OWC ThunderBay 6

I’ve casually mentioned here and there that I’ve been looking to move away from streaming media in favor of primarily watching content that I actually own — hosting it on my home server using Plex. As a result of this, over the past few months, I’ve been acquiring content at a much more rapid pace than I was previously. And that additional content is filling up my hard drives fast.

Up until a few days ago, I had two OWC miniStacks connected to my Mac Mini. One with a 4TB drive, which contained all of my ripped DVDs, Blu-rays, music, recorded over-the-air content from Plex DVR, and iTunes content that I’ve removed the DRM from. And a second miniStack with an 8TB hard drive, which stores the Time Machine backups for the Mac Mini and my work-issued MacBook Air.

What has really put me over the edge in terms of outgrowing my storage setup has been the uptick in Blu-ray discs added to my collection, though. I only started purchasing Blu-rays last summer, after I bought a Blu-ray drive that I could use for ripping. With the settings I use in Handbrake, a DVD is usually in the neighborhood of 1GB, but Blu-ray discs are about six times that amount. Or quite a bit more, in some cases.

The size of DVDs aren’t too bad and the cost of iTunes movies kept me from acquiring too many by that method. And even when I bought movies or TV shows through iTunes, Apple only allows you to download files in 720p. That puts the average movie around 4GB. Those two factors did quite a bit to limit the amount of storage I needed and how quickly it was used.

But Blu-ray Discs are pretty cheap. I routinely find excellent films available in the format for around $5. Just a few days ago, Amazon was having a buy two get one free sale — I picked up six movies at an average of $10 each. That might seem like a lot, but three of the movies were Disney titles, which are notoriously expensive compared to the average.

Blu-ray discs are cheap, but as I mentioned above, they take up a lot more storage space — not to mention the amount of time required to rip Blu-rays. For a comparison, on my 2011 Mac Mini, I can rip and convert a DVD in about 1.5—2 hours, but a Blu-ray can take around 10 hours. It’s worth it, though. The quality is just so darn good. And I don’t have to pay a monthly fee in order to watch the film, like I would with Netflix or Hulu.

I’m still okay with 4TB of media storage at the moment, but it won’t be long before I need to upgrade. So I decided to lay the groundwork for that now. I had some options — I could have abandoned the idea of using a Mac Mini as my home server and purchased a network attached storage device, like a Synology. This would mean I’d end up with a single unit that stored all of my hard drives and was able to run most of the software I wanted to use.

That does sound appealing, but the key word there is “most”. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to rip DVDs or Blu-ray discs right on a Synology. I would need to move that task to another computer and then transfer the video files once they were converted. With Blu-rays taking so long to rip, I couldn’t tie up my work laptop with this process and I certainly didn’t want to maintain another computer to perform the task.

Beyond the inability to rip discs, a Synology would still be limited in what other software I could run on it. I still have occasional times where I need to run a specific piece of software on macOS. I use iOS as my primary platform, but I do have an always-on Mac Mini. So in instances where I need to use macOS, I can fire up Screens on my iPad and remotely access the machine to run whatever I need to. That isn’t really possible on a Synology.

And of course, when I retire the Synology as our home server — in about 10 years when it’s time to upgrade — I have an old Synology. Whereas if I stick with a Mac Mini, I’ll have a Mac that can be sold or repurposed for other tasks.

So because of all this, using a NAS was just out of the question. Instead, I started looking at drive enclosures that could serve my needs. After a bit of searching, I determined that OWC had the best selection. They offer enclosures with Thunderbolt 3 ports, which gives me some future proofing for when I eventually retire the 2011 Mac Mini and buy a new model. And they have a number of options for how many drives you want access to — including a six-drive enclosure, which is what I decided to order.

A few days ago, I received the ThunderBay 6 in the mail and I love it.

The enclosure is the exact same width as a Mac Mini, so just like I did with the miniStacks, I can set our home server on top of it — making a nice, clean setup. Drives are pretty easy to install. You turn the thumb screw on the drive tray, pull it out, use the included screws to attach a drive, slide it back in, and tighten the thumb screw.

I haven’t bought any additional drives to go with the ThunderBay 6 quite yet. Instead, I removed the 4TB and 8TB drives that I had in the miniStacks and installed them in the new enclosure. I plan on buying another set of those same two drives in the coming months to increase my storage capacity. At that point, I’ll likely setup two volumes — an 8TB RAID 0 array from the two 4TB drives for media and a 16TB RAID 0 array from the two 8TB drives for backups.

When I buy those new drives, I’ll only be using four of the available six drive bays, but that is by design. My thought is that I can, even further down the line, upgrade my storage again. When I do, I’ll buy two drives, setting them up in RAID 0 and inserting them into the two open slots. Once I migrate my data over, I can remove the two oldest drives and have those slots open for when I upgrade storage again.

You might be curious as to why I’m looking to use RAID 0, since it doesn’t offer any redundancy in case of a drive failure. There’s a few reasons:

  • Speed: I’m using spinning hard disks because they’re affordable and offer larger capacities than solid state drives. But that means read and write speeds are significantly slower. RAID 0 will ensure I have enough throughput to handle several simultaneous streams of high definition video while still being able to transfer files or perform backups without a hitch.
  • Affordability: There’s typically a sweet spot for hard drive pricing, where you get the best bang-for-your-buck. Go above or below that capacity and you end up spending more per gigabyte. Using a RAID 0, I can get larger volumes without paying the larger drive prices.
  • A single volume: For the backup drive specifically, Time Machine stores everything on a single volume. You can’t split it amongst multiple drives without the use of RAID. Since I’d like to use Time Machine for local backups and I need it to store quite a bit of data, RAID 0 is the best way to go.

Shifting focus back to the ThunderBay 6, I currently have it connected to my Mac Mini through a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter — although it’s connected to the Mini’s Thunderbolt 1 port. This is my first experience with earlier versions of Thunderbolt and it’s a great interface. I knew it was faster than USB 2, which is how the drives were previously connected. But I didn’t expect to get speed improvements on my existing drives just by changing what interface they were connected to.

Over USB 2, the drives gave me about 30MB/s of read and write speeds, but over Thunderbolt I’m seeing about 120MB/s.

Speaking of Thunderbolt, the ThunderBay 6 includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back, which allows you to daisy chain multiple Thunderbolt 3 devices. So if my storage needs really grew out of control, I could purchase another ThunderBay or some other Thunderbolt 3 storage solution and connect it to my existing one — no need to take up an additional port on my computer.

A nifty little inclusion, hidden in the back of the ThunderBay 6, is an NVMe slot. It’s pitched by OWC as a way to add a super fast scratch disk to your machine — storing project data there while you’re working on it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever end up using the feature, but if I ever needed access to super fast storage, I’m certainly happy to have the option.

Overall, I’m very happy with the ThunderBay 6 and it’s the best solution on the market for my needs. But it’s not without flaws.

The fan on the back is a bit louder than I would prefer. I’m off of work on parental leave, so I’m not spending too much time in our home office. But whenever I walk into the room, the fan noise sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m hoping it will fade into the background when I’m in there working, but I’m worried it won’t.

So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. The ThunderBay 6’s fan is user replaceable, so I’ve gone ahead and ordered a 92mm Noctua fan, which is arriving tomorrow. This specific fan should be quieter than the built-in fan, but it also comes with a couple cables that let you run the fan at lower speeds — further reducing its noise output. I think I’ll be able to reduce the unit’s noise without sacrificing too much of its cooling capabilities.

Another downside with the ThunderBay 6 is that you need to use screws in order to install drives in the trays. I’m a little concerned that I might lose track of the included screws before I end up needing them. It’s not that big of a deal, I’m sure I could find replacement screws if necessary. But I know other companies offer drive trays that are entirely tool-less — they typically use a plastic rail that snaps in place to hold the drives. I’d love to see OWC integrate a similar system into their offering.

And lastly, the ThunderBay 6 is expensive. Without any drives, the enclosure is priced at $579.99. I mean, it’s definitely a premium piece of hardware. The entire enclosure is made out of metal — I was shocked at how heavy the box was when it arrived — and it includes exactly the features I want. As I mentioned above, I did quite a bit of looking before I decided on this unit. There are plenty of other options on the market, but none of them are as nice as the ThunderBay 6.

But I mean, the enclosure alone is almost the same price as an entry-level Mac Mini. I can’t say what the ThunderBay 6 should be priced at, I don’t know enough about the costs behind manufacturing, supporting, and developing it, but I can say that it’s current pricing is a tough pill to swallow.

But again, there isn’t anything on the market that offers what the ThunderBay 6 does — delightful materials, Thunderbolt 3 interface, six drive bays, and an NVMe slot. Because of that, even with its high price point, I think the ThunderBay 6 is an excellent product.

Update 1/25/20: I spent a little time last night installing the Noctua fan — it was an easy install. Just a couple of screws to take off the back plate and then eight screws to remove the fan and fan grills. The ThunderBay 6 uses a standard 3-pin connector to power the fan, so I didn’t run into issues connecting the new fan.

The Noctua came with a couple of adapters to run the fan at different speeds. I tried all of them and found the ultra low-noise one to be the best for my setup.

I used my Apple Watch to measure the amount noise coming from the ThunderBay 6 from the front of the unit. With the stock fan and no activity on the drives, it clocked in at about 49 dB. The Noctua in its default state was about the same, but the low-noise adapter (the middle option) dropped it to 42 dB and the ultra low-noise put it at 39 dB.

According to the specifications of each of the fans there isn’t too much of a difference in airflow. The Noctua at its ultra low-noise setting moves about 25.3 CFM. I had to search for the part number of the stock fan and found one that is similar enough that I believe it’s the same part. The specifications listed 28.4 CFM as the amount of air it moves.

So I gave up 3.1 CFM and reduced the noise by about 10 dB. In practice, I can still hear the fan from my desk, but it’s a very low hum. When I’m typing away and focused on tasks, I don’t think I’ll notice it at all.

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iPhone Setup

Throughout 2018, I shared updates to my iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV setups each month — you can find a full history of my home screen updates in the archive. While I’m not returning to a monthly schedule this year, I thought the beginning of a new decade was the perfect time to share my iPhone setup again.

iPhone Home Screen, January 2020

I’m still using my linen wallpaper and don’t expect it to change anytime soon. It serves as an excellent backdrop to my application icons — not causing any readability issues with the app names while still offering a bit of texture to keep things interesting. I’ve published the wallpaper in a number of resolutions, so if you’re interested, it’s almost certainly available for your device.

The overall structure of my home screen layout strategy is also unchanged. I still keep everything on two pages and in two folders. I keep an empty row on the first page and two empty rows on the second. I’ve experimented with different layouts over the past year, but always return to this setup. It’s just too hard to retrain the muscle memory I’ve built up over the past several years.

I still keep each of my two folders with no more than six icons per page. The folder on the left, currently titled ★, is only one page deep. Of the apps in folders, I keep my most-used on the first page. But I used to meticulously rank every app within the subsequent pages of the  folder based on how frequently I use them. That’s proven to be too time consuming. Now, I only do that for the first page, the rest of the folder’s apps are simply in alphabetical order.

This has certainly cut down on the amount of time required to reorganize my home screens, but it also better serves how I actually launch these apps. More often than not, if an app is buried in a folder, I just launch it with a Spotlight search. And when I don’t, at least having them in alphabetical order makes it a bit easier to quickly swipe through the pages to find what I’m looking for.

I’ve started saving more shortcuts on my home screens. At the moment, I have Jetpack, Define, Balance, Stream, and Instagram.

Jetpack is a simple launcher that opens the WordPress app, deep linking to the modal view of Initial Charge’s stats. I explained a bit more about how the shortcut works in the piece where I shared it. But you can also find the shortcut in The Toolkit.

Define is a launcher for Terminology, which is my preferred dictionary app. The shortcut asks for input and then searches Terminology for the provided word’s definition. Using a shortcut instead of the app itself gives me a couple of benefits. For one, it streamlines the process of searching for a word. And secondly, it lets me hide Terminology’s icon in a folder — I’m not too fond of it.

Balance and Stream are similar shortcuts. Balance displays a menu listing all of my banking and financial apps while Stream displays a list of apps I use for media playback — Infuse, TV, Channels, and so on. I can select which app I want to use and the shortcut opens it for me. This let’s me condense all of my banking apps and all of my video apps into a single home screen icon for each. I could use folders, but I like seeing a nice, simple icon instead.

And then there’s Instagram. I could use the actual app instead, but the shortcut I use allows me to have the same icon on my iPhone and my iPad. You see, the shortcut I use checks to see what type of device you’re launching it on. Then, it opens the Instagram app on an iPhone or, if you’re using an iPad, displays Instagram’s website within the Shortcuts app.

For each of these shortcuts, a custom icon was at least partially the draw for me. I like having a nice clean home screen and although Shortcuts has a great selection of glyphs built-in, I’m using icons from MacStories’ collection. When the offering was initially announced, I sort-of scoffed at the idea of buying an icon pack that’s designed for such a narrow use-case.

I ended up buying them on a whim, though, and I’m glad I did. Each icon has a subtle shadow that adds a bit of polish when compared to Shortcuts’ built-in glyphs. Whenever I add a shortcut to my home screen now, I use a MacStories icon.

You might notice that I don’t keep a weather app on my home screen. That category has been a staple on my home screen since my first days with an iPhone. But since I work from home, the weather isn’t something I keep track of as closely as I used to. I do have a weather app installed, though, it’s tucked deep within the  folder. But I primarily interact with it on the widget screen.

I’m using Hello Weather at the moment. I’ve tried more weather apps than I can count and Hello Weather is my current favorite. I love how it lays out the forecast information and it has the best weather widget by far — with large text for the current temperature and an easily glanceable current conditions graphic.

Today View Widgets Screen

Hello Weather sits at the top of my widget screen alongside Shortcuts, Notes, Deliveries, AutoSleep, and Batteries.

I use the Shortcuts widget to launch some work-related shortcuts, which help smooth out the rough edges for creating the next day’s to do list, adding my weekend work days into my calendar, and adding my template to Simplenote where I log the tasks I complete each week — which I share with the rest of my team. The rest are for personal use:

  • “Launch Ulysses” opens a new sheet in Ulysses with my writing template — you can find the latest version in The Toolkit.
  • “Take-Out” opens a list of local restaurants that I can choose from. When I select one it either initiates a phone call, opens the restaurant’s website, or their app so I can order.
  • “Daily Journal” opens a new entry in Day One using my journaling template.
  • “Feedings” helps me log Josh’s bottle feedings into a note.
  • Focus Time” enables Do Not Disturb for the next 30 minutes.

I keep the Notes widget collapsed so it only shows me the most recently edited note. That is typically the “Josh Tracker” note, which is where the shortcut mentioned above logs its data. But my wife and I occasionally have a shared note for grocery shopping, to dos, or some other random thing that we are organizing. In those instances, the widget keeps that specific note easily accessible.

Deliveries is another obvious one. I enter packages using the share sheet extension and then I can track their progress from the widget.

AutoSleep has come and gone over the last few months. It’s not data I need to be glanceable, but I found that when I removed the widget, the app wasn’t consistently pulling sleep information from my watch. This meant I had several days with no sleep tracked in the app. I could open the app to force a sync, but adding the widget means I don’t have to do that. Which is nice since I only look at my sleep habits every month or two.

And then there is iOS’ built-in batteries widget, which I think everyone should use. Especially if they have an Apple Watch, AirPods, or other Bluetooth device that offers information for the widget.

Heading back to my home screen, there are a handful of other notable apps that I wanted to discuss — Headspace, Spark, Prism, last.fm, and Google Photos.

When I last wrote about my home screens, I was still using Oak as my go-to meditation app. It was free and was an excellent option for getting started in the world of meditation and mindfulness. But as I’ve built the habit into my life, I wanted something a bit more robust, with a larger collection of sessions.

Headspace comes highly recommended by Mike Schmitz, in his review of meditation apps for The Sweet Setup, which is what lead me to it initially. I’ve been very happy with the app since I started using it a handful of months ago, the options for meditations is vast and most allow you to choose how long you want the session to last and what voice you’d prefer. To be clear, this is a subscription I’m able to expense for work, but even if I couldn’t expense it, I’d still be using it.

As for email apps, I’ve tried just about every one on the platform. Most of them are passable, but have their own annoyances that kept me coming back to Apple Mail. But the changes Apple introduced in iOS 13 finally made me run away from my old stand-by. When viewing a message, they moved so many useful actions inside of a junk drawer button. And that button looks a bit too much like a reply icon. I don’t know what they were thinking, the change is nonsensical.

Meanwhile, Spark was updated with a new, sleek user interface. The old card interface was one of the reasons I always stepped away from it in the past. With it gone, it’s become my favorite email app.

Prism is another new addition over the past year. It’s an excellent music player app that I’m using to stream my Plex music library. I wrote a review of it in April of last year, but in short, I love this app. It’s a simple, clean audio app that is reminiscent of what Apple’s Music app was like before they introduced their streaming service. Back when the app was good.

The last.fm icon is actually a shortcut that opens the service’s website. For some reason, the last.fm app doesn’t display any of the site’s recommendations, it only displays your listening history. That’s neat and all, but the only reason I use last.fm is for its recommendations. I’ve linked my account through Plex and everything I listen to is automatically scrobbled to the service.

Music recommendations are table stakes on streaming services, but aren’t as readily available when you maintain a library of audio files. With last.fm, I don’t have to work to find new music. I can listen to the music that’s already in my library with Prism and Plex will send that listening data to last.fm. Then the service will generate recommendations based on my listening history. Once a month or so, I can simply take a look and sample some of the music it surfaces for me. If there’s anything I like, I can purchase it in iTunes and add it to my Plex library.

Google Photos has been on my iPhone for a long while, but last month, I went all-in. It’s now the cloud service we use to backup our photos, in full resolution, and every photo I take is automatically shared with my wife and vice-versa. I still use Apple Photos for sharing with family and I prefer its editing tools, but Google Photos is the best cloud backup service for photos and video.

That’s all of what I would consider to be the most notable applications and trends in regards to my home screen. But if there are any questions you have about why or how I use a specific app, please reach out. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you have about my setup.

The Mac Pro Is Overpriced

—December 19, 2019

On Google Photos

—December 13, 2019

TV App Regression

—November 2, 2019

iPhone Eleven Pro

—September 30, 2019

Joshua Matthew Rockwell

—September 16, 2019

What I Want in My Next iPhone

—September 9, 2019

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