Off Grid CTO: That’s Entertainment!
Welcome to the next posting in the series about living off grid while working as the CTO of a great software startup, ModelOp, designing software to manage your AI models and assets across the entire enterprise. We are hiring for multiple positions, so feel free to check out all of our job listings.
Yeah, it’s been a bit since my last post. Life got real busy up here at 10,200 feet in the Colorado Rockies. Between dealing with all of the snow, carrying the non-stop supply of firewood for heating, getting a software release out the door, and the numerous other challenges its been a bit hectic even though we are so remote. But with all of the challenges and work, it is also important to unwind and relax on occasion, as life can not be all challenges and stress.
In that aspect, it is important to have some entertainment from time to time to unwind. It is especially important during the dead of winter when your nearest neighbor is 12 miles away! It gets dark early out here in the winter.
So with that in mind, I am going to introduce how we handle entertainment living off the grid. I will be talking about a lot of products in this post, but I don’t receive any kind of compensation, these are just what I have purchased myself and found to work.
Nothing Like a Good Book
Reading by the fire is a definite nice past time up here when the nights are long and dark. We have a variety of traditional books, but honestly not that much space to store a whole library for a winter.
That is where the Kindle is a life saver. I can have literally hundreds of books in my library on the device, and can read what suits me at the time. I am also a big fan of the e-ink screens in a dim environment, as I find them much less harsh on my eyes then a tablet or a phone screen. I also try and get anything that is native USB rechargeable, and fortunately the Kindles also fit that as well.
So I do spend time reading when I can, but honestly sometimes my eyes are just too tired to read after programming all day long. It’s those times we turn to more truly digital based entertainment.
Music (and more)
The silence of the wilderness is amazing at times, but actually can be deafening as well. Especially when you are on your own as I occasionally am. When you just have business calls and silence, it is very nice to fill the cabin with some of your favorite music.
In order to do that, and keep somewhat organized, I run a media server internally in the cabin. Streaming movies and/or music would use up a lot of our precious data, and is not practical for watching movies. So everything needs to be stored onsite and I only buy media that I can download for that reason. No Netflix up here…
What I have found to be very reliable and low power is to host a Plex media server on a Raspberry Pi 4 with an attached USB-C 5TB drive. This holds my entire music and movie collection, and Plex provides a great interface to keep track of it all.
I use a 4gb Raspberry Pi 4, with an Argon case with a fan on it. Rarely does the fan kick on, but I have found if it has to transcode a file the fan prevents overheating. This runs 24×7 as it uses so little power in standby.
Music, Getting it Around The Cabin
Once we have the music to serve, we need to get it to the speakers. I have gone through several iterations on this, and have now arrive at what I believe is the perfect solution. In the past, I started cheap with a android based car stereo. I already had it from an old vehicle, and it runs natively on 12v DC, so was a perfect fit. I did find, however, it used a lot of power for what it provided, and the sound was just OK and not very versatile. So this year, we decided to make some changes.
First off was to switch to a sound bar for both the music inside of the cabin, as well as the speaker for when we watch movies. This gave us good sound, and as a bonus my wife was building a new table and added a shelf to it just to hold it out of sight and out of the way. It takes 19v DC, so we just installed a simple 12-19v converter. This covered inside of the house.
On the deck outside, I already had some outdoor speakers installed. I found a relatively inexpensive mini class D amplifier that had Bluetooth 5 and stereo inputs and runs native on 12v DC. The model I use is a Fosi audio BT20A. It has great sound, good Bluetooth range, and sounds really nice and uses very little power for the audio it delivers.
To get the music from the server to the speakers, I originally used Bluetooth 5 and its dual speaker capability. What I found with that, though, is that it is not perfectly in sync between inside and outside due to different processing speeds. So I dusted off my old Chromecast audio devices and added one to each speaker and created a speaker group. Not only is it now in perfect sync, it is also a much higher quality than Bluetooth if you turn the ‘High Quality’ option on. Plus using Wi-Fi instead, my range is all over the property. Plex allows direct casting of music right from the app.
One thing to note is it is not unusual in these systems to get some hum in the audio from all of the DC wiring coming together (USB 5v into the chromecast, and 12v going into the amp). This ends up creating a ground loop. By simply adding ground loop isolator inline with the Chromecast, the audio was completely clear and perfect.
Movies – The Player
In order to play movies, I have standardized on Android TV as the solution. There are some great low power players out there, and I like the openness of the platform. Both my projector (which we will look at later) and this android TV box have Android TV on them making it a consistent process no matter what device we use.
I chose the Ematic 4K Android TV Box (AGT419) specifically because it is one of the few ones that is actually Google certified, so you can install things like Netflix and Amazon Prime on it. Also, it runs on 5v DC, so it is USB powered compatible, although you will have to make your own cable to do that (which I did). It draws a maximum of 2A, so only 10w of power on max load!
I used to use a Roku device, but they have become more and more closed and proprietary, and keep losing features from release to release. I just have not been as happy with the quality of the devices, even though they do mostly work.
The Low Power Movie
When the nights are longer, and the days are snowy, power is always a concern up here. We run solely on the sun, and hate to burn gas on the generator to charge the batteries unless we absolutely have to. So when we want to watch a movie and do so with as little power as possible, we use a USB powered HDMI portable screen.
This is the MSI 15.6 inch IPS 1920×1080 USB powered screen that accepts USB-C and HDMI inputs. Since it runs on USB, it can only draw a max of 2A of power again, so less than 10w in practice. It is bright and has a wide viewing angle, so it is perfect for the two of us to watch on our coffee table when the power is low. When not in use, we can simply fold it up and put it on the shelf out of the way. Space is important in such a small cabin!
To get the audio to the sound bar, I first started with Bluetooth, but found it kind of ‘flat’ in quality. So instead I got an HDMI audio extractor/decoder, and put that inline with the Android TV. Then I use the optical out on that into the optical in on the sound bar and found much improved audio. Once again, this device runs on 5v DC so is compatible with the Android TV as well.
This means we can have high quality audio and video, albeit on a small screen, for under 30w total energy consumption keeping in mind the server, screen, android player, and the audio. Not bad! And most importantly it is all DC native, so no inverter is required.
The Big Screen
When the sun shines all day, and we have extra power, there is nothing like watching a good movie on the big screen. The tiny screen is not particularly as immersive, and never mind trying to watch a subtitled movie on a 16 inch screen.
So for the ultimate movie nights, we have an LED projector that consumes relatively little power, and actually has its own battery if we want to take it outside on a nice summer night.
I decided on the XGIMI Halo Smart Mini Projector, as it has a very bright lamp in it for its size, and also runs Android TV internally. It has built in speakers even, but honestly those are not nearly as good so we use the sound bar through either Bluetooth or HDMI.
But what do we project it on? Space is tight, as mentioned before, so we needed a hideaway solution. This is one of the reasons we went with a projector rather than a big screen as the space savings can be massive.
We found this 50 inch portable pull up screen, made by Pyle, that stands on its own two feet and simply just pulls up in place. We can either leave it on the table all folded up, or easily put it on the shelf where it takes up very little space at all. This gives us a 50 inch screen when ready to watch a movie, and it tucks away when not in use.
We have really enjoyed getting to watch movies on the big screen since we got this setup in place and the space saving design of the system is a huge plus.
The Best Entertainment – Nature
The best entertainment up here for sure, is nature herself. The ever changing light, the animals and their habits, the sun hitting you just right, is all magical in its ability to pull you in.
After sitting at the computer screen for hours on end, it is nice to go for a short stroll, or simply just stand on the deck with a beverage and enjoy what is unfolding around you. It is ever changing and every single day you notice something different.
So a lot of my ‘down’ time, especially on the nice days, you can find me enjoying both the vast views of the mountains, but also the close up views of the tiniest of creatures. There is so much to both see and learn from my time up here interacting with nature herself.
So as you can see, there is no lack of entertainment up here in the middle of nowhere off of the grid. We didn’t even get into the old school board games and such that we fall back to on a quiet night, or the various hobbies that pass our time. I often hear people ask if I get bored up here, and I tell them I don’t have time to get bored. There is always something to do!
In the next series in my blog, we will be celebrating the one year anniversary of moving up here to our off grid lifestyle. Almost one year ago we packed it all up and moved on up to the mountain figuring we would be there a few weeks. It will be a year in review of both some of my successes, and also a look at some of my failures. I myself am looking forward to looking back….