Visited: Blue Mountains (10th July) and Kangaroo Valley (11th July)

There was a bit of a “family” outing, and needless to say, Sydney is a place with a limited number of attractions, so we just end up revisiting some of the places we’ve been before. I took the chance to take some photos, and play around with them.

Day 1: Blue Mountains

The first stop was the Norman Lindsay Gallery. The sun was shining, but it was a crisp day with a mild breeze.

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After lunch, we headed to Echo Point Lookout, and the winds were roaring. It was a bone-chilling sort of cold, but it was worth braving for a few good shots.

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We went further along over the mountains, and we stopped off near the Grand Canyon Track where there was a lookout and a bit of a rest area.

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I even managed a ~180 degree panorama.

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We continued all the way along to Hartley, where there are some old heritage buildings and a court house before returning.

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Day 2: Kangaroo Valley

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The second day was mainly spent visiting the Cambewarra Mountain Lookout which looks over Kangaroo Valley. There’s an amazing assortment of bird-life and stunning views. This particular mountain top also houses many radio-link transmitters and a pair of towers, which I examined quite thoroughly. The Kookaburra stood so still that you can see the moire pattern in its feathers in some of these shots … pretty impressive considering I’m using a D3200 (24.2MP) camera with the 70-300mm lens.

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You would notice that the civilization seems a little “far away” when sitting at the lookout – but I took the chance to use the zoom lens and make a four-tier panorama, which I then reduced to 25% (as haze was limiting resolution). It’s like having binoculars!

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Random: Refurbished Asus Laptop, D-Link DDNS, AldiMobile Speeds, etc.

It’s been busy as always, to the point where last week, I didn’t even have the opportunity to put up a random post. As a result, this week, there’s quite a lot of “random” to talk about.

Refurbished Asus Laptop

It’s been over three years since I last purchased a laptop, and over time, despite having a RAM and SSD upgrade, it is still a little deficient when it comes to processing power and energy efficiency. Looking to scope out the cheapest bargains, it seems rather strange that new 4th-generation Intel-based laptops seem to be only of “moderate” value for money. The latest top of the line laptops based on the Intel Core i7-4700MQ begin at $849, but are more commonly seen around the $1000 mark.

Not wanting to part with that level of cash, and knowing that I had seen an Intel Core i7-3630QM based laptop for under $879 at least a year back, I went looking for a better deal. I was willing to settle for an i7-3630QM (CPUBenchmark Score 7706), because its performance is within a few percent (2-3%) of the latest i7-4700MQ (CPUBenchmark Score 7915) and it’s faster than my former main desktop anyway (CPUBenchmark Score ~6943).

So I went digging in OnlineComputer’s Asus Refurbished price list and I found an Asus K55A-SX344H for just $599. It was based around an Intel Core i7-3630QM, with 4Gb RAM, 750Gb hard drive, Integrated Graphics, DVD-RW, Wireless N, Webcam, 15.6″ 1366×768 screen and includes Windows 8. That’s pretty much the same kind of spec as the $849 HP “basic” i7-4700MQ model just with the CPU swapped! It’s a $250 saving for a few percent less performance, and considering I’d be using it mostly at a desk, the power efficiency difference are moot.

Buying refurbished is definitely going to be a bit of a dive into the unknown, after all, refurbishing means something different to everyone. The promise was that this was “refurbished” to Asus’ standards by them … surely, you can trust the manufacturer?

Purchasing the refurbished products required contacting the shop and getting the stock organized. It was a several week frustration to get it organized, but once it arrived, I sprung into action and leapt into the store to purchase it. Numbers are often very low.

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So, what do you get? Well, for one, a very generic and uninspired cardboard box that is crumpled somewhat and taped back together. Not a good start? But at least you have the reassurance of the label …

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… which indicates that it is refurbished by Asus themselves.

Inside, the laptop was packed with a large bubble wrap, with the power adapter cables rubber-banded together. There were some basic leaflets, but no media and manuals (as is the case for most modern products). There were no protective films over the LCD, and the underside of the laptop was re-serialled as a refurbished product.

I took the time to go over it with a fine tooth comb – for one, it was functional, it passed Prime95 torture for two days straight, it had the right specification components and there were no scratches anywhere (surprisingly). There was no bad pixels on the screen, nor any bad/reallocated sectors on the hard drive.

HDD Details

There was, however, a little bit of a high reading for G-Sense Error Rate, meaning it may have been roughly handled with the hard drive running at one point in time. Oh well, it is running just fine, and it had under 30 hours of use. I intend to get rid of it anyway.

battery-wear-17pcThe battery itself came with a wear level of 17%, which reduced to about 14% after several full cycles for recalibration. This kind of wear is expected, as the battery had probably been in storage for a while. Most batteries spend their lives around 20% of wear (i.e. 80% of capacity), so that’s not really a big issue.

For the price, I was really pleased. It was snappy-ish out of the box. I did need to run the Microsoft Fix-It to get windows updates to properly apply, but aside from that, it was a sound laptop. So what are the catches? Well there’s a leaflet that came with the laptop that documents it. It’s a bit of a shame this isn’t available ahead of time.

The catches, in general, are:

  • Not covered by DOA
  • Warranted for 1 year, but battery only for 6-months
  • 30-days limited software support
  • Bad pixel warranty – only for >3 bright/5 dark/8 bright+dark OR 2 adjacent bright or dark OR 3 bright and/or dark within 15mm diameter.
  • Minor cosmetic damage not warranted.

That’s not too bad, I suppose, but of course, I always want more from my laptops, and I don’t want to pay for the manufacturer’s price. For one, I wanted more than 4Gb of RAM, so I got another 4Gb in there for about $45.

Then I decided to go with an SSD, because I don’t want to have the mechanical liability of a hard drive, and the slowness, so I put in my spare Crucial M500 in there, which cost me $139. I did the migration with some Linux wizardry, but still had to call Microsoft up to reactivate it :(.

It is also criminal to think that they had shipped the laptop with a single-stream single-band Wireless N card, which is utterly rubbish, so I decided to grab an Intel 7260HMW AC card for dual stream Wireless AC + Bluetooth 4.0 action, setting me back $26.50.

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The funny thing? Puny card, large box. See the card? Enough said.

The battery lasts about 3-4 hours depending on load, so ideally, I’d like to have another battery. I consult eBay and grab a cheap and crappy clone for $29. Maybe I should buy a few more …

And lets just say, I’d love to have a BluRay writer in there too, since I use BD-Rs for data storage. A 6x Panasonic drive costs $75, so I decided to grab one (it’s still on the way).

So that brings the total to $913.50, but now I have a machine with an i7-3630QM, 8Gb RAM, 240Gb SSD, integrated graphics, 15.6″ 1366×768 screen, dual-Band wireless AC + Bluetooth 4.0, GbE, Blu-Ray Writer, webcam.

That’s a pretty good laptop for the price … and there’s not much more I can do to upgrade it. After all, it claims to only support 8Gb of RAM maximum. Maybe one day, I’ll go with a caddy and a second SSD. Who knows. At least it’s flexible!

D-Link DDNS Service

It seems the guys from DynDNS have decided to continue their crackdown and closure of “free” dynamic DNS accounts. This time, it’s dlinkddns.com, a “rebranded” service which is targeted for D-Link router owners.

I only became aware of this service when I purchased a D-Link router and found it as an option within the Dynamic DNS menu option. At the time I signed up, DynDNS had already retracted their free DDNS offering, and issued stern warnings that this service was provided for D-Link router owners only. There wasn’t really any firm verification, and I don’t remember them stipulating any terms when it came to the service. It seemed to be a “free” for lifetime type service.

This changed when I received this e-mail this week:

To our D-Link and Dyn Users — Action Required.

We are upgrading the D-Link DDNS platform and need to verify that you are still an active user of the service. As a user of a hostname supplied by Dyn (aka DynDNS) with a D-Link product, you are required to confirm your account within 90 days of this notice.

Go here to re-register your D-Link product. You’ll need to have your product’s serial number and MAC address in order to complete this process. During the process, we will be verifying if you are a D-Link product owner. Only one account can register per device.

Following confirmation of this process, you can continue using your D-Link registered product without interruption. D-Link’s arrangement with Dyn provides you with a hostname and free dynamic DNS for the period specified for the product (generally up to six months). Where certain products include longer periods for the free service, your service will remain free for the extended period specified. You will receive a notice by email prior to the renewal date, if applicable.

If you are unable to confirm your registration and believe this to be in error, you will need to contact D-Link Support. Note: this manual verification process may take up to 7 business days to complete.

For non-DDNS enabled D-Link product owners or owners of non-D-Link products, please visit the Dyn website for other offerings from Dyn. The D-Link DDNS service is only for owners of D-Link products with DDNS functionality enabled.

The verification process must be completed within 90 days of this notice. All unverified hostnames will be removed after the 90 day period. If you have any questions, please contact D-Link Support or visit our D-Link Registration FAQ documentation.

Thanks,

Dyn and D-Link

It looks like DynDNS are shuttering as many dlinkddns.com accounts as possible, as some of them may be fraudulent. They seem also to be making the services available for contract periods of around six months, rather than for life, to ensure the costs don’t balloon out over time.

Unfortunately, attempting to register my product, results in failure. I really can’t be bothered to pursue this, as my product is several years old, and they might claim that it’s not “supported”.

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Just another “free” service that gets shuttered …

Aldi Mobile Speeds

Good news for Aldi Mobile users, this week they were notified by e-mail that the speeds are increasing. This looks to be a “lifting” of the artificial 7.2Mbit/s cap on resold Telstra services, and likely a sign that Telstra doesn’t perceive Aldi Mobile to be a threat to their network.

Dear [Name],

We have some updates to share with you about improvements we are making to your ALDImobile service.
Increased network speed

We are pleased to inform you that from today the available network speeds have increased, allowing customers to enjoy faster Internet access.

What you need to do

To access the increased data download speed, you will need to end your current data session, and then start a new one. You can do this by simply turning your mobile phone off and then back on. Alternatively, if your phone allows it, switch to airplane mode and then switch back to normal mode again.

Please note that increased download speeds may not be available in all areas and will depend on your coverage. Download speeds can be affected by several factors, please refer to our network information statement at the end of this email for full details.
Increased mobile coverage across Australia

We are also pleased to let you know that our carrier has informed us that from the 24th July, network coverage is improving.

The mobile product of Medion Mobile Pty Ltd provides a 3G coverage footprint of 98.5% of the Australian Population covering 1.3 million square kilometres.

The mobile solution of Medion Mobile Pty Ltd has extensive breadth and depth of coverage and support by a quality network.
Turning off old WAP1 network

Finally, our carrier will be turning off their WAP1 network later this year. This won’t affect the majority of our customers, but for some people using old, non-Smartphones, it will mean you won’t be able to access WAP Internet from your handset or send/receive MMS messages.

If you think this change will affect you, you should consider changing your handset before 20th December to ensure you can still enjoy Internet and MMS access from your mobile phone. You can find out more in our help section: www.aldimobile.com.au/help?s=WAP1

If you have any queries about this notification, you can find out more on our website, or send us an eSupport message from your ALDImobile account and we’ll respond.

Kind regards

The ALDImobile team
Our network information statement

Medion Australia Pty Ltd. trading as ALDImobile uses part of Telstra’s 3G mobile network. The mobile product of ALDImobile provides a 3G coverage footprint of 98% of the Australian Population covering more than 1.26 million square kilometres. Outside the 3G coverage footprint, customers will revert to 2G coverage and speeds. The combined 2G and 3G footprint covers 98.7% of the Australian population.

Medion Australia Pty ltd’s Pay as You Go plans and Value and Data Packs have typical download speeds of 1.1 – 20Mbps across more than 85% of the population, 550kbps to 8Mbps across more than 95% of the population, and 550kbps to 3Mbps in remaining coverage areas (reaching 98.5% of the population). Typical 3G upload speeds are 300kbps-3Mbps across more than 93% of the population and in remaining coverage areas 300kbps-1Mbps. End-user speeds will also vary due to factors such as device capabilities, location, distance from the base station, local terrain, user numbers, hardware and software configuration, download source/upload destination and network management measures.

Station and Rail Network Upgrades

The station upgrades at Granville are continuing, and it seems that the old bus terminal is starting to see even further demolishing. The footpath on the terminal side is now closed, and the fenced area has expanded slightly. As a result, commuters have to make a precarious crossing across the main road, assisted by traffic controllers. One of the bus stops has been relocated too, to accommodate the change.

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This was taken from across the road from where I normally enter the station, on 17th July.

Central station has also gotten an interesting lighting upgrade, with all of the platform lighting replaced by nicely diffused LED lights of the same shape as the old fluorescent tubes. The diffusers are so incredibly opalescent!

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Further DTRS radio bases seem to have been spotted – a low-base near Villawood has been spotted, as well as another somewhere along the Bankstown line. I did have a trip to the Blue Mountains, and there are a heap of DTRS sites scattered along the line. It was so many that I couldn’t effectively catalogue them. It seems like the system is being filled in, ready for operation in the near future.

Meanwhile, the advertisements claiming the elimination of certain paper tickets have now been improved, with a more recent version illustrating some of the tickets pictorially. However, it’s still not entirely obvious at a glance, especially with a picture of what appears to be a regular myTrain ticket. Needless to say, only certain myTrain tickets (e.g. off-peak adult) are going to be eliminated on 1st September.

Ziphosting DNS Meltdown

In a rather annoying move, it seems as if Ziphosting has had prolonged issues with their European DNS server on Friday 18th July 2014. As a result, I was receiving constant messages of my site going up-and-down on the downtime monitoring service, and the number of views plummeted significantly on that day. The outage lasted several hours, unfortunately.

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But hey, at least I’ve reached over 314,159 views (i.e. 100,000π views). Yay!

Supermoon

It seems that on the 12th July, we had a supermoon or something like that. The moon was looming nice and bright, so I decided to try photographing it. Using my 70-300mm lens and a 2x teleconverter, I managed a photo, but it wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked.

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Solar Charging

You may have noticed that I’ve been doing a lot of power bank test runs lately. It seems a bit of a shame to just “waste” all that energy, so I decided to offset it a little by using some solar panels to charge my devices.

I decided to stuff two 10Wp panels and a 5Wp panel into my window for a total of 25Wp of solar power supply. This is sent to an old car battery to be used as an “infinite capacitor”. From there, I used a buck converter module and the remnants of old USB port headers to provide two 5.10v charging outputs. By charging during the day time, the output is about 15W maximum, thus the balance is usually in favour of charging the car battery allowing charging to proceed even slightly into the afternoon and evening.

By doing this, I can use some of the sunlight to provide the energy to power my experiments, rather than letting my panels sit unused! As a plus, I’ve been charging my phone off this solar-setup for over two weeks now.

Conclusion

Well, what can I say? I’m a very busy random person? … See you again sometime soon!

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Review, Teardown: Moko Technology MK555 8000mAh Power Bank

Thanks to the anonymous donor, here’s another power bank subjected to the “Gough” treatment. This one, like many others, comes in a very “generic” colour cardboard box packaging with a clear plastic window.

DSC_6625The power bank and its included pouch are visible through the window, along with the “moko” branding. Many power banks on the market seem to have the phrase “wonderful life because of you”, including other non-sensical phrases. In this case, “shortcut high speed” is yet another confusing statement.

DSC_6626The rear of the box seems only to list a single output of 5.3v (higher than USB limits of 5.25v) at 1000mA. The unit itself has the real specifications, and it seems the packaging may have been recycled from another similar unit.

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Included in the package is a nice pouch, a basic microUSB charging only cable, and the power bank unit itself. No manuals or leaflets were included. The front of the power bank has a clear window, where four blue LEDs are used to indicate the charge level of the power bank.

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The top of the power bank has two outputs, which are unlabelled, as well as the microUSB B charging input and a single 5mm LED as an “emergency torch”. It’s pretty feeble, and using the power switch, can be toggled (via long-press) between on, SOS and off.

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The power button is situated to the side, and has to be short pressed to activate the power bank’s operation (i.e. not automatic).

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The model number of the unit is MK555, and it offers two outputs, up to 1A and 2.1A. It seems to imply a high charge current input of 2A which would mean faster charging, although I did not verify this. The moko brand appears to belong to Shenzhen Moko Technology, a producer of PCBs.

Teardown

The power bank itself was fairly well closed, and opening it was a destructive process of prying at the seams which are on the rear. The rear is a plastic cover which attaches by clips, most of which were snapped in the process of opening.

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With the cover off, it is already apparent that this sample of the power bank appears to be built with three genuine Samsung ICR18650-26F 2600mAh cells. Astute readers will see that this is only a total of 7800mAh, and not the 8000mAh claimed on the outside, however, this lie is “relatively small” compared to what other vendors have done.

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A closer look at the top of the PCB seems to show it is coded with SSJN-MP-104. The circuitry reveals an SS54A 5A Schottky freewheeling diode, an open-inductor (rather than a more efficient enclosed type), the power switch and two 8205A MOSFETs on this side of the board.

A little concerning is the quality of the soldering of the battery wires – there is significant loss of insulation towards the ends of the wires that were soldered, and they are soldered at a precarious angle. There is a probability of short circuits should the battery negative wire make contact with more pins on the MOSFETs than expected.

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As is common for many inductors used on switching power converters, this one is bifilar wound to try and improve the performance. The LED is also seen mounted “bent” into the air with no support, a common method of facing LEDs into cutouts in cases.

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The underside is marked week 34 of 2013, and shows a microcontroller with ground off markings (U1) that runs the whole unit, and an assortment of resistors, transistors and MOSFETs. Another 8205A MOSFET is visible on this side. As many of the parts are Chinese locally sourced parts with cryptic markings, identification of U2 and U3 cannot be positively made, but likely they may have battery charging roles, or that may be the responsibility of the microcontroller itself. Four surface mount blue diodes are also seen and indicate the charge state.

Concerningly, there is a discolouration around the lettering of U3, Q7 and the USB port itself, which may have happened during manufacturing (i.e. discoloured flux remnants), or could be a result of prolonged operation in testing causing overheating of the PCB itself.

Notably, there are no electrolytic capacitors for smoothing, which could result in poor quality power output.

Performance Testing

Testing of this power bank was performed on the new test rig with a similar methodology to the other power bank tests done to date. Of note was the tendency of this power bank to emit audible noise which varies as the batteries discharge. This noise is similar to a squeal, which is load and battery voltage dependent, and is often the byproduct of a poorly designed switching converter with low switching frequencies. It can even happen to properly designed switching converters when operating outside their design specifications – e.g. overloaded. Where the switching frequencies are low, a process known as magnetostriction causes the inductor windings to “vibrate” at the same frequency as the switched current thus emitting audible noise.

The capacity results are as follows:

Load (mA) Run Capacity (mAh)
500 1 7176.715075
500 2 7195.277475
500 3 7173.603113
500 4 7210.871552
500 5 7154.952518
Mean 7182.283947
Range 55.919034
StDev 21.44445824
Load (mA) Run Capacity (mAh)
1000 1 6963.812837
1000 2 6818.416491
1000 3 6819.221457
1000 4 6961.607074
1000 5 6955.053005
Mean 6903.622173
Range 145.3963458
StDev 77.48190815
Load (mA) Run Capacity (mAh)
2000 1 6320.032366
2000 2 6334.620734
2000 3 6294.397355
2000 4 6270.458756
2000 5 6264.636299
Mean 6296.829102
Range 69.98443434
StDev 30.43141451

From the capacity results, it is very likely that the batteries are genuine and are of the 2600mAh per cell as stated. The capacity is 7182mAh at 500mA, 6904mAh at 1A and 6297mAh at 2A which is an efficiency of 92%, 86% and 81% respectively. These figures are fairly good at low loads, however the reduction in efficiency as the load increases suggests the switching converter hasn’t been optimally designed for high load operation. This is amazing, especially as the power bank leaves the LEDs on during discharge.

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The voltage versus sample (time) graphs seems to show relatively stable regulation at low loads, however, at 2A, the voltage is below the 4.75v USB minimum requirement and may mean that devices expecting high currents could suffer slower charge as the devices back-off to prevent overloading the charger.

There is also an anomaly with the regulation at all loads which manifests itself as a slow small “ramp up” of the voltage before returning back to a stable regulation regime. This is consistent from run to run and is probably a specific consequence of the program being executed in the microcontroller. This is, however, of no specific consequence to the end user.

Ripple-Moko500mA

At 500mA load, the ripple is high at 734.2mV (compared to a charger normal output of 150mV at most). The USB worst-case scenario is 4.75v to 5.25v, a span of just 500mV. The switching frequency initially is very low at 26.08khz, which is just above audible for a 500mA load, but may be audible by pets and animals (and could repel or cause them distress). The switching frequency varies throughout discharge.

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At a load of 1A, the ripple now measures 1066mV, which is yet even higher, with a slightly lower switching frequency of 21.45khz at the beginning of discharge. This is on the borderline of audibility by the “youngest” ears, but eventually falls to something which can be slightly annoying.

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At a load of 2A, the ripple is now 1291mV, which is almost 26%!!! The waveform has a lot of strange components, but a periodic component seems to exist at 4.28khz and a frequency about four-times this (17.12khz). These are audible as a fairly annoying whistle/whine.

Conclusion

While this supplied unit featured quality genuine Samsung cells, with a very modest “round-up” of 200mAh to 8000mAh, and a very commendable conversion efficiency, I cannot recommend this unit because of the low quality of the output power which is out of specification, problems with build quality and audible noise which can be annoying to end users. There is a real potential for harm or stress to devices connected to such poor quality sources of power.

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