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My favorite tech finds of 2021

Jan. 2, 2022

This year was one of the best years for tech finds for me in a long time. I discovered so many new projects that my bookmarks are overflowing with things to test. I love reading lists of the hardware, software, and apps people use. The one’s they use everyday and where the spend most of their time is always intriguing. Because I found so many amazing projects this year I figured I would share what I’ve been using and what I’m looking forward to working on in 2022.

Desktop, laptop, and PC apps

With 2021 being the first full year I’ve worked from home, I’ve found more reasons to invest in my desktop and laptop. Because I’ve always been either in an office or working on the road, mobile devices have always take precedent. That is why for years I’ve been head-over-heels in love with my tablet and Samsung Dex where portability was paramount, with the occasional need for a desktop setup. But, spending 340 days at home in the last year has shifted my priorities. I’m also extremely budget conscience with repairability in mind. Forking over $500 for a multi-use tablet instead of $1,200 for a laptop with a glued in battery is an easy choice. I know the tablet also has a low repairability score, but why spend the additional money on a device that is just as difficult to fix?

What changed my opinion on using a laptop as a daily tool was that I got my hands on many different legacy Dell enterprise devices. A friend sent me a mix, including an e6320, e5270 (my current daily driver), and a Precision M4700, plus a couple docking stations. Looking into them, I found a plethora of upgrade options and the ability to have multiple hard drives through the E-Module Bay. These laptops are far from being new. In fact, the one I spent the most on upgrades is nearly a decade old. But, I added an SSD, a new battery plus an extended slice battery, and a data disk into the E-Module Bay, which made it more than capable for modern tasks.

What was always missing from using my Android tablet as a laptop replacement was many of my favorite Linux applications. Over the course of 2021 I worked diligently on disconnecting from social media. Having access to a capable laptop encouraged me to spend more time on them and exploring how Linux performs on non-desktop hardware, plus staying away from a mobile device discouraged me from checking Twitter, Instagram, and the other time sinks when getting out a mobile device.

It has also been nice to have a device to distro hop and experiment without borking my primary workstation.

Distros

For the past 3 years my main workstation has been on Pop_OS and I have almost no complaints until recently. About a month ago Pop updated the kernel to 5.15 on 21.04 and then on their latest 21.10 build. This broke OpenZFS on my desktop and locked my out of almost all of my files. It wasn’t until a few days ago that OpenZFS was updated to work with the 5.15 kernel. I know 99% of users won’t be affected by kernel updates that break ZFS compatibility. But for my workflows, ZFS is crucial. I keep all my data on various ZFS pools to minimize potential data loss and compartmentalizing my data so I can quickly install a new OS without having to migrate a ton of files.

I totally understand why Pop wants to get new kernels to get better hardware compatibility to their users. Its just… Not for me. I really don’t want to move off of Pop_OS on my workstation because I have everything working perfectly for me. Yet I don’t think I’ll have a choice if faster kernel updates keep breaking my data configuration.

For the last week or so I’ve been testing out Zorin OS and I think I’ve found where I’ll land sometime in 2022. Zorin gives the same polished look and feel as Pop, but with a LTS base. Slow and steady, with proper Snap and Flatpak support. This is exactly the distro for me.

Apps

This year I went all in on two open source favorites: Nextcloud and Firefox.

In addition to swooning over containers and Simple Tab Groups, the addons and privacy options are simply better on Firefox. I made a video earlier this year expressing why I choose to use Firefox.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KahLvu5JHhs

I was also introduced to privacytools.io via the Opt-Out Podcast. I’ve made a greater emphasis on privacy and discovered many new (to me) addons to push that even further, including:

That last one is a recent addition and I’ve been testing with mixed results. What it does is redirect links to social networks to more privacy focused frontends. For example, redirecting Twitter links to Nitter and YouTube to Invidious. There are toggles to turn them individually on/off so if I need to get to YouTube to manage my channel I still can. I’m on the fence with this addon at the moment.

The non-privacy addons that I loved this year were SingleFile and Floccus. SingleFile makes it easy to download an entire webpage as-is for archiving. I use it frequently for my day job and for archiving useful pages I always want access to. Floccus is just one of the many ways I am all-in on Nextcloud.

My workflow for file management has been Nextcloud for at least the last 5 years. It is critical to my setup and I run it via Docker on my homelab in the garage. In 2021 I decided to bring my calendar, tasks, bookmarks, and news feeds all into Nextcloud for a single source of management. I have to say, it has worked flawlessly. I use Floccus to sync my bookmarks to Nextcloud for cross-browser archiving. I do use Firefox sync for bookmark access across all my Firefox installs. But, I want my bookmarks in a repository under my control and the ability to sync to any browser I choose, even if it is not Firefox.

I migrated all my calendars from Google into Nextcloud and then sync to all my devices using CalDAV. On the desktop, both Zorin and Pop have online account integrations via Nextcloud. On mobile I use DAVx to sync both my calendars and my tasks.

At the end of last year I migrated to Nextcloud Notes and use QOwnNotes for writing in markdown for my notes. QOwnNotes is truly something special and just works for my brain.

Last, I shut down my FreshRSS install and migrated my feeds to Nextcloud News. Then, I can read in the browser or through the Nextcloud integration in RSS Guard and will sync my feeds and read status across all devices. This also puts any favorites into the same server so I don’t have favorites in multiple places.

I do all this on my LAN and enable as much “offline” syncing as possible for when I leave the house. Considering everything that has been happening over the last two years, I almost never leave the house. This means one Nextcloud install is handling:

  • File sync
  • Calendars
  • Tasks
  • Notes
  • Contacts
  • RSS
  • Bookmarks
  • Photo backup

I think it is time I take incremental server backups more seriously…

Gaming

I think I’ve hit the perfect setup for gaming for me. Right now I am mixing PC gaming on Pop_OS, playing on my Xbox One S with Game Pass, and streaming all of it to my phone using a Razer Kishi gamepad.

The tools that made gaming on Linux easier for me this year is protonup and protontricks. Many games need various tweaks to get running smoothly under Proton and ProtonGE offers a custom build to automatically apply fixes and give you the absolute latest vanilla WINE plus game specific patches. I really don’t want to manage manually upgrading ProtonGE, which is where protonup comes in and has made my gaming life easier. Protontricks adds additional tweaks, which I often find when looking up a game on ProtonDB.

Although Linux gaming has gotten significantly better, the gaming experience I truly want is a dedicated device that takes all of the troubleshooting and maintenance out of it. I just want to pick a game and play. For my birthday my wife got me an Xbox One S bundle, along with a lot of other accessories and a subscription to Game Pass. Game Pass has been an absolute live changer. Between my massive Steam library and the games available on Game Pass, I haven’t purchased a game since. It is so refreshing to start up the Xbox and scroll through the Game Pass games until I find something I want to check out. No special drivers, shims, tweaks, custom libraries or emulators. I simply scroll through the games, download, and play.

I have four kids and the ability to couch co-op with them on the Xbox has been a ton of fun. There have also been more than a few date nights with my wife where we played games as well, which never would have happened sticking strictly to PC gaming.

The one thing I didn’t anticipate was that I would be streaming games to my phone. But, I have done that a ton this year thanks to Steam in-home streaming, Xbox console in-home streaming, and xCloud from Game Pass. I love playing games with my kids. Yet, there are a lot of moments where I want to just relax and play a game by myself. This often happens right after they go to bed and I don’t want to hog the TV from my wife who is also trying to relax. This is why I adore my Razer Kishi gamepad. Using my Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 (with LineageOS) I can stream games from my PC, the Xbox, and cloud gaming and use a really good and comfortable gamepad. At first I started with xCloud streaming, then console to phone.

I’ll admit it, when Microsoft first announced in-home streaming from the Xbox, I thought it was dumb. Why would you stream a game from a console when you could just play… on the console! It clicked with me when I realized I could play games from the Xbox on my phone and no one would know that is what I’m doing. With four kids and a busy house, there is no way I can fire up a game without severe interruptions. Here’s how it goes during the day trying to play on the TV:

  1. Turn on a game but can only choose ones that are safe to be on around a 6 and 3 year old.
  2. After 30 seconds of playing, get asked 347 times what game I’m playing.
  3. 3 minutes after starting I hear, “Daddy, can I have a turn?”
  4. 5 minutes after they take over, “Daddy, I don’t like this game. Can I play Minecraft Dungeons?”

But, when I stream the game to my phone, those that want to take over my gaming session have no idea what I’m playing. Now I don’t have to hand it off and I can play any game I want.

I love it.

Plugging the Kishi into my phone, I have a full gamepad and works perfectly with all the in-home streaming services. Then, for any game I don’t want to download and install, I can play straight from xCloud such as Xbox Series X exclusives. Now, I find myself playing when sitting on the couch while the kids are playing. I’ll fire up a game at night while my wife watches TV. More than a few times I’ve played while laying in bed while my wife read beside me.

I can see why people love their Nintendo Switch and are excited for the Steam Deck. The ultra-portable form factor makes gaming so easy and much more accessible when I find the 20 minutes a day to play a game. Personally, I think this setup is better than a Switch or Deck. With the limited hardware specs from those two, utilizing in-home streaming hands off the hardware requirements to much more capable machines that can be easily upgraded without having to re-purchase games.

Mobile

In the last few months I’ve been trying hard to decouple my hand from my phone. I get it that I want to use my phone less, but have spent more time using it for gaming. To be honest, before my in-home streaming setup and the Razer Kishi I was hardly playing any games and I will take gaming over wasting my day away looking at social media.

I used a bunch of different devices this year including a Huawei Honor 5x and 7x, Moto G4 Play (which I wrote about here, Pixel 3, and my current daily driver, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 7. I’ve settled on the Note 7 because it has strong support for custom ROMs, a great display, and a USB-C port for my Kishi. I’m sure in 2022 I will play with other ROMs than LineageOS, especially UBports which is nearly feature complete.

The reality is that I was wasting so much time a day reading and watching other random people and not using my time to create. I was consuming more than I was creating, which I always aim for the exact opposite. I also wanted to read more books but my phone was an easy procrastination. I was also carrying an inordinate amount of stress for no reason. I’d get on Twitter and get stressed over politics and COVID chatter. Peruse Instagram and get sucked into some dumb drama. I already have too much stress in my life without also carrying someone else’s bullshit.

This is why I switched to only getting my news from my RSS feeds, which I can curate while being more reliable and less alarmist.

The other reason I chose to back away from my phone is I’m working on taking privacy more seriously. If we’ve ever had a chat you know privacy is something I talk about a lot. Plus, I do digital marketing for a living and I know what these platforms and data brokers are collecting on people. I have been vocal about my displeasure of data collecting and what the marketing industry needs to do to get over their addiction to privacy invasion. I have found a plethora of options, such as privacy focused frontends for services, like Fritter For Twitter and NewPipe for YouTube. I also do a lot of self-hosting, like Nextcloud and now Navidrome as a music server and uses the Subsonic API for app compatibility. I connect to the server with Ultrasonic and gives me access to my personal music library. Then, for all the synthwave I love to listen to during the day, I use NewPipe background play to listen to my favorite artists from YouTube.

Essentially, other than the default Android apps, Steam, Xbox, and Discord, everything else on my phone comes from F-Droid. At the moment I still have to keep Google Apps on my device for my job, plus some other digital marketing resources. But, I keep all those in a work profile using Shelter app to semi-sandbox them away from my daily habits. These are my current favorite mobile apps:

  • AntennaPod
  • Fennec
  • Tasks.org
  • Fritter
  • NewPipe
  • Ultrasonic
  • Kore
  • Zorin Connect
  • KeePassDX
  • DAVx5
  • AnySoftKeyboard
  • Shelter
  • Nextcloud
  • Nextcloud Notes
  • Nextcloud News
  • Steam Link
  • Xbox and Xbox Game Pass apps
  • Discord
  • Gadgetbridge
  • UntrackMe
  • AndOTP

PineTime, Infinitime, and Gadgetbridge

A quick shoutout here to the PineTime smartwatch from Pine64. I picked one of the sealed (non-dev kit) and it is exactly what I want out of a smartwatch. Being hard-of-hearing, getting vibrating notifications on my wrist is helpful, including an alarm clock. It does some basic health tasks and the battery lasts a full week. The firmware is called InfiniTime and is open source. In the 6 months or so I’ve had the watch there have been at least five update releases and all have gone smoothly.

The watch is paired to my phone using the Gadgetbridge, which also handles sending the updated firmware. The app and the watch are not perfect, but they are exactly what I want. Privacy is a key feature and are at the core of all the projects associated. I love what Pine64 is doing. I purchased a Pinebook Pro in 2020 and have nothing but good things to say about that laptop, so it was a no-brainer when the watch became available.

Android TV

One last quick mention to SmartTubeNext on my Walmart onn. Android TV box. This is also a recent discovery and it has become my favorite find in 2021. It is essentially an alternative frontend to YouTube, but with a 15 ft. lean back design. It blocks ads and has integration with SponsorBlock. It is such a better experience than the standard YouTube app on Android TV, which is a wasteland of ads and interruptions. After using SmartTubeNext there is no way I can go back to watching regular YouTube.

You have to sideload this apk to your device and is only officially supported on a short list of options. Right now I’m using the onn box with Kodi and Jellyfin. I have the device automatically boot into Kodi and remapped the home button to open Kodi. I am using Jellyfin for my personal media and integrated the library directly into Kodi with their repository.

What’s in store for 2022

I have made some significant career changes at the end of 2021, so I know my budget is going to be tighter than normal. This means I’m highly unlikely to purchase any new devices. I would like to continue to de-Google myself and hopefully migrate my personal email to something more privacy focused. I am also going to build a dedicated streaming mobile device that will be permanently connected to the Kishi controller. I have a Nexus 5x being unused and I will migrate Steam Link and Xbox apps to it, plus any mobile games I already own like Don’t Starve and Death Road to Canada. Then I can remove these apps from my main mobile device and have a dedicated handheld gaming setup.

Getting off Discord is also on my list. We currently use Discord as a family for our chats, plus some people outside the house are allowed into certain channels. We are also shared into another families server and chat with them regularly. I wish I could migrate to a more private network or, even better, have it be self-hosted. Matrix and Element do nearly nearly everything Discord does in a much more private way, but I’d have to get at least 12 people to switch.

I’m excited to have the tight budget, honestly. When things are tight and options are limited, that is when I get the most creative. I have a lot of misc. laptops, phones, tablets, and other gadgets laying around and where there’s a will, there’s a way.