Sunday, August 7, 2016

Family Computers, 2016 edition

As the summer of 2016 draws to an end, it's time to plan my family's IT setup for the 2016-2017 school year.

My current setup


Phones for kids

The big change this year was that my youngest kids got their own phones. The process went well. I'm glad I spent the extra money to buy refurbished iPhone 5s's instead of cheaper phones. The iPhone 5s's have been reliable and easy to administer. The 16 GB of storage has occasionally been a problem.

I restrict my youngest kids' phones so that they can't install apps. It's tedious to have to unlock and then relock the phones to install apps for them, but I like being able to have a say on which apps they have on their phones.

I bought Otterbox cases, which worked well at protecting the phones. So far all the phones have survived. One phone did get dropped in the water briefly, but it worked OK after it dried out.

The T-Mobile Simple Choice plan has worked well for us. It has a 1 GB/month data cap per line. When you exceed the cap you still get data, but at a low speed.

A nice bonus: T-Mobile gave everyone unlimited high-speed data for 3 months last year. I believe the kids used an average of 2.4 GB per month while that was available. But they seem mostly happy with the 1GB / month limit.

Laptops work great

The Macbooks have been great. They're used for web access and light content creation.

Declining desktop usage

Our computer usage has shifted to laptops. Our desktop Mac mini computer goes weeks between uses, and I notice that I seem to be the only one logging into it these days.

Modest tablet usage

Our two tablets get relatively little usage. The mini is used for puzzle games, the Pro is used for comic book reading, video watching, and drawing/animation programs.

This is partially a "personal vs. shared" issue. People prefer their personal phone and/or laptop to shared tablet.

It's also a "tool at hand" issue. I find myself using a laptop or phone rather than a tablet just because the laptop or phone is always closer to hand.

Minimal Apple TV usage

Our Apple TV gets almost no usage. Its controller sucks for games, and family members prefer to watch video on their personal laptop or phone.

Our family TV is used mostly by my wife who still likes watching broadcast TV in the evenings.

What didn't go according to plan

Apple's hardware releases modified last year's plan:
  • I dropped the Android TV in favor of the latest Apple TV. The Apple TV works great, but it turns out that we don't use it much.
  • I exchanged my iPad Air 2 for an iPad Pro. Love the keyboard and stylus.

Beats headphones are low quality

I spent a lot of time this year dealing with broken headphones. My daughter's Beats wired headphones failed twice while under warranty. Apple was nice enough to replace them (with refurbished headphones) each time, but it required two trips to the Apple Store for each incident.

Getting rid of old electronics

For what it's worth, Amazon has a good trade-in service that buys old electronics for a fair price. Not as good a price as you'd get on Swappa or craigslist, but zero hassle. I used it to get rid of a bunch of old consumer electronics gear that I'd accumulated over the years.

Best hardware purchases

  • Phone holders for the cars.
  • Multi-port USB chargers for car.
  • Multi-port USB chargers for bedside.
  • Short (4 inch) USB cables for bedside charging.
  • Long (10 foot) USB cables for car and couch.
  • External battery packs for recharging phones.

Plans for 2016-2017

  • Keep current phones & laptops.
    • I will upgrade to the latest iPhone just because I need it for my work.
  • A Sony Playstation 4 NEO.
    • My son is desperate to play the latest video games.
  • Support school-issued Windows laptops.

Keeping current hardware

I'm happy with my current hardware. The equipment is reliable and easy to administer. There doesn't seem to be anything significantly better on the market or on the horizon.

My kids report that the iPhone 5s is the current "standard" phone model among their classmates. (6th grade and 8th grade). So at the moment there isn't any social pressure to upgrade. My son would like a larger screen and a bigger battery. I got him an external battery pack, we'll see if that helps.

Apple is rumored to be introducing new Mac hardware this year, but based on rumors it doesn't seem to be significantly better for our budget and use cases than our current hardware.

Consoles vs PC gaming

My son's grown out of Minecraft, and now wants to play teen games.

In the past few years Macs have stopped being able to run modern games. mostly due to Apple not supporting recent 3D graphics APIs.

High-end gaming PCs work well for games, but they're expensive to buy and maintain.

A console seems like the best choice for us. Based on performance and exclusives I'm leaning towards the Sony Playstation 4. A new version of the PS4 is rumored to be coming out in October. I'll probably get that.

Return of Windows devices

The big change to my home network this year will be dealing with school-issued Windows laptops. I want to keep the Windows devices off my home network, but I also want to give them access to the Internet and to a local printer. I think the simplest way to do this is to buy a new Wi-Fi printer, and put the laptops and printer on a guest network.

I could get a fancy router and set up multiple virtual networks, but buying a second printer seems simpler. Perhaps if the second printer supports cloud printing I can use it from all my devices, and then retire my current printer.

I think the whole idea of a local network is becoming obsolete. In many cases it's simpler to assume that every device is always on the public internet, and just configure the device to survive in that environment. The only devices in my house that really need to be behind a firewall are the printer and the NAS.

Slimming down

If anything, I might simplify my home network by retiring the desktop computer and the NAS. 

In the past I used the NAS for storing backups and downloaded videos. But these days I use cloud services for both backups and videos. I rarely use the NAS.

I rarely use my scooter computer. It was educational to set it up, but I don't really use it.


Two thumbs up for DigiPen ProjectFun

I sent my kids to the DigiPen ProjectFun summer camp this year.

It's expensive ($1400 for 10 days). It is very well run. My kids loved the experience, and they learned a lot about the topics (animation and game programming) they took.

The classes were structured as 7 days of instruction, 2-and-one-half days of final project, and then a demonstration on the afternoon of the last day.

FWIW I am well versed in both animation and game programming. I've tried to teach my kids these subject. They learned more from these courses than when I tried to teach them at home.

The instructors emailed me a detailed "what we did in class today" letter every day. I found it helpful to read the letter and use it to prompt discussion with my kids.

A nice side benefit is that my kids were exposed to relatable role models in the game industry, through the many DigiPen students who are helping run the camp. "Dad, everybody has nose rings."

Only drawback: my kids now think less of my old games: "Dad, no offense, but your [1980's vintage 8-bit era] game is kind of lame."

I think this camp would be best for 5th-thru-10th graders. For a self-motivated older child it might be better to spend the money on computer hardware, software and books.