All The Things You Can Do with a Roku Express

Roku remains the market leader for streaming TV devices. They got there by being largely the first to market way back in 2008 in collaboration with Netflix when they began their streaming business.

These days Roku’s are cheap and functional with support for nearly all streaming providers. Their latest entry level model, the Roku Express, is the subject of my latest review.

The Express is a no frills device – it lacks some of the universal remote capabilities of other Roku’s in the product line and only outputs at a 1080p resolution. But for an old dumb television they work quite well. Just note that Roku dropped support for older standard definition sets – you’ll need an HDMI port to use it.

Roku ladders their product line in such a way that an additional $10 or so gets you to the next level. So if you’re looking for universal remote capabilities the Express 4k+ will deliver that for only $10 more and will work on 1080p and 720p televisions.

But for an entry level streamer the product is quite functional. It performs adequately enough for navigating between apps and streaming media. And when paired with their excellent mobile app you pick up the ability to do private listening via headphones and stream your personal media to the television.

Roku’s interface remains fairly clean and although it has advertising it’s not as intrusive as what you’ll experience on a Fire TV or Google TV these days.

And for Apple users Rokus work exceptionally well as Airplay destinations. You can mirror your iPhone, iPad or Mac’s screen to the Roku with just a click or two. It works just as well as it does on Apple’s much more expensive Apple TV devices. I demo all of that in the video.

All in Roku remains a great choice for people looking for simple streamers. They support all of the major subscription services (at the moment anyway) and offer a ton of great free advertiser supported content options.

Roku Express Setup Guide

Roku currently has five different streaming players on the market with about a $10 ladder between each model. Every couple of years I like to take a look at the entry level model (the Roku Express) to see how much value can be squeezed out of it.

We’ll have a full review up on my main channel soon but in the meantime I thought I would make a “how-to” video on setting up one of these Roku Express devices. You can check it out here on the Extra’s channel.

In the video I step through the setup process and also recommend that you install the Roku mobile app that adds some helpful functionality like a keyboard for passwords, private listening via headphones, and a few other things.

The Roku Express sells for $29 right now (affiliate link) and is their least expensive option.

Lenovo ThinkBook 14s Yoga Gen 2 Review

I am finally beginning to get caught up on my backlog of laptop reviews! My latest one is of another Lenovo Thinkbook – the 14s Yoga Gen 2. You can watch it here.

This one is a middle of the road 2-in-1 with an i7-1255U processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. This is the kind of laptop that goes on sale frequently on Lenovo’s website so definitely keep an eye on their product page (affiliate link) if you’re looking for a deal. It’s currently starts at $840 and the one we’re looking at is around $1000.

Performance and battery life are pretty good on this one. It scored well on benchmark tests and in line with other laptops running with this generation of Intel processors. Cooling is efficient and quiet with very little throttling happening under sustained processor loads.

Like other Yoga’s we’ve looked at they have a small pen that “garages” itself on the side of the case. I noticed the pen feels a little more natural than prior iterations, with the screen introducing a little more resistance to make writing feel less slippery.

For upgradeability the Yoga 14s Gen 2 has a second NVME SSD slot that allows for the installation of a second drive. This might be a fun way to dual boot a linux operating system. There is a single RAM slot on the motherboard for memory upgrades, however half the RAM (8GB) is soldered on the main board. So the best you’ll do with this one is 16GB max by adding an 8GB module.

I recommend either purchasing a 16GB configuration or upgrading to 16GB yourself to ensure the system runs in dual channel memory mode – without that RAM slot occupied you won’t get the max performance out of this machine.

My only complaint on this machine is its display. It’s dim at 300 nits, only 1080p, and runs with a narrow 16:9 aspect ratio (most laptops these days have a taller 16:10 ratio).

Will Moonlight & Sunshine Work as a Gamestream Alternative?

A few weeks ago I posted a video about Nvidia sunsetting their “Gamestream” feature on the Nvidia Shield TV that allows for personal streaming of games from a PC. It worked exceptionally well especially as it would automatically adjust settings for supported games to best fit the display the Shield was connected to.

While the Shield TV was the only officially supported device for Gamestream an open source project called Moonlight brought the feature to many other devices including tablets and smartphones. Many were concerned that the demise of Gamestream would also spell the end of Moonlight.

But a companion project called Sunshine was launched to provide an open source replacement to the streaming server provided by Nvidia. In my latest video I took Sunshine out for a spin to see how it compares to the soon-to-be-dead Nvidia option.

The bottom line is that Sunshine delivers a high quality image with very little latency. But it lacks all of the creature comforts that made Nvidia Gamestream work as seamlessly as it did. Among the challenges I encountered were adding Xbox Gamepass games that I downloaded along with having to manually set the resolution for each game I was playing off of a 16:10 gaming laptop.

But I see a lot of potential here – not only for gaming but also for just general high performance desktop screen sharing. Sunshine is completely free and open source and can sit safely behind a firewall. Most of the other solutions that offer its level of performance are wrapped around a subscription service that allows outside access.

I am sure we’ll be revisiting it in the future so stay tuned!

Meta / Facebook Has Just Given Up..

Facebook has long had a huge bot and spam problem. It’s a haven for scammers of all types and Meta seems unable to do much of anything about it. On my Facebook page I frequently get spammers and scammers trying to lure my viewers into their schemes. Take this most recent one for example spamming my group with an illegal IPTV service:

While I remove comments like this when I can it’s hard to keep up with them all – especially as Facebook brings in exactly $0 in revenue to my overall operation. I also report the comments but more often than not Facebook takes no action. Facebook said the post above did not “go against any of our community standards” and took no action against this user spamming pages and groups.

While this illegal IPTV service will likely not result in my account getting hacked , the next set of comments I reported surely will. What do you think happened when I reported a set of comments directing users to a fake account recovery service?

You guessed it : nothing. I will give credit to Facebook though – at least they tell you they’re doing nothing versus the black hole that is YouTube’s spam reporting feature.

The other day Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta’s plans to offer a paid verification tier to make their users pay for something Meta should have been doing all along to protect their users. This is an effort to crack down on account impersonations that also plague the service.

I have no doubt this will be a successful product offering because it’s essentially a protection racket. Individuals and businesses who depend on Meta’s services to reach people will have no choice but to pay in order to protect their accounts and followers. Meta will have even less incentive now to rid the platform of fake accounts and spammers.

Gulikit Nintendo Switch Joycon Hall Effect Stick Replacement Review

My latest video is a review of a set of replacement joycon sticks from a company called Gulikit. What makes these sticks unique is that they make use of the “Hall Effect” to track their position.

Hall-based joysticks use magnets for better accuracy and don’t tend to develop drifting issues over time. But they are usually more expensive. The Gaming Setup has a good explanation of how they work.

Nintendo Joycon sticks suffer from drifting issues where the stick reports movement even when it’s not moving. Nintendo has likely resolved the issue in more recent versions of their hardware but there are likely millions of faulty sticks out in the wild.

Nintendo eventually acknowledged how wide spread the problem is and have set up a free repair program for customers impacted by it. But if you’re a “do it yourselfer” these sticks are a good alternative to the originals.

Installation was not too difficult but does require some patience and caution as there are small delicate parts inside the Joycon that have to be manipulated. You can see my livestream of the installation process here. I suggest checking out iFixit’s helpful guide for a great step-by-step guide.

I found the Gulikit sticks feel smoother and track more accurately versus the original sticks. The only issue I encountered is that the tops of the Gulikits are a little more slippery vs. the stock Nintendo sticks and might require some extra grip to be applied. Gulikit says the stick tops are replaceable so you might be able to find something a little grippier.

Unihertz Tank Phone Review

Unihertz is known for making really tiny phones like their Jelly series of smartphones. For their latest devices they went in another direction and built what is likely the biggest and heaviest smartphone on the market. They call it the Tank phone and it’s the subject of my latest review.

The tank integrates an enormous 22,000 mAh battery into an Android 12 powered smartphone. The phone can run for at least a week on standby but can also do double duty as a powerbank and charge other devices.

On the back it has a large “camping lantern” LED light that can output up to 1200 lumens. It’s super bright and even warns the user not to stare into it when turning it on.

On the back it has a night vision camera with infrared illuminator, a 108 megapixel “AI Camera” and a 2 megapixel macro lens. Like other Unihertz phones the camera system here disappoints.

The high resolution camera spits out large 20+ megabyte image files but they lack the detail I expected to see from a camera supposedly north of 100 megapixels. I suspect they’re using a much lower resolution sensor and interpolating up to a higher pixel count. Video quality out of the cameras is equally disappointing as you’ll see in the video.

Performance of the phone is on par with a low to mid-range smartphone. It’s adequate for nearly every android app and game you’ll find on the Google Play store. Along with its Mediatek Helio G99 processor it has 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. It does not have an SD card option.

The Tank phone is unlocked. Here in the USA it works on TMobile and Verizon but not AT&T. Verizon customers need to activate their sim card on another device first and then move it over to the Unihertz.

All in this is another crazy phone from Unihertz. Like their other phones it’s well constructed and fills a very small niche in the marketplace. They are masters at finding these little slivers of need in the huge smartphone market!

Razer Edge Review

Android gaming devices are getting the attention of major manufacturers again. We recently looked at the Logitech G which I liked quite a bit. It wasn’t very powerful but it was powerful enough for a good amount of retro emulation, casual Android gaming, and game streaming.

In my latest video we look at another Android gaming handheld from Razer called the Edge. It’s more expensive than the Logitech G but also more powerful. Unlike the G the Edge’s controller detaches from the small tablet portion. Razer picked their existing controller, the Kishi V2, as opposed to building something new for this platform. The Kishi is available for smartphones too.

The Edge incorporates a Snapdragon G3x Gen 1 processor – a definite step up from the Logitech G and many other Android tablets for that matter. Razer is actively cooling the chip with a fan to keep its performance consistent. All of this would be great if there was a better game library on the Google Play store. But its emulation performance is outstanding, running PS2 and Gamecube emulation in my testing flawlessly.

They also went with a great display, a 2000×1080 AMOLED running at 144hz. Few games will push the limits of what this display has to offer but it does have some potential with the GEForce Now streaming service which supports 120hz framerates. The display is super wide though – so most games you’ll be streaming will have large black bars on the left and right hand side. It’s even more pronounced when playing a 4:3 retro game.

So while the specs are decent I couldn’t help but thinking what the purpose is here. Razer markets this as the ultimate gaming handheld but doesn’t suggest any games that would take advantage of its hardware. And it sells for the same price as the entry level Steam Deck which is considerably more powerful and has an extensive library of AAA PC games.

If it cost less it might have some appeal. But I’d have a hard time recommending somebody drop $399 on this vs. a Steam Deck or Switch.

High Altitude Balloons Have Little Regulation

Small balloons (similar to what have been shot down recently) have few regulations regarding their use. In fact there are more rules on drones than there are on balloons carrying less than four pounds of payload!

While some balloons are designed to pop when they reach a certain altitude, others can float for months, even years at a time. Take for example the amateur radio W5KUB balloons.

The W5KUB-112 balloon has floated around the world 10 times in less than a year aloft! It is currently in the Pacific Ocean south of Alaska and will be re-entering US airspace shortly. Its altimeter reports its position at 47,734 feet – slightly above commercial air traffic but not by much.

This balloon would almost certainly now be on NORAD’s target list given that similar small objects were shot down by US jets at similar altitudes. And while W5KUB is operating these balloons in accordance with US law, they don’t have to register the balloon with authorities so NORAD would likely not know this is a benign payload.

There are likely hundreds of balloons like this floating around the globe carried by the wind. Their payloads could be dead but the balloons themselves may very well still be floating. Adversaries can take advantage of this information gap by floating small payload balloons that look like all of the other stuff floating around in the wind.

Electronics don’t have to be large to be useful spying tools. A small radio like the ones on W5KUB’s balloons could be equipped to dump data to passing satellites via VHF or UHF bands and smaller messages can be sent over the HF bands without a satellite at all.

W5KUB’s high frequency WSPR radio. Source: W5KUB

A few months ago I demonstrated sending data packets up to the space station using a small 7 watt radio.

W5KUB’s small payload transmits APRS positioning packets on VHF frequencies and weak WSPR signals on HF. Those WSPR signals can be picked up even when the balloon is in the middle of the ocean.

Clearly up until now NORAD was looking for planes and missiles. For its part the FAA doesn’t seem to care much about small payload balloons and hasn’t been tracking their movements.

What’s next? I expect to see the FAA clamp down on domestic balloon activity similar to what they did with drones. Further there may be some discussion with other governments to develop some standards around registration and tracking for balloons that have the capability to float beyond borders.

Why I Stopped Doing YouTube Shorts

You’ll recall I was enthusiastic about the new format a few weeks ago when they rolled out the new monetization program. I felt it was something that would fairly compensate creators similar to how the YouTube partnership program has worked for many years. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I take a deep dive into my experiences with YouTube Shorts in my latest video.

Shorts monetization is very different from YouTube’s partnership program for longform content. Revenue is pooled and creators receive 45% of that pool based on what looks to be on a rate per thousand basis (RPM).

Unlike the Partner program where YouTube is transparent about how much they are collecting from advertisers on a per video basis, the actual amount of the pool is not disclosed. And because it looks like whatever revenue they decide to share with the pool is shared equally, there’s no active marketplace like there is for long form where certain topics drive higher RPMs based on the topic.

The result is that creators can expect pennies on the dollar when comparing Shorts revenue vs. long form. Currently creators are reporting about 3 cents per thousand views on Shorts. Comparatively I generally see RPMs in the $5-6 range on my long form content.

With YouTube pushing Shorts as heavily as they are I’m concerned that they are trying to drive viewers and creators away from a much more fair model of revenue sharing. What’s even more concerning is that YouTube’s Creator Liason, Rene Richie, says that Creators shouldn’t even be thinking about YouTube revenue opportunities when planning content.

My fear in hearing this from a YouTube employee is that the company is trying to pivot away from their partnership model and into something more in line with Instagram and TikTok where there’s very little content that’s not bought and paid for. How I’m able to do what I do with very few sponsorships is because of revenue I receive from YouTube and affiliate marketing links.

With Shorts, there’s very little revenue shared and Shorts make it very difficult for users to visit outside links. Richie says that this is one of the opportunities of Shorts but in my own analysis very few people clicked outside links embedded in one of my Shorts and those who did were largely on computers – not mobile devices that make up a bulk of Shorts viewers.

The bottom line is that if I were to invest more time and effort into Shorts it would come at the expense of my revenue. It just doesn’t make good business sense for me especially as even just a few hundred long form views will generate far more revenue vs. thousands of views on Shorts.

What’s Plugged Into My TV?

We review a lot of TV boxes on the channel.. In fact TV boxes are about the only thing that performs well on my YouTube channel these days. So I thought it might be fun to show you what I have plugged into my TV! See it all here.

The TLDR is that I’ve really embraced the Apple TV 4k over the last couple of months primarily because it does a few things that I’m looking for quite well. On my bedroom TV it works pretty seamlessly with my Airpods for private listening, and on my home theater TV it can switch into 24p mode better than anything else out there.

For a long time I was relying on the TV’s built in apps, but my aging LG C7 is running rather slowly and doesn’t have all of the apps we’re using these days. The television from a viewing perspective is still perfectly fine (it’s the best TV I’ve ever owned) but it definitely needs to be supplemented by a device these days.

The Nvidia Shield is still my go to for Plex Pro home media serving but the Apple TV is doing everything else. See more in the video!

Automating with NFC Tags!

I hinted at a home automation project I was doing the other day involving NFC tags and Wednesday I posted up a video that detailing what I’ve accomplished so far.

For the uninitiated NFC tags have RFID chips that can store data and spit it back out. The tags are powered by the radio waves coming from the scanning device. When it’s powered up by the phone scanning it the tag emits a low powered radio signal that contains the tag’s unique ID and whatever data is contained on board.

They come in many shapes and sizes and are very affordable. You can see a few that I found on Amazon here.

In the video I initially demonstrated how you might turn a light bulb on and off via Apple Homekit. I created an Apple Shortcuts script that checks the state of the bulb and then executes a command to turn it on if the bulb is off, or or off is the bulb is on. The tag acts as a trigger which then fires off the script. The best part is that no data is stored on the tag, so if somebody else scans it nothing will happen.

I’m currently using a tag in my studio that will turn on and off my studio lights and noisy air handler in the room. One tap when I sit down to record is all I need to do to get started! Next I’m going to set up an additional action that will turn on my production PC when the script fires off.

As you’ll see in the video I was able to get my Wyze devices integrated with Homekit thanks to the Homebridge open source project. Homebridge allows devices normally not compatible with Homekit to work on Apple’s platform. I have it running in a Docker container on my Synology NAS.

How Are YouTube Shorts Doing for Me So Far?

Not great. I earned 26 cents on 5,000 YouTube Shorts views since monetization began – a $0.05 CPM. This is WAY below the typical YouTube CPM (cost per thousand views) on long-form content both for ad & Premium viewers.

My Shorts did pick up 83 new subscribers since I started posting shorts so there is some value there, but certainly not on the monetization side of things.

New Shorts don’t take much time to create but I don’t think there’s any value in spending time repurposing older longer-form content as Shorts. The same number of views from long form videos generated significantly higher CPMs even in saturated content verticals like gaming.

Kensington Slimblade Pro Trackball Review

My latest review is of the Kensington Slimblade Pro Trackball.

I’ve been a Kensington customer for over 30 years. You’ll see my Apple IIgs trackball in the video from 1988 or so! This new one has a similar footprint but of course is much more modern.

The trackball uses an optical tracking system vs. rollers to gauge the position of the ball. It’s also wireless and can be used via Bluetooth or its included 2.4ghz dongle that garages itself on the bottom of the unit. It can also operate directly connected to a device via its USB-C port although those who are looking for a direct connection may want to look at the slightly less expensive non-pro version that retains most of the feature set here. The Pro edition also has a DPI setting that can adjust the sensitivity of the tracking on the fly.

What I found most innovative about its design is its nifty “twist to scroll” feature. Twisting the ball will scroll the active screen up and down. When twisting the mouse makes a clicking sound to differentiate it from its regular tracking mode. It very seamlessly switches from pointing to scrolling in use.

On the Mac and Windows there is a configuration software called “Kensington Works” that allows for some customization features with its four buttons. One of the neat ones is an option to lock in the x or y axis of the mouse to help draw straight lines up and down.

All in this feels like another solid Kensington mouse which is no surprise given they’ve been at this now for decades.

Disclosure: The Slimblade Pro was provided free of charge from Kensington for this review. I also produce informational videos for Kensington as a compensated consultant on occasion.

TinyNES Review – A Super Niche NES Console

My latest review is of a device designed for a very specific niche called the TinyNES. On the surface this might look like yet another NES clone console but it merges original NES hardware with a modern, open source design.

What it uses from the original NES are the CPU and PPU (graphics processor) chips. Although the NES uses a 6502 processor, the CPU chip used on the original NES and Famicom had its sound hardware also on the CPU die.

The TinyNES can be ordered with genuine chips but is also compatible with clone processors as the originals are no longer being manufactured. It’s not clear whether the genuine chips in this particular unit were pulled from dead consoles or leftover unused parts. The CPU and PPU chips on the TinyNES are socketed and can be swapped out easily.

The rest of the components are new and modern resulting in cleaner video and audio output. But nothing is added here – the console only outputs composite (not RGB component) and has no HDMI option. The design is open source so it’s conceivable somebody could add this functionality in later.

Part of the reason behind a lack of modern video options is that the original NES PPU output its video signal on a single pin as a composite of red, green and blue. Later revisions of the PPU did offer RGB output options but most NES and Famicom systems had the single pin output.

The TinyNES main board does support the RGB variants of the PPU but they are apparently much harder to find. There will be a solderless RGB add-on module available in the future for those lucky enough to have one of the RGB PPU chips.

So with no modern video outputs why does this thing exist when a real NES can be acquired for less money? Viewer Destructodisk has a good summation:

Now obviously this is a very niche device for an audience that wants something very specific… but there is a point and reasoning to it. Much that same as some people don’t like emulators because it isn’t as close to how real hardware plays. Some people aren’t satisfied with FPGAs. And then there’s the extreme that aren’t satisfied with the quirks a video signal add on brings. Its great everyone seems to have a perfect device being built for them.

The fact that the makers of the TinyNES found enough people willing to fund its production is proof enough that there’s a market for it. Not a large one, but a market nonetheless.

A big thank you to viewer Handheld Obsession for letting us borrow his unit for the review!

Dell XPS 13 9315 Review

For many years the Dell XPS line has been the flagship of Dell’s fleet. This year they’ve bifurcated their 13″ models into a premium “Plus” edition with a new keyboard and trackpad design along with a more affordable option that retains a more traditional layout.

My latest review looks at the low end of the XPS line, called the 9315.

The 9315 starts right now at $799 (affiliate link) which isn’t a bad deal for what it offers. It has a 1080p equivalent 16:10 display which for its size is adequate given the pixel density even at that resolution. It’s also very bright at 500 nits.

With the 1080p display it’s possible to get at least 10 hours of battery life out of this when sticking to the basics. Other activities like gaming will reduce that longevity of course.

But Dell has tamped down the performance on these lower end XPS models. So those looking to do video editing and light gaming will see better performance out of the more expensive Plus models.

The metal casing is slim and lightweight, coming in at just over 2 and a half pounds or 1.17 kilograms.

As Windows laptops go this one checks many boxes for those looking for a decent Windows application for work related tasks. It’s slim and light, has great battery life and doesn’t cost all that much for its premium build and display. But the value proposition comes at the cost of performance.

New Plexamp Features: Guest DJ and NFC Tags

In my latest video we take a look at two new features recently added to Plex’s awesome music client called Plexamp. In full disclosure this piece was sponsored by Plex.

The first feature, Guest DJ, utilizes Plex’s sonic analysis feature that we covered in a prior video. The way it works is that it will look at the sonic fingerprint of the song you’re currently listening to and slip in other songs that sound similar.

What’s neat about how Guest DJ works is that it will continue to progress through the album or playlist you’ve selected. Some settings insert a single song others will do more. You can even veer off and have it keep suggesting sonically similar songs. If you decide to switch it off you’re back in control of what comes up next.

Plexamp also recently added support for NFC tags. These are very inexpensive devices that can be found on Amazon that allow small amounts of data to be written to them wirelessly. Plexamp can write a shortcut that can point at an album or playlist to the tag through its share sheet. Scanning the tag later will pull up Plexamp and bring you right to the album or playlist for playback. One use case could be attaching tags to your physical albums – scanning one can start playing that album immediately in Plexamp.

Plexamp requires a Plex Pass but is one of the many benefits of their subscription plan for Plex Pro users. See more Plex content on my channel!