Audio cable that takes your MP3 player's headphone output and converts it to RCA male for amp input
  • Tools

Let's get to building! I laid out the 6x9 speakers on the front of the cooler to select positioning and space requirements and then marked their cutout with a sharpie. Your speakers should come with cutout templates to use for marking and cutting holes.

I used a jigsaw to cut the holes. This is a messy job and insulation went everywhere, so do this outside.

I mounted the 6x9 speakers initially with only caulk around the edges. Be sure to allow for more caulk around the edges where the speaker edge meets a cooler ridge so that there are no air leaks. I ended up getting 3 inch screws to use for screwing in the speakers. This might be overkill for your install, but my cooler was thick and the speaker grills were as well. Screwing into the plastic cooler holds fine. I had considered placing something on the inside of the cooler for the screws to bite to, but the plastic was sufficient. If you are planning on really beating your cooler around, you might want to consider this and use something like a wood block on the inside of the cooler to screw into.

Next I laid out the amp position and the battery position. I decided to mount the amp to the wall of the cooler to allow for more room to place dry goods into the cooler for easy transport. (The cooler can no longer be a true cooler once we are all said and done though of course.)

The battery is the heaviest component, so I chose to mount it to the floor of the cooler and as close to the wheels as possible to minimize weight on the handle. I initially used the caulk to hold it down, but this did not hold, so I switched to liquid nails.

I laid out the wiring and used stick on wall hooks to stick to the inside of the cooler at various locations and allow for wires to be zip tied to them for a neater installation. This worked well. The wires are protected from disconnecting and are out of the way.

I drilled a hole in the center of the front of the cooler for the on off switch. I chose this location since the grills stick out and I wanted to make sure the switch was semi-protected from being turned on during transport in a car or otherwise. I think this location works ok and the switch has a light on it so I can easily tell when the power is on. For long term storage, I will take the fuse out of the main power wire to avoid any accidents.

The MP3 to RCA cable and battery charging cable will be run inside the cooler by utilizing the cooler's water drain hole.

The sound of the cooler is pleasant and can get really loud. The bass is boomy with the cooler closed and latched. Opening the cooler reveals just how much bass the cooler is creating by being a speaker box for the system. The is a neat project and I am going to use mine as a stereo in the garage when it is not at the beach. I am happy with the result and it makes for an interesting conversation piece.

More pictures of the end result: enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

How to build a wall mounted computer

- Posted in Blog Entries by

Desired result: Space saving, quiet computing IPCop firewall server. Extra points for cool looks the girlfriend doesn't mind looking at.

*EDIT 11-23-10 See below for version 2 of this wall mounted solution. I build one for my home VMware ESXi rig. Details are at the end of this post.

Sitting around drinking beer one day a buddy and I thought we needed to make something cool to house his IPCop server. He had it in a case on a shelf in his laundry room, but this was not pretty, quiet or cool. I said, why not mount it to the wall or something, and then we started drawing. After much discussion and a discovery trip to the hardware store, this is the result:

enter image description here

Build list: Plywood Acrylic sized to plywood 1/2 inch copper tube from the plumbing section Various rubber washers from plumbing section 1/2 inch screws 4 inch screws Wall anchors Zip ties Gloss black spray paint and primer Double sided tape

Computer: Intel Atom dual core 1 gig RAM 40 gig hard drive PicoPsu 60 watt and AC to DC power supply Zalman chipset heatsink for Atom chipset to replace stock heatsink and fan so it is quieter PCI riser cable Dual NIC

Photos of the build:

enter image description here Laying out parts on painted plywood.

enter image description here Motherboard and NIC mounted using rubber washers to make them standoff from the wood. We didn't want to but realized that we had to mount the NIC upside down. Oh well. Notice this NIC is older than dirt and has coax input. It is a 16 year old 10Megabit card, but it is still going strong. His internet comes in at 3 Megabits, so no speed bottleneck there.

enter image description here Hard drive mounted with double sided tape. This hard drive will be replaced with a 3.5 inch drive at the last minute when we got lazy and used the drive that was serving IPCop when it was in the normal case so as to save time not having to install it to the laptop drive. (I got overruled here. I thought we should use the laptop drive to make it a quieter system that used less electricity. Ultimately, it was Steve's computer so his choice.)

enter image description here Acrylic mounted using 4 inch screws and copper pipe as standoffs. There is room here to stick a hand in to do maintenance without taking off the acrylic.

enter image description here Almost finished. Got it all installed, and need to drill holes for hard drive led and power switch.

enter image description here Mounted to the wall using screw in drywall anchors. The computer weighs less than 20 lbs. Power comes from a laptop type power brick included in the PicoPsu kit.

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

The builders Steve and Chuck

Final thoughts: Using the Atom saves electricity and allows for a fanless solution. There is enough room between the wall and the acrylic for air to pass through and heat to be dissipated. The hard drive is the only moving part. Next time maybe we will mount a CF card so that there are no moving parts. The old NIC is there due to the fact that the onboard NIC wasn't supported in IPCop, we would have had to add a 2nd NIC via the PCI slot anyways, and it was a nice excuse to put the old dual NIC to use. The PCI riser was what saved us and allowed us to mount it onto the wall nicer.

This would be a good solution for an ESXi box or a Windows Home Server box too. Moving and maintenance are more of a pain, but it doesn't take up floor space. The PicoPSU is a good solution where you aren't using a gaming PC since it provides solid power with no noise and good efficiency to lower wattage computer loads.

*Chuck's ESXi wall mounted computer. Take two of Steve's IPCOP wall mounted rig. Simpler and quieter. I decided to build one of these after staring at my ESXi box sitting on the floor and wondering why it is sitting on the floor.

Went through the same process as above, but simpler. Didn't bother with the acrylic cover and used a rubber band hard drive mounting solution for the drives to reduce noise due to drive vibration. The only moving parts in this solution are the drives. No fans, no power supply fan either thanks to the picopsu power supply.

This rig pulls 25 watts of power at the outlet when idle. It has 4 gigs of RAM and a dual core Intel processor. Can't remember the model, but one of the ones that Toms hardware put up against the Atom processor as just barely pulling more watts, but blowing it away in performance.

2x 1TB Western Digital green hard drives.

These aren't as fast as other drives, and might not be the best choice for an ESX box where VMs are sharing the drives, but when you look at the stats and don't get bogged down in numbers, the real world speed difference between these drives and others are minimal and acceptable for the power savings.

As you can see below, I decided to take the CPU fan off. This CPU cooler is overkill when compared to the stock CPU cooler, the processor is 45nm and power efficient not overclocked, and I want it quiet and I enabled overheating processor throttling in the BIOS. I also turned the cooler so that the natural heat rising is able to radiate from the cooler as efficiently as possible.

None of these things matter really though, as the CPU and cooler just don't get hot enough for any throttling or heat related issues. It all works quietly and flawlessly. This isn't for everyone though, you may not want to take this risk and will want to test this to be sure that it is acceptable for your installation.

Note those are 3 inch screws and the hard drives do not touch anything solid. They are fully isolated by the rubber bands. This is the same idea as some of the quietly designed Antec cases. They mount the hard drives with similar rubber bands.

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

Here is an interesting product I ran up on that keeps birds from running into large glass doors or windows. My folks have a place in the mountains with lots of glass that birds run into very often. They have tried placing decals on the glass with mixed results. I sent them info on this product and they are going to try it out. Birds see UV light that we do not see. The decals reflect the sun's UV light so that the birds see the glass and avoid it.