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SONOS CONNECT:AMP (ZonePlayer120) First Impressions

SONOS CONNECT:AMP ZP120 Music Player

I’m certain I might be the last to know about the SONOS music distribution system.  Most friends follow my philosophy of seeing how cheaply we can accomplish things and have a collection of Roku SoundBridge and similar MP3 media streamers.  Yeah, they take some work to keep multiple units consistent (maintaining presets) but when they work, they are just a great and cost-effective way to get digital music where you want it in your house.  But eventually, you get tired of the Soundbridge with a separate amplifier and wires all over and the space and look.  And then maybe if you are lucky you discover the SONOS.

After helping a friend (over the telephone) get their SONOS system working after they upgraded their home network, I did some research into the system.  Wow, it seems very expensive, especially when compared to the Roku Soundbridge and Roku Radio units that I’ve used for so long.  I kept watching for discounts (never) and package deals where they don’t cut the price but they give you something for free, like speakers or a bridge or something.  This time around, Crutchfield showed the package that tempted me beyond my power to resist, and I jumped at the chance to get a SONOS CONNECT:AMP (formerly ZonePlayer 120), the Wi-Fi BRIDGE and a pair of small wired outdoor speakers.  Not a bad deal if you just needed a push.

Two days later the box arrived and I unpacked the SONOS CONNECT:AMP.  It’s compact, although taller than the online specifications suggest.  That was a minor issue so me, and I was able to pretty quickly remove the Soundbridge and the stereo receiver that was pushing my audio throughout the house.  I downloaded the iPad app for SONOS and in short order I had the ZP120 playing Internet Radio.  So, this is about as close to the simplicity of Apple to get-going, and I was impressed.

I wasn’t that happy when the SONOS would not locate my streaming servers.  Neither the iTunes or open-source servers were seen.  That’s when I realized that SONOS goes directly at your “shared” disk storage.  This is good and bad, I think, since now you need to actually have shared drives, and I didn’t.  But it was easy enough to use the MACOSX Controller software to make the iTunes music folder a share the SONOS could locate.  Once SONOS located the share, it took a fair amount of time to “index” the files, since the SONOS doesn’t seem to leverage any playlists of library indexes that exist.  At least, that’s my first impression.  After some time, I realized that this was a huge advantage, since I didn’t need to leave anything but disk storage running, and my Network Storage RAID is about as energy-efficient as it can get.

The SONOS amp is not as strong at the receiver amplifier was, so I find my in-wall volume controls need to be set higher.  I don’t think this will drive things to quite the levels I do when no one is home, but they are more than adequate for what I should be doing – reasonable listening levels.  So, I’ve settled on the SONOS at 75% and the wall dials at 50% and we’ll see where that leads.

The SONOS offers many opetions of paid music sources, including Pandora, Rhapsody and other offerings.  Those who own SONOS and can afford the monthly fees say they haven’t bought a song in the years they’ve owned a SONOS.  They can hear any on-demand.

What no one seems to talk about is the SONOS use of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (not 5Ghz) and their use of a MESH network.  They also leverage Spanning Tree Protocol to prevent loops from crippling your combined Wi-Fi and Wired networks.  You probably want to do some research in this space if you plan a sophisticated installation, and that might cause you to update some of your home routers to current specifications (including STP support).

So, I’d say I went from wondering how they get this kind of money for their equipment to a devoted fan in about 24 hours.  I am already plotting to add a second ZP120 to another floor and a PLAY:5 remote speaker to the rear patio.  Hey, a hardware controller would be nice too.  I’m keeping an eye out for another package deal.  I think I’ll suggest one to them. You can be sure I’ll have several Roku units headed for eBay shortly.

11-JUNE-2012 Update: I enjoyed the first SONOS so much that I added a second unit for the Basement.  Now, the Basement hosts a small Linux NSLU2 that plays clocktower chimes through its Line-In, and I can play those anywhere.  I also added the iPod Dock.  Although the Dock doesn’t work with my pre-Classic Classic, it works fine with my later-model Classic, which is large enough to hold my entire collection.  So, several Thumbs Up for both the CONNECT:AMP and the SONOS:DOCK.

A word of caution.  When I connected the second CONNECT:AMP, I was worried the Wi-Fi signal would not be strong enough to reach it, so I connected it to the wired network.  Immediately, a Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) packet storm erupted and pretty-much broke the entire home network.  My aged Linksys DD-WRT router fell over from the strain, but my current model Buffalo DD-WRT routers were fine.  Eventually, I regained control of the Linksys, but it had been reset to all the default settings, which was quite a pain to endure.  So, the word of caution is to not connect these to ethernet unless you need to, other than a SONOS Bridge itself, and I feel the 2.4GHz proprietary Wi-Fi works much better than I expected.

Stream the Internet, your home music files or commercial music services throughout your castle and live like The King.
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Legacy Commercial Gear in Home Networks

IBM's APC UPS

I have found it can be pretty effective to recycle legacy commercial equipment for use in home networks.  A few years ago I was buying HP JetDirect devices on eBay and using them to extend the life and usefulness of workhorse HP LaserJet printers.  Right now there is a LaserJet 4MP in my basement just waiting to print 600dpi monochrome printouts from any computer in the house.  It’s a JetDirect box that makes that kind of thing possible without requiring me to host the print queue on a specific operating system.

A year or so ago I noticed the IBM-branded UPS750TLV APC Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) units were appearing on eBay in pretty large quantities.  I picked up more than one (if one is good, two is great, right?) and began to use them to protect my home network equipment.  The first unit went into the basement utility closet where I house the ISP Router, my Home router, a Security/Automation system, and my network storage units.  A second unit was placed in my home office to protect the Mac and Linux machines that help me multi-task to the max.

I’ve never enjoyed walking around the house visually inspecting how the equipment was behaving.  I like remote access, and I love to be notified when something is not quite right.  For me, that meant finding an affordable way to add an ethernet interface to the UPS units, possibly with SNMP, email,  or Webserver support

The IBM eServer UPS units are rebranded APC models, so I hunted for the APC AP9606 Web/SNMP Interface card.  You can find these at ridiculous prices “refurbished”, or get an affordable one on eBay for about US$20-25 at the time of this writing.  The cards are low-speed and do not support DHCP, but they are useful in the home network if you know how to get them going.

Any job is easier with the proper tools.  For my work with the AP9606, I needed to purchase a special serial cable to the card, the APC 940-0024C serial cable.  I found this on eBay for US$7 plus shipping for a new cable.  Not a fancy or premium cable at that price, but the cable worked immediately and that’s important.  Locate a computer with a serial port and you’re ready to go.

I used a Linux system with a Serial Port Terminal program (like HyperTerminal) and set the parameters to 2400/8/N/1.  After connecting the AP9606 to the APC SmartUPS unit (IBM/APC750) I pressed the recessed RESET button on the AP9606 and hit the ENTER key on the terminal program 3-5 times.  At the User Name prompt you enter “apc” and for the password you enter “apc”.  Any time you get stuck and can’t access the unit, you can try this again, and it should work.

After gaining serial access to the AP9606, the first thing I do is update the User Acocunts so I can login again without hitting RESET.  You do this through the SYSTEM Menu and the USER ACCOUNTS menu.  There were two accounts on my systems, device and apc.  In some cases the previous owner had changed these, but I change them back to these.  I set the password to a known password for me, and save the change.

The second change to make in the serial console is to change the NETWORK setting for IP ACCESSS, DNS and GATEWAY.  Since this does not support DHCP, select a value carefully and make a note of it.  I get many used cards with the IP Address on a label on the card and I understand why.  It’s a good practice to know when address the card is.  NOTE:  If you buy a card with this label attached, try access the card in point-to-point from your computer.  It might save you buying the serial cable.

After I’ve set the login, password and network address I move away from 2400bps serial access.  After downloading the appropriate firmware binaries from APC.com, use “ftp” to access the UPS over the network.  Although this is a 10baseT card, that’s still a LOT faster than 2400bps serial.  After using the apc/apc login to establish an ftp connection, set your transfer type to BINary (“type binary”) and use “put” to transfer the new firmware to the AP9606.  Each time you do this the card will say it’s rebooting, although I’m not totally certain that it is..  There are two files you’ll want to add, in my case it was:

APC’s OS & TCP/IP Stack v3.2.5 aos325.bin

Smart-UPS & Matrix-UPS APP v3.2.6 sumx326.bin

Your best bet is to use your favorite search engine and you should get right to them on the APC site. Download them to you computer, change to the directory where you saved them and the ftp will be easy. If you get an error that the peer reset the connection, you forgot to set the transfer to binary. Try that again.

After using the serial console to set up the basics, and ftp to update the firmware, it’s now time to use the Web interface. Here you’ll find all the things the previous owner forgot to erase, like the address of their network management system, the contact names and numbers for their support staff and those kinds of things. My favorite option on this interface is Alarm Disable, since I long ago lost patience for every UPS you own letting you know the power failed and that’s why all the lights are out. You probably want to clear the Event Log of anything old, and update the Battery Replaced date if that was something you did with your UPS install.

My next hope is to get a local SMTP server set up so I can forward email alarms to my mobile devices (smartphone, tablet), but the AP9606 is up and running and working as expected.

So, how cost effective is this, anyway?  A refurbished UPS is around US$100 plus shipping, which includes batteries that should last five years.  The card adds US$25 and the cable maybe US$15.  So, for US$150 or so you can add a nice margin of remotely monitored protection for your home networking equipment.  I don’t see how you can go wrong at those prices.

I tend to avoid direct site links since they are hard to maintain, but searches of refurbups.com, ebay.com and amazon.com will most likely find what you need.

The 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator

I was very interested in exploring the 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator (http://www.3dconnexion.com) after reading about its use in camera-control in three-dimensional Virtual Reality sites.  It was published that sites like Second Life (http://www.secondslife.com) has enhanced their viewer to provide “joystick” support based upon the SpaceNavigator, and three-dimensional modeling packages, like the well-known Blender open-source product, were more effectively used with this kind of “joystick”.

After poking around eBay for two months, I decided the savings possible there were not worth the risk of second- and third=party sales, so I purchased the SpaceNavigator directly through Amazon.com, at a price just a shade more than the “discounters”.  The mouse was on my doorstep two days later.  That’s the new definition of instant gratification.

I use an IOGEAR KVM/USB Switch to share peripherals between my MacOSX and Fedora 16 systems, and I’d hoped this would be able to be switched.  Initial indications are the Fedora 16 driver is a little rough.  Under Fedora 16, there are many postings suggesting the 3Dconnexion driver is to be avoided, and the two open-source version in the Fedora repository are preferred.  I tried both, but was only able to make progress with the spacenavd version.  That version supports the expected systemctl command, including enable, disable, start, stop and restart.  I was able to see the driver output in /var/log, so I knew it was responding.  It does expect to see the SpaceNavigator connected, so maybe switching isn’t a great idea.  But I was never able to get the 2.4n version of Blender to see it.  The driver was producing a complaint about X11 and the 0.0 display, so I might have some basic configuration work to complete there.

The progress was better on MacOSX, as is often the case.  After installing the 3Dconnexion driver, Blender just worked.  I could spin around the default cube very quickly and smoothly, and all the expected zoom and pan controls were there.  I’m not an expert with Blender, really a novice at this point, but it seems an order of magnitude faster and flexible than the standard scroll mouse.

Using 3D viewers, like FireStorm for SecondLife, was not so great out of the box.  An avatar would jump and fly and disappear while you just tried to look around you.  But, the right-button brings up the system-level configuration and one or two clicks and things were better.  There are common “swaps” of behavior on the first two configuration screens, and those changes made a world of difference.  I quickly understood why you would have a profile for Blender, Maya and other applications.  Otherwise, you will forget.  Well, at least I will.

So, this test was partially successful.  I have it working like I want it under MacOSX.  I’m disappointed with it’s functionality under Fedora 16, but I haven’t given up.  I will work through those issues and post an update before next month (if things go well).

Pico-Power and Mini-ITX meet Intel Core i7

I thought it would be interesting to vary my routine from the small and frugal Embedded Linux systems, like the PogoPlug and see what kind of power you could get from a small form-factor computer.  So, I watched the sales at http://www.newegg.com and http://www.amazon.com and, yes, http://www.ebay.com and ended up with a  decent build this weekend.  My first build of 2012!

For the case I selected my favoriate, the M-350.  This case is commonly used for things like car PCs, or PCs mounted on the back of monitors or for in-store displays where you might sample a music CD and pick one off the rack (the CD, not the case).  What is nice about the M-350 is the case is all kinds of vented.  It is very solid construction, with a lot of airflow possible.  The front also has this plastic cover that nides two USB2.0 ports, the power-on/LED circuit board and an opening for a 40mm fan.  The case is designed for mini-ITX motherboards, my current favorite, and there is no room for anything 3.5″, like a hard drive or even a larger CDROM or DVD drive.  Nope, you have to do a network boot, a flash drive boot or a 2.5″ drive.  I favor Solid State Disks (SSD) for their speed and cool temperatures.  What you don’t heat, you don’t need to cool.

I first added the Intel i7-2600S CPU a quad-core, 2.8GHz hyperthreading monster (in 2012) that consumes 65 watts.  It has a boost speed of 3.8GHz, and the DH67CF motherboard BIOS includes profiles for overclocking.  But those seem more for the integrated graphics than the CPU.  But, I’ll tell you, the 2.8GHz eight-thread quad-core seems pretty fast all stock and standard clocked.  Maybe I’ve been playing with Atoms and ARMs for too long, but this things smokes in a good way.

I found two 8GB matched 240-pin memory cards at Newegg for under US$100, so I’d decided to run 64-bit Fedora 16.  The low-profile aftermarket fan was very quiet, the 40mm fan in the front was so quiet I had to check to see if it was turning.  That fan blew directly on the memory, which is good because I had taken off some of the cooling fins so the SSD cables could clear the memory.  The M350 cases don’t leave a lot of room for running cables or anything of size.  I added the Pico-Power at 150 watts (a bit of overkill, but fanless and quiet) and learned all about the Mini-Fit Jr.™ power connectors from Molex and why you’d want them in your next project.  Too bad they don’t have a bezel that attaches with just a washer and nut like the low powered connectors.

Because I had the front USB connectors and no real interest in using them, I plugged a refurbished Linksys Wi-Fi USB into that port.  It only operates on the 2.4GHz band, but it was laying around as a spare part so I used it.  It’s a giant compared to everything else here, so it really covers both front slots and part of the fan opening.  But I was pleasantly surprised when the Fedora install brought up WiFi without even bothering me to add a module or download something new.  That was impressive.

So, the M-350 case, Intel DH67Cf Mini-ITX motherboard, Intel i7-2600S CPU, Intel 320 SSD, low-profile fan and Pico-supply from MITXPC.com.  I was ready to rock.  So, I decided to update the motherboard BIOS.  And, well, bricked it.  After reflashing, the BIOS went into Suspend mode, shutting down video and USB with no way to recover.  So, now the board is back to Newegg for replcement and I’ll rebuild it ina week or two.  But it was a great machien for the day or two it lasted.

Like they say in ham radio, “Life is too short for QRP.”  Sometimes, life is too short for low-power computing!  Sometimes.

Stick a PogoPlug in Your Home Network?

Black PogoPlugPro Case Flipped Upwards Showing Top of Main Board and Power Supply

If you haven’t read about the low-cost Linux platform called PogoPlug, you probably should. For less than US$25, you can have a fully-functional Linux computer that consumes four (4) watts of power and runs without a fan. Well, there’s no video out, but you do get four (4) USB 2.0 ports, a gigabit ethernet connection and a dual-core ARM processor. Check out ArchLinuxARM.org for an open source Linux that’s AWESOME. You might even try the Wi-Fi versions of the PogoPlug just for fun!

The PogoPlug is intended to provide owners with a local home network device for connecting  USB drives as network storage, and then replicating them to “the Cloud”.   The “free” service offers 5GB of Cloud Storage, which might be enough if you only want to save a few files off-site or access them remotely.  For me, 4GB doesn’t offer much, and I’d like to not pay the excess storage fees, so my use of the PogoPlug is more local:  I host the LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySql-PHP) stack on a thumb-drive local to my home network.  The entire upgrade from Pogo Linux to ArchLinux took minutes and the install and configure of Apache, PHP and MySQL went very quickly and smoothly.  If you go visit http://www.ArchLinuxARM.org, the instructions there are copy-n-paste and work perfectly if you follow them.  I had an example PHP web-page up very quickly, but left the MySQL work to another time when I knew what database I wanted to use.

The performance of the PogoPlug platform is surprising.  The dual-core ARM probably won’t be confused with the latest workstation processors, but it hums (silently) along cutting its way through package installations very briskly.  My experience with the legondary Linksys NSLU2 (“Slug”) and Patriot Box Office (PBO), two previously popular Linux platforms suggest this one is a killer and the lack of video doesn’t hurt it at all.  What really helps is the high-speed Ethernet port, which is unusual in this price range, but appropriate for moving large media files.  I’m not moving large files just yet, but I love the idea of having gigabit if I need it.

In my first week with the PogoPlug, I hunted for them on J&R, eBay, Amazon and Newegg sites.  I found several specials on J&R that were hard to resist, and friends all seemed to scoop them up before I could grab them.  I found eBay to be reliably higher in price than other sources, and Amazon had a reasonable seller that I ended up using to get two models: the PogoPlug Classic/Basic/Pink (POGO-ZB01) and the PogoPlugPro, which adds Wi-Fi.  (Setting up Wi-Fi is tricky right now, unlike the other upgrades and installs.)  Reasonable prices seem to range from US$19-35 for these units, and the Series 4 was just released at Developer Pricing of US$99, which seems steep for the moment, but it has some interesting hardware specifications.

Check out the forums on the ArchLinux site for more details.  And there are other versions of Linux for the Pogo; this is just the one that I found first and it was totally satisfying.

On 2012-01-25, I decided to add some pictures of the inside of my PogoPlug-Pro.  I will take a snapshot of the bottom side at a later date.

Black PogoPlugPro Case Flipped Upwards Showing Top of Main Board and Power Supply

PogoPlug-Pro Interior SnapshotPogoPlug-Pro r2 12E8 Label on ChipPIX Technologies Media Networked Storage on a ChipPogoPlugPro SATA Port CON3

This PogoPlug-Pro is equipped with an AZUREWAVE AW-NE762H PCI-Express Half-Mini-Card Model RT-3090 (socketed) for 802.11 B/G/N Wi-Fi.  The following photos were uploaded but not displayed when I posted this article in 2011, but I’ve corrected this as of 31-May-2012.

PIX Technologies Media Networked Storage on a Chip

PIX Technologies Media Networked Storage on a Chip

PogoPlug-Pro r2 12E8 Label on Chip