Archive for October, 2013

New Samsung 840 EVO SSD install in 2011 Mac Mini

My recent post recounted the problems that I’ve had since doing my own DIY Fusion drive installation.  Basically, it sounds like my 500 GB drive was starting to die, even though running a SMART test against it showed everything was great.  The clicking I heard on boot-up definitely sounded mechanical, and since the only two mechanical things in the Mini are the system fan and the hard drive, I think the hard drive is the safer bet as the source of the problem.

I ordered a Samsung 840 EVO 500 GB SSD on Saturday.  It was scheduled to arrive sometime today, so I made sure to have a recent backup via Time Machine and via SuperDuper! (to an external drive).  Once that was complete, I shut down the Mini and proceeded to disassemble it.  It arrived around 5 PM and I set off to installing it.

If you’ve never opened up the DVD-less Mac Mini, I’ll say it’s not for the faint of heart.  Today, I removed both the original hard drive and the 128 GB Crucial m4 drive that had been running as a fused pair.  I have serious doubts about the HDD, but I expect that I’ll reinstall the 128 GB SSD in a machine my kids use for homework and such.

The installation of the Samsung 840 EVO went very well.  The most difficult part was getting it aligned with the two holes in the carrier.  Perhaps I should have done that with the carrier outside of the chassis.  One of the two screws that goes through the perforated aluminum plate wouldn’t reach the SSD hole.  Not wanting to dissemble things again, I let that one minor flaw in place and completed the assembly.

I had previously created an 8 GB flash drive to make re-installing OS X 10.9 easier, so I went that route.  The SSD was seen by disk utility, I formatted it, and then installation went without incident.  After it rebooted, it prompted me to restore.  I selected Time Machine, put in the password to pull the Time Machine Backups off of my NAS, and let it start restoring.  Here, OS X had all sorts of difficulty figuring out how long it would take to completely restore everything.  It might show 51 minutes, or 4 hours.  The restore process actually took more like 2 1/2 hours.

Now, I’m back up and running with 10.9 installed on a 500 GB SSD, with about 370 GB of it in use.

My Mini is now significantly faster than with the Fusion drive.  Don’t get me wrong, the Fusion drive was faster than the HDD alone, but the SSD alone is so much better than the Fusion drive.

The 840 EVO is among the fastest consumer SSD drives available now, at a great price point.  I wasn’t too keen on the 840 series when I read it uses the cheaper TLC.  Not only does it allow for fewer writes than SLC, it’s slower doing those writes.  This means it should be less reliable and perform worse, a bad combination if there ever was one.  However, the EVO version pairs the TLC with a SLC cache of sorts, so you can perform faster writes.  And Samsung’s reliability of the 840 hasn’t been bad at all.  According to what I’ve read, I’m expecting this new SSD to last 15 years or more.

My mini has had new life breathed into it.  Moving from a Hard Drive to a SSD is truly one of the best upgrades you can do yourself.

October 29, 2013 at 11:02 pm 6 comments

Downside of a DIY Fusion Drive

This is a long-winded post, so skip it unless you are really interested in DIY Fusion drives and the strange issues I’ve started having.

Almost 1 year ago, I posted about creating my very own DIY Fusion drive.  I combined a Crucial M4 128GB SSD with a 500 GB HDD in my Mac Mini.  It has had it’s ups and downs.

My first BIG problem

Much earlier this year (I don’t believe I posted about it at the time), I had an issue with my Fusion drive.  All of a sudden, it stopped working.  From what I could gather, the SSD died.  After much experimentation, and after I had wiped the 500 GB hard drive, the SSD suddenly came “alive” again.  I think I upgraded the firmware at this point, did a bit of testing, and all seemed well.  Ultimately, I restored my time machine backup to an external drive, then cloned it to my Fusion drive, and was back in business.

Since around this time, I have occasionally had odd issues involving a noise emanating from my Mini.  Usually, this happens just a few times (sometimes, just once) then it goes away.

UH OH!  It’s getting worse!

Fast forward to the last month.  This problem started happening, and overstayed its welcome.  I’m talking for 20+ minutes of odd beeps coming from my mac.  I’ve tried powering it down and letting it cool off, among other things.  None of that worked.  Finally, I loaded SMART Utility to see if there were any errors, but there were none.  This problem continued, every few minutes (or more often), even after reboots.  Leaving it powered off for an hour or so didn’t seem to help.

Then I discovered something strange.  In the SMART Utility, I kicked off a “Long” test on the hard drive, and the noise seemed to go away.  This test takes a few hours to complete, but after the test was over, the noises stayed gone for the rest of the day.  Perhaps it was several days.  I thought it was a coincidence, and didn’t think too much of it.  Some days or weeks later, the problem returned.  Again, I tried powering it down, letting it cool off, etc. but the issue kept coming back.  Then, I tried the SMART test again and again it disappeared.

Aside from the beeping, this past weekend I started to hear a clicking noise.  This was at its worst on boot-up a few days ago, when my machine wouldn’t successfully boot at all.  I powered it off, gave it a little rest, then powered it back up.  It started up, and soon started with the clicking noise again for about 10 seconds or so, then that stopped and the machine booted normally.  This REALLY makes me think the problem is the hard drive.  Side Note: I’m doing VERY regular backups at this point.

Anyhow, when I first started using the SMART Utility, I noticed something odd.  The “Power On Hours” was in the 300 range for the SSD, but over 18000 for the hard drive.  18K hours works out to just over 2 years.  I’ve had this machine for a little shy of 2 1/2 years, having bought it right after it was released (a mid-2011 Mac Mini).  So, the SSD is sleeping when not needed, but it doesn’t appear that the hard drive was, even though the power management settings on my Mac instruct it to put the drives to sleep when possible, though I have to admit that I’ve only been running a Fusion drive for just over a year.  I’m guessing I didn’t always have this sleep setting at this value, but I don’t know when I enabled it.  If it were recent, I’d probably remember doing it though.

In doing more checks, I found that Trim Enabler is showing that Trim isn’t enabled now.  This was probably broken when I updated to some newer version of Mac OS X.  This makes me wonder if Trim Enabler with a Fusion drive causes problems with Mac OS putting the fused hard drive to sleep.  Or perhaps that is just a problem of a DIY Fusion drive.

While I don’t have concrete answered on this, my bottom line is this:  Fusion drives are prone to failure, more so than either a SSD or a HDD.  If either the SSD or the HDD flakes out, your data is toast!  While it does offer performance over and above a lone HDD, and it is so inexpensive to add it yourself, it doesn’t seem to be well supported with aftermarket SSD’s.

UNCLE!

I’m giving up on Fusion drives.  Having good performance for a low price sounded great, but dealing with an issue that sometimes LITERALLY keeps me up at night (or wakes me up), well, it’s just too much.  Yes, SSDs are expensive, but my time is more valuable than to be troubleshooting these sorts of issues at all hours of the night.

I’ve ordered a Samsung 840 EVO drive of sufficient enough of a size that I’ll no longer need the HDD.  I expect it to arrive soon and plan to post about my results.

October 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm Leave a comment

My experience with BillCutterz.com

A few months ago, I read a quick review of a service that promises to save you money on your monthly bills.  The cost?  50% of your savings for the length of the deal, or 1 year if it’s a permanent deal.  If you pay up front (instead of every month), you’ll save another 10% off their fee (making it more like 45% of the savings).  This sounds expensive, but if you do nothing, you are paying much more!  If they can’t save you anything, you pay nothing.  What have you got to lose, right?

This smells a bit funny

I know, this sounds like the perfect cover to scam enough info to steal someone’s identity, right?  I looked around a bit before signing up with them, and everything I read pointed to them being completely legitimate.

From my day-to-day business experience (working in Networking), I do know that businesses hire consultants to look over their bills to ensure that they are being billed properly, and to find opportunities to lower their on-going expenses.  So, there is a history of these sorts of services existing, but I think BillCutterz.com is just the consumer version of this service.  From that perspective, it’s a groundbreaking service.

But how can they save me money?

They do this every day.  They deal with all the major service providers.  Perhaps most importantly, they are used to negotiating for these services.  When you call up, you have all of your past experience to draw upon to negotiate your best deal.  For most people, that’s not a lot to draw on. For them, it’s quite a lot!

And since they are already doing this for others, they know the kind of deals they’ve been able to negotiate with each company before, so they can try to get the same (or better) deal for you.

Can’t I just do this myself & save all the money?

Perhaps you can.  I thought I could at least save a little.

I’m a tough customer on the savings front.  By that, I mean that I don’t have high-end plans, so there is probably not a lot of fat to trim.  The two bills I wanted to cut with were my cell phone bill and my cable bill.  My cell phone bill already has a 23% discount because of the company I work for, and I have the lowest-end family plan they offered, so I figured it would be tough to save any dough there.  My cable bill is pretty low.  I have the “poverty” level TV plan (just the local channels, plus C-Span, shopping networks, etc.) bundled with the 40 Mbps Internet package.  In honesty, I have the TV service (no TVs are attached) because it was cheaper to get it than to just get the Internet.

Before letting BillCutterz at it, I contacted Comcast to see if there was anything they would do for me, as I thought I’d have the easiest time getting a discount from them.  I mentioned AT&T’s U-Verse service that is also in my area, but the person at Comcast offered me nothing.  Not even promo offers.  They must not have thought that I was ready to cancel, as they didn’t even offer to send me to a retention specialist.  Perhaps you have to tell actually them you are cancelling to get anything done, but I didn’t go that far.

So, I failed.  What about BillCutterz?

Back in August, I let BillCutterz try their thing…

For AT&T, they couldn’t get them to come off the monthly price, but they did give me a one-time $100 credit.

For Comcast, they couldn’t get them to budge either.  They did get a one-time $10 credit from them, though, so that’s something at least.

I saved $110, and paid them $47.02, after the discount (making my real savings about $63).  Although they didn’t save me money over the entire year, they did save me money and it was all front-loaded, so I got the savings right away.

Round 2

A few days ago (mid October), BillCutterz reached out to me again.  They wanted to try to renegotiate and see what else they could do for me, so I said why not.

For Comcast, they were able to switch me to a different plan that was $9.96 a month cheaper and faster to boot, at 50 Mbps.  Apparently, the plan I was on is no longer offered, but this appears to be a better plan altogether.  This is supposedly my new regular price, not a limited time promotion.  I don’t see this package on the Comcast website at all.  The closest to it is a 12 month new customer promo of 50 Mbps combined with 45 channels of TV for 54.99/month.  Of course, Comcast isn’t very up-front on their pricing on the website.  There’s not one master chart showing all the prices and all the packages, so it makes sense to me that they have special packages they don’t advertise, but are available if you know what to ask for.

For AT&T, they reviewed my usage with the AT&T rep.  I already had the lowest family plan they offered, at 550 minutes/month, and we barely use any…  Most of my calls are mobile-to-mobile, or on nights/weekends.  I have almost 4000 roll-over minutes, in fact.  Anyhow, once they realized that I didn’t use many minutes, BillCutterz contacted me to get permission to move me to a lower minute plan.  Apparently, AT&T doesn’t advertise it, but they have a 450 minute/month family plan for $10 cheaper than the 550 plan I was on.  Now, I’ve been on the 550 minute family plan for about 7 or 8 years.  When I signed up for it, I recall that it was the lowest number of minutes they offered in a family plan, but apparently, they have an undocumented 450 minute plan.  If only I could have signed up for this initially and saved that money every month for the last 8 years!

Updated 10/31:  My AT&T bill came.  With my 23% discount factored in, plus the savings because of lower taxes and fees, my final bill was $8.95 lower.  That adds up to $107.40 per year less that I’ll have to pay AT&T!

Conclusion

Initially, they saved me about $63 after their fee.

With this latest attempt, I expect to save about $230 over the next 12 months.  Yes, I’ll have to pay about $115 of that savings to BillCutterz, putting my savings down to about $115, but if these truly are permanent price cuts for me, each year in the future should see me saving the full $230.  I expect that they will contact me in the future to see if they can do anything else.  Since they’ve gotten these cuts for me, I’d expect the best they could do is more one-time discounts.  But I’d take them too.

My take on BillCutterz.com?  They appear to be a legitimate company in a “new” field (for residential customers, at least).  While they didn’t save me the kind of money that their Savings Calculator showed, they will be saving me almost $20 a month on these two bills combined.  That’s over 10% off of what I was paying.  Being able to cut your monthly bills by any amount on a long-term basis is a good thing, since those savings just add up, year after year.

October 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm 2 comments

Cell Phone Upgraders Hold on to your Wallets!

Have you recently upgraded your cell phone?  You might want to take another look at your first post-upgrade bill.

I recently upgraded my iPhone 4S to a new iPhone that uses LTE.  It looks like AT&T may have tried to sneak a little more money from my wallet.

I was on the DataPro 2GB 4G plan.  Since my new phone is LTE capable, they moved me to the DataPro 2GB 4G LTE plan.  Both plans cost the same, so it should be a wash.

On my bill, aside from the insane $36 upgrade fee, there was a Plan Added and a Plan Removed section.  The DataPro 2 GB 4G LTE plan was added at a pro-rated cost of 2.50, for the dates 9/24 – 9/26.  The DataPro 2GB 4G plan was removed with a credit of 1.29, for the dates of 9/25 – 9/26.

So, essentially, AT&T was charging me for both data plans on 9/24.

Yes, it only ended up being $1.21 that I was being unfairly charged, but it’s insane that they would try to sneak an additional fee in there like that.  And while I’m sure they will claim that it was some software glitch or something, I’d almost bet money that this was some “optimization” that was put in place to “earn” money from customers.

What, you don’t think anyone at any major business would do something like that?  How about in the banking industry?

According to Clark Howard, a consumer watchdog, some years ago, some very greedy people involved in the field of banking figured out that they could optimize the order that checks were processed to increase income to the bank.  How so?  They would look at all the checks for each account each day.  If the total of all of the checks for account X would cause that account to be overdrawn, the bank would then alter the order of the checks so they could charge the most NSF fees.  For example, lets say you wrote out 5 checks that all were processed on the same day:

Check 1 for $15
Check 2 for $8
Check 3 for $18
Check 4 for $150
Check 5 for $50

You only had $195 left in your account.  Check 5 was written out to a friend you owed money to, and asked them not to deposit it until Friday, but they didn’t listen.  If they did, you wouldn’t have any NSF fees at all, since the first 4 checks only totaled $191.

Anyhow, if the checks were processed in the order they came in, only the last check would have caused you to overdraft.  You’d get hit with a $30+ fee.  But, since the banks decided to “optimize” the order your checks were processed (probably as a “service” to you), they would take checks 4 and 5 first, causing you to go NSF on check 5, then they would process checks 1, 2, and 3, giving you a total of 4 NSF fees, probably in excess of $120.

The cell phone companies aren’t yet quite as brazen as the banks, but they seem to hold their customers with a similar level of contempt.  It absolutely would not surprise me if this was intentionally done to extract a little more money from each upgrading customer.

October 24, 2013 at 11:21 pm Leave a comment

CostCo Beef Bulgogi

This post is not related to anything network, or financial (as so many of my posts have been this year), but to food.  I’m posting this mostly so I don’t lose the recipe, but also because I searched for a CostCo Beef Bulgogi recipe and didn’t find much.

Several years ago, CostCo sold this marinated thinly sliced beef in an aluminum tub with a clear plastic lid in their meat department.  In addition to the marinade, there was sesame seeds and slices of onion, among other things.  We’d start the rice cooker and fry this stuff up in a pan on the stove, and it was absolutely delicious, not to mention one of the easiest meals I’ve ever made.

Since CostCo stopped selling it (why?), and they haven’t brought it back, I figured I’d have to try to re-create it myself.  About a year ago, I tried to find a recipe…  What I made wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite the same, and it was a bit of a pain to make (involved Asian pears).  A few weeks ago, I thought I’d give it another shot.  I made a batch that wasn’t bad, but the meat soaked up practically all the marinade, and it seemed like it was missing a little something.  One of the things I liked about the CostCo version was that there was plenty of marinade to cook with the meat, and it made a nice sauce.

I made another batch this weekend, a different recipe (which I doubled and modified slightly) and it turned out great, almost just like the CostCo version.  Here’s my version (makes enough to serve 6-8).

Ingredients:

1 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons sake (or rice wine or sherry or mirin)
4 tablespoons sesame oil
16 cloves garlic, minced
7 scallions (green onions), minced
4 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 white onion, diced

I mixed the above, making sure that most of the sugar was dissolved.  I placed about 3-4 pounds of thinly sliced ribeye steak in a 1 gallon ziplock bag and poured in the marinade, sealing it and placing it on a plate in the fridge.  The next morning, I flipped the bag over.  That evening, I added a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil to a pan on medium-high heat (about 6 on the dial of my electric stove), and fried it up, a little at a time (this is after the ricer cooker was already cooking).  As each batch of meat is done cooking, move it to a bowl.  For the last batch of meat, pour in all the rest of the marinade and cook it until the meat is done, then put the rest of the meat back in the pan to warm for a minute or two.  When ready, serve over rice with a healthy serving of the cooked-down marinade.

October 15, 2013 at 10:40 pm Leave a comment


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