Hardware

Headset recommendation: Logitech h800

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I've worked from home for ten years. During this time I've needed a reliable headset for doing calls and listening to music that fit some rudimentary needs:

  1. It needed to be wireless, so I didn't pull my laptop onto the ground.
  2. It needed to be stereo.
  3. It needed to have a built-in mic.
  4. It needed to work reliably.
  5. Not too expensive.
  6. 8+ hours of use on a single charge.

This didn't seem like such a big deal, but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be.

Let me work through the headsets I've tried and the problems I ran into.

The first wireless headset I tried was the Logitech h600. It was wireless, had a reasonable quality mic, was stereo, didn't cost too much, and seemed to work fairly well. However, there were some glaring problems, primarily that it was a little small for my head so it had to be pulled down tight to fit right, and because here was no padding on the top band its hard plastic would push down on my head and hurt after a while. Another minor problem was that it needed a USB adapter, it couldn't use the Bluetooth system built into the laptop. The pain wearing it proved to be too much to deal with, given that I was wearing it extensively, so I had to ditch it.

New requirements list:

  1. It needed to be wireless, so I didn't pull my laptop onto the ground.
  2. It needed to be stereo.
  3. It needed to have a built-in mic.
  4. It needed to work reliably.
  5. Not too expensive.
  6. 8+ hours of use on a single charge.
  7. It needed to fit my slightly larger-than-average mellon.
  8. It needed to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time.
  9. Not need any extra attachments to my computer, e.g. a USB adapter or something.

I then tried its older sibling, the Logitech h800. This was larger and had some padding on the band, so it didn't hurt to wear. It also used the laptop's Bluetooth system so didn't need any adapters to connect - just pair it to the laptop once, and then just turn it on when I wanted to use it. Hey presto!

For the most part the h800 has worked well - it's comfortable for wear for hours at a time, even a full day. However one problem I noticed was that the mic quality, i.e. the sound of my voice, is really poor compared to, well, everyone else I was having calls with. Everyone else was using different headsets, I thought my problem was with my headset, so after several years of use it started falling apart and I decided to replace it with something that might be better.

New requirements:

  1. It needed to be wireless, so I didn't pull my laptop onto the ground.
  2. It needed to be stereo.
  3. It needed to have a built-in mic.
  4. It needed to work reliably.
  5. Not too expensive.
  6. 8+ hours of use on a single charge.
  7. It needed to fit my slightly larger-than-average mellon.
  8. It needed to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time.
  9. Not need any extra attachments to my computer, e.g. a USB adapter or something.
  10. It needed to have a reasonable quality mic.

The first alternative I tried was the Jabra Evolve 65 UC. This is a slightly upper scale headset that is purported to have really good quality, and was recommended by some folks at work. I tried looking for one at a brick 'n mortar store so I could try it on, but they couldn't find their on-hand stock so I ended up ordering it online. When it arrived the first thing I did was checked to see how it fit, and unfortunately it was just too tight on my head, and had a hard plastic band with no padding so it just hurt to wear. It also had poor quality audio from the mic, the same as the h800. Clearly wasn't going to work, so I returned it.

After that failure I went back to looking.

The biggest problem with the h800 was with the mic quality. Doing research there seemed to be a known problem with the Bluetooth architecture itself. It seems that there are two "profiles" for how headsets work - a high quality mode for listening to audio, and a lower quality mode for transmitting & receiving simultaneously. Given that I want to have two-way conversations, this turns out to be a major limiting factor in the Bluetooth concept. So.. maybe Bluetooth wasn't what I needed..

There's also a newer generation of Bluetooth that might have helped. My laptop supports Bluetooth 4, but there's a 4.1 that adds a low-power mode, and a new 5.0 that improves things further. I did some searching on 4 versus 5 for audio headsets, but couldn't find anything at the time. So maybe Bluetooth 5 might help, but I'd have to either find a USB adapter or replace the laptop, and that wasn't in the budget.

A coworker mentioned the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC, a set that looks like it might be what I needed - on-ear headphones, includes a USB dongle to use instead of Bluetooth (to avoid mic problems), and it had a comfortable head band. The coworker mentioned that the mic quality was really good when using the dongle, but just using Bluetooth it was terrible, which confirmed my suspicion about needing to go with something that used a USB device! Unfortunately it was no longer available from most suppliers as it was an older model. Given I couldn't try it out, I hesitated getting it.

The first headset I tried was the Logitech G533, which I grabbed from a local store. It covered most of the requirements, and used a USB dongle so the audio should work nicely. I tried it for two days but in the end it proved to be too much - I really didn't like the over-ear form factor and the noise cancelling aspect distorted how I heard my voice when I was speaking, which was too weird for me on calls. Also, it felt a little flimsy, so I was worried about it lasting a few months, never mind a few years. So back to the store it went.

New requirements:

  1. It needed to be wireless, so I didn't pull my laptop onto the ground.
  2. It needed to be stereo.
  3. It needed to have a built-in mic.
  4. It needed to work reliably.
  5. Not too expensive.
  6. 8+ hours of use on a single charge.
  7. It needed to fit my slightly larger-than-average mellon.
  8. It needed to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time.
  9. Not need any extra attachments to my computer, e.g. a USB adapter or something.
  10. It needed to have a reasonable quality mic.
  11. No noise cancelation, or at least a way of turning it off.

The next set I tried was the Beats Solo Pro. This is a premium piece of hardware at roughly $300, and was using my hardware expense account from work so I could splurge on something I used constantly. The headset had a head band, fairly comfortable ear covers, didn't have a boom mic but supposedly had some nifty stuff to make it work well, long batter life, etc, and several coworkers loved their prior model (Solo 3). I grabbed it on sale at a local store (order-ahead for easy pickup, thank you COVID-19), brought it home, took it out of the box (nice packaging job, Beats!), connected it to my laptop and then... realized it was just too small for my noggin. I tried out the mic anyway, just in case, and it was no better than what I'd used before. Drat! Back to the store it'll go.

I did some research into headsets that fit larger mellons. While there are several articles out there, most of them focus on over-the-ear headsets with noise cancellation, and I didn't want that. They also focused primarily on Bluetooth headsets and didn't take mic quality into account, so they weren't going to work for me.

I also did a little more research on Bluetooth 4 vs 5, and it turns out that the improvements don't change anything about the usage "profiles" - it still cuts the audio quality when you're speaking, so that was going to be a non-starter.

I again looked at the Plantronics headset, but it was getting even harder to find, and some comments on Amazon suggested folks were selling cheap knockoffs, I figured I'd hold off again.

Given they were available locally I figured I'd double check what items Logitech had again, and look through their details. While doing this I happened across a little tidbit about the h800 I've been using for several years - while it's sold primarily as a Bluetooth device, it does come with a small USB dongle to connect it if your computer doesn't support Bluetooth. I'd made the assumption that it was a Bluetooth adapter, but I noticed that the manual didn't actually say this, instead indicating it was a proprietary system. So, it might just work!

This morning I dug around to find the headset's adapter, which wasn't in the handy-dandy holder in the left ear cover, plugged the adapter into my laptop, made a test call with Zoom and saved it, then compared the recording to one made with the device connected via Bluetooth - the difference was night and day!

Final requirements:

  1. It needed to be wireless, so I didn't pull my laptop onto the ground.
  2. It needed to be stereo.
  3. It needed to have a built-in mic.
  4. It needed to work reliably.
  5. Not too expensive.
  6. 8+ hours of use on a single charge.
  7. It needed to fit my slightly larger-than-average mellon.
  8. It needed to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time.
  9. Not need any extra attachments to my computer, e.g. a USB adapter or something.
  10. It needed to have a reasonable quality mic.
  11. No noise cancelation, or at least a way of turning it off.

So, after all my searching for a replacement headset to my held-together-with-tape-and-good-wishes Logitech h800, my new headset will be a Logitech h800! In the end needing to have a clearer mic trumped my hope to avoid using a USB adapter. Go figure.

Moving your TimeMachine

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It's bound to happen to everyone, they outgrow their TimeMachine and want a new one, a bigger one, one that will allow them to go further into the past... I'm talking about OSX's built-in backup system here, I don't know what you were thinking..

So ever since starting to use OSX Leopard I've been using TimeMachine to keep a running backup of my laptop for two reasons - I can instantly jump back to an old revision of a file, and it keeps a near-constant mirror of the OS as it is with all of the software & settings intact. My laptop came with a 120gb drive and I've been using a 160gb USB drive for TimeMachine. Obviously enough, when this is my main machine I move a lot of files around - download lots of files (all legit), delete some, move others to a file server, but with TimeMachine keeping a regular hourly backup of all change files it can end up bloating up pretty quickly. Sure enough, within a few short months I'd filled up the drive and for the past three or four months it regularly informs me that it has flushed some older backups in preference to keeping newer data.

It's 2009 and hard drives of all sorts are insanely cheap. Taking advantage of the early sales I snagged a 320gb replacement internal drive for the laptop and a 500gb external drive for TimeMachine. Incidentally, both of the drives were made by Seagate, as all of my drives are, as all of their drives (at least up through their January 2009 new models) come with a five year warranty, so between backups I'm (mostly) guaranteed five years of usable storage.

Moving on.

I personally don't like moving data off a primary drive due to the inherent reliability problems of external storage - if it's important data then it needs to be on an actively used internal drive, not on a DVD or CD sitting on a shelf somewhere for grubby little fingers to play with (or get knocked over), and definitely not on a USB memory key that's going to get put through it's paces in the next laundry cycle. All external storage formats should be used for backups exclusively. End of story.

So, in order to keep my data intact I planned a drive shuffle. First I was going to migrate the TimeMachine backup data to the new external drive, then I was going to swap out the internal drives and follow up with a quick restore off the backup drive to the main OS drive. Simple enough, and something I've done before.

Well the first step, as mentioned, was to migrate the 160gb (actually only 145gb due to drive companies lying about the size of a "gigabyte") to the new 500gb drive so I could retain the last few months of data as an active backup. That seemed simple enough. Because the drive comes pre-formatted for use with Windows (NTFS), I plugged the new drive to my laptop, ran the funky Seagate software installer & allowed it to wipe & repartition my drive for OSX. After rebooting (yeah, go figure, silly company) I has a 465gb usable drive. But it didn't have my TimeMachine data.

The official guideline on migrating TimeMachine data is to use DiskUtility to "restore" the data to a new drive - odd terminology, but it kinda makes sense. Well, for some odd reason it started giving me an error when I tried this. Just to be sure (and because computers make us crazy by expecting different outcomes for repeating the same procedures) I tried again, and sure enough, the same error.

Poop.

A quick google later and I find two shareware utilities that might also do the trick - CarbonCopyCloner and the amusingly titled SuperDuper. Long story short - both tools would run for a few minutes and then seem to get stuck, sitting with zero change in progress while saying they're copying this file that's actually rather tiny (so it wasn't that it was just moving a huge file). Enough of that, back to google.

A bit more research turned up an article on the excellent MacOSXHints.com which detailed how to use the UNIX tool dd to copy a drive, including to use it to recover lost data off a partition. So I gave it a spin.

The instructions are simple. First off, use the tool "df" to find out the exact location of the partitions or drives you wish to copy (the first column marked "Filesystem"), e.g. the 160gb drive showed as "/dev/disk3" and its partition as "/dev/disk3s2", while the 500gb drive was "/dev/disk2". Then, once you know the drives you just run the following command: "dd olddrive newdrive" e.g. "dd /dev/disk3 /dev/disk2".

Well, while I was overjoyed that my first h@rDk0r3 use of UNIX in some time actually started to do something, I was dismayed to see it say the average copy speed was "1705KB" i.e. 1.7meg per second, and at that rate would take 26 hours to complete. Bummer. As it turns out, by default it works with tiny 512byte data blocks, which obviously takes FOREVER.

While researching it I come across another tool that bids itself as a simpler tool for migrating partitions called "ddrescue". I do a quick download, compile and run, and sure enough it's using the same block size. Sure enough, there's a handy little option called "--block-size", or just "-b" for short, that lets you tell it to use larger blocks of data at a time. A quick "-b 4096" later and the transfer speed jumped to ~5KB. Good enough, though it still took six hours.

After the six hours I now had a drive that seemed to all be there, but it only said it was 145gb and my efforts to resize it with Disk Utility just gave a wonderfully error that says "Error with partition: MediaKit reports partition (map) too small".

Back to the drawing board.

I then thought "maybe I have to copy just the partition instead of the entire drive. Six hours later... and I was left with basically the same thing - Disk Utility said that the entire drive was in one large 465gb partition, but Finder said it was only 145gb.

Back to the drawing board. Again.

And back to Disk Utility.

This time around I deleted the existing partition first so that the 500gb drive was completely blank. I then set the Rescue action to erase the destination. Four hours later it had copied all of the data, another two hours later and it had verified the data.

Golden. Or so I thought.

I now have a single, 465gb partition that shows up in Finder and Disk Utility. The only problem is that Disk Utility says that the drive itself has no partitions! While I'm stumped, I think I'm going to count my blessings, just deal with it - TimeMachine works again, and if I find a fix I'll post an update.

Laptops are complicated wee beasties!

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Last night when I went to bed my new (to me anyway) Powerbook G4 was working fine. This morning when I got up it was severely misbehaving - there was 9.5gb of RAM in use and nothing was responding. I started shutting everything down and at one point tried to turn off the local ColdFusion 8 server using sudo, only to have an error that my account wasn't in the sudoers list; given that my account was an administrator, this was not good. I left it to continue rebooting but when I got back, a half hour later, it had pretty much frozen up trying to load a few starter apps. This, along with the noise coming from the drive, told me what I already knew - the drive was dead.

Given that I bought the laptop off a guy on ebay two weeks previously, and that there was no extended warranty on it, I was up the proverbial creek. Given that I had to go meet someone anyway, I jumped in the car and picked up a new drive, along with an external USB chassis for the off-chance I'd be able to access the data one last time.

Well, that was the easy part. The tricky part was opening up the blasted laptop. There is a covered panel on the bottom of the 12" Powerbook G4 (1.33ghz model) that for some reason in my anxiety I mistook to be where the drive went, despite the obvious fact it was too small, and the fact that the nice KLACK!! noise came from elsewhere. The first problem of the repair - I didn't have a screwdriver the correct size. So off I go looking for a repair kit that would have a full set of screwdrivers and other tools; the first store I checked stopped carrying tools because they wanted to sell their services (or simply a new computer), and finally I got the last set of six "precision" screwdrivers at Wallyworld. After opening up said panel I felt like slapping myself as I was presented with: the memory upgrade slot. Yay.

At this point google was my friend and I found a full manual that detailed exactly how to disassemble our Powerbook. Let me tell you, this was a complicated wee beasty - tonnes of screws all over the place, some hidden behind keys on the keyboard. In addition there were two "allen"-type screws that I didn't have a correctly sized key for, so off I go to Lowes. Some of the screws were also very tightly in place, and there were several times I had to awkwardly put pressure on this tiny little screwdriver so that it would break the seal, but not so much pressure that it broke anything else; and did I mention the screwdriver was tiny so it was difficult to twist?

After much frustration I finally got all the way down to the very last screw holding in the dead drive only to realize that a) the screw was really tight, the screwdriver was wearing away and would probably rip the threads off the screw, which would have been bad. So off I go to Lowes again to get another set of screwdrivers, and this time I struck gold - a larger screwdriver with interchangeable tips, which worked wonderfully well, and I wish I'd had it earlier.

So finally I get the new drive installed, close it all back up, boot and... it works! After last week's data loss I'd made a full backup of the now dead HD to an external drive so was able to do a restore off it. Eight hours after discovering that the drive was dead I was finally able to work again. ARGH!!! <sigh>.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to OSX Leopard's new Time Machine backup system. Since I'd ran the backup I'd copied about 100 pictures off a camera memory card and saved some timesheets - the pictures I'll probably be able to recover off the card, but I'm going to have to retrace my time for the timesheets, and hope I get it right.

Oh, and annoyingly, with the price of the replacement drive and all the hours of work I've lost for the day, I could have bought a refurbished MacBook that had an actual warranty. Argh.

So, did I mention that you should backup often?

New Commodore company signs own death warrant

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The company Commodore, once known for calculators, then this really awesome home computer (C=64), then this even more awesome computer (Amiga), then for management incomptence which ultimately led to its demise in the early 90's, is finally back to market with... a stupid PC with a fancy paint job. Yep, that's right, after being known for innovation they're selling a Windows-based PC aimed at the games market. What a total waste of twenty years of good PR. Idiots. I don't expect them to last very long.

VIA USB PCI card unreliable on OSX

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Here's a frustrating one. I inherited a PC recently that had a USB 2.0 PCI card which I figured I'd try to get to work in my Mac. The card is based on the VIA VT6212 chipset and after some searching I found official drivers for the card (that only work with G4 Macs). Well, after rebooting the Mac the card seemed to work fine - it showed up in the system profiler and I could work with devices connected to it without any problems. At that point I decided to leave it for the night (it is set to go to sleep after 30 mins), so this morning went to see how it was doing only to discover the machine had locked up. It appears that there's a major problem with the VIA drivers that cause the Mac to not waken up properly after going into sleep mode. Rather unfortunate as I was looking forward to having the extra USB ports. So, I suspect if I hadn't set the machine to go into sleep mode it would be fine, but that isn't something I'm interested in doing. Ah well, back to ebay I suppose.

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