Consumer Tech Network Technologies Raspberry Pi

WAN load-balancing routers

I got an offer for $20/month broadband access from Centurylink. It got me to thinking, could I somehow use that as a backup connection to my current cable ISP? How would that work? Could I use a Raspberry Pi as a WAN load-balancing router?

The details
Well I’m not sure about using Raspberry Pi. It’s not so simple.

But I just wanted to mention there are solutions out there in the marketplace to this very problem. They’re not that easy to find, hence this article. They’re mostly aimed at small businesses where Internet connectivity is very important, like an Internet cafe.

This Cisco dual WAN router for $157 would do the trick:

Or for about the same price, this Linksys Dual WAN router:

Want to go consumer grade and save money? This TP-Link model is only about $85:

But it’s ports are only 100 mbps, which is kind of surprising in this day and age.

DIY approach for the intrepid

There now appears to be a Raspberry Pi solution since the advent of RPi 4 and OpenWRT support for ARM. This post is amazingly detailed: Raspberry Pi as a home router. The latest generation of Raspberry Pi… | by Vladimír Záhradník | The Startup | Medium

So the idea there would be to get OpenWRT running on an RPi 4, then explore running multi-WAN on OpenWRT: LEDE/OpenWRT — Setting Up Multi-WAN | by CT WiFi | LEDE/OpenWrt & IoT | Medium

We have identified commercial solutions to the question: can I use two ISPs at home to provide high availability and load-balancing. I have my doubts however and I think running OpenWRT may be the best option.

Consumer Tech Web Site Technologies

White web page: maximizes your backlight with no invasion of privacy

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always had some issues getting my flashlight app to work on my phones. First there’s the issue of finding one from a trusted source (many contain spyware: access to my contacts?? for a flashlight?? I don’t think so…). So I trusted Swiss Army Knife, but then I had to launch that, then drill down to the flashlight, blah, blah. And the flashlight app on the Windows phone also looks a little seedy. And anyway sometimes you don’t want to overwhelm with your camera’s LED. Maybe just a simple glow from the backlight of your screen is enough to guide you down the hallway int he dark… I know I found myself using both my Fire HD tablet and my Windows phone in exactly that way.

Then I decided to scan a slide, using the backlight of my tablet to permit the scanner to see the colors, etc. That did not work out, by the way. It sounds like a good idea, though, doesn’t it? i guess the backlight is not sufficiently bright. maybe if I play with screen brightness…

Anyway, for all the above reasons I realized I could use a white backlight app. Rather than pay $0.99 for another dodgy app, I decided to write a web page that displays an all-white background. Then i could bookmark it and use it on both my Windows phone and my tablet!

White backlight web page
This is really complicated – don’t try this for yourself. Ha, ha just kidding. This is about as simple as it gets. Falls into the catgeory of “wish I had thought of it sooner,” or “Duh.”

White backlight web page

The HTML code
Want to put this on your own web server? Here is the code.

<html><head><body bgcolor="white"></htnml>

No banners, no ads, no intrusive permissions: this is a web page that maximizes the soft glow of your device’s backlight. You could play with your screen brightness to possibly make it still brighter, adjust the length it glows for, etc. For convenience to pull it up in a jiffy I’ve bookmarked my White backlight web page.

References and related

White backlight web page.

Consumer Tech

Consumer tech: How to safely add steps to your Fitbit

So my significant other realized after going to the park that she wasn’t wearing her Fitbit Alta. She’s a member of not one but two separate programs that provide certain incentives the more steps taken. So she wanted to add those missing steps – 4000 of them – to her Fitbit.

She put it in the dryer, on a special cycle which doesn’t produce heat. She knew how much it was adding by monitoring it with her smartphone. She believes it only took around 10 minutes to add 4000 steps this way. No harmful effects were noted. I suppose she put it inside of something like a sock or one o those nylons pouches. I was surprised it could have gone that quickly – that’s over 6 “steps” a second. Maybe it took a bit longer she conceded, but not more than 15 minutes.

Consumer Tech Linux

What I’m trying out now – Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet

I had previously praised an HP Touchpad Tablet, but that was another time and times have moved on. Now I’m trying the new Fire HD 8 Tablet and am quite impressed. It’s not perfect however.

Here are some features I really like.

Long battery life – the HP Touchpad died too quickly – after a couple hours – giving me recharge anxiety
Bright display
Lightweight and sufficiently small – I often carry it around from room to room in the house
High-def resolution: 1280 x 800
Reasonably good app selection
Quad processor makes it responsive and able to run lots of apps at the same time
Switching between apps is pretty easy

No Groupme app
no X-windows server
no ability to cast, even to Amazon Fire TV Stick!
Speedtest does not work
Home screen is locked to Amazon advertizing
Very unresponsive to swipes – in general very slow

Apps and features I like
Serverauditor – gives me ssh access to my Raspberry Pi and Amazon hosts
NY Times
Silk Browser
Calculator is pretty good
Maps is alright
Fitbit – and the Bluetooth actually works with my Charge device
stereo speakers, but not the best dynamic range
prints to WiFi printer, e.g., Canon printers
Bluetooth enabled – can pump audio out to an external Bluetooth speaker

After several months of use I am less impressed. The thing bogs down with my palette of apps and is slow as a dog. I need a minimum of three swipes to unlockl the Amazon home screen advertisement, which gets really tiring really fast.

References and related
My old HP Touchpad article, just for the historical reference

Consumer Tech

Consumer Tech: Getting pictures off the Samsung Galaxy S7

This is simple enough, but I keep forgetting how to do it since I only do it every few months. And the options provided seem almost limitless. Still, this approach works best in my opinion.

The details
Plug USB cable from phone into PC.
You may see initial pop-up asking what you’d like to do. I would choose Import files.
Look in File Explorer for the phone. You’ll see when you expand it that there are no files beneath it.
Go to phone. Pull down the status bar by dragging from the top.
One of the notifications concerns what to do when the USB cable is plugged in. The default is charge. Change it to share files.
The phone does not remember this setting. You need to repeat this every time you plug it into a PC and want to transfer your pictures! At least that’s my experience.
Now you can expand the phone in File Explorer and find your pictures in a DCIM folder.

The old-fashioned way of using USB cable to transfer pictures is best. They’ve moved things around however so older advice is no longer applicable.

Consumer Tech

Consumer Tech: Fitbit Charge tracker disconnected solution

I don’t want to oversell this solution. But let’s face it, you can lose hours and you probably will if you start rummaging through Fitbit’s own community forums on the solution of what to do when your Fitbit Charge or Charge HR doesn’t sync. You pick up a lot of bad and irrelevant and desperate advice.

What worked for me – the long story

Obviously there can be many reasons this may be happening: Bluetooth is off, Bluetooth pairing has been dropped, perhaps low battery, but those ar things you’d think of on your own, right, and anyway they’d be accompanied by other symptoms.

I have a Windows phone. Fitbit has an app through the Windows store. The syncing has always been very finicky. With my Charge HR I would sometimes have to try and re-try the sync for several minutes. Other times it would work right away. I couldn’t use either my home laptop or home desktop computer – both Dells – because the Windows 10 upgrade I did seemed to have wiped out the Bluetooth driver.

Then one day my spouse bought a Fitbit Alta and the helpful guy at Best Buy “helpfully” added her Fitbit and all her information to my account. You see I had commandeered her Samsung phone as well in a desperate attempt to find some device that would sync my Charge HR. It was a total mess. One day her steps overrode my steps and got synced backwards to my Charge! And it was 6000 steps fewer! So I got the idea to log out of my account. I logged back in and the sync worked quickly (quick means about 30 seconds in my experience). Since then I’ve done that a couple more times and both times I was able to sync right away after logging back in.

The summary
For Windows Phone when you can’t sync, and see the message Tracker disconnected when you know full well it has good batteries, it helps to log out of your Fitbit account and log right back in.

Syncing Fitbits is a finicky business in my experience. Their online help is mediocre and will just as likely lead you down the wrong path. Oh, and the wireless dongle that came with my Charge doesn’t fit the device! But I still like the devices overall – guess I got used to them. hopefully this trick to sync a Charge or Charge HR will help someone.

But don’t get me started on what happens when your battery begins to go.

Consumer Tech

Spousal request for slideshow on TV – fail

Some things are just a lot harder than they should be. Given that I have two Amazon Firesticks for TVs, and tons of pictures on the Google cloud, wouldn’t it be great if while working at home my spouse could casually view a slideshow – sort of like using the TV as a giant electronic picture frame. Can’t be too hard, right? That was a long-standing request, which started more like “I want to see our pictures on the TV.” Then along came a request to show a home movie through the TV. Together these things broke through my wall of indifference and I was inspired to find a solution. Couldn’t be that hard, right?

Ha, what little did I know.

Some details
List of technologies tried and (mostly) discarded
physical HDMI cable

Some solutions came close, some not so much. Here are pros and cons of each in the order I tried them.

HDMI cable from laptop to TV
Well at least it actually works (see Miracast entry below).
Working with actual cables – no fun. Ties up your laptop fulltime.
Probably fine if your need is very infrequent and you have spare time to mess with the cables.

What it is
If it worked, this would be like having a wireless HDMI cable. So you’d cast from, say, a laptop directly to your Firestick.
I guess none as it doesn’t work. In principle it would be like using HDMI but without messing with the cable. You can mirror your display wirelessly from your laptop, then set your Firestick to permit being used, but it all doesn’t work in the end. My friend actually called Amazon support on this and they confirmed that they do not support Miracast from PCs.
At best it would tie up your laptop full time casting its screen to your TV. Doesn’t sound that great to me. Those who use Miracast find it unstable in any case.

What it is
A client/server technology. It is kind of slick nd designed to be consumer friendly. You install the Plex server on your PC.
It wasn’t too hard to get going. The Plex server can be used with other apps so it’s a generally good thing to have in any case. The Plex app is available on the Amazon store.
If you have home movies on your PC they play really nicely, I’ll give it that.
Your stuff is organized into sensible collections. Browsing through lots of folders of pictures is pretty easy.
The slideshow terminates at the last picture and stays there. There is no looping, which is bizarre since it’s otherwise so slick.

What it is
As far as I can tell it’s an open source media client.
It can work from a bunch of different sources. I never did get SMB sharing to work, but once I started playing with Upnp I realized I could aim it at my Plex server! And that worked.
Requires you to jailbreak you Firestick so it’s not a smooth or pleasant installation. Installation requires “sideloading” from an Android device. I can drill down into a folder of photos but once I click slideshow the screen turns black. The thumbnails show up however. Also I read that it reads the EXIF meta information form each picture in a folder and that will take forever on a typical folder with hundreds of pictures. That’s a non-starter.

AllConnect by Tuxera
What it is
You would need the app installed on an Android device as well as the Firestick. You then in principle use your android device to control what gets displayed on your Firestick. This is a casting technology in other words.
Like a supported version of Kodi – it’s an app right in the Amazon store. Again it was compatible with my Plex server, which was nice.
Works like crap. You can show one picture at a time. It loses the connection. Slideshow mode doesn’t work. Forces you to pick one photo at a time to add to your slideshow. I don’t think so!
Ties up an Android device so that it ain’t so great either.
Also, because of multiple devices involved it’s a little slow (a couple seconds) to switch between pictures, painting a refresh thing on your screen while you wait.

All approaches fail. Plex comes closest to being useable. Allconnect is horrible, Kodi holds promise for some day, Miracast is a joke. An HDMI cable is a capable fallback solution.

Consumer Tech Uncategorized

Amazon Fire Stick/Sony BRAVIA TV compatibility problem – one solution

There is a very long discussion of this topic on Sony BRAVIA models more than five years old may not work perfectly with Amazon’s Fire TV stick. I have this problem and I’ll mention my workaround.

The details
My Sony TV model is BRAVIA XBR 32XBR6. I suppose it’s about five years old. I also have it connected to a Sony Blueray player, which can also play Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc. But it isn’t nearly as well designed as the Fire Stick and so I bought the Fire Stick, which has better WiFi support and a faster user interface.

Initially the Fire Stick appears to work with the TV and all is good.

Second day: same thing. All is good.

About the third usage, however, and when playing on-demand content I hear what I’m trying to play but I only see a blue screen with the letters HDCP. I think that indicates a digital copy protection mechanism has kicked in.

Powering down the Fire Stick doesn’t seem to work. Turning the TV off and on doesn’t seem to help.

In my case I had the option to switch to watch the same content through my Blueray player (which never displays this problem). Then next time I went back to the Fire Stick (usually days later) all was good.

So I became suspicious about cause and effect and I shortened the cycle.

Get the HDCP problem. Switch HDMI ports to the Blueray player (using the remote). Initiate the Amazon video service connection on the Player (but don’t bother to actually play anything). Switch back to the Fire Stick’s HDMI port. HDCP problem gone!

This solution was not too painful. I also have a Raspberry Pi connected to yet another HDMI TV port. I’ll see if switching to that will do the trick as well – that would be a cheap option that’s not too painful.

2017 update
I never get this HDCP problem any more. The main difference is that I never use my Sony Blueray player for on-demand programming. The Firestick is superior so I always use it. I only use the Blueray player for DVD playback.

October, 2017 update
I got my birthday present – the updated Fire TV stick with Alexa voice remote, but on the same Sony TV. It does seem to work better. The old one was button press, nothing happens, button press, nothing happens, button press, finally it gets the idea. The new one does seem to be better about that.

July 2019 update
Just go the latest and greatest: fire tv stick 4K on Prime Day a few days ago. On this same, now rather old Sony TV model mentioned above, it works really and surprisingly well! I thought surely this older model will not support newer features such as volume control – but it does. And surely it will not support power control of the TV – but it does! And since volume control works (and you can see it is controlling TV volume, not some kind of HDMI or other volume) of course the mute button also works. All these features had required me, up until now, to schlep around two remote controls: the one for the TV plus the Firestick. Now I’ll just need the one. I could probably use Alexa voice commands but I don’t think I’ll want to.

And, it’s just plain more responsive. Previous models were often a bit slow to react to key presses. This does much better on that front. One last thing, it comes pre-configured with your account already set up so you can be up and running much quicker.

I have no idea about the 4k-ness of the picture quality, but the other features alone make me glad I got it.

Fire TV stick 4K

I wish I could answer all the questions raised in the comments but I just don’t have access to any of those models. I would think it ought to work with any Sony TV made in the last 10 years, but maybe it’s not so simple.

Upgrading to a newer Firestick – what to do with your old one
Now you’ve got a Firestick on all your TVs and you want that latest model, and your relatives don’t want your old one either even though it worked just fine. Around here we’d be tempted to send it to a second-hand store, or worse case, to an electronics recycling program. But remember it has all your logins to Amazon (for sure), maybe Hulu, HBO Now, AT&T Now, Netflix, etc. So you better take an extra few minutes to factory reset it. This is a terrific article that gives five different ways to reset your Firestick to factory defaults: Five ways to reset your Firestick. I just wanted to repeat one. You have to have it connected, unfortunately. Hold the right and back buttons of your remote simultaneously for at least 10 seconds. Then follow the prompts. I have tried it and it works. The reset itself takes about 15 minutes on an older Firestick.

Tip for infrequent users

If like me you only watch a few hours a week because you are that busy, and yuo’ve subscribed to a variety of services (Netflix, Youtube Red, Amazon, …), I have this tip to save little of your precious time. You could see pop-ups suggesting to update to the latest version. I suggest to ignore those and wait until you have a bigger block of time. If you only have an hour you don’t want to waste the first five minutes upgrading an app you may have only used once (happens to me a lot). Let’s face it, these things don’t boot up quickly as it is.

2021 tip for US users wanting HBO Max

HBO Max is now available for Firestick. In 2020 it wasn’t for a long stretch.

2021 Tip: Changing Firestick from one TV set to another

I moved my Firestick from a Sony TV to an Insignia brand TV. I thought no big deal, it’s already set up – should just work. Wrong! Yes, the display worked. I could move between apps like usual, but the TV control functions – power on/off, volume, and mute – did absolutely nothing. What gives?

I always assumed that the infrared signal from the Firestick remote only communicates with the Firestick, and that the HDMI protocol included a side channel for power and volume commands. Apparently that assumption is totally wrong. In order to effectuate those things, the Firestick actually acts as a simple remote for your TV set and interacts directly with the TV’s infrared receiver. Who knew? Hence, if your set is a different brand than before, you may have to revive the infrared signal the Firestick puts out. It’s a bit obscure but not difficult. Go to

Settings > Equipment Control > Manage Equipment > TV > Change TV

Then follow the prompts. It actually knows about Insignia TVs and gets it right, by the way.

Related to the above, I recently bought a new Firestick and tried to do the initial setup on that same Insignia TV. I managed to see “Fire” on the screen, and that was it! Nothing else was possible. So I set it up on that Sony Bravia TV, then moved it over to the Insignia. Worked great, except for that On/Off/volume kind of TV controls. And that was simply fixed by the above recipe.

Android and Windows 10 screen mirroring

What I’ve decided to go with is to put the HBO Max app on my Android phone and cast the screen to my Firestick (screen mirroring). There’s a little more setup than you’re used to each time, but it’s not terrible compared with sideloading. In Firestick’s setup Screen you can enable casting. On a Samsung Galaxy pone you have the Smartview app in Settings: pull down from the top twice rapidly to get to Smart View. The Firestick screen should show up as an option. Choose it, then go back to your HBO Max app and play whatever content you like – it should be casting to your TV. I think you can also do screen mirroring from a Windows 10 laptop. Click on Notifications in the far right of the taskbar, you get all those little squares, click expand if needed, until you see Project. In Project look at the bottom and click on Connect to a wireless display.

A solution is offered to the dreaded HDCP problem for Amazon Fire Stick/Sony BRAVIA TV. More research needs to be done to reduce the solution to its essence.

References and related
Here’s the link to that lengthy discussion:

Fire TV Stick (2019 model). This is the regular model. You probably don’t need the 4K model unless you have a super TV…

How to reset your (old) Firestick because you’ve upgraded:

Out-of-sync video and audio? Check this suggestion.