SBC Rundown

As I’ve stated here and there in this worst-blog, Steve Jobs had it right. Long live the post-PC era. Long live… Steve?

With that in mind, as of the end of 2019, I’ve got two too many SBC’s in my abode. You know, post-PC stuff galore, dear worst-reader. Oh what to do, what to do, what to do?

Have I ever been more tickled with so much tech gluttony? There was a time, don’t you know, when I had too many Macs hanging around. What a time that was, eh. The good news is: unlike the old school computer world, to which I’m kinda bound heart and soul, when you have too much of anything, Macs included, it’s easy to use them all as a kind of tech filler in a life of early retirement fanboy boredom. The thing is, Macs, unlike PCs, can’t just fade away. In my experience a ten year old Mac can do as much as when it was new, whereas a PC of the same age can only be useful if turned into a linux machine–and even that has extreme limitations. But let me move on as my pretentiousness might be getting out of hand.

In my case, not only was I able to find purpose for most of my ageing Macs, as in, you know, a file server here, a Plex media server there, but I also let my better half take one of them and slowly claim that she too is a Mac user (when in reality she’s still stuck in the corporate issued PC world). After a decade or so of maintaining all those machines, though, and thereby accumulating a relatively vast library of digital media–and waking up to the reality of streaming media which is also part of the post-pc era that I’m failing at avoiding, circumventing–I got bored as hell waiting for files to copy, data to process, backing it all up, lifting a forty pound Mac Pro from one room to the other, etc. And so. Welcome to the new world of SBCs, especially Raspberry Pi. Indeed, dear worst-reader. Where would I be today without these little miracle devices that have been a long time coming and have finally provided the means to break away from the old guard truck-PC world of wasted digital everything?

But. Again. Before I get too far off on my pretentious sailing yacht named tech-no-nevermind, here’s where things stand with worst-writer’s post-pc era household. Here’s a rundown of my SBCs and their usefulness galore.

RPi3B + HiFiBerry Amp2 + Volumio

Been dabbling in this–dare I call it–cheap-audiophile setup for going on two years now. Other than a few glitches here or there, it works like a charm. Of course, it also sounds great in any room hooked up to Audioengine P4 speakers or Pioneer BS22’s that I stuffed in a suitcase and lugged across the Atlantic last year on account I couldn’t buy them in #Eurowasteland. In fact, as far as I can tell, it works with any set of speakers. Considering its cost, especially if you already have digital media and server capability in your life, and, perhaps, a few speakers from the good old days laying around, I don’t understand why any #okboomer doesn’t have one of these just for the fun of it.

That worst-said, since using this as my go-to audio player, a question has arisen with my better half: as an Apple household, is it time to go (aghast) HomePod? Indeed. But the biggest turn-off with Apple’s HomePod is the simple fact that I cannot use it with my current music library setup–unless I integrate that setup into Apple’s greed $hit$how music subscription service, previously known as iTunes.

First of all, iTunes sucked bat balls, including its new iteration “Music”. The only place I use it is on my iPhone–and only because I transcode and install MY music manually from my Mac, from my home music server, to my iPhone. The HomePod is basically an extension to Apple’s subscription Music service. It doesn’t really work without that service. Although I’ve battled internally with accepting this as the future, there’s simply no way that I can currently go for a subscription music service. I’m not well informed as to how the HomePod is selling for Apple, but the entire concept is such a deal-breaker to me simply because Apple 1. doesn’t support FLAC and 2. I can’t just play my music on its fancy pseudo smart speaker. In other worst-words, have I reached the the point of… I can’t give Apple my money?

Back to my current wondrous pseudo-audiophile setup. As far as glitches with Volumio, most have been caused by my fiddling around with settings thinking I could get more out of both the RPi and the HiFiBerry hardware. As usual, I was fiddling all for naught. In fact, after most recent update to version 2.692 at the end of 2019, things kinda went haywire. The update seems to have bricked the thing. Although the UI worked after the update, library access didn’t. There was also no HiFiBerry configuration in the “Playback Options”. The digital volume control only went from 0 to 100, which meant I had a few almost speaker exploding moments trying to figure things out. To save the day I did a factory restore which returned the system back to version 2.389 (which is from 2018). And get this. Maybe it’s my ears playing games, but the old software version sounds better than any of the updates. The UI isn’t as clean and there are few add-ons that are no longer available, but I’m good with that on account it seems to sound as good as ever when playing Bowie, Beethoven or the friggin Bee-Gees. I love it–glitches n’all.

If you can, and you like good audio, get yourself one of these, dear worst-reader.

RPi2B + HiFiBerry DAC Pro + Plex Client

This thing has been working like a charm since day one. Ok. Wait. It ain’t all roses here. I need to hard restart it every once-a-once. My guess is it freezes up because of memory cache issues, or the like. But that’s no big deal on account it reboots quickly. After almost three years of consistent use, though, and considering the price of this thing, like the Volumio device above, all worst-readers (of age) should use one of these things as a media player.

By-the-buy, it’s connected to an old Sony 1080p flatscreen. Controlling it is done mostly by using the Sony remote and HDMI-CEC. It’s like a TV but on steroids, baby. Keep in mind that we have no broadcast TV in our home. We just use Plex, an AppleTV3, which also gives us Amazon Prime, and, as previously mentioned, Volumio. Anywho. Sometimes I’ll use the iPhone app to control this Plex client but, like most tech stuff with any lifespan these days, Plex has gotten a bit complicated and it’s easier to just use the cheap Sony remote to control it.

This is my go-to device if you have or want a home media player that’s as simple as eating pie–and not baking it–and don’t want to rely solely on AppleTV or any other streaming box, let alone rely on krappy broadcast TV. Although it can do things like photos, I’ve never used it for that as I just use Apple’s Photo app along with a few iOS devices. And get this. Since this Plex client works so well, I’ve put off getting a new Apple TV even though the newer ones are capable of running a Plex client. The thing is, I love the RPi + HiFiBerry DAC as a music player as much as I love the Volumio player (RPi + Hifiberry Amp2) that I use downstairs (as previously mentioned). As far as I’m concerned, as a cheap audiophile, the sound of these things in combination with my TEAC amp is darn tooting’ good. Nuff said, baby.

Oh. By-the-buy. Again. The difference between Volumio and Plex, as far as audio is concerned, is that Volumio works headless. Although I’ve read that Plex can be used headless, I don’t quite get the point of doing that since it is being used with a flatscreen. So. Indeed. Again-again. Even though Plex is getting unnecessarily complex, these devices are so cheap, why doesn’t everyone have one? Oh yeah. The tech stuff. Flashing an SD card, etc., etc. Speaking of tech stuff…

Pine64 Rock64

I use the Pine64 Rock64 device as a test device as I’ve not quite found a steady digital purpose for it. It’s been a pihole adblocker, a Volumio tester, a distro fun-maker, etc. Unfortunately for Pine64, the Rock64 and RockPro64 (below) might be the last devices I buy from these guys. Although the the boards are excellent, they are a bit too techi for me, unlike Raspberry Pi. I’ve been battling with software installs, distros, etc. since day one with these things, which is mega disappointing. Right now, the only software that I’ve found to work is DietPi and whatever I can install from that–but that doesn’t always work without tech tweaking that is usually over my head. Yeah, these things are my SBC disappointment. That said, I still kinda recommend them.

Pine64 RockPro64 + DietPi

Even though I’ve been disappointed with the software available for Pine64 devices, I’m kinda tickled with the RockPro64’s server performance–and my ability to actually get it to function. It has been quite a fight, don’t you know. Remember: this thing replaced a 2010 MacPro (the cheese grader) but there have been moments… What saved it from the dung-heap? The minimalist Linux distro known as DietPi. If you’re a newbie and not afeared of a bit of Linux CLI, this is my distro recommendation for the RockPro64 as a do-everything linux server. It works ALMOST like a charm. So far it has been running as a Plex server, a samba server (for my household Macs) and I’m even using it as a ad-blocker (pihole). Heck, I even installed a WordPress install on it so as to maintain a copy of this blog. Indeed. For the past 18 months or so it’s never crashed once. Whaaaaaaa?

The most disappointing thing from Pine64 is the fact that I have yet to get OMV to work. OMV is an open source NAS system that is supposed to emulate and/or compete with those stupid-expensive NAS boxes, aka Synology, Drobo, etc., which I refuse to buy. The problem is–as with most software I’ve tried on Pine64–I couldn’t get OMV to work. It would boot, I could access it via my network, I could dabble here or there with it. But as soon as I started messing with “shares” or add-ons (like Plex), it was crash time galore. Now that I’ve kinda gotten use to the CLI of DietPi, I’m not even watching out if OMV gets out of beta for this thing. The heck with it. DietPi works–and I’ve learned to live with a basic Samba file server! All in all, this home server project has turned into a reliable home media and file server device–that has, again, replaced at 2010 Mac Pro. Whaaaaaa?

Indeed. All is good in the land of the SBC, glitches n’all.

Rant on.

-T

PS Oh yea. I started this worst-post ranting about having two too many SBCs. So get this. Waiting in the wings for some purpose is another RPi3 and for Xmas 2019 I received the new RPi4. I’m considering the RPi3 for another audio project, perhaps with something other than analog audio outputs. The RPi4 is a different story. Currently the RPi4 is my Raspbian Linux training station which I use headless. It has already proven that there is no need to buy any other SBC again. (Sorry about that Pine64.) The RPi4 is finally a fcuking great little computer. Needless to say, I’m excited about fiddling with it as 2020 progresses.

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