Designing a 3D-Printed Parametric Micro Quadcopter with OpenSCAD

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Last month, I bought my first drone—a Blade Nano QX. A friend recommended this quadcopter to me, and he said it would be a great way to learn to fly a drone with my Spektrum DX6 transmitter. I think he steered me in the right direction, and I’ve been having a blast.

The Blade Nano QX is quite sturdy. I’m getting much better at flying it, but I still crash it quite often and quite hard! I knew the frame wasn’t going to last forever, and I enjoy modeling 3D-printed designs, so it wasn’t long before I started thinking about design ideas.

Custom 3D Printed 820 Quadcopter Drone

My plan was to 3D print a new frame for the Blade Nano QX flight controller and motors. I also ordered a set of 8.5x20mm motors—they’re absolutely huge compared to the stock 6x15mm motors, but the Nano’s brain couldn’t control them properly.

I have a Micro Scisky flight controller with integrated DSM2 on order, but it won’t arrive for several weeks. In the mean-time, I’m going to focus on the 6x15mm stuff, and I’m going to work on making this build a Blade Nano QX++.

The early ideas

It is nearly impossible to beat the Blade Nano QX frame with a 3D-printed part. The Nano is injection-molded, and the walls of the arms are extremely thin. These thin walls are rigid, because they have a curved top.

The injection-molding process doesn’t have to worry about gravity, either. You can’t 3D print out in open air—the plastic is subject to the effects of gravity during the print, so everything has to be supported by something. My goal is to build a frame as tough and light as the Blade Nano QX.

I decided my design would be printed with the top of the quadcopter facing down. That would keep the flight controller and the propellers at a similar height, and it would allow me to build landing gear and a battery holder on the bottom.

An Early Prototype 3D Printed Drone

I could have gone with a simple cross shape, but that seemed boring. Instead, I used curved arms. I don’t usually do a good job making curvy things with OpenSCAD, but this wasn’t too bad. Most things in OpenSCAD are the union, difference, or intersection of cubes, spheres, and cylinders.

My quadcopter’s arms are the difference of a couple of disc-like cylinders. Then I squish that perfect circle on one axis with OpenSCAD’s scale function. The math to make sure that leftover curve will connect the motors to the flight controller is simple enough, although I did guess at that number instead of doing the math at first.

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  span=105;  // wingspan from center of motors
  frame=2.4; // thickness of the frame and arms

  sides=sqrt(span*span/2);  // length of the sides of the square

  curve_scale=(sides-25)/2 / (sides/2) * 1.1;  // 25 is a magic number representing the Nano's flight controller
  
  difference() {
    scale([1, curve_scale, 1])
      cylinder(d=sides, h=frame);
      
    scale([1, curve_scale, 1])
      cylinder(d=sides-frame*2, h=frame+2);
  
  }

From here, I take a difference of that ring shape and a large enough cube. That leaves me with an arch.

Now I have a fun way to connect the flight controller mount to the motor mounts. How am I going to mount the motors?

I know cylindrical motor mounts will work best, but I also know that everyone will have their 3D printer calibrated a little differently. The mounts need to be tight enough to keep the motor from spinning, yet loose enough that you can still fit the motor inside. The tolerances are tight enough that things might vary from one spool of filament to the next. If the motor mounts aren’t tight enough, the motors will spin freely and rip out their wires. If the motor mounts are too tight, you’ll never get the motors in place.

Slightly Broken Drone

I hoped to avoid that by using C-shaped motor mounts. They worked reasonably well in ABS, but they completely failed in Taulman 910 nylon filament. I spun two motors hard enough that the wires were pulled out.

From here, it is all just a matter of working out the math to place the motors and arms in the correct places.

The first test flights

Shortly before the first 3D printed test, we were experimenting with my Blade Nano QX at TheLab.ms makerspace. One of my friends had his 450mm quadcopter with 10” blades with him. We set it up on a desk, and we spun it up just fast enough that it was about to take off. Then I tried to see how close I could fly my Nano to it.

The effects were surprising. I started out near the ceiling, and I tried to lower the Nano onto the bigger quadcopter. I could only get so close before I couldn’t descend anymore. We all found this potential air vortex to be interesting, and I’m not quite sure what happened next, but I did somehow manage to penetrate this air stream. My Nano hit one of the blades, and was thrown across the room into the wall. One of the arms was ripped in half.

Not to be discouraged, I opened up my laptop and fired up the 3D printer. I printed my early prototype. It was only 90mm from motor to motor, which is actually a lot smaller than the Blade Nano. My motor mounts ended up being a little too small, but a little cutting and some tape got everything temporarily mounted.

My prototype was in trouble as soon as it was airborne! It was impossible to control, ridiculously fast, and downright crazy. We chalked it up to the small size and the tape.

The next day, I printed a correctly sized drone that didn’t require tape. It wouldn’t fly correctly, either, but it was flying a bit better. I could get it into the air, but the drone wanted to fly forward and to the left. I tried to correct for this with the controls, but the longer it was in the air, the more it would lean in that direction!

I ordered a replacement Blade Nano QX frame from Amazon. After installing everything on the new frame, everything was flying better. Not perfectly, but I didn’t realize that right away. Something was wrong.

The foam flight controller “mount” is important!

There was a lot of discussion about why my 3D-printed frame wouldn’t fly. In my test flights, I used a rubber band to hold the flight control board and battery to the frame. I guess this transmits all sorts of vibrations to the controller, and it just can’t compensate for it.

Separating the controller from the frame with the foam worked great, but my quadcopter still wasn’t flying right. As it turns out, one of my 6x15mm motors was dented. I imagine this happened during the incident with the large drone. After swapping it out, my little ABS drone was flying just as well as the Blade Nano QX frame!

Upgrading to nylon

I’ve been tempted to try printing with nylon for years. The hot ends in a lot of 3D printers have a PTFE tube down the center. Nylon is printed at between 260 and 275 degrees Celsius. PTFE begins to melt at 260 degrees Celcius, so these printers don’t have a chance of working with nylon. My 3D printer has an all-metal hot end, so 275 degrees Celcius is no problem.

Printing my own microquad frame with Taulman 910 nylon filament seems like a good test run before printing something like the DJ105 quadcopter frame.

A Squadron of ABS and Nylon 3D Printed Drones

Nylon is difficult to print, but I could tell right away that it is a lot sturdier than ABS or PLA. I ended up with a lot of whiskers and spiderwebs all over my quadcopter frames. I tried to tweak some of that out using Slic3r, but it seems like it is inevitable. When the print job is done, the leftover nylon in the hot end oozes out of the extruder very quickly, just like it does during the print.

All that stray nylon is a pain to clean off, because it is too sturdy to just rip or pull off. I have to trim everything with a knife and scissors.

The nylon feels extremely sturdy. I don’t think I can crash a quadcopter with brushed motors hard enough to break the nylon. I did break several ABS motor mounts. The ABS mounts that I broke were three walls thick. I reduced the nylon motor mount walls to only two walls, and I don’t think they’re in any danger of breaking.

The nylon flexes much more than ABS or PLA. The larger frame I built for the 8.5x20mm motors flexes a little under its own weight. I’m thinking about adding some sort of bracing to reduce this flex.

Nylon allows for thin prop guards

I didn’t add propeller guards to my design at first. I’ve printed enough kilograms of ABS to know that I’d need very thick prop guards to survive an impact. I figured adding a set of prop guards would be a good way to see what nylon could do.

A Custom 3D Printed Nylon Drone

I believe my first set of prop guards were about 0.8mm tall and 1.6mm wide. That was too thin, so I bumped it up to 1.6mm x 1.6mm. That’s what I put on the first 8.5x20mm motor drone. I have it in my hand here now, and these prop guards will work great. I’ve thrown this drone at the floor with the motors and props installed, and it just bounces around. No damage at all!

What’s next?

I’m waiting on a Micro Scisky flight controller to arrive from China. The Micro Scisky is a compact flight controller for use with brushed motors, and it has an integrated ESCs and a built-in DSM2 radio. It runs the same software as the Naze32 flight controllers all my friends used in their 450mm drone builds—CleanFlight or BetaFlight.

A 450mm Drone at Drone Flying Event with TheLab.ms

When the Micro Scisky controller arrives, I plan to get straight to work fitting it into this 3D model and getting my 8.5x20mm quadcopter off the ground. I’m already getting impatient. I probably should have ordered one with Amazon’s two-day shipping!

I’m confident my 820 drone will be powerful enough to carry a first-person-view (FPV) camera. That sounds like a lot of fun, and it will let me get in some FPV flying practice before moving on to my next drone.

Alex Flying His FPV Racing Drone

I’ve been researching both the RS90 and DJ105 quadcopters on Thingiverse. They’re both amazing designs for small, brushless drones. I was leaning towards building a DJ105 drone, but it uses 2.5” propellers. Those aren’t very common, and there aren’t a lot of motors that will fit the DJ105’s tiny frame.

I started work on a parametric quadcopter design similar to the DJ105 in OpenSCAD. It has a long way to go, but I have enough completed to start dropping numbers in to get an accurate sense of the scale. If I go with three-inch propellers, it looks like I can make my quadcopter less than one inch longer and wider than the DJ105.

I’m really pleased with that. I thought the bigger propellers would take up more room than that in the center, but I shouldn’t have any trouble fitting in the electronics.

Building the smallest drone that I can while still fitting in 3” props would be a lot of fun, but I don’t think I’m going to go that route. I’ll probably stretch the frame out as far as my 3D printer’s build plate will allow—a wider drone should be more stable!

Repairing an Old, Sagging Recliner - Part 2 - Replacing the Cushion

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Two years ago, I bought a big, old Lane Summerlin recliner off Craigslist for $100. It looked great, but I knew before I bought it that the seat was falling out. The guy that sold it to me knew this recliner was in trouble—he made me sit on it several times, and he kept asking if I was sure I wanted to buy it.

Lane Summerlin Recliner from Craigslist

I was OK with this. I just wanted an extra chair for the corner of my home office, and at the time, I didn’t think I’d be sitting on it all that often. If I hadn’t repaired it, that would have been true, but that old recliner has grown to become an important part of my home office. I sit on it almost every day!

The Lane Summerlin is a nice recliner—especially if you’re tall! The armrests are high enough that my elbows can actually reach them. Sometimes I don’t want to hit the armrests, and this chair is wide enough that I can easily tuck my elbows in between—like when I’m playing video games!

Lane Summerlin Born in 2007

My Summerlin recliner will be celebrating its 10th birthday this year, but Lane still produces this recliner today. I don’t know what I’d have to pay locally, but they start at $715 at Amazon. Adding together a full set of springs, enough seat cushion foam for three recliners, and the initial cost of the used recliner, my total cost is about $180, a little elbow grease, and an unexpected learning opportunity.

I should note here that I only bought two springs. At a later, random date I liberated a full set of springs from a couch my friend Brian was throwing away.

Had I known two years ago how much I would like this model of recliner and how much I’d be using it, I would have gladly paid $715 for a factory-fresh model. I’m happy how things turned out, though. If you have an aging recliner, I hope my story will encourage you to repair it.

The previous repairs

As soon as I got my recliner home, I flipped it over and discovered missing and broken springs under the seat. Recliner-seat springs can be found at Amazon for about $10 with Prime shipping, and they’re easy to replace. I already wrote 1,600 words about that two years ago, so I won’t go into too many details here.

Seat Cushion Springs

The hardest part about putting those springs in is stretching them into place. I should have done some research two years ago, and I should have done research again when I decided to replace the cushion this week. You can get a T-Hook tool from Amazon for about $5. I’m sure my fingers and back would have thanked me if I had been smart enough to order one. Most of the T-Hook tools are an add-on item, and I’ll definitely be adding one to my toolbox on my next order.

When I was replacing the springs, I noticed two problems. The wooden frame that the springs are attached to had already been repaired once, and it was repaired poorly. The L-bracket in one of the front corners came loose at some point, and whoever reattached it didn’t line things up right—the L-bracket was back about an inch from its original location. This meant my springs weren’t getting as much tension on one side.

I also noticed that the seat cushion was in terrible shape. It had some cuts and gouges, and it was squished quite flat in the back. My quick fix at the time was to put the cushion in backwards.

It worked well, and it was a huge upgrade. The recliner may not have felt brand new, but I didn’t sink to the floor anymore, and the chair was worth sitting on.

I’ve been talking about replacing that cushion for two years, but the chair has been good enough, so I lacked any real motivation. I’m not sure what triggered my impulse to buy a new seat cushion, but I finally did. Had I known how much more of an improvement it would be, I would’ve bought one two years ago!

Replacing the cushion

Replacing the seat cushion was as easy as I expected. I measured the existing cushion. It was 4” thick and 24” wide. I never measured the length. I knew from my previous research that I would be buying a long piece of high density foam. I figured I’d cut it a few inches too long—I could always shorten it, but I can’t make it longer once it’s cut!

The Nicer Side of the Old Recliner Seat Cushion

I ordered a 4”-thick 24” x 72” piece of high density foam for $47 shipped. It cost a little more than some of the other options available at Amazon, but its compression rate was higher than most of the other high-density foam. A six-foot length of foam was more than I needed; it was enough to replace the foam in three recliners! The foam was inexpensive, and I have enough now that I could screw everything up and try again if I have to, and it was easy to put the rest back in the box and stick it in a closet.

Cutting the foam was easy. I put the old piece of foam on top for size, and I hacked away at it with my Swiss Army CyberTool 34. I was in a hurry, and I didn’t need a clean cut. I figured that side would be facing the back anyway!

Getting the new piece of foam in wasn’t as easy as I expected. The old, flattened, tattered foam slides in and out quite easily. The new foam was a tight fit, but I was able to muscle it into place. While I was cutting, I learned that the old foam was probably 1” or 2” narrower, and it was really bulging in the middle once I got it into place.

I was worried that this would work poorly or look funny, but once I got the recliner reassembled, it looks perfectly flat. It also feels amazing! I’m pretty heavy, and I don’t think I sink down into the chair at all. It is literally—not figuratively!—like a brand-new chair.

Straightening the seat frame

There’s not much to describe here. I took the screws out of the existing L-bracket, and I muscled the piece of wood in the front back to where it was from the factory—or at least extremely close to it! I drilled a new hole, and I put a fresh screw into the L-bracket.

The Goobered Up L-Bracket

Without the springs pulling on the frame, it was easy enough to move the frame back into place. I’m not sure how much impact this had on my repairs, but I figured I should fix it while I had the springs out.

I’m hoping this repair helped a little, and it was easy to do. I didn’t do a before and after with the new seat cushion for verification, but I’m not confident that I’ll be able to feel the difference. Those springs were just as hard to pull into place when the frame was an inch shorter on the left, and the seat never felt like it was leaning to one side.

It was a simple fix, though, and it only took a few minutes.

The results

I thought it felt like a new chair when I replaced the springs two years ago. I was wrong. It felt like a slightly less used chair—a chair that was comfortable enough to sit on, though.

With the new cushion, it truly does feel like a brand new chair. If I had just spent a few more minutes’ time and a few extra dollars two years ago, I could have been sitting on this the entire time! If you’re replacing springs, I highly recommend replacing the cushion at the same time.

Do you have an old, sagging recliner? Does it have busted springs and a sad, lumpy cushion? If you repaired it, I’d love to hear about how your repairs went! Was it worth your time and effort? I’m extremely happy with my results!

I Upgraded to a Canon 6D Full Frame DSLR

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It has been a year since I wrote about my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel XSi. By the time I bought that camera, it was already old, roughed up, and way out of date. It was still a fine camera capable of taking excellent photographs, and it still is. It was an excellent and inexpensive way to dip my toe into the waters of professional-grade digital photography, but I’ve known for a while that an upgrade was in my future. I’ve been buying all sorts of camera gear—mostly lenses—but I’ve been making sure everything I bought would work with a full-frame Canon DSLR—just in case!

Canon EOS 6D with Tamron 28-75 f/2.8

A few months ago, my wife started attending our Photography Club meetings at TheLab.ms. She’s been learning a lot, and she was borrowing my Rebel XSi to take pictures for our weekly photography contests. More and more often, I’d reach for my camera only to realize it wasn’t there. I was hoping to hold out a little longer before buying a new DSLR body, but this seemed like a good excuse to finally pull the trigger.

Should I upgrade to full frame?

When I bought my old, used DSLR, my primary use case was shooting better photos for my blog, and that old Rebel XSi from 2008 was more than up to the task. In fact, it did a fine job in almost every situation, especially after upgrading to my favorite lens—the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. I could take awesome photos around the house, in my home office, or at other less-than-ideally lit indoor locations. As long as I could keep the ISO down at 400, I was good to go.

Long Exposure of a Bus

I could have upgraded to a much less expensive crop-sensor camera. The Canon t4i, t5i and 60D are all reasonably priced cameras, and they can all push well past my old Rebel XSi’s ISO 1600 maximum. We recently upgraded my wife to a Canon 60D, so I’ve had a chance to compare photos!

I was using my Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens in downtown Plano one night at the Plano Art and Wine Walk. With only the street-lights to illuminate my photos at ISO 1600, I couldn’t get a fast-enough shutter speed to prevent people’s arms from being blurry when they were walking by. This was the biggest limitation of my old camera that I wanted to correct, and it is what led me towards the Canon 6D.

Why the Canon EOS 6D?

I did a lot of research before settling on the Canon 6D. I am a fan of used camera gear, and the Canon 6D has a nice price point on the used market. The Canon 6D sits about half-way between the price of the Canon 5D Mk2 and Mk3 on the used market.

I skipped the Canon 5D Mk2 because the low-light performance isn’t as good as either the 5D Mk3 or 6D. I could get a nicer, newer crop sensor Canon 60D for less than half the price of the 5D Mk2. They say having the full-frame sensor gets you about an extra half stop of light sensitivity, but I didn’t think that was enough to keep the 5D Mk2 on my list.

Tommy and Greg at The Downtown Plano Wine and Art Walk

I’d already been thinking about purchasing a Canon 6D for months, and this is the photograph that convinced me that it would be a worthwhile upgrade. I was pushing my Rebel XSi as far as I knew how, but Tommys and Greg’s hands are just a blur under those street lights, and there’s so much noise in their faces.

It was too dark that night to capture a lot of shots I would have liked, but this one stood out in my mind because I almost had it.

Canon 450D / XSi at ISO 800 Canon 60D at ISO 800 Canon 60D at ISO 3200 Canon 6D at ISO 6400

The Canon 6D and 5D Mark III have similar capabilities. The advantage of the 5D Mk3 compared to my Canon 6D is its huge quantity of autofocus points. I have rarely been in a situation where I need more than my center autofocus point, so I had a hard time getting excited about this.

The Canon 6D has Wi-Fi and GPS. I was hoping the Wi-Fi would come in handy, and getting a location stamped on all my photos is a nice bonus. For my purposes, saving $500 by going with a used Canon 6D was a no-brainer!

There are some excellent Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve handled a few. Their owners love them, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the LCD display in the viewfinder. The ones with better low-light performance than the Canon 6D also cost a good bit more, but if I didn’t already own a bag full of Canon EF mount lenses, my decision might have been more difficult!

New or used?

So far, I’ve had good luck with almost every piece of used photography gear I’ve bought from Amazon. I had one occasion where the item we received wasn’t as described. The used Sigma 18-125mm I ordered for my wife was supposed to be the model with optical stabilization, but the lens we received was the older model. The seller refunded a large portion of our purchase price, which made the lens an excellent value.

Brian at TheLab.ms Beer Brew Night

That’s my worst experience with buying used camera gear on Amazon, and it wasn’t bad at all. I’ve purchased three used lenses and three used bodies so far, and every one but the Sigma was exactly what I expected. I’ve mostly bought things that are described as being in “like new” condition.

I’ve saved nearly $2,000 buying used equipment instead of new. Your mileage may vary, of course.

My Canon 6D body was marked “used – like new” at Amazon. It was packaged in its original box, and it had a shutter count of around 5,000. You wouldn’t have known that it wasn’t brand new. The box was from the bundle with the Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens. It would have been amazing if that lens happened to still be in the box!

Just for your reference, I paid $1,150 for the Canon 6D body in September when new bodies were listed for around $1,750.

Was the full-frame Canon 6D worth the money?

I’m quite pleased with the upgrade. More than anything, I wanted better low-light performance out of my new camera, and the Canon 6D easily meets that requirement. I can take photographs around my office for the blog without turning on all my lights. My old Rebel XSi topped out at ISO 1600, and it was fairly noisy up that high.

The Canon EOS 6D has similar noise levels until around ISO 6400, and I can still push it to ISO 12800 in a pinch. Most of the time, Darktable’s profiled denoise function does a satisfactory job at ISO 12800 on my Canon 6D. I’ve only taken test shots at ISO 25600. It gets really noisy up there, and I haven’t yet found a need to push it that far in the real world.

Canon 450D at ISO 800 Canon 450D at ISO 1600 Canon 60D at ISO 800 Canon 60D at ISO 1600 Canon 60D at ISO 3200 Canon 60D at ISO 6400 Canon 6D at ISO 1600 Canon 6D at ISO 3200 Canon 6D at ISO 6400

If you enjoy taking shots with a shallow depth of field, you’ll love a full-frame camera. The first test shots I took at my desk with my Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 had a shallower depth of field than I ever saw on my crop-sensor Rebel XSi—even with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 or Yongnuo 35mm f/2 prime lenses! In fact, it is almost a struggle to get a deep enough depth of field when I shoot something that’s sitting on my desk—I’m often pushing it to F/8 or more!

My Canon 6D body cost almost three times as much as my wife’s used Canon 60D. They’re both fantastic cameras, and the 60D would have been a huge upgrade for me. I’ve only shot with my wife’s camera a few times, but I feel that I made the right decision.

Some of the things I prefer about the Canon 6D are minor. Even though the Canon 60D also has the professional-style layout, I think the controls feel better and more comfortable on my 6D.

For me, everything comes back to that low-light performance. I have confidence that no matter how dim the room is, I can push my ISO higher to squeeze out a little more shutter speed. I’m already letting just about as much light in as I can with my Tamron 28-75 f/2.8—a better body was the only upgrade I had left, and I think it was worth every penny.

The Canon 6D Wi-Fi is terrible

The Wi-Fi capabilities of the Canon 6D are just short of being useless. I’d been using a Wi-Fi SD card in my old camera for a few months. It wasn’t all that capable, but I could at least have it copy the raw files off my camera as I was shooting. The Canon 6D’s built-in Wi-Fi can’t send raw files at all.

I have found the Android app to be useful at times, but it is a real pain in the neck for my use case. I used it to share photos on Twitter while I was at SlingFest and the Downtown Plano Art and Wine Walk. This seemed like an ideal use case for the built-in Wi-Fi.

Chisomo at The Downtown Plano Wine and Art Walk

I figured it would be easy. I turned on the Wi-Fi hotspot on my phone and connected my camera. The camera connects just fine, but the Android app can’t see the Canon 6D on the network. Canon’s app simply refuses to even look for the camera on the network. I can view photos on the camera with other Android DLNA apps in this configuration, but I haven’t liked any of the DLNA apps I’ve tried.

The only way I am able to copy photos to my camera is by enabling the access point on the Canon 6D and connecting my phone that way. That means my phone is no longer connected to the Internet. It takes way too long to copy and share photos this way. There’s so much waiting involved every time you connect the phone to a new network, and sometimes I have to power cycle the camera to make things work.

Tethered shooting with the Android app is neat, but I rarely get to use it. Disconnecting my phone from the rest of the world isn’t worthwhile.

There is a downside when moving to full frame

I’ve long been prepared for my upgrade to a full-frame DSLR. Almost every lens I bought has been a full-frame lens—Canon full-frame (EF) lenses will mount on crop-sensor (EF-S) bodies, but not the other way around! I couldn’t use two lenses from my collection.

I can’t use the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. That’s no loss at all, since I’d replaced it with the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 a long time ago. The Tamron f/2.8 is a fantastic lens—sharp enough for me that I’ve almost completely stopped using my 50mm f/1.8 prime! It is a great value, too—especially used!

The Tamron 28-75mm is equivalent to about 45-120mm on a 1.6x crop-sensor camera—a perfect walking-around lens! It can go wide enough to use comfortably indoors, while still having enough reach when you’re walking around outside.

I knew my lenses would feel different on the Canon EOS 6D, but I didn’t anticipate just how different! My Tamron 28-75mm is so much less useful in wide, open spaces on the full-frame DSLR. It is still my favorite lens, and it is mounted to my camera 95% of the time, but I use it mostly indoors now. When I’m wandering around outside, I usually bring my telephoto lens now.

Speaking of the telephoto lens, that’s the other lens I had to replace. As soon as I got home from SlingFest last year, I ordered a Canon 55-250mm telephoto lens. SlingFest is a big place, and I missed a lot of shots because I couldn’t walk around quickly enough to follow all the action. I wanted to be prepared for the next year, and the Canon 55-250mm is a low cost used lens.

Unfortunately for me, the Canon 55-250mm is an EF-S lens, so it doesn’t work on my Canon 6D—it is in my wife’s bag now for her Canon 60D. When I bought the Canon 6D, SlingFest was already approaching fast. I also bought an ancient, used telephoto lens—a Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6. It is actually an old lens made for a film camera!

It is far from a great lens, but lighting is almost always favorable when I use it. It doesn’t have optical stabilization, so I make sure to keep the shutter speed at 1/1000 or faster. I’m slow and lazy, so I don’t shoot full manual when I’m away from home. That kept me shooting in Tv mode with the Tamron 70-300mm, which meant the lens was always wide open.

I’ve since figured out how to use Magic Lantern’s Auto Exposure mode. This lets me set a fast minimum shutter speed while forcing the aperture to f/8 or higher. My ancient Tamron 70-300mm won’t be winning any sharpness contests, but stopping down to f/8 improves the quality of the shots from my $75 lens quite a bit!

Why would I use a $75 lens on a $2,000 camera? The answer is simple: I only use my telephoto lens a handful of times every year, and it is almost always a sunny day when I use it.

Conclusion

I know I made the right decision. The low-light performance of the Canon 6D is leaps and bounds ahead of my old Rebel XSi or my wife’s Canon 60D. The extra money I spent is a small price to pay for having the confidence that I can get the shots that I want at night or when the lights are out.

Under good lighting conditions, it just doesn’t matter. Almost every shot I’ve taken with my Canon 6D would have looked just as good if I had taken them with my wife’s Canon 60D—or even my old Rebel XSi!

If I didn’t want that low-light confidence, I would be shooting with a 60D today. In many ways, it is a better camera than the 6D—it is lighter, has faster autofocus, and the extra zoom of a crop sensor is handy.

Either way, I am now a fan of Canon’s semi-pro and pro style bodies. They have some nice upgrades over the consumer models. The pentaprism in the 6D and 60D is brighter and clearer than the pentamirror in the consumer DSLR bodies, and the LCD display on top is much handier than I expected.

If you’re buying used like I do, the difference in price between a semi-pro body like the Canon 60D and a consumer body like the Canon t5i is quite small. I believe the 60D, t4i, and t5i all use the same sensor, too!

My First Quadcopter - The Blade Nano QX Drone and Upgrades

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We had our first quadcopter-build event in December at TheLab.ms makerspace in Plano, TX. The budget for that drone build was around $500. That included a 450-size quadcopter, a LiPo battery, a LiPo charger, and a really nice 6-channel controller—the Spektrum DX6. It was a great class, everyone had a good time, and we built and flew four drones that day.

450 Size Quadcopter at TheLab.ms Greg Flying His TheLab.ms Drone Flying an FPV Drone

I didn’t participate in the class. I’ve been doing a bad job at working on my own projects lately, so I thought it would be a bad idea to add yet another project to my plate. I did help out at the class, though, and I’ve been to all our quadcopter flying events—they’re fun to photograph! I think Brian got sick of me watching, so he suckered me into the hobby by giving me a Spektrum DX6 radio for Christmas.

I’m too impatient to wait for the next drone-build class at TheLab.ms, so on the instructor’s recommendation, I ordered a Blade Nano QX Bind and Fly micro quadcopter. It flies just like our big quadcopters, but it is small enough and gentle enough to fly indoors. This is awesome, because it means I don’t have to put on pants and drive to a park just to play with my quadcopter!

Harley And The Blade Nano

Amazon is amazing. The Blade Nano QX was available with free same-day shipping. I ordered the drone on Sunday night, and I was flying it around the house on Monday afternoon!

The first day or two

They’re pretty serious about the “bind and fly” part. It didn’t take long to find the bind option in the Spektrum DX6 controller’s menu. Once I did, I was up and flying in a matter of seconds!

Before the drone even arrived, I ordered a set of larger LiPo batteries on Brian’s recommendation. Unfortunately, they didn’t show up until a few days later. The stock battery would last for a little more than five minutes of flying time, then it had to go back in the charger for 30 to 40 minutes. I didn’t enjoy that waiting, so I most definitely recommend ordering more batteries right away!

The 200mAh Crazepony batteries are a nice upgrade. The stock Blade Nano QX doesn’t start getting sluggish until close to the seven-minute mark, and it usually didn’t drop out of the sky until the timer hit 8.5 minutes!

My Blade Nano QX with Extra Batteries

I was flying around the house quite a bit the first day, and our cat Harley really enjoys watching the Blade Nano zipping around the living room. As I got better, I started hovering near Harley while he was sitting on the cat tree. He gets really interested when I try to fly in acrobatic mode, because I have to constantly correct the thing, and it zips around like a giant bug.

Harley and the Blade Nano QX

Eventually, he started getting brave, and he finally swatted the quadcopter out of the sky—it was a real King Kong moment! The poor little Nano went spinning out of the sky, and one of his motors went kaput. I was bummed out that I couldn’t fly anymore, but this was a perfect excuse for a motor upgrade!

My motor upgrade

The Blade Nano QX uses 6x15mm coreless motors. I ordered a set of six 17,300 Kv Spintech Sidewinder Motors from Amazon for $17—they were available with Prime shipping, but not same day, so I had to wait three whole days to fly again! I don’t know how fast the stock motors are, but I’m under the impression that even 14,000 Kv motors are an upgrade. There were lots of motor options on Amazon. These Spintech motors sounded like some of the fastest, and it was only a few bucks more than everyone else’s pack of four—having two spares seems prudent to me!

I was worried I might have gone too far. I’d read that the upgraded motors make the Blade Nano QX unstable in stability mode. There is some truth there. It does seem to overcorrect quite often, but you can hear it more than you see it. I feel like I put in more aggressive cams because it sometimes almost sounds like it’s loping. It is a small price to pay for the extra power.

Blade Nano QX and Spintech 17300kv Motors

The motors were simple to install. The hardest part was tucking the wires in underneath the arms, but it didn’t take long at all.

The new Spintech Sidewinder motors seem fast—really fast! I can’t wait to compare this to Brian’s Nano in person. I thought I’d gotten pretty good at flying that Nano with the stock motors. The first thing I did with the new motors was smack hard into the ceiling!

I have no equipment to measure the speed of this upgrade. When we modify cars, we have a measuring device that we call the “butt dyno.” Small modifications can’t be measured with the “butt dyno,” but big modifications certainly can. You usually can’t actually feel the difference after an exhaust upgrade, but you definitely can feel the difference when you upgrade to a bigger turbocharger!

This upgrade most definitely registers on the “butt dyno.” It is a turbocharger upgrade for sure!

The downside of the motor upgrade

The batteries don’t last nearly as long with the faster motors. I had set the timer on the Spektrum counting down from 7:40, and the Nano always had a bit of juice left in the tank with the 200 mAh batteries. I’ve since turned the timer down to 4:40, and the Nano falls out of the sky about 20 seconds later.

It seems to fly almost as long on the stock battery as it did before the motor upgrade, but it doesn’t feel as fast. I assume the stock battery just can’t supply as much current.

I’m not sure the difference in flight time is quite as big as it seems. The Spektrum DX6 timer defaults to counting down when the throttle is above 25%. The Spintech Sidewinder motors generate lift at a lower throttle position—it starts to lift at about 10% throttle with a fresh battery! While there is definitely a difference in battery life, I don’t believe it is as high as three minutes.

Was it a worthwhile upgrade? I think so. I can still fly it in the house, and I imagine the new motors will be tons of fun outside—I haven’t tried yet! I don’t mind giving up the flight time because I have spare batteries!

No good battery-storage solutions? 3D printing to the rescue!

It seems like every time I step into a new hobby, I end up finding a way to work 3D printing into it—quadcopters haven’t been an exception! I’m not 3D printing quadcopters yet, but I did find a solution to a simple problem.

I have all these tiny LiPo batteries now. I know I’ll need to carry them around with me, but I didn’t have a good way to do that. I wanted to keep them organized, have a way to identify which batteries are charged, and make sure I wouldn’t be accidentally shorting any connections.

To my surprise, I couldn’t find anything like this on Thingiverse, so I designed my own. I measured the LiPo battery connectors, designed a parametric model in OpenSCAD, and had the print job running in about 20 minutes. The first attempt was too snug, but while it was printing, I came up with the idea of adding a slot for the USB LiPo charger. With any luck, that will keep me from losing the charger!

Why am I using the Spektrum DX6?

I don’t have a good answer to this question. The drone-class instructor says it is a top notch controller, and I believe him. All the builders in his class bought a Spektrum DX6, and as far as I can tell, it seems like a great piece of hardware. If your goal is to putter around with an inexpensive micro quadcopter, the price of the Spektrum DX6 sure seems a little extreme.

I want to learn to pilot a proper quadcopter, so I don’t think the toy-like controller that ships with the “Ready-to-Fly” version of the Blade Nano QX is a good way to go. I can’t recommend any in particular, but Amazon carries a whole slew of 6-channel transmitters in the $50 range.

The Spektrum DXe Transmitter looks like the little brother of my Spektrum DX6. It is still a 6-channel transmitter, but it has fewer switches and no LCD panel and is less than 1/3 the price.

What’s next?

I don’t think I’m going to build one of the 450mm drones that all my friends are building. I’m having a blast flying around indoors, and I’d like to have something faster and more nimble. These thoughts led me to the RS90 Indoor FPV Quadcopter. The RS90 uses brushless motors, and it has blade guards to protect itself and my home. The video of the RS90 tooling around the house is quite impressive!

Learning about the RS90 also brought the DJ105 Brushless Quadcopter to my attention. The DJ105 isn’t much longer than the RS90, but it is a good deal wider. It can accommodate bigger propellers, and the creator’s build has more than double the thrust of the RS90! That sounds like a lot of fun, but I have a feeling that the extra size and power might not work well indoors.

The DJ105 sounds pretty sturdy, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to pick up some nylon filament for my 3D printer.

Should I buy a Blade Nano QX?

There are other options, but I have no experience with them. I’m told the Nano QX was hot and exciting a few years ago. That means there might be newer, better, more exciting micro drones available now. I don’t care, though. I like the Blade Nano QX, and so does my buddy Harley.

The Blade Nano QX Bind-N-Fly is a good value. It flies well, and it pairs with DSMX radio controllers, so you can learn to fly a quadcopter with your real controller without worrying about destroying your expensive drone.

Flying an FPV Drone with TheLab.ms

If you want to build something bigger, and you’re near Plano, TX, you should stop by TheLab.ms makerspace . They have a community of quadcopter enthusiasts, and they’re going to have drone-building classes on a regular basis.

Six Months with the Steam Link

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UPDATE: I have an extra Steam Link, and I’m giving it away! Follow me on Twitter and retweet this tweet for a chance to win!

It is hard for me to believe that I first wrote about my Steam Link over six months ago. I’d have guessed I owned it half as long, but I realized that my recollection is clouded by the fact that I added a second Steam Link to my network just a few months ago.

The Steam Link, Steam Controller, and Rascal Pants

Being able to stream games from my computer to my televisions has come in handy, and I’ve had a chance to try some controller-based games in my Steam library that I might never have bothered to play on my computer.

How does the Steam Link work?

The Steam client on your PC captures your display and encodes that data into an h.264 video stream. That stream is sent over your local area network to the Steam Link that’s plugged into your TV. Your game controller connects to the Link, and the Link transmits your controller inputs back to your computer.

This adds some latency to your gaming. For the most part, this hasn’t caused me any problems. It probably goofs up my Rocket League game a bit, but the additional 10ms of latency usually isn’t something you’ll notice.

Steam In-Home Streaming Settings

Steam streaming doesn’t even require a Steam Link. You can stream from one PC to another as long as they are both on your local network and have the Steam client running, but the Link is inexpensive, does its job quite well, and it is easy to hide behind your TV.

Does it use a lot of bandwidth? Do I need a fast Internet connection?

If you’re using a hard-wired connection, you shouldn’t have any trouble. Playing games at 1080p just about maxes out the 100-megabit Ethernet connection on the Link. That’s enough bandwidth that I don’t often notice serious mpeg artifacts, though you can sometimes see some blocking when a game fires off lots of explosions.

You don’t need a fast Internet connection. As long as Steam will let you play your game offline, you don’t need the Internet at all. All Steam streaming traffic stays inside your house.

The Link in my office is plugged into my wired network, and so is the desktop computer that runs my games. I rarely have trouble streaming games in here.

Does the Steam Link work over Wi-Fi?

Yes, it does, but not particularly well. If you’re going to stream your games over Wi-Fi, things will go a lot smoother if one end of the connection uses a wired connection instead of Wi-Fi. If both ends are on Wi-Fi, you’re cutting your bandwidth in half—every packet will go from the PC to your Wi-Fi access point, then from your access point to the Link.

When I added a Steam Link to the TV in the living room, I tried streaming games over my old 802.11a access point. It worked better than I expected, but I had to limit the resolution to 720p. Even then, Steam’s In-Home Streaming often turns the bandwidth down, and the quality of the stream suffers. The overall latency was closer to 30ms, but I was able to play some Rocket League in the living room!

My old powerline Ethernet hardware is just too old for Steam streaming. They claim to be 200 megabit, but in practice they only manage about 30 megabit, and the latency is just awful. Newer hardware might work better, and it may be worth a try, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

A Picture Of Harley For No Reason

I decided to upgrade my Wi-Fi. I purchased a D-Link DIR-860L 802.11ac router, and I’m using it as an access point. They’re only about $30 at Amazon, which is good, because I didn’t want to invest too much money in this streaming experiment. I was in need of some extra Ethernet switch ports on the other side of my home office, and the DIR-860L does seem to be supported pretty well by OpenWRT. I’m still running the stock firmware because it looks like it has significantly better wireless performance, and I need every megabit I can squeeze out of it!

Everything is working out much better in the living room now that I’m using 802.11ac. When things are working well, the performance is nearly as good as the wired Link in my office. The latency is only about 5ms worse. Keep in mind that my PC is hard-wired to my network.

Things don’t always work so smoothly, though. I tried to play some Neon Chrome in the living room last night. Things were all right for about 5 minutes, but then I started to have connectivity issues. I figured I might try rebooting the new D-Link box, but it is located upstairs. Since I was already going upstairs, I just continued my game in my office.

Wired is definitely the way to go.

Choosing a controller

I bought the Steam Link and Steam Controller at the same time. The Steam Controller is a fantastic piece of hardware. It is a huge improvement over a PlayStation or Xbox controller when it comes to aiming in most shooters. You use the right touchpad for large movements, and then you can bring your aim in more precisely with the motion controls to pull of those head shots. It may not be as fast and accurate as a mouse, but it is surprisingly good once you get used to it.

I’m also a big fan of the two extra buttons on the underside of the Steam Controller. It is nice to have more buttons within easy reach, especially with the Steam Controller’s lack of face buttons.

Steam Controller and Dual Shock 4 On My Desk

I’m glad I bought the Steam Controller. It isn’t well suited to all games, but I would never play a game like Borderlands 2 on the TV without it. There are plenty of other controllers that work well with the Steam Link, but I’m only going to tell you about the ones I’ve tried.

When the Link first arrived, I tried all sorts of my favorite games. I quickly learned that the Steam Controller was a pretty poor choice for games like Super Meat Boy, so I plugged in my wireless Xbox 360 controller. It worked exactly as well as when I plug the controller directly into the computer.

Things have improved even more since then. Now the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4 controllers are first-class citizens, and Steam allows you to remap the controls just like you can with the Steam Controller. How awesome is that?

As soon as I saw this announcement, I immediately ordered a PlayStation 4 controller, and I’ve been using it ever since. I’ve played quite a few hours of Rocket League with it, and the d-pad is such a huge upgrade over the Xbox 360 controllers. That said, used Xbox 360 wireless controllers are a tremendous value—we have eight of them at TheLab.ms that we use every week for Video Game Night!

All three of these controllers work great. Use the one you prefer, use the one you already have, or use all three!

PlayStation 3 controllers are fully supported now, too. I’m using my old PS3 controller in the living room.

Is the Steam Link bad at anything?

Being that I’m of a certain age, one of the first things non-Steam things I tried to get streaming to the Link was a Nintendo Entertainment System emulator. This seems like a strange thing to stream to the TV that’s mounted above my cocktail arcade cabinet, since I could just fire it up there and play with arcade controls. It was easy enough to get working, but Super Mario Bros. just felt so terrible!

It has something to do with the video encoding. As you run through the world, the screen sort of stretches and oscillates. It looks terrible, and it feels terrible. I imagine Sonic the Hedgehog would feel even worse!

I haven’t found any native games with the same problem. Super Meat Boy is the most Mario-like game I’ve played, and it looks fine.

Why did I just think to write about this now?

Neon Chrome was part of the most recent Humble Monthly Bundle. I’m a long-time fan of the twin-stick shooter Dead Nation. I’ve been looking for a game with a similar feel for years, but most twin-stick shooters are all about spamming your gun. Neon Chrome has taken most of what I enjoy about Dead Nation and thrown in a bunch of my favorite roguelike elements from Rogue Legacy.

They’ve done a good job with this game, and I’ve been playing it a lot this week. I’m approaching the end of my second play-through, and I’ve been playing for about 16 hours so far. At some point I realized that those 16 hours were spent using the Steam Link, and I’d almost completely forgotten that I was actually streaming the game!

Neon Chrome Steam

That’s my favorite part about the Steam Link—I sometimes forget about all the hoops it is jumping through to allow me to play my favorite games on the television!

It isn’t always perfect

Every once in a while, I don’t get any audio when the Link connects to my PC. A quick disconnect and reconnect always fixes the problem, so I haven’t bothered to dig any deeper into this issue.

Like most of the issues I had with Steam In-Home Streaming in the early days, I’m assuming this problem will be corrected at some point in the future.

Conclusion

If you enjoy video games, and you have a large collection in your Steam library, you should definitely own a Steam Link. It is a great value at $50, and it is probably the least cumbersome way to move your PC gaming to the couch.

Choosing Quality USB Cables

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In the past, I hadn’t given much thought to the quality of my USB cables. As long as they can pass data and charge my phone overnight, that was all I needed. That changed when I acquired my Chuwi Hi12 tablet. It charges via a Micro-USB port, and the supplied charger provides up to 2.4 amps. This big tablet charges quite slowly, so I wanted to make sure I could get as many milliamps to the tablet as possible.

Thinner wires have higher resistance, and so do longer wires. For convenience, I wanted to pack a 10’ USB cable in my laptop bag to charge my Chuwi Hi12. When I ordered my nylon-wrapped 10’ USB cable, I also dropped a nifty USB ammeter into my cart as well. Truth be told, I expected most of the USB cables in my home office to have similar performance.

Chuwi Hi12 and The Old Fujitsu P2120

Had this been the case, though, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this blog post. I was surprised by my initial findings. Some of my thicker, more expensive cables ended up being poor performers. In fact, they performed worse than some of my thin, generic cables—a thick jacket doesn’t always mean there’s thicker gauge wire inside!

tl;dr

Buy Volutz nylon braided cables. They are high-quality cables, they look great, and Volutz cables are very reasonably priced!

The Volutz cables seem to be in short supply at Amazon. The [Anker PowerLine cables][ak] charge my devices slightly faster than the Volutz cables, and their Kevlar wrapping sounds interesting. I just wish they came in 10’ lengths!

  • [Anker PowerLine Micro-USB 5-pack][ak] at Amazon

Testing methodology

I tried to be as scientific as possible. When your device has less charge, it will draw more amperage. I used my Chuwi Hi12 because it is the most power-hungry device I own that charges using a Micro-USB port. I started with the Chuwi Hi12 at about 75% charge—low enough to draw a lot of current, while high enough that I didn’t have to wait all day for the battery to drain.

Using a USB Power Meter

I tested each cable with four different chargers and one USB battery pack. I didn’t need to test this many different chargers. I definitely wanted to compare a high-amperage charger against a more common 1A charger. My intuition says that even a crummy USB cable will work fine if the current is low enough, but my curiosity got the better of me—I wanted to know if I was carrying the optimal charging adapter in my laptop bag!

Enough with the jibber-jabber! Lets see those numbers!

  Chuwi 3A Ravpower 2.4A Omaker 2.4A Fire TV 1.2A Kmashi Battery
Kmashi 6” 1.29 1.83 1.81 1.17 0.86
Aukey 3’ 1.68 1.28 1.27 0.97 0.73
Omaker 3’ 1.52 1.23 1.16 0.95 0.69
Volutz 3’ 2.09 1.76 1.85 1.17 0.85
[Anker Kevlar 3’][ak] 1.83 1.83 —— —— 0.71
Ravpower 3’ 1.86 1.44 1.4 0.4(?) 0.76
[Anker Kevlar 6’][ak] 1.83 1.59 —— —— 0.71
Volutz 6’ 1.98 1.54 1.52 1.17 0.74
Ravpower 10’ 1.29 1.03 0.97 0.84 0.6
Volutz 10’ 1.77 1.47 1.42 1.15 0.73

NOTE: The Anker cables are a late addition to the chart. I tried to replicate my test conditions as closely as possible, but I’ve misplaced two of the chargers, and all the cables I retested today scored 0.05+ amps lower than last time. I don’t know what’s to blame, but the differences are less than 5%.

The Volutz cables that I chose actually ended up being quite good! In fact, I only have one non-Volutz cable that works better than my ridiculously long 10’ Volutz cable, and it is only 3’ long!

The first cable I ordered specifically for my Chuwi Hi12 was a single Volutz 10’ Micro-USB cable—the one with the fancy blue nylon covering. My USB ammeter said it was pretty good cable, so I ordered more Volutz cables. This time it was the 5-pack of assorted cables in 3’, 6’ and 10’ lengths.

KMASHI 15k Battery and RAVPower WiFi Dingus

Aside from the Volutz cables, I also tested cables that I’ve been accruing over the years. My RAVPower Micro-USB cables came in an assortment of similar lengths, and the Aukey cables came in an assorted set of 3’ and 1’ lengths. I included the Omaker and Kmashi cables in the table, because they came with two of the charging devices I used in my testing.

Anker’s Kevlar cables (added 2017-01-22)

I’ve been using the Volutz cables for three months, and I’m quite pleased with them. The micro-USB ends still feel like new, and I have nothing to complain about. I saw a deal on [a 5-pack of Anker PowerLine Micro-USB cables][ak] a few days ago, and I just had to try them out!

They look and feel exactly like ordinary USB cables. At first glance, you’d most likely mistake them for some of the thicker generic USB cables I tested. Whereas those cheap cables are mostly rubber, these nice Anker cables are mostly copper! In fact, Anker upgraded the 5-volt line in these cables to 20-gauge wire.

I tested all the other cables three months ago, and I’m not entirely convinced that I replicated the test perfectly. I retested the Volutz 6’ cable for comparison, and I’m getting about 0.06 fewer amps out of it this time around. I have quite a few Volutz 6’ cables floating around, so I may have tested a different cable last time. The guy running the tests is most likely to blame for any inconsistencies. Today’s results are within about 5%, so I’m not too worried.

On my chart, the [Anker PowerLine cables][ak] scored almost as well as my Volutz cables. In today’s tests, my Volutz 6’ cable didn’t do quite as well as the Anker PowerLine 6’ cable—the Volutz cable came in about 0.06 amps lower than the last time I tested.

The [Anker PowerLine cables][ak] are probably the better cable. I just wish Anker sold a 10’ version to match my Volutz 10’ Micro-USB cable!

  • [Anker PowerLine Micro-USB 5-pack][ak] at Amazon

The data on the chargers is interesting

The big, clunky power supply that came with my Chuwi Hi12 provides almost 20% more amperage than either of my 2.4A power supplies. Unfortunately, it is a Chinese charger with an adapter for American wall sockets. It works fine hiding on the floor next to my recliner, but it is too clunky and fiddly to use away from home.

One of the first things I bought for the Chuwi was a RAVPower charger with a pair of 2.4A ports for about $10. It is compact, and it works great. About a week after it arrived, there was a deal at Amazon on some Omaker brand 2.4A chargers. A two-pack of Omaker chargers was $8.99. I couldn’t pass them up at that price.

Amazon, Omaker, and RAVPower USB Chargers

Instead of two identical 2.4A charging ports like the RAVPower unit, the Omaker charger has one 2.4A port and one “quick-charge” port. The “quick-charge” port can provide 9V or 12V to certain devices. If you don’t have any devices that can take advantage of the “quick-charge” port, I’d go with the RAVPower unit—it is more compact and charges ordinary 5V devices a bit faster.

Conclusion

If you need to charge your power-hungry USB devices quickly, or you need a long cable, I can’t recommend the Volutz USB cables highly enough. They’re high-quality USB cables with sturdy connectors, and they charge my devices at least 30% faster than my next best cable when using a 2.4A charger. The difference is almost as wide using a 1.2A charger. My Android phone will only draw about 1A, and my 10’ Volutz cables can charge my phone 20% faster than any of my 3’ cables.

I am a fan of the nylon braiding of the Volutz cables. The braiding looks cool, and the cables don’t tangle as easily, because the braiding keeps the cable stiff.

The State of Linux on My Chuwi Hi12 - October 2016

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I knew running Linux on my Chuwi Hi12 tablet would be a challenge. I did my research before ordering the Chuwi tablet, and things weren’t looking too promising when my tablet arrived at my door early in August.

Most Linux distros would boot up just fine, but most of the hardware that makes my convertible Chuwi Hi12 tablet interesting just didn’t work yet. The touchscreen didn’t work. The Wi-Fi didn’t work. The sound didn’t work.

Chuwi Hi12 Running Xubuntu 16.10

Even back then, I think you could shoehorn in a working Wi-Fi driver. That would at least leave you with a functional laptop. I didn’t buy a laptop. I bought a tablet, and a tablet without a touchscreen isn’t much of a tablet.

Too long; didn’t read!

I’ll talk about most of this at length, but I’m sure most of you are just here for the highlights.

What works:

  • GPU / Display / Manual rotation
  • HDMI Audio (untested)
  • Touchscreen
  • Keyboard dock and touchpad
  • MicroSD slot
  • USB ports
  • Lid sensor
  • Wi-Fi
  • Active Stylus

What doesn’t work:

  • Sound
  • Cameras
  • Accelerometer
  • Bluetooth (untested)
  • Suspend / Resume
  • Power and volume buttons
  • Battery and AC status
  • MicroSD slot

Other problems:

  • X.org eats CPU after manual screen rotation (XFCE problem?)
  • Goodix touchscreen module sometimes needs to be unloaded and reloaded at boot

Wi-Fi and HDMI audio don’t work out of the box on Ubuntu 16.10. The power button was working when I installed Xubuntu 16.10, but it isn’t anymore. I haven’t figured out what change caused it to stop functioning.

UPDATE: My power and volume buttons are being recognized once again. I caused the problem by unloading and reloading the Goodix touchscreen kernel module. I was able to correct the problem by adding a delay before reloading the module. This is an odd problem, but at least it works!

UPDATE: Using a MicroSD card has been problematic, and it seems to have gotten worse over time. It got to the point where there was less than a 50% chance of my SD card working on each reboot. I decided to wipe out Windows 10 and move my home directory to the built-in flash. Since this change, I have been able to suspend and resume over and over again without any issues.

What works on Linux?

Ubuntu 16.10 has made a lot of progress. The touchscreen works—most of the time. Sometimes I need to rmmod and modprobe the goodix module when the tablet boots up. That was simple enough to automate at each reboot!

The GPU works fine, and the 2160x1440 display is detected automatically. The dock’s keyboard and touchpad work as expected. The USB ports work, and the Micro-SD reader functions correctly most of the time. I have my home directory on an SD card, and I have managed to lock up the tablet by hammering on it hard enough. The Micro-SD reader has been acting flakier and flakier. I finally ended up wiping the Windows 10 partition, and for the time being I won’t be using the SD card.

I had to compile a new Wi-Fi driver for the rtl8723bs chip. You can clone the driver from GitHub and compile it yourself. The directions are quite clear, but if you aren’t comfortable with this sort of thing, you should check out the builds from Linuxium. They have Ubuntu install media that includes their patched kernel, or you can just install their kernel on your existing Ubuntu installation.

You also have to change the mode of the Wi-Fi chip to PCI. It can be found in the BIOS under Chipset -> South Bridge -> LPSS & SCC Configuration -> SSC SDIO Support.

Chuwi Hi12 BIOS

The Chuwi HiPen is mostly functional. It works as a high-accuracy pointing device, and the edge of my palm doesn’t trigger the touch screen. However, the buttons don’t seem to trigger any events.

What doesn’t work on Linux?

There’s quite a bit of important stuff that doesn’t work on Linux yet. The most important missing feature for me is sound. The Linuxium kernel is patched to support sound over HDMI, but there is currently no support for the on-board Intel sound chip. The Chuwi Hi12 and Chuwi Hi10 both use the same sound chip as the Surface 3, and work seems to be progressing there. I hope that work will spill over to our inexpensive tablet soon!

Neither of the cameras work. I don’t find that to be a big loss; I don’t use them anyway.

Suspend and resume is flaky. I can resume from suspend successfully once. If I suspend a second time, I can’t get the Chuwi Hi12 to wake up. This wouldn’t bother me much on a laptop, but it is an extreme annoyance on a tablet.

If I’m not using a MicroSD card, then suspend and resume works reliably.

AmazonBasics 11.6 inch bag

The accelerometer doesn’t work yet. I believe a driver exists, but it doesn’t work yet. I set up a simple script that watches for the keyboard dock. If the tablet is in the dock, I force the screen to landscape mode. When the tablet is removed from the dock, it switches to portrait. This isn’t an ideal solution, but it has me covered 99% of the time.

Unfortunately, once the screen is rotated, X.org runs away and consumes tons of CPU. It doesn’t noticeably impact performance, but I bet it is eating up my battery.

Speaking of battery, Linux can’t yet read the charge state of the battery. I have no idea how much juice is remaining, so I’ve been making it a habit to plug in whenever I can.

Hacking around the lack of accelerometer

I added a udev rule to create a symlink called keyboard_dock when the Chuwi Hi12 is plugged into the keyboard dock. This gives my little daemon script something to watch for.

/etc/udev/rules.d/keyboard.rules
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ACTION=="add", ATTRS{idVendor}=="258a", ATTRS{idProduct}=="6a88", SYMLINK+="keyboard_dock"

Here is my kludge of a daemon script. It uses inotify to watch the /dev/ directory. When the keyboard dock changes state, it rotates the display and touch screen. It also reloads my xmodmap configuration, because it seems to be lost every time the keyboard is plugged back in.

chuwi-loop.sh
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#! /bin/zsh

while true; do
  if [[ -e /dev/keyboard_dock ]]; then
    xrandr -o normal
    xinput set-prop 11 "Evdev Axes Swap" 0
    xinput set-prop 11 "Evdev Axis Inversion" 0, 0
    xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap
  else
    xrandr -o left
    xinput set-prop 11 "Evdev Axes Swap" 1
    xinput set-prop 11 "Evdev Axis Inversion" 1, 0
    xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap
  fi

  inotifywait  /dev --excludei '^[a-jl-z0-9]'
  sleep 1;
done

Would I be better off running Windows?

It is a close call, but I am already slightly better off running Linux full time on my Chuwi Hi12 for my purposes. Having a proper terminal emulator with a first-class UNIX shell environment is so much more useful to me than the “Bash on Ubuntu on Windows” nonsense, and being able to use a good window manager to wrangle all my terminal windows is much more comfortable.

Two of our Chuwi Hi12 laptops

It has been over a week since I last booted Windows 10, and I’m confident that I won’t be booting it again. The lack of audio on Linux is probably my biggest nuisance at the moment, but I’ve really only missed it once or twice.

For now, though, I have a working web browser, a better Emacs experience, and I spend less time managing windows. And on top of that, everything on my Chuwi now looks and feels just like my Linux laptop and desktop.

Everything works just well enough to keep me from wanting to boot into Windows, and I’m hopeful that things will continue to improve in the future!

My Chuwi Hi12 - Two Months Later

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I’ve had my Chuwi Hi12 for more than two months now. I’ve used it every single day. It has become an essential part of my daily workflow at home, and I take it with me almost every time I leave the house.

Chuwi Hi12 HiPen Active Stylus Pen

My friends at Gearbest sent me a Chuwi HiPen stylus to try out, so I thought this would be a good time to post an update on how things are going with the Chuwi.

All three Chuwi Hi12 tablets are doing fine!

We currently have a trio of Chuwi Hi12 tablets in the family. I have one, my wife has one, and my father-in-law has one. They’re all still working and used on a regular basis. Mine sees more use than the other two, but my wife brings her Chuwi every time she visits TheLab.ms makerspace.

Two Out of Our Three Chuwi Hi12 Tablets

I ended up taking off the plastic screen protector from my Chuwi during its first month of service. Since it doesn’t have Corning Gorilla glass, I was worried that I’d end up scratching the screen. I’ve never scratched a plastic laptop screen, and the screen on my Chuwi is still unscratched, so I’m not too worried about it.

My fingers glide much more smoothly across the glass. The touch screen also seems more responsive now, especially when it is wobbling slightly in the keyboard dock.

I dropped my Chuwi Hi12

I’ve had a laptop in my possession continuously for almost 20 years now. Before owning the Chuwi, I had only dropped a laptop once. I believe my Fujitsu P2120 ended up tipping off the night stand. It suffered a minor cosmetic injury, and if I remember the incident correctly, it wasn’t entirely my fault.

When I dropped the Chuwi, it was my fault. I was carrying it around like an open laptop, and I set it down on top of one of our FlashForge Creator Pro 3D printers at TheLab.ms. Had it been a real laptop, this would have been fine.

If you’ve ever seen the acrylic tent on top of a FlashForge Creator Pro, you can probably already guess what happened. The edges of the tent are a good bit higher than the center. This pushed the Chuwi tablet up and out of its dock, and it tumbled onto the desk behind the printer.

Other than a tiny scuff mark on its metal shell, everything is fine.

The Chuwi Handwriting Pen

Gearbest asked me if I’d like to try out the active stylus pen for the Chuwi Hi12, and I have to say I was excited to give it a try. There was a good chance it would address one of the biggest failings of my Windows 10 tablet experience.

I have over 900 games in my Steam library. Quite a few of those games started life as mobile games, and some of the native PC games now have mobile ports. Almost every one that I wanted to play in tablet mode can’t be played without a mouse. They either need a way to efficiently click the right mouse button, or they need the middle mouse button. The pen almost solves the first problem, but doesn’t address the second.

Chuwi Hi12 HiPen Active Stylus Pen

I was looking forward to playing Prison Architect on a giant tablet, but Prison Architect uses the middle mouse button to scroll. When I eventually get Linux working on the Chuwi, I’ll definitely be able to address this issue, and I’m certain I’ll be playing Prison Architect with pen.

One of the best games I tried with the active pen so far is Torchlight 2. It runs well enough on the Chwui Hi12, and the controls work great. After playing for a few minutes with the pen, though, I learned that it is more comfortable to play with my fingers.

Torchlight 2 on The Chuwi Hi12 Tablet

The pen hardware is fantastic. It is a metal pen with a reasonable amount of heft to it—not ridiculously heavy, but it doesn’t feel like a disposable Bic. It is pressure sensitive and extremely accurate.

I am a big fan of whiteboards. Using my tablet in place of one seemed like it would be fun, so I sketched a few things using Microsoft OneNote. It is rare that you’ll hear me say nice things about Microsoft’s products, but OneNote has a feature that I haven’t had since my Palm Treo 650. It has an option that lets you draw sloppy geometric shapes, and it converts them into clean polygons.

I haven’t had to work on anything yet that requires a sketch, but I’m looking forward to the day when I get to exclaim, “Wait a minute! I’ll get my stylus!” with great anticipation.

Gearbest gave me a coupon code (GBHSP) for the Active Stylus Pen. It looks like it will get you the Chuwi Hipen H1 for $14.99 with free shipping.

Linux on the Chuwi Hi12

I’m not running Linux on my Chuwi just yet, but I’m getting closer. I expect I’ll be wiping Windows 10 off the Chuwi shortly after Ubuntu 16.10 is released. I booted a few live Linux distros, and my findings are quite promising.

I was able to compile a working Goodix touchscreen driver from GitHub. I didn’t have success at first, but there’s a rather large bug in the “working” Goodix driver. It doesn’t work after a cold boot. The touchscreen always seems to work fine on the second boot. If I can’t fix this, it will be annoying, but it won’t be a show stopper.

Xubuntu Booting On The Chuwi Hi12

I booted a strange, scary, Cherry Trail oriented Ubuntu derivative. It had a working driver for the Chuwi Hi12’s rtl8723bs Wi-Fi chipset.

Sound didn’t work on either of the Linux distros I tested. lspci shows the same multimedia controller as the Microsoft Surface 3, but ALSA doesn’t see anything. The Surface 3 is currently in the same boat, so I’m hopeful that the Chuwi will make progress here soon.

I was able to suspend and resume the tablet several times without issue.

I didn’t think to test the cameras—I don’t care if they work. It will be annoying to not have working audio, but it will be less annoying and embarrassing than using Windows 10.

How have I been using the Chuwi Hi12?

I intended for my Chwui Hi12 to take the place of both my giant 18.4” laptop and my 8.3” Android tablet. There are still situations where my aging desktop-replacement laptop is a much more suitable tool than the Chuwi, but those situations haven’t come up often. In fact, I’ve only taken my old HP laptop with me once since my tablet arrived.

At home, I use the Chuwi in tablet mode to read through my email, RSS feeds, Twitter, and Reddit. I usually do this from the recliner in my office or in the living room. I might peck out an occasional tweet with the on-screen keyboard, but if I have to respond to an email, I’ll drop the Chuwi into the keyboard dock.

AmazonBasics 11.6-inch Laptop Bag

As I expected, my Chuwi tablet spends most of its time docked in the keyboard. I’ve had lots of better laptop keyboards than the Chuwi Hi12 dock, but I’ve had a few worse, too. It gets the job done, but when I’m typing fast, it often misses my shift key and I end up missing capital letters. It works fine if I slow down a little, so I imagine most people don’t notice this.

I use the Chuwi as a laptop much more often than as a tablet. There are a lot of reasonably priced ultrabooks that are lighter and much faster than my Chuwi Hi12, and sometimes I wonder if that’s the route I should have gone. The Xiaomi Air 12 is small, light, and inexpensive. It’s also a bit faster than my old laptop.

I may only do it once or twice a day, but being able to ditch the keyboard and relax is a great feature. If I were using a standard ultrabook instead, I’d miss the tablet. Especially away from home, where I wouldn’t be likely to have both a laptop and tablet available.

The Chuwi Hi12 is powerful enough for the tasks I do when I’m not in my home office. I can comfortably surf the web, check email and Twitter, and write blog posts using Emacs. I can even edit RAW photos from my DSLR, though I’d prefer to wait until I get home—the Chuwi just feels too slow when using Darktable!

I had trouble with the keyboard, and it was all my fault!

For quite a few days, my Chuwi wasn’t making a good connection to the keyboard dock. When it was in my lap, it would disconnect and reconnect every time I’d fidget a bit. It even had trouble on my desk if I used the touch screen while it was docked in the keyboard. I thought for certain that there was something wrong with the Pogo pins.

The problem was much simpler than that. The connectors were just dirty. I’ve been telling everyone that I must have been eating while holding the tablet, and I got some pizza on the connector. It wasn’t visibly dirty, though, so I don’t know what actually got on there. I only know that cleaning it with my screen cleaner, aka rubbing alcohol, took care of the problem.

I’m still going to claim that the problem was caused by pizza.

Charging the Chuwi and USB battery packs

The Chuwi Hi12’s battery lasts a long time. I used it for several hours each day, and it rarely has less than 50% charge when I plug it in at the end of the day. I know it’ll manage to run for more than 6 hours with the screen at 50% brightness, and dropping that down to 25% probably extends the run time by nearly 2 hours. 50% brightness is too bright in a dimly lit room, while 25% is just about right.

The Chuwi Hi12 charges quite slowly. I tested a lot of USB cables. Even with my biggest 3A USB wall charger and my best Volutz Micro USB cable, it still takes forever to charge. How long is forever? I’ve never had the patience to measure, since it usually tops off over night. I do know that when I’m down below 30%, Windows 10 estimates that it will take over four hours to charge. This is the disadvantage of charging using Micro USB.

There is an advantage, though. I can run my laptop using USB battery packs. My oldest, smallest battery pack can only put out about 500 mA. That’s not enough to charge the Chuwi, but it does slow down the draining of the Chuwi’s battery.

Kmashi and RAVPower USB Battery Packs

The battery pack I carry in my laptop bag is a RAVPower Wi-Fi router with a 6,000 mAh battery built in. It can put out about 1,000 mA. That’s not enough to charge the laptop while it is running, but it is enough to keep the laptop battery from discharging. It can run the laptop for 3.5 hours.

I have a 15,000 mAh Kmashi battery pack. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ran the Chuwi for over 10 hours. I certainly don’t have the patience to find out!

I did encounter a small peculiarity during testing these USB batteries. When the battery gets close to dying, the Chuwi Hi12 would usually power off. I’m assuming Chuwi skimped somewhere in their charging circuitry, and it doesn’t always manage to switch over to the internal battery when the voltage on the USB power drops.

It is a minor problem, but that doesn’t make it any less strange.

The verdict

I’ve been using the Chuwi Hi12 for more than two months, and I won’t be surprised if I’m still using it twelve months from now. For my use case, it is just fast enough, just light enough, and you just can’t beat the price. It is a great piece of hardware for the price, especially when you can get the Chuwi Hi12 tablet and keyboard from Gearbest.com for less than $300. It isn’t priced that low every day, but it seems to be on sale more often than not.

My Little Drawing With The Chuwi HiPen Active Stylus

I’m enjoying the Chuwi HiPen, too, and I suspect I’ll use it more and more as time goes on. For my purposes, I don’t think I’d pay the $40 that Amazon is asking for the pen, but with the coupon code (GBHSP) at Gearbest.com, you can get it for $15 shipped. That’s a much better value.

If you need a laptop for light duties, and you have a workload like me, I highly recommend the Chuwi Hi12. The versatility and build quality are amazing, and it is hard to beat the Hi12’s beautiful 12” 2160x1440 display. There’s just nothing comparable at this price point.

You can save almost $100 if you go with the smaller Chwui Hi10. Aside from the smaller display, the Chuwi Hi10 is almost identical to the Chuwi Hi12. If you don’t need the larger, higher-resolution screen, then the Chuwi Hi10 may be a better choice. I think the screen on the Hi12 is well worth the extra $100.

The Chuwi Hi12 Tablet and Keyboard

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I’ve been using the same laptop for more than six years. It is a giant laptop with an 18.4” screen, and it weighs nearly ten pounds. When I bought it, it was a desktop replacement, and its quad core i7 processor is still just as fast as any of the ultrabooks I’ve been interested in—like my friend Brian’s Dell XPS 13.

My Fujitsu P2120 Posing With My Chuwi Hi12

The big laptop is nice when I travel, because I often end up setting it up on a desk somewhere at my destination, and it sits there for most of the duration of my trip. Lately, though, I’ve been lugging my heavy laptop bag to TheLab.ms makerspace several times each week, so I’ve been feeling the need for a more portable laptop.

More than a decade ago, I owned a Fujitsu P2120. It was an expensive, business-grade, netbook-size laptop from the days before inexpensive netbooks even existed. It was small, light, and it would run for 10 hours on a single charge. I was hoping to recreate that experience with modern hardware, and without spending $2,500 like I did in 2003.

In the size and weight range I was interested in, there are quite a few tablets with keyboards and kickstands—like the HP Spectre x2 and Surface Pro 3—but I don’t like these kickstands. I wanted something that I could comfortably use in my lap. I don’t want to skip ahead too far, but I’m writing this blog post in my office while sitting in my big recliner with my Chuwi Hi12 on my lap.

I had quite a few requirements on my wishlist, and the Chuwi Hi12 did a good job of meeting most of them.

  • 12” or 13” screen
  • Tablet with a keyboard dock
  • No kickstands!
  • x86 CPU
  • As much RAM as possible
  • Linux support

What else did I look at besides the Chuwi Hi12?

One of the most obvious choices is the Surface Pro 3. Although it is a nice piece of hardware, it starts at closer to $900—three times more than I paid for my Chuwi Hi12—and the odds of ever running Linux on the Surface seem pretty low. I’d be willing to pay $1,000 or more for a higher-end device, but not if I’m stuck running Windows 10.

The HP Spectre x2 looks like a decent piece of hardware, and it sure looks like it should be easy enough to get Ubuntu running on it. Unfortunately, the Spectre is another tablet with a kickstand and a flappy keyboard.

  Chuwi Hi12 Surface Pro 3 Dell XPS 13 ASUS Chromebook
RAM 4 GB 4 GB 8 GB 4 GB
CPU Atom Z8300 i3-4020Y(?) i5-6200u Dual Core 2.16 Ghz
Storage 64 GB 128 GB 128 GB 16 GB
Display 12.2”
2160x1440
12.2”
2160x1440
13.3”
1920x1080
13.3”
1920x1080
Tablet Weight 1.88 lbs 1.76 lbs n/a n/a
Keyboard Weight 1.88 lbs 0.58 lbs n/a n/a
Total Weight 3.76 lbs 2.34 lbs 2.6 lbs 3.1 lbs
Price $280 to $380 $800 $869 $270

On the more inexpensive end, I looked at some of the Asus Transformer tablets. ASUS actually has tablets with keyboard docks similar to the Chuwi Hi12. They just don’t quite meet the specs of the Chuwi. The most reasonably priced Transformer tablets have less RAM than the Chuwi, and the 12” Transformers have smaller, low resolution, 16:9 aspect ratio screens.

I also looked at some Chromebooks. They don’t exactly meet my needs, but they are at least light and inexpensive. I included one in my features table for the sake of completeness.

Let’s talk about the Chuwi Hi12

The Chuwi Hi12 is a compromise, but I can definitely say that it is an interesting compromise. It is easy to compare it to the Surface Pro 3 and dismiss the Chuwi Hi12 because of its underpowered processor. I don’t look at it this way.

The Chuwi Hi12 is priced competitively with 13-inch Chromebooks, but the Chuwi has a full operating system, the same beautiful screen as the Surface Pro 3, and it is a 2-in-1 tablet to boot. It is a fantastic piece of hardware for this price point!

Surface Pro 3 Next To My Chuwi Hi12

The keyboard really sealed the deal for me—especially if you get the new version of the Chuwi Hi12 keyboard. I only had my Chuwi Hi12 for a couple of days before we had to order one for my wife. Hers came with a different keyboard—one I hadn’t seen in any reviews yet.

My older Chuwi keyboard has a narrow touchpad. The newer model has pushed the keys closer to the screen to make room for a regular-size touchpad, and in doing so they also created a more comfortable area to rest your wrists. The keys on the new-style keyboard feel a little better, and it is slightly thinner than the original, but it makes more noise when I type.

I read quite a few reviews before purchasing our first Chuwi Hi12. Most of them agreed that the keyboard is excellent, while the touchpad is garbage. I’m not a fan of any touchpad, but they’re correct—that narrow touchpad on the original keyboard is pretty crummy. The new touchpad is a huge improvement.

The Chuwi Hi12 keyboard closely matches the dimensions of my IBM Model M keyboard.

I’m embarrassed to be running Windows 10

I haven’t had Windows on any of my home computers since the days when I dual booted Windows 95 on my old Cyrix P200. I actually avoided the Chuwi Hi12 for months because I wasn’t interested in carrying a Windows laptop.

I’m treating this more like an appliance—a web-browsing machine that happens to run Emacs. I hope it won’t be too many months before I can switch to Linux. It sounds like Ubuntu boots just fine, but the drivers for the touch screen, accelerometer, and sound card aren’t working correctly.

For now, I’m just pleased that I don’t have to carry a 10-pound laptop, and an even heavier bag.

Upgrade the video driver!

Shortly after Windows 10 downloaded and installed the first batch of updates, my Chuwi tablet was crashing a lot. Almost every time it crashed was after putting it to sleep. I updated the Intel video driver, and it hasn’t been a problem since.

Just how heavy is the Chuwi Hi12?

At about 1.8 pounds, the Chuwi Hi12 tablet isn’t more than a few ounces heavier than the Surface Pro 3, but the keyboard is a different story. My friend Sam carries a Surface Pro 3, and when I handed him the folded-up Chuwi Hi12, he just said it was way too heavy!

Two Chuwi Hi12 Tablets With The New And Old Keyboard Dock

I expected this would be the case, and it is a trade-off I’m more than happy to make. The Chuwi keyboard has to have some mass to it, or else the weight of the tablet would make it unstable in “laptop mode.” I’m willing to carry a little extra weight, especially if it means I can easily use my laptop in my lap.

The tablet-and-keyboard combo weighs a total of 3.5 pounds. That’s less than a pound heavier than my friend Brian’s Dell XPS 13. Speaking of the XPS 13, if you’ve seen one, you know roughly how big the Chuwi Hi12 is. Brian’s laptop is a hair thinner than my folded up 2-in-1, but the other dimensions are quite close. Of course, the XPS 13 has that bigger InfinityEdge display!

I needed to find a bag!

I still have an old Dell bag that my Fujitsu P2120 used to call home. It is only just barely big enough for the Chuwi Hi12. Most of the time, I expect to walk out of the house with only the Chuwi. When I do take the bag, I’d like to have room for a little more than just the power cable.

I ended up buying the AmazonBasics 11.6-inch laptop bag. The Chuwi Hi12 fits perfectly, and it has two additional zippered pockets to store all my extra gear. It also has a shoulder strap—something my old Dell bag was lacking.

As usual, I packed the bag with enough gear that its bulging at the seams. Even so, the total weight of the fully loaded bag is less than six pounds. That’s more than three pounds lighter than my old 18.4” laptop, and I can even fit the new bag inside my old bag—even with the old laptop and all my old gear!

Is the Chuwi’s little Z8300 Atom processor fast enough?

Fast enough for what? My old i7 laptop is almost three times faster and has four times more RAM than my little Chuwi Hi12. In other words, the Chuwi isn’t a screamer, but it does well enough at the tasks I’m willing to tackle on a 12” display.

I was stubborn at first. I tried to use Mozilla Firefox—just like I do on all my other machines. I thought it would be more convenient to have access to all my browser extensions and synchronized bookmarks.

Don’t even bother. Just use Microsoft Edge. It feels infinitely more responsive than Firefox on an underpowered machine like the Chuwi Hi12, and it supports proper tablet-style pinch-to-zoom. Firefox just scales in 10% increments when you pinch the screen, and it does so at a glacial pace!

I’m happy enough with the performance of the Chuwi Hi12 for my use case—web browsing, email, text editing, and some light gaming. Steam streaming works about as well as it does on my Steam Link over Wi-Fi, too!

Where can you buy the Chuwi Hi12?

You can’t get one at your local Best Buy. I bought the first Chuwi Hi12 and keyboard from Gearbest for about $280. They estimated that it would take nearly a month for my tablet to arrive at my door, but it only took about two weeks. That’s still a long time, and I worried about whether or not the tablet would actually make it to my door.

We ordered our second tablet from Amazon. The tablet-and-keyboard combo was $360 with Prime shipping. The pricing at both Amazon and Gearbest seem to fluctuate quite a bit, too. The Chuwi Hi12 is still a great value at $360, and the extra $80 wasn’t a waste. It was nice not having to wait two weeks for the package to arrive, and it was a comfort knowing how quickly and easily Amazon will resolve any shipping issues.

You can also find the Chuwi tablet on eBay—usually somewhere in between the prices at Gearbest and Amazon. I haven’t bought a Chuwi Hi12 from eBay, but it is definitely a good place to look.

Charging your Chuwi Hi12

The Chuwi Hi12 comes with a 3-amp USB charger. I wanted a long charging cable for my bag, but I know that as cables get longer, their charging efficiency drops. I found a 10’ USB cable with nylon braiding for a reasonable price at Amazon. It had good reviews, but I didn’t trust those reviews, and I was curious how the USB cables I have around the house stacked up, so I also bought a USB power meter to test all my cables.

The results of my tests were surprising to me, and I’ll definitely be gathering my data and writing up a blog post. For this post, I think it is enough to say that the Volutz cables are some of the best cables I own. I liked the 10’ Volutz USB cable so much that I ended up ordering their assorted 5-pack as well.

I also picked up a compact USB charger to keep in my laptop bag. It folds up for easy storage, and the RAVPower 24W charger has a pair of 2.4-amp USB ports, so I can quickly charge my phone and tablet at the same time.

What about other Chuwi tablets?

Chuwi manufactures a wide array of tablets with Intel Z8300 processors with 8”, 10”, and 12” displays. Their 8” inch tablet can be had for as little as $80, but it only has 2 GB of RAM.

The Chuwi Hi10 is a very interesting machine, though. The specs are almost identical to my Chuwi Hi12, except it has a 10” 1920x1200 screen and a less-awesome-looking keyboard. I’ve seen the price on the Chuwi Hi10 with the keyboard dock drop as low as $180.

The Chuwi Hi10 is comparable to the 10” Microsoft Surface 3 tablet, but it sells for less than half the price.

In my opinion, the two best features of my Chuwi Hi12 are the keyboard dock and the screen. I’m more than happy to pay for the upgrade over the Chuwi Hi10.

The verdict

I’m extremely pleased with the Chuwi Hi12. I expected to qualify most of my statements about the Chuwi with “for the price,” but for the most part, I didn’t have to. It may not be up to Apple’s standards, but the build quality is better than some laptops I’ve owned—certainly better than most budget laptops.

The Chuwi Hi12 tablet is a low-end Ultrabook for the price of a Chromebook. That’s a bit of an oxymoron, since Ultrabooks are defined as high-end subnotebooks. Even so, I still say it is a good description of what the Chuwi Hi12 is.

If the hardware specs of the Chuwi Hi12 fit your use case, I just can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve bought three so far—one for me, one for my wife, and one for my father-in-law. They’re all working great, and everyone we show the Chuwi to ends up finding it fascinating.

My First Week with the Steam Link and Steam Controller

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UPDATE: I have an extra Steam Link, and I’m giving it away! Follow me on Twitter and retweet this tweet for a chance to win!

I’ve been interested in both the Steam Link and the Steam Controller ever since they were announced. I haven’t been playing many console games lately, so I’ve been doing most of my gaming at my desk with a mouse and keyboard. I’ve been running a weekly Video Game Night at TheLab.ms for the last couple of months, and that’s gotten me interested in playing something besides Team Fortress 2 again. Because of that and Valve’s sale on the Steam Link and Controller last week, I finally had to break down and buy them.

Steam Link, Steam Control, and Rascal

And I’m glad that I did! Each device fills a gap in my gaming experience, and I’ve been using one or both of them almost every day so far.

The Steam Controller

My Controller arrived one day earlier than the Link. As soon as it got here, I plugged its dongle into my computer and fired up Super Meat Boy. I expected to have a bad time using the emulated d-pad on the Steam Controller, but I got used to it pretty quickly, and I was breezing through levels at a reasonable pace.

I’d rather play Super Meat Boy with a good d-pad, like the one on an Xbox One controller or any controller from Nintendo—even the subpar d-pad on the Xbox 360 controller isn’t all that bad. The emulated d-pad on the Steam Controller is quite usable, though, and I bet you I’ll like it even more as time goes on.

Steam Controller and Xbox 360 Controller

Then I tried Saints Row: The Third. This was a a good way to try out the Steam Controller’s touchpad aiming with gyro assist. This unique way of aiming is rather intuitive, but continuing my game that was already set to the highest difficulty level was like jumping right into the deep end of the pool. I felt like I was doing a good job aiming, but I wasn’t picking off headshot after headshot in rapid succession like I can with the mouse.

I took my Steam Controller to TheLab.ms’s weekly Video Game Night last week, and I let everyone try Saints Row with the Steam Controller. My friend Brian gave it a shot first, and he didn’t find it intuitive at all. He was flailing about, trying his best to shoot at the bad guys, but he just couldn’t do it well. He ended up resorting to fisticuffs. We had the fresh game of Saints Row set to the easiest difficulty, so this worked out alright for him.

Three or four other people tried, and most of them were clicking off fairly quick headshots within a few minutes. Brian ordered his own controller, and it is on its way as I’m writing this. I bet he’ll manage to get the hang of it soon!

The Steam Link

The Steam Link is a small box—not much bigger than the Amazon FireTV—that streams games from your computer to your television, and it does a fantastic job. It operates well enough over Wi-Fi. It is responsive enough to play Super Meat Boy, and I played at least an hour of Borderlands 2 over Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, my Wi-Fi signal isn’t the best here, and the Steam Link eventually had connectivity issues—I blame the neighbors! I’ve plugged it into my network since then, and both Valve and I recommend you do the same.

I wanted to play a game on the Link that I was already familiar with in order to hone my first-person-shooter skills. I chose Borderlands 2. I’ve played through the game more times than I can count, and the game is ridiculously easy when you start a new character.

Things started out pretty rough. I died in lots of embarrassing ways, but things improved rather quickly. I managed to get past Boom Bewm and Captain Flint without much fuss. Shortly after that, some friends of mine started popping in and out of the game to help me out.

At first, I thought, “Oh great! These guys are going to be doing all the work for me with their fancy, fast-aiming mice!” Things went better than I had anticipated. I wasn’t dying much more often than everyone else, and I was nearly doing my fair share of damage to the enemies. The Steam Controller makes me feel like the most inexperienced guy in the group, but I could see that skill gap closing every day.

On the first day, I could only hit slow-moving targets at a distance. I have the most trouble when they charge at me, and get right up in my face. On the first day, those enemies were nearly impossible to hit, and I had to backpedal to get them into my sights. Today, I can at least aim at them, but not as quickly or accurately as I’d like.

Even a few days in, I still couldn’t hit flying enemies like Rakk or Buzzards. After a week, I can manage to get a few hits and kills in. A lot of enemies are easier to hit when I play solo, since they’re all coming right at me, and this is especially true with these flying enemies. They’re much harder for me to hit when playing with friends, but I do manage now.

I’m getting better at using sniper rifles—I can often hit a Hyperion robot in the shoulder before one of my friends takes the kill on me.

The best part is that all the practice with Borderlands 2 transferred well to Saints Row. I look significantly less ridiculous trying to shoot things in Saints Row, but I still may need to start a new game on “normal” difficulty.

Do you know what’s really awesome about the Steam Link? My desktop computer is significantly faster than an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, and I have hundreds of games in my Steam library. Tons of those games are better played from the couch or your favorite recliner using a controller, and the $50 Steam Link is a fantastic way to do that.

You may have noticed that even though this section has a heading of “Steam Link,” I ended up talking about the Controller even more. There really isn’t that much interesting to say about the Link. It has one job to do, and it does it extremely well.

Should you buy both?

The Link and Controller make a good pair, but each one can provide quite a bit of value on its own. The Link functions just fine with other controllers—I plugged in my Xbox 360 Wireless dongle, and I had no trouble powering up the Link and playing Super Meat Boy. The d-pad on the Xbox 360 controller may not be the best, but it is more appropriate for a twitchy platformer like Super Meat Boy.

Steam Controller Packaging

Likewise, the Steam Controller will work just fine on your PC or laptop. I know some people that plug their laptop into their TV to play games—heck, we used to plug my laptop into the TV every week for Video Game Night at TheLab.ms!

Personally, I’m glad I bought both. I once played through Saints Row: The Third on the PlayStation 3, and I recently played through half of the game on my computer with the keyboard and mouse. Driving on the PlayStation 3 was fantastic—driving with the keyboard is just awful. On the other hand, aiming with the mouse is a huge upgrade over the PS3.

The Steam Controller tries to provide the best of both worlds. Driving with the Steam Controller’s analog stick feels great, and aiming is so much more comfortable than it was on the PS3. I may not be able to aim as quickly and accurately as I can with the mouse, but I’m doing better than I can with an analog stick, and I’m getting better every day.

Do you own a Steam Controller or Link? What do you think of them?