Here’s a good drive to use with Time Machine on the Airport Extreme

If you weren’t aware of it, the current generation of Airport Extreme (802.11ac version) officially supports Time Machine backups to drives connected to the USB port.

But which drive to get?  Some drives work strangely with the USB port on the Time Capsule since they try to draw a lot of power.  On the other hand, it’s sort of a nice idea to avoid drives with external power supplies.  It can be really inconvenient to find extra space for a wall wart that has to wire all the way back to the drive next to your Airport Extreme.

Well, I took a chance on the Seagate Backup Plus Slim 4TB Portable External Hard Drive … and it works admirably.  It runs off USB power alone, which makes it easy to simply place next to your Airport Extreme regardless of where the power outlet is.  Just be sure to format the drive on your Mac before you hook it up to the Time Capsule, since it defaults to NTFS.  Enjoy!

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Thoughts on the iPad Mini 4

The iPad Mini 4 is out!  And while it’s not the quantum leap that the iPad Mini 2 was over the original iPad Mini, it’s by far better than the strange iPad Mini 3 (seriously, why was that even released?).

Nevertheless, from Apple’s treatment of the Mini at the September 9th keynote, we know that the iPad Mini is a bit of an red-headed stepchild in the grand scheme of Apple’s product line.  The comment from Phil Schiller was a footnote to the effect of “the power of the iPad Air 2 in the Mini”.  Not strictly true, unfortunately, but a reasonable analogy.

It’s clear Apple has completely reversed course from putting identical hardware in the Air and the Mini, instead opting to underspec the Mini in order to make the products more differentiated.  And tablets, as we all know, have basically saturated most of the market at this point, meaning sales have been declining for a while after a few surging years.  But it seems like the Mini still serves enough of a niche to keep a seat at the table.  So here we are.

So what’s really changed?  In a nutshell:

  1. Slightly taller by 3mm.
  2. Same thickness as iPad Air 2 now (7.5mm down to 6.1mm)
  3. Lighter – 0.73lbs down to 0.65lbs
  4. A7 to A8 processor
  5. 1GB RAM -> 2GB RAM
  6. Fully laminated SRGB color gamut display with anti glare coating (vs 63% on the older iPad Mini’s)
  7. 8MP camera with burst mode, etc.
  8. A smaller battery inside (theoretically compensated for by the more power efficient A8 processor, but not really)

I think that, on paper, this looks like a really good upgrade.  But when you dive into the details (as I am wont to do with Apple products), it’s actually less impressive than it seems.  Let me explain.

The form factor change means I have to throw away all my iPad Mini accessories.  So that’s a couple of cases and covers down the drain.  Normally this is welcome when taken with other upgrades in a new generation, but less so here … continue reading.

The increased tallness looks unwieldy and unbalanced.  It’s almost as if the industrial designers just got lazy and increased the height to fit enough battery inside to cross over the 10 hour usage spec.

The 2GB of RAM is very welcome.  However, no apps take much advantage of this yet except Safari reloading tabs and the Split View feature in iOS9.  Which, to be blunt, I find not useful at all so far.

Cameras on iPad’s are nearly irrelevant, so the upgrade is nice, but not pertinent.

The full gamut display is nice side by side with the old iPad Mini’s.  But you kind of forget about the desaturated colors on the iPad Mini pretty quickly in actual use.  For pros, this is a required upgrade, but for users primarily web surfing, playing games, etc … the color gamut is not something that would impact your ability to enjoy the tablet in any significant way.

Touch ID: again, nice, but usually not very important on a tablet.

The A7 to A8 processor … well, I’ve saved that for the end.  This is a truly terrible processor upgrade.  Not only are we getting last year’s technology, the A8 on its own was a very unimpressive processor generation.  We’ve basically waited two years for a Mini upgrade, and now we only have a 20% upgrade in performance, which I would define as just on the edge of noticeable.  To make matters worse, the A9 has returned to the usual pace of processor improvements (almost 90% faster than the A7) … so we know whenever the next Mini comes out, the speed improvements will be as jaw dropping as we’re used to.

So, the more I look at this upgrade, the less impressed I am.  In the absence of any major features that really change the tablet experience, we’re left with performance improvements as the main driver of an upgrade from the Mini 2 or Mini 3.

And here’s where things fall down … The CPU and GPU upgrades of the A8 are minimal at best.  It’s simply not much faster and you can feel some jerkiness in animations compared to an iPad Air 2.  And the 2GB of RAM, while significant, is not taken advantage of by any apps right now.  Finally, the multitasking implementation in iOS 9 seems rather awkward.  I’ve tried it several times and can’t find much of a use for it yet without a physical keyboard.  Meaning we’ll probably mostly be running in single app mode anyway.

Last, but not least, the market has determined already that the base iPad Air 2 is worth about 350 dollars after a year.  Just look at the used prices and promotions happening for the Air 2 … even for new ones!  And that is a larger tablet with higher specs than the Mini 4!

In other words, the $399 price point that the Mini 4 starts at would have been appropriate a year ago, but the only thing keeping that price where it is today is its newness.  Six months from now, the Mini 4 is going to find its true price point somewhere beneath the market price of the iPad Air 2.

So what am I planning on doing?  Well, the iPad Mini 4 has just enough upgrades to make me want to upgrade, but just enough sameness for my brain to stop me from going ahead with it.  I honestly just can’t figure out how my web surfing or gaming is going to get much better on the Mini 4 vs my current Mini 2.  The Mini 4 is a great tablet on its own, but a lackluster upgrade for previous owners.  Therefore, I’ve decided to wait until the market clears the price of the iPad Mini 4 to some sort of equilibrium level after the newness has worn off.  I’m guessing that may be a couple of months into 2016.  We’ll see how it goes.

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Stupid Apple Tricks – WatchOS 2.0

Here’s a list of the things that have gone wrong with Watch OS 2.0 since it came out and I upgraded.

  1. My watch entered super power drain mode after the update.  I got home with 10% battery life … normal would be about 60%.  The internet recommended fix … unpair and repair.  Seems to work … battery life might even be better now than WatchOS 1.0.
  2. On another phone/watch combo, the verification after downloading the update was stuck.  Internet recommended fix … reboot both phone and watch, reset network settings on the phone, and restart the update.  Worked.  Hopefully we don’t see the same issues with power drain on this particular pairing of phone/watch.
  3. Apps on the watch don’t seem to automatically update after the upgrade … meaning if you have a app that uses Watch OS 2.0 functionality and you try to run it, it may just hang forever.  Which, to be honest, seemed to be a “feature” of all WatchOS 1.0 apps for the past 6 months.  Fix for this: delete the app from your Apple Watch’s app home screen.  Then reinstall the app through the Apple Watch app.

If you can’t tell, I think Apple’s QA is really not on the ball lately.

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Experiences with the HP Z27q 5k monitor on the Macbook Pro

It’s been a while since the HP Z27q was first released in the US … about 4 months or so.  I’ve been chomping at the bit to go Retina on the desktop for a long time, so the relatively reasonable price point of the HP Z27k was enough to make me take the leap.

I’m really quite enamored with 5k resolution monitors.  As it turns out, adding one of these to a computing setup is one of the few things that really moves the needle in this day and age.  Having owned one for a while at home and at work, I have to say that my opinion on this still holds.

With that, here’s some advice and stuff to watch out for.

  1. The HP Z27q has suspect quality control.  I have gone through 4 of these monitors and have still not found one that didn’t have a dead pixel or dirt smudges under the panel.  The dead pixels I can understand … the smudges mean some serious QC issues at the factory.  I am attentive to detail (as any software engineer probably should be) but I am not anal retentive about dead pixels, especially when there are 14 million of them in the panel.  So my final panels have a dead pixel in an errant spot on the screen.  I don’t really notice in daily use.  Hopefully the manufacturing situation has improved by now.  All this makes me think the reason the monitor is so much cheaper ($1299 instead of $1999)  is because they sourced B-grade panels.
  2. 5k support on Mac’s in general is touch and go.  There’s all kinds of strange things to worry about like the exact ports you plug into, how many you can use, etc.  Technically, only the Macbook Pro 2015, the iMac 5k, and the Mac Pro support 5k out right now.
  3. 5k support on the Macbook Pro 2014 (with dedicated GPU) works!  It’s not perfect by any means, and it is not technically supported, but the bottom line is it somehow works.  The magic incantations required of you are as follows.
    1. Follow the iClarified instructions to trick the Macbook into thinking you have a Dell UP2715K monitor.
    2. Make sure you have 4k ready mDP to DP cables on hand!
    3. Plug the secondary DisplayPort cable into the rearmost Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Pro. (in case you are wondering, the order and location of the ports most definitely matters)
    4. Plug the primary DisplayPort cable into the frontmost Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Pro.
    5. (Optional) Plug in the HDMI cable to get a second monitor going.  With the right cable and monitor, you can drive 2560×1600 off this port!
    6. (Optional) If you get into a bad state where the monitor is showing the left half of the desktop on both the left and right sides of the screen, here’s how to fix that.  Remove the secondary DisplayPort cable and wait until the screen resets to non-retina mode.  Then unplug the primary DisplayPort cable.  Then plug everything back in according to the above instructions.
    7. I do not recommend trying to plug in the DisplayPort cable and the HDMI cables all at once.  In my experience, this confuses the MacBook Pro.  Whenever you dock your laptop, get the 5k monitor up and running, and then plug in the HDMI afterwards.
  4. Performance is not butter smooth.  Ok, don’t get me wrong here … it’s still 60fps, and the cursor moves just like you would expect it to.  But the resizing and dragging of windows feels laggy.  It’s amazing that the hardware handles it at all, and in my opinion the massive improvement in image and text sharpness makes any UI lag totally worth the tradeoff.  But don’t expect miracles here.
  5. Getting your hands on a Spyder Color calibrator might be worth the hassle.  The monitor displays colors quite nicely on its own and is pre calibrated.  But it won’t hurt either.

In summary, 5k support on the Mac is still quite hacky.  Reminds me of PC days!  But is it worth it?  If you stare at a screen like I do … all day … then yes, it is totally worth it.  It’s quite possible this could be the last monitor I will ever need to own.  (OK that’s a bit optimistic, but you get the idea).

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Why I’m (not) geeking out about eero

After reading an article that Bruce Snell wrote called “Why I’m geeking out about eero“, I sat down for a moment and contemplated why I had exactly the opposite reaction.

First of all, what eero is doing is not particularly new from a technical standpoint.  Mesh networking has existed for a while.  What is new is bringing this sort of auto configuring mesh to a supposedly consumer grade product.  This is certainly appreciated, but crosses somewhat into business class territory.  If you need more than a base station and surrounding repeaters to cover your home, you live in a 10,000 square foot mansion.  If you live that large of a mansion, you probably can afford to have wired backhauls instead of using a wireless mesh.

Which brings me to my second point … “My WiFi problems gone in 60 seconds?”  I don’t have Wi-Fi issues at all, actually.

1. Use the 5 GHz band whenever possible.

2. Use a wired backhaul whenever possible.

Do this with relatively stable access points like the ones from Ubiquiti or the Airport Extreme and you will not have any problems.  A wired backhaul is remarkably better in all circumstances than a wireless mesh will ever be.

As a side note, I don’t understand Bruce’s point about the mesh network “showing up as one network”.  Unified roaming SSID’s have existed since the time of the dinosaurs (in hyperbolic terms) and are simple as configuring every access point with the same security credentials.  No home network should be configured with multiple Wi-FI SSID’s unless you have very specific and technical reasons for wanting to do so.

Third, what stops many people I know from fixing this problem is more a lack of willingness to spend more money on the issue or the awareness to do it.  The eero 3 pack is about 500 dollars.  Wow!  I guarantee you most of the people I know would be able to solve their WiFi problems if they spent that much money on it.

Fourth, where Wi-Fi products fall down has never been on the “promises” side of the equation.  It’s always been in the implementation.  And while eero’s marketing so far has been great and certainly novel, in the end they promise much and offer little detail.

Will the product actually be stable?  Will the hardware not flake out intermittently?  Can the access points recover from numerous failure modes and will they be compatible enough with future devices?  At least if I buy an Airport Extreme I have some guarantee that Apple is testing their devices with my access point.  I’m not 100% pleased with those either, as you can see from my previous blog posts, but they have not failed me on the Wi-Fi at home test, or the “pick a router for your parents” test.

In summary, I might just be a salty dog when it comes to Wi-Fi products and the promises made.  I stick with Airport Extreme’s in a home environment because every single one I’ve ever purchased is still running, even if the feature set is a bit lacking.  I like that the eero is bringing more manageability to the table in the form of access logs and one time guest passwords, which is neat.  And usability is always welcome, but difficult to do well and meaningfully, since this is not a product I plan to interact with on a regular basis.

But let’s be serious … it will take a year or two for me to wait and see if the hardware and software meets the sniff test.  Track records are more important in this product category than marketing … and if you want a stable Wi-Fi network right now, there’s really no shortage of ways to accomplish that.  Injecting unproven and unknown hardware into the equation because of fancy marketing won’t be your solution to your Wi-Fi problems.  And that’s all eero is right now … a lot of promises and not a lot of information.  I hope more details are forthcoming.

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Your Airport Extreme and/or Time Capsule might be screwing up your network

My iTunes library recently developed a problem wherein the Home Sharing would spontaneously die within a few hours of starting up the library.  This was extremely annoying because I’ve built up a whole networked home entertainment system over the years that is premised around the Apple TV and iTunes actually working.

Turns out the workaround, as far as you can call it that, was to unplug an old 1st generation Time Capsule I was using for backups.  I had seen a problem before where it was knocking a Nexus 7 off the network, but didn’t really make the connection to it being the issue until I realized that Home Sharing is based on Bonjour services, and the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme often proxy Bonjour services for the network.

The latest Airport Extreme is officially supported as a Time Machine target, so I may switch over to that.  But it’s good to have the network stable again.

Update: it wasn’t just that.  I actually had to install a clean version of OS X 10.10 to get the bonjour home sharing advertisements to stop crashing.  I also got a crash course in how Bonjour/Zeroconf actually works.  Suffice it to say that Apple’s implementation is extremely broken across multiple devices.  Don’t trust your computer, your iOS device, or your Airport Extreme/Express … any one of these can break your device’s ability to discover a host computer.

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Tesla P85D thoughts

Basically, a dual motor version of the tesla that can, at the high end, accelerate from 0-60 in 3.2 seconds.

A lot of promises also around autopilot and active safety features. I love the idea but I’m skeptical this is going to be as good as whatever Google has been doing.

Also, I have to remind folks that acceleration alone does not make a superstar. Take a Tesla on the track and it will go into limp mode after two laps. The Tesla also isn’t going to trap the quarter mile or half nearly as quickly as a traditional supercar. It’s fun in relatively controlled street environments, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But there’s just way more to building a high performance car and charging the concomitant prices.

But that’s OK. Just looking to see the autonomous features match the hype.

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iPhone 6 thoughts


I honestly didn’t find much compelling in the way of features on the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.  The industry seems to be reaching a bit of plateau in the innovations they can bring to the mobile phone market.  But the keynote was still fun to watch.


NFC – ApplePay (aka NFC payments) is interesting, but just the beginning of a long journey.  Payment ecosystems will need to eliminate all credit cards before users can stop carrying them around.  It is a good long term move, but unlikely to produce immediate benefits.

Performance – The extra 25% speed of the A8 is good but actually brings a much lower bump in performance to the table than previous iterations.  I also feel that we’ve reached some diminishing returns as far as extra CPU performance goes.  The efficiency gains (up to 50%, as quoted, means the real number could really be much lower) are welcome, but I suspect the bulk of battery life is going to go to the bigger displays.

RAM – All indications are that RAM is what ultimately obsoletes a mobile device.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are holding onto an older device), it appears that the new generation of phones bring the standard 1GB of RAM to the table.

Thinness – Apple’s obsession with thinness is counterproductive at the larger screen sizes.  The phones are thinner than the iPhone 5 and 5S, by about a millimeter.  And yet, they also became larger and heavier, so the bragging rights appear to be a bit selective this go-round.

I say … to hell with thinness.  Some people are actually looking for battery life that can last through a whole day.  Give it to them!  Make a thicker and heavier version of the phone for road warriors that need it.  The slight increase in battery life was nice to see, but simultaneously disappointed me, relative to such a large increase in the form factor.

Display size – Clearly Apple has decided to trend upwards into one of the areas that third party phones have innovated in most … screen size.  The screens are bigger.

The iPhone 6 has a 4.7″ screen in a 16:9 aspect ratio.  This compares with the iPhone 5/5S and its 4.0″ screen.  In many respects, it’s just a larger and thinner iPhone 5.

The iPhone 6 Plus sports bigger changes.  Not only does it have a much higher PPI (401 PPI vs the 326 PPI of the iPhone 5, 5S, and 6) on an even larger 5.5″ screen, but it also adopts some size specific UI improvements from the iPad, such as portraits of your message contacts and dual pane e-mail browsing.

In many ways, the iPhone 6 Plus defines this generation of iPhone’s.  It fully embraces the idea of increased screen size, even if it costs more as well.  The UI changes for the larger screen will help.  The increased PPI is more for bragging rights than tangible usability improvements.  In fact, the greater PPI tends to decrease brightness in LCD displays and worsen battery life, since the backlight must be made brighter to shine through all of the overhead around those tiny pixels.  The iPhone 6 Plus, as a result, has a slightly lower contrast ratio vs the iPhone 6, and also doesn’t have as much battery life as you might expect, given the much larger size.

On a side note, the reachability feature seems sloppy.  Instead of moving the top half of the UI to the bottom half of the screen, I would have shrunk the interface to the lower left or right corners instead.  This would allow you to navigate the UI one handed just as easily.  In addition, the reachability feature “resets” the screen after just one tap.  That will be horribly frustrating if you need to actually navigate the top area of the interface with multiple gestures.  Zooming down the interface to the corner would make it navigable during extended use.

Bezels – The large bezels at the top and bottom of the new iPhone’s are also a huge disappointment.  Compared to the LG G3 or Galaxy Note, the iPhone 6 Plus has a larger physical form factor for the same size display.  In short, Apple looks to have unnecessary enlarged a form factor that is already pushing the limits of pocketability.  The touch ID feature is great, but also boxed Apple into a corner when it came to reducing the bezel size.

Cameras – Optical image stabilization is a nice improvement on the iPhone 6 Plus.  The larger FaceTime camera will definitely help with video calls under low light conditions.

Storage – As I’ve commented on many times, the wise thing for Apple to do would be to upgrade storage to 16/64/128.  16GB is still viable for a phone, but leaves just enough pain to induce an upgrade if you want to install a few apps or put on some music.

Surprise! They actually took my advice this time around.

64GB will be a very solid upgrade for almost any user.  About half of the 16GB is used by the operating system and overhead, so 32GB was never quite as big of an upgrade as it seemed.  So 64GB, in reality, more than doubles the amount of available storage.  128GB will be a little over the top, but perhaps worthwhile if you take a lot of photos or prefer your phone as your main media consumption device vs a tablet.

Wi-Fi – The iPhone 6 supports 802.11ac.  This is expected, but also practically useless in real life.

VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling – This can be summed up as “better call quality”.  Both VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling are significant upgrades.  Wi-Fi calling, in particular, may help eliminate the need for funky range extenders in the home.

Truth be told, it’s actually surprising how poorly the industry has innovated here for devices that are ostensibly “phones”.  It’s about time.

Price – The standard 199 starting price point for the iPhone continues with the iPhone 6.  The iPhone 6 Plus starts at 299.  The extra premium for the iPhone 6 Plus, is, in reality, virtually pure profit.  Nothing unexpected here.


By my judgment, I would gladly have skipped the iPhone 6.  The moderate increase in screen size was not compelling to me, and none of the other features and improvements were solid enough to justify an upgrade.  And, this comes from a guy who looks for any reason to upgrade.

The iPhone 6 Plus, however, is just different enough to pique my interest.  The UI improvements made on top of the extra screen size hold real potential.  Let’s face it … iPhone’s are great devices, but the screen size is always a compromise when it comes to reading or browsing the web.  For this reason, I frequently carry my iPad Mini 2 around when I go out.

I don’t expect the iPhone 6 Plus to replace my iPad Mini.  At just 43% of the screen real estate, that would be impossible.  However, it will certainly be more usable in cases where I don’t feel like toting the iPad around.

The jury is definitely out on the form factor, but based on some testing with the Galaxy Note, I believe I can make the iPhone 6 Plus work.  It fits perfectly in my regular fit jeans (32/32), and sitting is not a problem as long as the phone is oriented with its top toward the pocket opening.  However, lifting my phone side leg or crouching will present issues.

However, I have concluded that the iPhone 6 Plus will be too hard to fit in the pocket with a case on.  A battery case will certainly be out of the question.  So, whereas I used to rely on my Mophie Juice Pack Helium when traveling, now I’ll be on the lookout for a decent pocket charger to carry around.  I have the Mophie Power Reserve, which is serviceable, but rather undersized compared to the battery of the iPhone 6 Plus.  However, it also hasn’t been obsoleted like my Juice Pack has by the change in design, so it has that going for it.

All in all, it seems like the iPhone 6 will be a nice upgrade for many, but doesn’t bring a lot of serious innovation to the table.  This is the first time I would have honestly skipped an upgrade cycle if the only new iPhone coming out had been the iPhone 6.  But the iPhone 6 Plus brings the most change and is going to be worth a look.  Pre-ordered.

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Airport Extreme bugs (and guest network performance problems)

The Airport Extreme is my favorite consumer grade access point.  I’ve had well over 10 different models go through myself or to various friends and family, and all of them are still running.

Unfortunately, while the hardware and firmware are great, I disagree strongly with the dumbing down of the airport utility software.  It’s actually gotten worse over time.

1. You can’t control the bands (meaning 2.4GHz or 5GHz) that the Airport Extreme transmits on or that it extends on.

2. You can’t control signal strength and you can’t limit connectivity to clients below a certain speed.

3. You can’t block older clients any more (like b or g).  Old clients are slow and take up a lot more airtime, so it’s nice to have the option to block them.

4. Windows software client has been abandoned and doesn’t properly configure newer Airport Extreme’s.

5. Airport Extreme’s like to use DFS wifi channels in 5 GHz, but many devices don’t actually work with these channels, so they will randomly appear incompatible.  The workaround is to manually select a non-DFS channel to transmit on.  The proper fix is to enable an options for automatic band selection that doesn’t include the DFS range.

So yeah, not perfect, and getting worse.

The latest problem I’ve discovered is that an Airport Extreme that is functioning purely as an access point and not the main home gateway will suffer severe performance degradation on the guest network.  Any Airport functioning as a pure access point handles the guest network by sending out guest traffic over VLAN 1003 instead of as untagged traffic, so all you need to do is pick up that VLAN at the router to enable the guest network.

Anyway, as far as performance loss, we’re talking 3 to 7 mbps of throughput as opposed to 300 mbps max.  Now, as it turns out, I don’t particularly care if my guests get more than 3 mbps of throughput, but it’s still engineered incorrectly.  I’m just writing this because very few people have noticed the problem and it was hard to find out why this was happening.

Despite all this, I still recommend the Airport Extreme for home users.  Most of the above helps optimize for dense wireless environments (like a condo or a office building) but isn’t fatal.  But there’s definitely room for improvement, and there definitely isn’t any reason these options should be removed or hidden for advanced users.

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Quick revisit of pfSense

pfSense on the Intel NUC continues to impress.

It turns out that in the past few months some of the newest Intel NUC’s got full pfSense support.  I also discovered that booting pfSense off a USB drive works really well, meaning you can put those old USB drives to good use and not waste money on new storage.

So the old complicated process I had of bridging into a VM on Ubuntu is gone.  It’s just straight to the metal now.

Either the Intel D54250WYK (4th gen Core i5) or the Intel D34010WYK (4th gen Core i3) are great options for a modern build.  From the previous generation of NUC’s, the Intel DC3217IYE (3rd gen Core i3) is fully supported as well and has the nice benefit of supporting 1.5V DDR3 RAM, which the 4th gen models do not.  That means you are far more likely to be able to scavenge all the parts needed to build a working system if you buy the DC3217IYE.

It’s inevitable that the 100 to 130 dollar NUC platforms will get full support at some point (such as the Intel DN2820FYKH).  At those prices, I really can’t imagine recommending a consumer grade router over an inexpensive NUC-based pfSense build if you are even remotely techie.


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