Briggs and Riley Torq International Carryon Review

I am a long time backpack carrier. I’ve put my stuff in one from when I got my first pack in Kindergarten to now where I use it to tote my laptop and sundries around. I even take one to the store to carry my groceries instead of the reusable bags most people prefer. For travel, backpacks are ideal. You can fit in a few days of gear and still be highly mobile. Being malleable, they generally fit under the seat and no one takes notice when someone is walking around with one.

They do have their drawbacks though. They are literally a pain to carry. My backpack puts stress on my neck and shoulders which hurt after a long day of travel. Since they are soft-sided, they don’t protect delicate items like electronics well. Especially when you put it in the overhead compartment and someone comes by and shoves in their over-sized carry-on with complete disregard for your possessions.

I decided to purchase a carry-on after a long multi-city international trip where I had to lug my backpack across many flights. I decided to adopt my travel companion’s strategy of putting his backpack in the carry-on for portability during travel. He would leave the carry-on at the hotel and load up his backpack with just the essentials when we were at our destination and getting out and about.

The Decision

I turned to the Flyertalk travel products forum figuring the seasoned travelers on that board would have good advice. While Red Oxx’s Air Boss and Mini Air Boss where highly recommended, I did not choose one because I was getting away from carrying things. Tumi came up often but so did their limited warranty. Rimowa was another option but seemed to be too heavy, too pricey, and a bit too big for me. Travelpro came up a few times as a budget brand. They were outed to have bad warranty support and were often mentioned to weasel their way out of fixing their bags even when under warranty.


Red Briggs & Riley Torq Carry-on back corner view showing zipper curve

One brand that the forum consistently praises is Briggs and Riley. Their bags are built like tanks. They have excellent support. Their warranty was simply “lifetime”. I barely saw bad feedback. Some of their product warranties even cover damage that occurs during travel. After some research I settled on the Torq® International Carry-on. It has the aforementioned warranty that covered travel damage, a separate compartment for my laptop, and at 21″x14″x9″ sized to fit most domestic and international airline limits. Oh, and it had a hardcase so Mr. Oversized bag wouldn’t squish my things.

Purchasing

Purchasing was easy. I bought a red one during the Briggs and Riley $50 off every $350 spent Christmas sale. I’ve heard further discounts are possible if you use an email sign-up coupon along with a sale at another retailer. I briefly thought about also purchasing a B&R backpack. After looking at the prices, I decided against it. It “shipped” the same day I ordered which means the package information was sent to Fedex and it was scheduled for pick-up. The package was sent from Santa Fe Springs, CA and I received it 4 days later in Northern Oregon.

The Suitcase


Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheels

The suitcase came in a big box and was protected by a white cover. The cover is to be used when the suitcase is in storage.

The B&R Torq® is designed with style. The black of the laptop section contrasts nicely with the red, and the zipper curve at the bottom makes it look business-like. It sits apart from the mass-manufactured Samsonite flat colors with straight zips. The interior padding is unexpectedly plush and the packing guides fold out as promised. I like how the handle mechanism is heavily padded to keep the inside of the suitcase flat which helps keep my clothes wrinkle free. The base of the case expands down to between the wheels which gives it a low center of gravity. The rolling is light and easy and the suitcase pivots nicely. The small size lends to easy rolling down airplane aisles and you can maneuver it overhead without risk of hurting someone. I love the fact that it measures exactly what B&R lists on its site – 21x14x7 inches.

This carry-on does get some looks. The check-in agent gave it a good look on a recent flight from Portland. The Alaska Airlines Board Room Lounge agent gave me a nice smile and was friendly instead of display the normal business-like demeanor. And the passenger that was one seat up from me was giving it side glances while we were waiting to de-plane. She had a Tumi bag so she probably knew with what I was rolling. I feel like I’m in an exclusive club when I travel with this case. This is the carry-on to get if you want to blend in with the business folks and appear to be in the know.


Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon laptop pocket hinge details with closeup

While it has the aura of sophistication, the Torq® feels moderately flimsy. I think it is because of the trade-offs to keep the weight low. The sides of the case are not rigid and flex when I put weight on them. While the individual pieces are solid, the joints of the handles click and clack. The zipper looks weak – it does not have anything like the size, feel, or strength of Red Oxx’s #10 zippers. It is a small zipper like one you’d find on a clearance bomber jacket from the Men’s Warehouse. Only time will tell if the suitcase can stand up to the rigors of travel. I am not concerned because of the B&R reputation and their warranty.

As many people have pointed out, the laptop/tablet pocket is on the small side and is more of a tablet and less of a laptop pocket. Having said that, thought, it fits my Lenovo Yoga 12 ThinkPad. It is a tight fit though. The pocket has hard protection on all sides, even on the inside. However, the sides flex under weight and so I wouldn’t check it with my laptop inside.


Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheel well closeup

Improvements

There isn’t much room for improvement with the Torq®. The sides could be more rigid but I suppose that is a trade-off with the weight. They could have put a handle on the bottom to make it easier to pull when it arrives wheels first. But that may interfere with the low center of gravity. They could have inset the handle into the bottom, but I guess we are quibbling over small details here.

Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon wheel detail showing logo and closeup

Pictures
Close-up of the Briggs & Riley Torq Carry-on handle


Red Briggs and Riley Torq carryon zippers curve

A Semi-Literate Techie and Netflix VPN Blocking

Netflix recently started blocking VPNs and proxies because content owners and broadcasters were unhappy because users were watching content available in other countries instead of paying extra to watch it in their own country.

So what would someone who has access to and is technical enough to figure out how to use a VPN or proxy to bypass geolocation checks? Of course they would use the same VPN or proxy to illegally obtain that content. Instead of content creators being paid by Netflix through subscribers, the creators miss out on the revenue and drive their biggest fans to piracy.

Netflix has very nice content discovery which make it easy to find obscure shows that you wouldn’t ordinarily view. Luckily we have sites like instantwatcher (US/Canada) and moreflicks (UK) that tie into the Netflix API and publicly make available content on Netflix that is popular, new, and noteworthy.

Many would rather pay a higher flat fee to watch more content be nickled-and-dimed just to watch a show or movie. Look at how Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu have thrived by providind an all-you-can watch service despite having older shows and movies. If Netflix wasn’t available then I wouldn’t pay a few bucks every time I wanted to watch a movie. The risk of getting a bad movie or having it expire before I finish is not worth it.

Manfrotto BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod Review

I bought the Manfrotto BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod to use with my Nikon D5100 for outdoor and indoor video and photography. It is a nice tripod and a decent deal if you can get it on sale for less than its list price.

I highly recommend that you consider the aluminum version. You’ll easily save $100 to $150 for a about 0.5lb increase in weight and no change in any other specification. The head, body, and base plate are already made of aluminum on both – the only difference is in the legs.

Quick Specs

Category Carbon Fiber Aluminum
Weight 2.4lbs 3lbs
Leg Material Carbon Fiber Aluminum
Max Load 8.8lbs
Max Height 56.7”
Minimum Height 13.4”
Folded Height 15.8”
Head and Body Material Aluminum

Pros/Cons

The BeFree Carbon Fiber Tripod is very popular and highly recommended but I’ve found that it is not a no-compromises tripod. Typical with things built to a price point it has its pros and cons.

Pros

  • It is light and compact – The BeFree only weights 2.4lbs. It folds up really small, is incredibly light, and I can take it on long hikes without it weighing me down.

  • It’s build solid. It does have some wobble at full extension is stable at minimum extension. The heads locks down tight and the center column doesn’t wobble. The fact that the legs are carbon fiber leads me to my next point …

  • The legs are made of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is light, it won’t rust or corrode, and it naturally dampens vibrations. They even make racecars out of it!

  • Unlike cheaper tripods, spare parts are easily available. This tripod is considered to be premium and, including the aluminum version, 100s of thousands have been sold. This means that parts are easily available. You can easily buy them directly from Manfrotto or salvage them from older tripods.

Cons

  • The bag it comes with is flimsy. The zipper feels cheap and I can see the bag deforming where the handle connects to it just after a few trips. They really should have spent a few more dollars to make a nice denier nylon carrying case.

  • The BeFree is wobbly when fully extended even though it is made from carbon fiber. It doesn’t have spiked feet or a hook to hang a bag off for stability. It will wobble even in light wind and shooting a timelapse with a reasonable zoom lens will make you motion sick.

  • The tripod is compact but not that compact – It is not usable as a tabletop tripod because even at minimum extension the legs splay too far wide. It does have the capability to flip the center column and mount the camera between the legs. However this results in a flipped picture and the legs still take up a considerable amount of space. This makes taking table top un-boxing and review videos difficult.

  • Although it is branded the ‘Carbon Fiber“, only the legs are carbon fiber. The rest of the tripod – the center column, the head, the base plate, and the leg connectors – are all aluminum. It really should be called the BeFree with carbon fiber legs.

  • The base plate doesn’t have a coin slot to unscrew it. It just has a somewhat flimsy handle that I feel will break off after some use.

  • The baseplate isn’t perfectly flat, it has a slight edge to it on the corners which makes the camera tilt over on a flat surface – it really could be made more stable. I hesitate to remove the baseplate every time I take my camera off the tripod because like I mentioned above, it looks like the screw handle will break off after some use.

  • Along similar lines, the baseplate has hard edges and pointy corners. I hesitate to put it table surfaces to avoid scratches. Rubberizing the base of the baseplate would have made sense but again it seems like there was a price point they wanted to hit.

Final Thoughts

The Manfrotto BeFree is an excellent travel tripod. It is compact, sturdy, well-built but sacrifices stability and has been built to a price point resulting in some compromises. If you can handle a 1/2lb increase in weight then I’d recommend the aluminum version. Except for the legs, there is no difference in specification between the aluminum and carbon-fiber versions and the price difference is substantial at around $150.

Unboxing Video

Intel Broadwell NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH Review

This is a review of the Intel Broadwell NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH which I unbox here and build here.

It is not quite a production ready system. I’ve tried to like it but it and Intel’s actions are so broken that it is hard to do.

The fan ramps up every time I do anything slightly demanding. Open a browser window -> Fan ramps up. Start playing a video -> Fan ramps up. It is definitely not a HTPC. More of a HT NOT PC.

Lids – Intel promised customized NUC lids. They even demonstrated them at CES and said we’d be able to buy them soon. Yet you can’t buy one anywhere, all we have is a bunch of specifications in a useless pdf file. I could make my own specifications and not have a lid, their specifications are useless to me!

Talking of lids – the NUC has USB and NFC headers on the motherboard on the inside but no way to bring them out … completely useless. I’d have to drill a hole in the bottom!

Most of the time when I try to edit video using Da Vinci Pro I get a VIDEO_TDR_FAILURE blue screen of death. Apparently the BSOD happens because Intel’s own video driver crashes on its own hardware! I should not have to deal with this on a so-called production ready system.

Once you add up the prices, NUC at $450, 128GB SSD at $100, 8 GB RAM at $30, and a legit copy of Windows at $120; you end up at $700 which is Apple Mac Mini territory. The mac comes fully assembled with a stable OS, not crashing video drivers, free upgrades to newer OSs, as well as easy to use movie and photo editing software – stuff you have to buy separately with the NUC. This is not a system for enthusiasts, it is a system for ripping off enthusiasts!

The so called Core i7 is not a real Core i7 but rather an ultrabook Core i7. Its like putting a go-cart engine in a regular car. It has about as much power too. Try playing a couple videos and editing another video, the fan ramps up to the max and if you’re lucky it won’t crash. Why not do proper heat sinking (maybe a heatsink lid!?) and put in a real i7?

The sleep and monitor powerdown features are horrible. It simply doesn’t go into sleep – most days I have to shut it down when I leave. What is the point of a sleep feature that never works? I have the monitor connected through an HDMI cable, the sound stops working every-time it puts the monitor to standby. I have to go through the windows sounds debug flow just to turn them back on and get this, it comes back with a ‘your speakers aren’t plugged in’ message. Yeah, they were magically unplugged when the screen went to sleep.

The screw holding the M2 drive in place is so small it seems it was designed for ants. I dropped it while trying to screw in my drive and had to take apart the whole thing just to get it back out. I’m glad it fell into the system and not outside, I’d never have found the screw again!

Luckily for Intel, they’ll soon move on to the next horrible enthusiast system promising new features and a new batch of frustrated users rendering this review useless.

Hugo For The Semi Literate Techie

I am a semi-literate techie. I deal with hardware in my day job and software is a hobby on the side. So while I can hack code and generally come up with a solution to my problem, I can’t whip up a site like Gmail or Stackoverflow over a weekend.

I originally started on Blogger and decided to try Hugo after I had concerns about Google’s long term plans for Blogger. We have seen with sites like Picasaweb and Google Reader that Google has a tendency to close sites that are not updated often.

I chose Hugo over its many other static blog competitors because it has a very simple setup – it is a single native executable that runs on all the major OS’es without dependencies. There is no need for gems, rakes, Ruby, or any external software.

I chose a static blog because I want to simplify hosting. I do not want a server that requires securing and patching, a database I have to maintain, or dealing with upgrades. I want portability in case I have to switch to a different webhost or different blog engine.

I host my Hugo site on Amazon S3 and push it through CloudFront for about $1/month. Cloudflare is another good free option. With CloudFront, the site is replicated all over the world and will scale rapidly if I experience a blowout. Also I don’t have to deal with maintenance or censorship. If Amazon objects to my content or disappears then I’ll simply move it to another web host.

Some of the startup pains I, the semi-literate techie, have encountered:

  • Many of the themes seem to be broken.
    • For example, themes like (Bootstrap, Tachyon) only recognize a directory called ‘post’. Logically a directory with many posts should be called ‘posts’ but this has escaped the theme writers.

    • I tried the Tachyons theme but it gave me an error message when I created a new post. If I was a Go literate programmer I’d figure out a fix and submit a patch to github, but I am not a programmer and a theme that breaks when you do something basic like create a new post really shouldn’t be a so-called featured theme.

    • Themes do not appear to be inter-operable. I started with Bootstrap and got error messages when I changed the theme in my config.toml. Again, I really don’t want to debug error messages when publishing to my blog.

  • Hugo is very particular about its base path. I couldn’t simply put hub.nexms.com but had to use http://hub.nexms.com. Seriously, does it think I’ll be serving this site over gopher://?

  • Hugo uses a non-standard markdown processor. Instead of using GitHub markdown or CommonMark, it uses a library called BlackFriday. This means we have to deal with idiosyncrasies unique to this parser – for example, tables are formatted differently on BlackFriday than on GitHub. Table support in Markdown is universally bad. I eventually gave up and coded my tables by hand in HTML.

  • The themes or Hugo are not optimized for speed. Using the Google PageSpeed Insights tool shows:

    • The JS and HTML content could be minified to reduce download time
    • The CSS could be inlined for faster loading

There is no easy Markdown convert and view flow. This means I have to run my markdown file through Hugo and open it in a web browser to see my changes.

I use stackedit for my Markdown editing. Stackedit runs in the browser, shows my Markdown and final view side-by-side, and syncs my files to Google Docs. This makes it cross-platform and usable on all my computers. I still have an annoying flow where I have to copy the Markdown into a text file with Hugo headers before publishing.

To sync my files to S3, I use Jets3t. Jets3t is cross-platform and comes with a highly configurable utility called synchronize which lets me automate the upload. The best part is that I can enable SHA256 encryption with a single line. Now my files are encrypted while in storage at S3 and only decrypted when sent to the browser.

Selling Out To The Man: Amazon Reviews For Free Products

From time to time I get emails from Amazon sellers offering to send me some product to try out for a “review” and then afterwards, keep it with their compliments. Essentially the seller giving me the product is payment for the review. Amazon doesn’t allow sellers to compensate users with money for reviewing their product so the product is the compensation. Implied but not mentioned is that product is payola for a positive review.

I usually ignore the emails, but I got one a few days ago and I decided to reply just to see would happen. The seller was very prompt. They immediately wrote back requesting my address and asking me to verify my email address. I suspect they mass-mailed users on Amazon and the email verification was to get the actual address.

I forgot about it for a couple days and was surprised when a package showed up in my mailbox. I didn’t know what it was and vaguely linked it to the email conversation I’d had with the seller. The seller was on top of things and had already sent me a reminder message since tracking showed his package had been delivered!

In addition to a regular text review, I also did a video review because I felt thankful for getting something for free. It took me about an hour to do it and I felt it was a fair exchange for an approximately $15 item. My thoughts and writing of the product was completely honest so I didn’t feel disingenuous about the review. I think that if I didn’t like the product then I would have politely declined and returned it. Besides, I’m no influence wielder on Amazon and doubt my words are that persuasive.

I’d love to “review” more products. In addition to this wonderful blog and an Amazon account, I also have a slightly not popular Youtube channel and am fairly technical for technically oriented products and teardowns.

Why Is Adafruit So Damn Expensive

Adafruit is an online store synonymous with the word maker. They sell electronic parts and kits to make gadgets that in most cases you can buy fully built. For example their MintyBoost is a $20 AA to USB charger you make yourself and it doesn’t work on all phones. For $5, You can buy an already-assembled similar gadget on Ebay (screenshot).

Another example is this $10 WiFi adapter designed to work with Linux systems like the Raspberry Pi and the BeagleBone Black. A quick search on Ebay for the chipset, 8188CUS, shows one for about $3 including shipping. With Adafruit you pay extra for shipping which starts at around $5.

I understand that Adafruit has to make a profit and, unlike most Ebay sellers, has fast shipping with easy returns and exchanges. However, that doesn’t justify 3x – 4x markups. If an Ebay item does not work as advertised then I’d simply order another one, it is very unlikely I’d get 3 or 4 bad ones in a row. Plus the threat of a PayPal charge-back coupled a bad review and subsequent loss in sales keeps most Ebay sellers honest.

So how can the frugal semi-literate techie work around these incredibly high markups?

Look on Ebay. Find the actual part number and search for it on Ebay. You’ll be surprised at what you find. Ebay sellers often include shipping and sometimes throw in extras. For example right now Adafruit has the Raspberry Pi 2 for $40. The Ebay seller loverpi has the Pi 2 for **$38 **(screenshot), with two heatsinks for overclocking, a two year warranty, and includes shipping.

Make your own. Judicious reverse engineering often reveals what is on an Adafruit board and it helps that they open-source many of their designs. Building them is somewhat tricky – many of Adafruit’s PCBs can be replicated on a prototype board. For PCB designs under 10x10cm you can easily get 10 PCBs through DirtyPcbs at $15 for 5x5cm or $25 for 10x10cm.

Find alternatives. Adafruit has some neat stuff. For example this potentiometer with a big knob is nice. But, Ebay seller cell.expert has 10 potentiometers for $1 with free shipping (screenshot). You could have a 90% fail rate and still come out ahead. For that price I’ll get a tiny screwdriver set from the dollar store to turn that screw!