The Problems with Power

All of our amazing gadgets require electricity to run. All of that electricity has a cost. It’s something many of us don’t think about. There are also many inconveniences we face just trying to get power to our devices or charge their batteries.

Cable Routing

If you live in an older house you will never have enough power outlets when you need them. You might need lots of extension cords or power strips. I recommend these belkin power strips because the plug end is flat to slide behind furniature and it rotates to change angle for more attractive routing.

If you have a room that is lit with a lot of lamps, I can personally recommend these remote outlet switches. This is such a simple and affordable solution, especially for dark aparment living rooms, you will wonder how you got by without them.

Device Charging

In the past 5 years almost all cell phones charge using a USB interface. USB is a cable standard that has 4 wires in it. Two are for data and two are for power. Many devices have been made to accept power through a USB cable standard. Micro and Mini USB are two different standards that are common now. All this means that people have realized that the larger rectangular USB plug has become the new power outlet that’s most important in our day to day lives of getting power into our cell phone batteries.

One solution that has grown in popularity lately is USB Outlets. Nice to have but risky because of current draw requirements increasing lately. Originally you only got 500mA out of a USB cable, iPads and other tablets need quite a bit more than that, as does the Fire TV Stick and Raspberry Pi. So, many devices now have their own custom charging wall warts that provide more current to the devices that need it, which means your low-power USB power adapters aren’t as useful as they were a few years ago. So, investing in a USB power adapter that’s installed in the walls seems a little silly, but undoubtedly useful depending on your situation.

Instead I would look at something like this Monoprice adapter which screws on over the existing outlet. Or, this Anker 5 port charger which offers 5 high-power charging ports wherever you need it! None of these require you to mess with wiring in the wall socket. I put the Anker 5 port charger in our living room and have one of every type of charging cable so we can charge every device we own and have the right cable for our friends with Android phones when they come over.

Power Waste

If you are concerned about devices sucking “phantom power” while you are not using them, you can check if you really have a problem using a kill-a-watt first. This will sit between your device and the wall power and measure how much electricity it uses in a given time. Measure while the device is “on”. Then measure to see if any more significant power flows through it while the device is “off” or in standby.

If you know you have devices using power when they shouldnt, the simplest answer is to use this power strip which has individual mechanical switches on each outlet for precise and trustworthy control of what is and is not getting juice right now. The Belkin WeMo remotely switched outlets are also an option. These can be controlled from a nice smartphone app, but integration with other systems can be a little tricky still.

Wait on Further Home Automation

Home automation could solve a lot of these phantom power problems, but I don’t think the time is right to invest in home automation (for most people) yet.

Instead, I would look for non-connected solutions that can make your home more efficient. For instance, if you have a small space heater for a small room but don’t want to go to the hassle of hooking it up to a thermostat, you can get a timed outlet switch which is a simple sleep-timer like device for shutting power off after 1/2 hour.

I would wait before considering any of the internet connected LED lighting solutions like the Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo Lighting Kits. The market forces around these is changing rapidly and prices are likely to drop soon. This is also a market that is begging for consolidation and innovation. I have a feeling a clear market leader will emerge soon. This also means I am waiting before purchasing any more LED light bulbs at all! I don’t want to invest in a 15-20 year bulb when wireless “smart” LED bulbs will be in an affordable price range so much sooner.

Also, Apple has released their HomeKit software which offers one way for developers and manufacturers to consolidate the control of some of these internet connected smart-home devices. I think the home-automation market for new entry level users is about to change radically in the next couple of years, so investing hundreds of dollars to solve the home automation and lighting problem now might be a bad idea.

If you are really set on starting a DIY home automation project now, then you should consider the packages from SmartThings which offers a good app and a good cross protocol hub. I like the things I have read about SmartThings. Or possibly look at the Almond+ which is both a home automation hub and a modern 802.11ac WiFi router in one box for a decent price. Unfortunately I cannot find any reviews of the Almond+. There is no guarantee these systems are remotely “future-proof.”

You should be aware there are a few possible security problems with the way current generations of home automation devices connect to each other. Beware the potential hacker who controls your internet connected home. Incomplete home security will become a more common story as the Internet of Things becomes a reality.

Surge Protection and Battery Backups

A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) is a big battery that will run a few devices for a few minutes. Before we all used laptops, these were designed to give you time to save your work and shut down your desktop computer safely when the power went out. That’s still what they are used for in data-centers, and you might want to have one if you are running your own server at home. Specifically, if you took my recommendation to get a Synology Diskstation, then you can buy a small UPS that will keep uninterrupted power flowing to your Diskstation long enough for it to shut itself down automatically. The DiskStation software knows how to talk to many common UPS boxes. Pretty cool! I have my eye on this one. I’ll post an acutal recommendation on these once I have time to do a review. A small 2 disk NAS shouldn’t need much in the way of power, and there should be a decent UPS out there for less than $150 that will protect your data in the case of power loss.

If you want a more robust battery backup system for extended periods without power you can consider the bigger systems from GoalZero but those are mostly just for giving you light and charging a few small devices during a day or two blackout. If you have a day or two of blackout you might need a lot more power for things like refrigeration, heat, or sump pumps, which won’t work for long off any computer sized UPS or any of the systems from GoalZero.

I thought I had found a use for my $20 Amazon Fire TV Stick. Unfortunately, it's not a great digital photo frame. It will display a screensaver of photos from my Amazon Cloud Drive. I took a few minutes to throw some photos in a directory on the Amazon Cloud Drive website, then configured the device's screensaver functionality to show them. Unfortunately it goes completely to sleep after about 10 minutes of showing the screensaver, so I don't get the long photo slideshow I wanted, or the always on weather screen I would have settled for.

I picked up this little streaming device for no particular reason, other than it was really affordable for prime members, and we watch quite a bit of Free Amazon Prime streaming video in this house. The entire device is about twice the size of a USB flash drive. It plugs directly into a free HDMI port on the back of your TV, and it uses an addtional USB cable to provide more power. These devices don't need more power than is proveded by the USB ports on the back of your TV, but it helps to use the provided wall wart which give more juice. The Fire Stick will warn you a few times if you use a lower power USB port to power it that things will work, but not as well as they could if you plug it in with it's own power adapter.


I have the one Weather App in it's app store running and it shows whenever I hit a button on the remote. Which is nice but not the "glancable" always-on display I wanted. I have a custom Raspberry Pi Dashboard running normally, but it's kinda difficult to maintain and update for most people so I'm waiting to do a writeup on it until I have it refined a little more. I was kinda hoping the Fire Stick would offer me the home dashboard and photo frame functionality I wanted, without all the fiddling and customization. Sadly, not yet. You may be asking "how is it at playing streaming videos?" Totally acceptable. *Shrug*. I still like watching TV on our laptops and iPad. One complaint about the hardware: I really wish the remote had a navigation click ring like used to exist on the old iPods for fast list scrolling.
  •  → Written by: Tim

  • Updated 2014-11-13 with a link to Gabe Weatherhead’s article at MacDrifter about backing up a Synology.
  • Updated on 2014-11-05 with more information about Crashplan on the Synology and some formatting changes, originally posted on 2014-10-09.

The Problem

Moving everything onto an external USB drive is not a backup. You need a backup, but you probably are leaving yourself open to disastrous data loss. I don’t mean to be a fear monger, but this is a real problem. If all of your data is on a laptop or phone or a single external hard drive on your desk, someone could break in and steal all your data in one fell swoop. A fire or flood could just as easily destroy all that data. Believe me.

Backups are complicated. Until someone comes along to make it super simple we need to figure a few things out. Lets start with what and where. What data do you have and where is it? OK, a bunch of photos and home videos. How many places are they? What would happen if that one place you put them suddenly broke or was stolen or burned? You don’t have to just worry you can actually do something about it.

We are going to plan ahead and make a system that does all the thinking for us. We don't want to have to think it through every day or week. There should be a local backup of the important data from each device in your home. As well as a remote backup of all that important data. Remote means somewhere other than your home. It doesn't have to be a cloud service, but a cloud service requires the least brain power to keep running.

The Options

There are ways that are more perfect than others, but it's going to be different for each person. The way big businesses protect their data is very complicated. But at the scale most people have to worry about 10 GB – 10 TB we shouldn't have a problem figuring something out that is safe and relatively affordable.

You can try to just buy two USB drives and carry them back and forth to work and home each week. Phones can be backed up to your computer, which is backed up to an external drive. You  should be rotating which backup is plugged into your PC or Mac every week or month. The other drive should be kept somewhere other than your home. But eventually you'll probably forget and stop carrying them around. Or one drive will suddenly become corrupted from all the banging around in your bag, and you won't realize it.

My favorite solution right now is the Synology DiskStation (a machine called a NAS (for Network Attached Storage)) and TimeMachine. Apple’s TimeMachine is great backup software if you have Mac. A Synology DiskStation like the DS214 has two hard drives in it, meaning all the data can be mirrored on both drives, protecting your from 1 drive failure. Now, that's not quite enough, you should also have one more backup locally, and one more remote.

I recommend putting that extra copy of your data into a cloud backup service. Backblaze and Crashplan seem to be the best options for most users, but I chose Amazon Glacier. This service is enabled by a backup client available on the Synology. And, the pricing is very affordable, though slightly more expensive than either Backblaze or CrashPlan for my backup size. My last monthly bill was around $7 for over 540GB. Backblaze and Crashplan are cheaper at larger sizes, but your NAS won't send data to them easily, without going through a running computer.

Backblaze won’t upload data from network drives without considerable trickery. According to Marco, Crashplan is a viable option for uploading data directly from you Synology NAS. Scott Hanselman has a guide to setting it up here. If you just want automated simple backups from your PC, use Backblaze or Crashplan directly from the computer. If you are already using Crashplan, and want to add your NAS data to it, or if you have a lot of data on a NAS and want to get the Crashplan price breaks, follow that guide. But, I can’t vouch for it personally, I just used the Glacier Backup App that comes in the Synology App Store.

I don't want my laptop or desktop to have to be always on backups to happen for the whole household. That's one of the strengths of a NAS, it's an efficient computer that's always running. Your local computers push data to the NAS and the NAS pushes it’s data to the cloud. It’s a two step process that offers a lot of flexibility, and redundancy but at a cost of setup time and financial investment on the NAS hardware.

NAS devices can also be backup up locally on to external USB hard drives. You could carry that drive off to a second location to protect from a local disaster. This could be cost effective with a fixed cost up front of around $130, but I don't like having to do any part of my backups manually. Backups need to be as automated as possible, so my forgetful nature won't leave me unprotected. If it’s not automated, it’s probably not happening. If you want more information on doing local backups from a Synology, check out the guide on MacDrifter. Gabe also recommends using Amazon Glacier for his “slow” backups. Meaning items that he doesn’t need to restore immediately after a data loss, but could wait a few weeks to download or have them ship out a hard-drive. He keeps business documents and immediate needed files on a physical hard drives at a separate location.

Personal Recommendation

Buy a Synology DiskStation with at least 2 drives in a mirrored array. I’ll write a how-to article for this soon. Sign up for an Amazon developer account. Configure the Glacier backup application on the DiskStation. Configure your laptops to backup to the network location on the DiskStation. Configre your phones to auto-upload all photos and videos to the DiskStation also. If I had my house burn down (again) I wouldn't lose any important data. Everything on our laptops and phones is saved to the Synology DiskStation NAS, and the Synology is backed up to Glacier every week. Everything is pretty much automated, and cost effective for me.

Conclusion

My overall approach is this: I like to combine some local infrastructure with some monthly services. I don't mind using free services sometimes, but you need to be ready to switch away from them without losing anything, and you need to be able to say that the data that is important to you is safe, not wonder when the last time was you remembered to plug in that drive and copy all those folders.