Go buy yourself a HexBright. Right now.

Are you a geek, a nerd, a gadget hound? Do you like hackable things? Do you like useful things? If so, then go to HexBright right now and click on “FLEX” to buy one of the coolest flashlights I’ve ever held in my hand.

I backed the HexBright project on Kickstarter in July of 2011 – in fact, it was the very first Kickstarter project I ever contributed to. In short, to make up for the delay in getting product out, the project leader upgraded buyers of the PRIME basic light to the FLEX at no charge. My FLEX arrived today, and not only is it more than worth the wait, I’m kicking myself for not buying a couple more (even if they were just the PRIME model).

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In short, the HexBright is a CREE-based flashlight – with an Arduino for brains. To charge, I plug it into a MicroUSB cable – and that same cable can be used to reprogram the light. By default, it has “low, medium, high” and “blinky” modes. I can reprogram it so that one of those is a strobe, a low-to-high “heartbeat” pulse, something in Morse Code, etc. There are already code samples up on GitHub.

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Friends ask me for tech advice a lot of the time, and I don’t often give glowing, giddy reviews to a lot of products – but this is one of them.

Using a Motorola Atrix Lapdock as a HDMI Monitor and USB Keyboard / Mouse

A coworker of mine briefly had a Motorola Atrix 4G about a year ago, along with the “lapdock” accessory that turned it into more of a “full fledged” laptop or netbook with a regular Firefox web browser and a more desktop-like environment. I got to play with the setup for a bit, and thought it was a great idea, but with flawed execution (especially at the initial $400+ price for the lapdock alone).

About three weeks ago, I ran across the lapdocks being sold very cheaply through 1SaleADay. After some research, I ordered four of them, then ordered various cables and adapters from a couple of different online vendors after figuring out what I needed. The last part of my orders finally arrived tonight, and I’m glad to say that my idea was a success.

First, I have to give credit to this XDA-Developers thread for the idea. The ports on the Lapdock are really nothing more than a male Micro-HDMI and a male Micro-USB, in the right layout to plug directly into the ports on the Atrix. The only other ports are two normal female USB ports (for thumb drives, etc) and the power jack for the AC-to-DC wall wart.

Here’s the adapters and cables I ordered:

Video:
Micro HDMI socket Female to HDMI Male adapter convertor, $4.64
Generic Hdmi Coupler (Female To Female), $1.51
Normal HDMI Male-to-Male cable, I had one already, they can be found for $1-2

USB:
USB Mini-B Male to Micro-B Female Extension cable, $8.85
USB Gender Changer – A Male/Mini-B Female, $5.00
USB 2.0 Extension Cable – Black, $2.92

First, I had to trim down the plastic molding around the Micro HDMI adapter so that it would fit down on the male Micro HDMI plug in the fold-out “tray” on the Lapdock. For this first one I just used my pocket knife, but now that I know what’s needed, I’ll use a Dremel tool for the other three. The lapdock won’t work without a HDMI video signal, so once the adapter fit properly on the plug, I hooked up the power, plugged a HDMI female-to-female coupler on the adapter, and then connected the lapdock to the HDMI video out on a Windows system.

(6/14/12 update: The Atrix 4G Upgrade Kit consists of short male-to-female MicroUSB and MicroHDMI extension cables that prevent having to physically modify any adapter plugs, but I’ve not found a source for it that doesn’t charge at least $30!)

Here’s what the adapter, coupler, and cable looks like when plugged in:

And here’s the result! My system saw it as a second monitor, and I was able to use the normal keyboard and mouse to drag a browser onto that screen.

Getting the USB cable (using the Micro-B-Female-to-Mini-B-Male cable, plugged into a Mini-B-Female-to-A-Male gender changer, then to a normal USB A-type extension cable) to fit next to the HDMI plug required a bit more shaving and trimming down of the plastic molding around both plugs. I finally got both to where they would fit without blocking each other.

NOTE: I stripped the insulation off a portion of the USB extension cable and *cut the red wire*. That wire/pin carries +5 volts, and is normally used to charge the Atrix phone from the lapdock. Since we only want to use the keyboard and trackpad as input devices, we don’t want to feed +5V back into the USB port we plug into. So, I cut the red wire and re-insulated that part of the extension cable with some silicone tape.

I plugged the other end of the USB cable into a spare port on my PC. Windows 7 detected the keyboard and mouse, installed some drivers, and bingo! I was able to use the keyboard and trackpad on the lapdock itself to drag a browser window onto the “second monitor” that was the lapdock’s LCD screen, and type normally to pull up a web page.

I’m happy with the results so far; the hard part is done. These lapdocks will be used as consoles for systems where I don’t want to “waste” a full LCD monitor and keyboard on a rarely-used console. My next experiment will be trying out a VGA-to-HDMI adapter box that I bought for $30 off Amazon, to see if I can make one of these work with my USB-and-VGA KVM unit.

These will also work wonderfully with my Beagleboard, BeagleBone w/HDMI add-on, or the Raspberry Pi boards if mine finally ship at the end of this month.

My Latest Ultimate Man-Bag

As readers of this weblog know, I’m a “bag junkie”. Ever since junior high school, I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect “man bag” for me. I’ve been through CountyComm Bail-Out Bags, Maxpedition backpacks and bags, Timbuk2 messenger bags and backpacks, and then Crumpler backpacks.

Unfortunately on Wednesday the 18th of January, my car was broken into while it sat in my driveway overnight and the thief got away with not only my GPS, radar detector, and two older laptops I’d hidden in the back seat (that belonged to friends, I had them for repairs), he popped the trunk and got my Crumpler “Salary Sacrifice” backpack containing my Macbook Air, various accessories for it, my Clear 4G wifi hotspot, my Kindle Fire, and a Blu-Ray disc my girlfriend gave me for Christmas.

Thanks to the hard work of the Houston Police Department and serial number matching at pawn shops, the Macbook Air and its charger were returned to me a week later, but none of the other items have been recovered. My homeowner’s insurance deductible (not auto, since the car wasn’t damaged) makes it not worth the time to file a claim – but honestly, it’s all just “stuff”, doesn’t keep me from doing my job, no data was lost, and it can all be replaced in time.

Looking into a recommendation I’d been given by a friend on Google+ back when I was looking at the Crumpler bags in August, I took another look at Red Oxx. Their small Aviator Duffel bag is really affordable at $35, and I gave it a shot. When it arrived less than a week later, I was so impressed by the quality and construction (before I even filled it with clothes) that I decided my next every-day “man bag” was going to be from Red Oxx. Not only is the construction amazing, all of their products have a lifetime warranty and are made in Billings, Montana.

After an evening of debate and reading reviews, I decided on the CPA Briefcase. A friend had given rave reviews to the Air Boss, but it’s just a bit TOO big for my daily needs. I might pick up a Roadster Mini-Ruck in the future.

Anyway, the CPA Briefcase in “Mariner” blue arrived today. I’d wanted one in “Midnight” blue, but the “Mariner” blue ended up being a lot nicer than expected.

I’ve only had it for a day, but I’m glad I made the purchase and I think my shoulder will give out before the bag will.

The Continued Quest for the Perfect Man-Bag

You can consider this post a followup to The Quest For The Perfect Man-Bag that I made almost exactly three years ago. I’ve had a lot go on in my life since then, but one of the end results is that I have more of a budget and leeway in being able to buy what I want.

When we last checked in on the status of my bag and portage fetish, I was carrying a Maxpedition Typhoon single-strap bag. When my wife passed away in ’09, I used the Typhoon as my carry-on bag when I flew to Chattanooga, TN for her funeral. It worked okay for that purpose, but I ended up wishing for double straps of a normal width, as I’m a big guy and the Typhoon’s single strap was uncomfortable at times. In the fall of ’09, I ordered a Maxpedition Falcon II backpack (Royal Blue with “Foliage” straps and MOLLE web) as soon as they became available.

I sort of have a habit of buying a new backpack/bag when I get a new portable computer, so when I finally broke down and bought an iPad in the fall of 2010, I ordered a custom Timbuk2 “Swig” backpack to go along with it. This served as my pack for the iPad and gear until a few months ago when I was finally able to buy a semi-recent (2010) MacBook Pro. Continuing the tradition, I picked up a Timbuk2 “Shotwell” backpack in black, partly due to an amazing price through Amazon Warehouse Deals. Sold as “Used”, it was still sealed in its plastic bag.

While the Timbuk2 gear is plenty tough, I wanted something a little more rugged with slightly more padding. By this time I was a little tired of the tacti-cool miliary look of the Maxpedition gear, and started looking at other brands. I settled on Crumpler after days of review, and a couple of weeks later had both a Crumpler “Salary Sacrifice” backpack and a Crumpler “Sheep Scarer” backpack, having paid less than half of retail price for both of them.

In addition, through another Amazon Warehouse Deals sale, I picked up two Crumpler “Skivvy” large laptop messenger bags for $25 each! I didn’t have a use for them at the time, but was impressed with the quality of the other Crumpler products I’d seen and at that price they were a really good deal. Since then I’ve used one of them for a ThinkPad laptop I loaned out to a friend, and the other to carry my HP TouchPad tablet around in.

Anyway, the “Salary Sacrifice” is perfect for most things. It carries my 11″ MacBook Air just fine (in a Hard Candy EVA case). However, it’s advertised as being able to carry a 13″ MacBook Pro – and it can, if the MBP isn’t already in any sort of case or sleeve. I prefer to put all of my portables in some sort of case or sleeve before putting them in a bag or pack, and that makes the MBP just a tad too big to fit in the Salary Sacrifice bag properly. It will fit in the “Sheep Scarer”, but is still a bit too tight for my preferences.

So, tonight I finally bit the bullet and ordered the Crumpler “Beer Back” backpack in black. They advertise it as being able to fit a 17″ laptop, so it should hold everything I need with room to spare.

Now the question is – do I try to sell off some of my unused bags, or keep them around “just in case”?

What’s in your Bug-Out Bag?

I started assembling my first Bug-Out Bag a few months before Hurricane Ike in ’08. Amy made fun of me for it at the time but stopped heckling after the storm, when more than once I had something we needed “In the bag!”.

(updated) Here’s the Google Docs spreadsheet listing the contents of my current “Emergency Preparedness / Uh-Oh / Bug-Out” bag..

Do you have one? If so, what’s in it? Do you keep a separate emergency kit for your vehicles?

Project Completed – DIY Berkey Water Filter

Finished another weekend project – a DIY water filtration/purification system using Black Berkey filter elements. I like the Berkey filters, but $200+ for a Berkey Light system is a bit much. However, you can buy the filter elements separately and make your own water containment units.

I followed a procedure pretty close to what is detailed here, except I drilled four holes and used two nylon bolts with rubber washers and wingnuts to hold the lid to the bottom of the top bucket, instead of relying solely on the elements and their plastic wingnuts to do it.

Total cost: right around $125.