Feature Archive

Budget Home Server

Mac Mini 2014, Available from OWC

I’ve been running Mac-based home servers since 2011 when I purchased my first Mac Mini for that very purpose. It started as a way to record over-the-air television with an Elgato EyeTV and to store movies, television shows, and music in iTunes that I could stream to our Apple TVs and sync to our iPhones.

I’ve since upgraded to a 2018 Mac Mini, switched to Plex for my media management, and I’m now using an HDHomeRun as my over-the-air capture device. And while I’ve added quite a few services to my home server over the years, streaming media to all of my devices is still, by far, its primary use case.

Recently, while perusing OWC’s used Macs, I started thinking about what I would recommend to a friend or family member if they wanted to get started with their own home server.

I think a lot of people would think of starting with a mini PC. They have become very popular recently and are inexpensive. But I’m not too fond of using Windows unless I absolutely have to and I don’t think managing a Linux server is user-friendly enough for most people — it’s barely user-friendly enough for me.

So the Mac Mini, in my eyes, is the way to go. Of course, you could just buy whatever base-model Mac Mini Apple has available at the moment, attach an external drive for a bunch of storage and you’ll be mostly off to the races, but I think you get a lot more for your money if you go the used route.

I would recommend a 2014 Mac Mini with 8GB of memory, 2.6GHz Core i5 processor, and a 1TB solid state drive.

At the time of writing, you can pick one up from OWC for $195.

That will get you a pretty good amount of storage to start with on a machine that can run up to macOS Monterey. That’s not the most recent version of macOS, but it’s still receiving updates from Apple and should have software support for the apps you’ll want to run for at least a handful of years.

In addition to the Mac Mini itself, if you don’t plan to connect it to a display, you’ll want to get a display emulator dongle. I use this one from CompuLab, but you could also get a Newer Technology one that’s a couple of dollars cheaper.

The last bit of hardware I’d recommend is an optical drive. This will let you rip movies and TV shows from discs to store on the server. I’m using an external Blu-ray drive from Pioneer, but it’s a bit more expensive than I think I’d spend on one today. If you wanted to rip Blu-ray Discs, you should be fine with this one from OWC. And if you are just expecting to rip DVDs, there’s literally thousands of options that are available for $20-40.

I’m not sure if there’s really any meaningful difference between any of the DVD drives available, but I’d recommend getting one from a brand you recognize. You won’t spend much more than if you bought a no-name brand, but you’ll likely end up with something that’s more reliable.

As a bit of an aside, I first started ripping Blu-ray Discs when I was still using a 2011 Mac Mini. These older Macs — including the 2014 Mac Mini that I’m recommending — are going to take a long time to rip and convert Blu-rays. That doesn’t mean I would shy anyone away from doing so, but I think it’s worth setting expectations.

With hardware alone, we’re at about $306 before tax and shipping — if you opt for the Blu-ray drive. That’s not too shabby to get you in the door. And you could certainly use this hardware as a home server for a handful of years, paired with free software options, and you’ll get by just fine.

For free software, you could use:

Plex is perfectly serviceable for hosting your media without a Plex Pass and the pairing of Handbrake and MakeMKV will make ripping Blu-ray Discs and DVDs a breeze. And with MacOS’ built-in screen sharing features, you can run the Mac Mini without a display attached and administer it from another computer on your network.

If you wanted to take the software setup to the next level, I would recommend purchasing a lifetime Plex Pass — $120 — which will give you the ability to download media to the Plex mobile app, give you access to Plexamp, and a whole host of other features.

In addition, I’d recommend purchasing Screens 5 — $80 for a one-time purchase. This will make management of the server significantly easier. You can install Screens Connect on the server and Screens 5 on your Mac, iPhone, and/or iPad to connect and control the machine locally on your home network or remotely anywhere you have access to the web.

And lastly, I would suggest purchasing a MakeMKV license — $65. You can get by with the beta key referenced above, but it expires and sometimes it expires before a new beta key is available. To support the developer’s work and ensure you can always rip when you want to, I’d recommend just buying a license.

With these extra software purchases, we’re looking at around $571 total. That may seem like a lot. But this is a system that you’ll be able to run on your network and use for the next five years, easy. Serving up media that you likely already own — everyone has a box of CDs and DVDs somewhere in their house.

And perhaps, if you really want to commit, you can cancel a streaming service or two and redirect those funds toward physical media. You’d be surprised at how cheap DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and CDs can be acquired for these days. And after enough time of purchasing media, you’ll find that your own media library has more good content than any of the streaming services offer.

Tech Is Still Cool

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for present-day Apple, there’s still a lot to be excited about in the world of technology. The following is an unordered list of things that I’ve been excited about recently. If you have any thoughts about the following items or have some tech that you’ve been excited about, I’d love to hear from you.

Old MacBooks

I recently purchased two 2015 11-inch MacBook Airs — one for myself and one for my wife. They can run up to macOS Monterey, which is still supported by Apple and by the vast majority of application developers. And if you’re willing to deal with potential pain points, you can use OpenCore Legacy Patcher to install macOS Sonoma on the machines as well.

I have Sonoma running on mine and it runs like a champ. Other than the non-retina display and lack of USB-C ports, these machines feel surprisingly modern.

Old MacBooks are also very easy to upgrade. In addition to the 2015 MacBooks that I recently purchased, I have a couple of older 2011 models that I’ve been toying with as well. The battery and storage has been a breeze to upgrade on these machines. I’ve put brand new batteries and 500GB SSDs in both and completed the tasks in less than ten minutes each.

Linux

An entire operating system, complete with its own selection of applications and features to explore. I’ve been doing so primarily through virtual machines on my work laptop, but I plan to dual boot Sonoma and Ubuntu 24.04 on my 11-inch MacBook Air now that this new long term support release is available.

The most interesting thing about Linux to me is the myriad of windowing managers. I can’t say its necessarily better than what we have on macOS, but it has plenty of innovative ideas that has me working a bit differently — using multiple virtual desktops never clicked with me on macOS like it has in Linux.

Self-hosting

There isn’t much that excites me more than being able to eliminate my reliance on a service controlled by someone else. I have three servers where I run various applications from my home office alongside a Linode and SiteGround account where I run services as well.

Plex and Mastodon likely get the most use from me, but I’m also a huge fan of Invidious, Miniflux, and Wallabag.

I’d like to self-host even more and should be doing so soon. I’m waiting on the arrival of an Umbrel Home. It should be here in the next few weeks. I have Umbrel running on an old Mac mini now, but it seems to bog down quite a bit when I have more than a few applications running on it. I expect the Umbrel Home should handle things a bit better.

Emulation Handhelds

I have a Retroid Pocket 2+ and a Retroid Pocket 3. Both of which are excellent devices for what they are, but I’d love to have something that features a bit more horsepower for PlayStation 2 and GameCube emulation.

I’ve been hemming and hawing over whether I want to get myself an Ayn Odin 2 or a Retroid Pocket 4 Pro. I believe both of them would be able to run the games I’m interested in, so it’s just a matter of which form factor is preferable to me.

I just love the idea of having a single device that can run all of the games from my childhood.

Emulation on the App Store

Apple updated their App Store guidelines earlier this month to allow for retro game emulators in the App Store. It’s still very early days and Delta appears to be the clear standout. It supports Nintendo systems up to Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS.

I’m still using AltStore for now, though. Delta is a great emulator, but it just doesn’t compare to RetroArch in terms of the number of systems supported. I expect RetroArch will eventually make its way into the App Store, but that will take some time. I’m sure there are some changes that will need to be made to the app to fully come into compliance with Apple’s guidelines.

I’m okay using AltStore for now, but I’m excited about a future where I won’t have to resort to hacks in order to run this type of software on my own device.

PC Building

I built a gaming PC last fall, with the goal of having it run Steam as a headless home server. I’m using one of these inexpensive display emulators and interacting with the system entirely through Steam Link and VNC — using Screens. With this setup I can play any PC game I’d like and emulate more powerful systems from any device in the house — most often my iPhone and the living room Apple TV.

For anyone curious, here are the parts I used for the system:

  • AMD Ryzen 5600 Processor
  • AMD Radeon RX 7600 Graphics Card
  • 32GB of Crucial DDR4 3200 Memory
  • ASRock B550M-ITX/AC Motherboard
  • 2TB Crucial NVMe Solid State Drive
  • 4TB Samsung SATA Solid State Drive
  • Fractal Terra Mini-ITX Case
  • Noctua NH-L9x65 CPU Cooler
  • Corsair SF750 Power Supply

It’s not the most powerful thing in the world, but it’s more than capable of playing everything I’ve thrown at it. And since I’m streaming everything over Steam Link, I’m not all that concerned about playing anything at high resolutions — 720p or 1080p are more than sufficient for my needs.

But with this project, I’ve started paying attention to the world of PC hardware again. Primarily through YouTube channels like Gamers Nexus, JayzTwoCents, optimum, ozTalksHW, and more. This is an area of tech that I haven’t really paid attention to since the early 2000s. And, boy, does it feel fresh and exciting in comparison to Apple hardware.

Steam Link

How amazing is it that you can just play games from your PC on all of your devices? I can have Skate 3 running in RPCS3 on a computer in my home office and use my iPhone as a display and a Backbone One as the controller. Or I can use the television in my living room paired with an Apple TV and an 8BitDo Pro 2 controller.

Steam Link is to video games as Plex is to movies and TV shows.

There are definitely times when the bandwidth just isn’t there, but most of the time everything works smoothly. And I’m sure it will get even better if I actually work on running ethernet to all of our Apple TVs — a project that never seems to receive the priority necessary to accomplish.

iPods

I recently purchased an iPod from Elite Obsolete Electronics. It was a 5.5-generation model that I paid to have modded with a 128GB microSD card and a brand new face plate, backplate, and click wheel.

I’ve since toyed around with just about every feature the device has to offer. I’ve added Click Wheel games, played around with the Notes feature, setup a preset in Handbrake to convert video to a compatible format, and it’s been a blast all along the way.

There’s something nice about using an offline device. Something that, by its very nature, only has the content that’s on it right now. If I want something new, I have to connect it to a computer and sync. It allows me to be a bit more intentional about the content I’m consuming.

Currently, the iPod is my primary method for podcast and audiobook listening. Huffduffer is a great tool that I’ve been getting a lot of use out of for adding random audio files to the iPod.

I’ve also been using the iPod for the majority of my YouTube viewing. I download the videos with my Invidious instance, convert them with the aforementioned Handbrake preset, and then add them to the Apple Music app for syncing — I’ve found it to be a bit easier to add them to the Apple Music app as music videos rather than adding them to the TV app.

The Magic Is Gone

I remember around ten years ago, whenever I was near an Apple Store, I just had to go. If I was visiting family in Pittsburgh, I had to visit the Apple Store. If I was around Syracuse, if I was in Philadelphia, wherever. If there was an Apple Store nearby, I had to take the time to visit, even if just for a little bit.

From my earliest days with Apple products, in 2004, I’ve always been 2-3 hours from the nearest Apple Store.

But the products felt so cool during that era. The idea of having a half an hour or so with the entire lineup was too much to pass up.

I’d check out every MacBook they offered and chat with my wife (then girlfriend) about which one struck the right balance for my needs. I’d check out the Mac Mini, each iMac, and the Mac Pro and have an internal debate about which one I’d buy if money was no object. Even after leaving the store, I’d spend the rest of the day thinking about my dream setup.

I’d check out the latest iPods, iPads, iPhone, and browse through all of the accessories. Sometimes I’d leave with something — a new pair of headphones, a power adapter, or the like — and sometimes I’d leave completely empty handed.

Today, though, I can’t remember the last time I even went to an Apple Store. It was probably before 2020 and it was more than likely because I actually needed to go there for something. The last time I made a point to go to the Apple Store just to browse was probably a year or two prior.

The magic of Apple’s retail stores is gone.

Part of that is because Apple products are a bit more accessible in my area now. I can go to my local Target or Walmart and toy around with the Apple Watch, iPhone, and iPads on display. If I want to check out a new Mac, the local Best Buy carries a good portion of those.

But even more so, Apple’s products aren’t really exciting to me anymore. Most of what they release is a relatively minor iteration over the previous version. Sometimes with, what feels like, downgrades compared to the previous model. I’m looking at you, Action Button.

“But what about the Vision Pro”, you’re invariably asking? Well, that product isn’t appealing to me in the slightest. I have no interest in augmented or virtual reality. I consider it to be more akin to 3D television or motion controls in games. Neither of those will necessarily go away entirely — they will rise and fall in popularity over time, but they’ll never be the predominant medium or even a major player.

Maybe I’ll eat my words, but I don’t expect the Vision Pro or any other AR/VR computing product to ever be much more than a novelty device.

Outside of the lack of excitement for Apple’s new products, though, there are obviously other factors that have an impact.

I’m at a different part of my life now than I was ten years ago. My wife and I have started a family, I have a great job, and with that comes a bit more disposable income and a lot less free time. I can often just buy products that I would have, previously, had to save for.

And the lack of time means that I’m unable to obsess over all of the little details of an announcement. Or read through every line of the product pages and press releases. All of the things that built excitement for actually getting my hands on the products.

All of this isn’t a bad thing, of course. There are the clear benefits of spending time with family instead of caring so much about the products of a former computer company.

I think the lack of excitement in folks like me represents an opportunity for another company to build something truly neat. To get people excited and start making waves in the consumer electronics industry.

Valve’s Steam Deck and the recent explosion of retro emulation handhelds from Retroid, Anbernic, and others immediately comes to mind. There’s a lot to be excited about in that market.

But I’m hoping for something bigger. Something that will give me the same feeling I got from Apple in the late 2000s. The type of feeling that will have me going out of my way to spend a few minutes with a new product in a retail store.

Action Button as Game Launcher

Game Launcher shortcut with Minecraft and Steam Link

Since receiving my iPhone 15 Pro this past fall, I have been racking my brain trying to figure out how to make the Action Button feel useful to me.

Up until recently, I’ve felt like it was a massive step backward when compared to the simple silence switch that the iPhone has featured since the original launched in 2007. The switch was nice because you could interact with it by feel. If you’re at a movie theater or some other live event and needed to make sure your phone wouldn’t randomly make noises, disturbing everyone else, you could check the switch with your iPhone still in your pocket.

This isn’t something that has ever worked for me with the Action Button. With it set to toggle Silent Mode, my experience usually goes something like this:

  • Press the Action Button.
  • Feel the haptic feedback.
  • Try and remember what that specific haptic feedback means.
  • Probably press the Action Button another one or two times so that you can feel the difference between the two types of haptic feedback.
  • Ultimately take your iPhone out of your pocket to make sure it’s set the way you wanted.

Despite my discovery of a useful Action Button shortcut, I still think that the above situation is such a mess that I’d rather just have the silencer switch back. But even if Apple decides to bring back the switch, I’m stuck with the Action Button for at least another year-and-a-half. I might as well make the most of it.

Game Launcher Example Shortcut

I’m now using the Action Button as a dedicated game launcher. But it doesn’t just display a menu, listing the games (and emulators) on my device, and launch the one I select. Instead, it always opens the game or emulator that I most recently played and I have the option to display a menu to launch something else.

I’m accomplishing this with Toolbox Pro, which offers Global Variable actions. Each time I launch a game or emulator using this shortcut, the name of that application will be saved to a Global Variable and the next time I run my game launcher, it will automatically launch the game saved in that variable.

As for the menu to launch something else, that will only display if I want it to. I’m accomplishing this by checking the device’s volume at the beginning of the shortcut and then checking it again two seconds after the Global Variable app is launched. If the volume is different upon that second check, the menu will display.

The way it works in practice is, I press the Action Button, the most recent game opens. If I’d like to play something else, I have a two second window to press either of the two volume buttons. If I do, I’ll get a menu that lists the other games and emulators on my device and I can choose one to launch.

Then, the next time I run the shortcut by pressing the Action Button, the most recently launched game/emulator will open first.

This setup does require you to update the shortcut whenever you add or remove a game from your device and the shortcut itself is going to be unique to you and the collection of games you play. But I’ve put together an example shortcut showing how it works, that you can adapt to your setup.

The example shortcut is just setup to open Minecraft and Steam Link because those are the only games that I have on my device that aren’t sideloaded through AltStore. But again, the method that I’m using can be adapted to launch any number of games on your device. You’ll just need to update the If action that checks the Global Variables and opens the initial app, as well as the Menu action that displays a list of and launches the other games.

I’m hoping the example shortcut will do the trick, but if you decide to set this up for yourself and run into any trouble, feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to help with all that I can.

11-Inch MacBook Air

I often find myself checking OWC to see the used Macs that they have available. Especially the Mac Mini and Mac Pro. Two machines that I’ve just fallen in love with over the years.

I currently own five Mac Minis, all of which are in use throughout the house. They’re great for home servers, retro emulation, or general computing. And they’re dirt cheap now. You can routinely find 2014 and earlier models for around $100 with a decent amount of memory and storage.

As for the Mac Pro, I’ve never owned one at all. But back in my early days of writing on the web, I would find myself jealous of folks like Shawn Blanc and Glenn Wolsey who used these powerful machines as their daily drivers. I haven’t been able to pull the trigger on one yet, but the prices on old Mac Pros are reaching a point where they’re just too inexpensive to pass up.

But there’s one more Mac model that I keep an eye out for — the 11-inch MacBook Air.

The 11-inch MacBook Air is my absolute favorite Mac ever released. Ever.

Aside from the 12-inch MacBook, the 11-inch MacBook Air is the smallest and lightest laptop Apple has ever released. And unlike the 12-inch MacBook, the 11-inch MacBook Air has a functioning keyboard and a great assortment of ports — two USB-A ports, a single Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port, and MagSafe for charging.

I bought two 11-inch MacBook Airs back in 2011. One for myself and one for my wife (girlfriend at the time). The one purchased for her is no longer working properly. It has a bad trackpad, bad battery, and possibly a bad logic board. Mine is now used by my wife as her occasional non-work machine. It’s still on High Sierra, but it can run LibreOffice and Firefox ESR, which is about all she needs it for.

I could probably put some effort into the broken one and get it working, but for the price of a trackpad and battery, assuming the logic board is actually okay, I’m already about half-way to the price of another 11-inch from a later model year and I would get the benefits of a newer machine — faster USB ports, longer battery life, increased performance, and support for later versions of macOS.

Luckily enough, last week while perusing OWC’s available models, I noticed they had a 2015 11-inch MacBook Air with 8GB of memory, in “excellent” condition, with good pricing on storage upgrades. It, unfortunately, only had the 1.6 GHz Core i5 instead of the higher-end 2.2 GHz Core i7. Nevertheless, I pulled the trigger.

I selected the 500GB storage option, paid $300 after tax, and am expecting it to arrive by the end of this week.

I could probably find a better price on EBay, especially if I upgraded the storage myself, but I’ve bought a handful of used Macs from OWC and have always been happy with my purchase.

When the machine arrives, I’ll give it a once over in macOS. I’ll make sure the battery is still in good shape, the specifications are what they should be, and that all of the ports and whatnot are working properly. At that point I’ll more than likely try setting it up to triple boot macOS Monterey, Windows 10, and Ubuntu using the rEFInd boot manager.

And then I’ll have the coolest laptop setup ever.

Emulation on iPhone

iPhone Running PPSSPP with Razer Kishi V2

Last year I wrote an about retro gaming on iOS. I’ve had a lot of fun playing games on the platform, especially through emulation. Much of what I wrote last year is still applicable today, but I thought I’d revisit the topic with a focus on the state of emulation on iOS and all of the software and accessories you’ll need to get started.

Controllers

You can get by with some games using the touch screen controls — turn-based RPGs like Pokémon come to mind — but if you’re interested in playing anything else, you’ll want to get some kind of controller. Apple has done a great job of adding support for controllers in iOS, you can use Sony’s DualSense Controller, for example — Apple even sells it on their site. I’m a huge fan of 8BitDo controllers and would highly recommend their Pro 2 controller.

These traditional controllers are all well and good if you’re going to be connecting your iPhone to a television to play games. Although, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have an iPhone with a USB-C port. Lightning devices have notoriously bad latency in their HDMI output.

If you want to play on the iPhone’s display, though, you’ll want a controller that attaches to the device itself. This gives you a gaming experience that’s more in-line with a dedicated gaming handheld.

There are plenty of options on the market, but I think there are three clear front-runners in the space.

GameSir G8 Galileo — This controller is USB-C only, so if you’re using an iPhone with a Lightning port, it’s not going to be an option for you. I’ve also not used this one myself, however, everything I’ve seen and read has been overwhelmingly positive. Russ from Retro Game Corps mentioned in his review that, going forward, whenever anyone asks for a recommendation in this category, the GameSir G8 Galileo will be his first pick.

Razer Kishi V2 — This is available for Lightning and USB-C devices, it has the least flex of any of the controllers I’ve used — it fits on my iPhone 15 Pro like a glove and the expanding portion in the middle doesn’t bow inward toward the back of the device. It’s very close to being my favorite of the controllers I’ve tried. But I hate that the controller’s start/select/share/menu buttons aren’t symmetrical. It’s also a huge bummer that the USB-C version isn’t fully supported on iOS. The Razer Nexus app doesn’t recognize the controller and you can’t use its additional buttons on the platform at all. Hopefully a future software update will change that, but I’m not holding my breath.

Backbone One — Also available for Lightning and USB-C devices, but all of its functionality is supported on both Android and iOS. There is a bit of flex in the controller during use and the expanding portion bows in toward the back of your device, but it feels really good in the hand. I love how all of the buttons feel on the Backbone, they have a much softer press than the Razer Kishi V2 and all of the additional buttons are symmetrical. The Backbone app requires a subscription, which I’m not fond of, but it’s not something you have to use. And compared to the Razer Kishi V2 that doesn’t even work with the app on the iPhone 15, it’s a clear win for the Backbone. It’s also worth noting that there is a PlayStation edition of the controller and an official carrying case available to match both versions.

AltStore

Apple, being the restrictive little platform vendor that they are, doesn’t allow emulators on the App Store. In order to install them on your device, you’ll have to utilize sideloading. AltStore is the best method for installing and managing sideloaded applications on iOS.

You’ll want to follow the official guide for the latest installation process, but essentially, you install AltServer on your computer, use it to install AltStore on your iOS device, and you’re ready to start loading emulators on your iPhone.

You will need to login using your Apple ID throughout the process. This is used to sign the applications so they can run on your device. If you have a free Apple ID, you’ll be limited to just three signed apps at a time and they will only be useable for a week before you’ll need to re-sign them.

If you have a paid Apple Developer account, though, the limit on the number of apps is lifted and the apps will last a full year before they have to be re-signed. You can definitely get by with a free account — I’d recommend your three apps be AltStore, RetroArch, and either Limon or PPSPP — but if you want a larger assortment of systems available at all times, it may be worth considering a paid developer account.

If you choose to stick with a free Apple Developer account, you’ll be happy to know that AltStore itself is completely free to use. You can choose to subscribe to the project’s Patreon for access to beta versions of the app, but it’s not necessary unless you want to be on the bleeding edge.

Currently, the biggest feature available exclusively in the beta is the ability to add third-party sources. It’s a neat feature, for sure, but I haven’t found many sources that feel essential. Almost all of them are poorly maintained with outdated versions of apps. Because of this, I’m not sure if the Patreon is worth subscribing to just for access to the beta.

Recommended Emulators

There are a fair number of emulators available for iOS. Not nearly as many as Android or other platforms, though. Primarily because of Apple’s limitations on the App Store. But just about all of the systems you could ever want are covered.

RetroArch, Crash Team Racing for PlayStation, PPSSPP, and New Super Mario Bros. 2 for Nintendo 3DS

The following are a list of the emulators that I’m currently using and the ones that I would recommend others use as well. They’ll get you home consoles through the fifth generation and every handheld console up to and including the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo 3DS.

RetroArch — The Swiss Army knife of emulators, which will handle the bulk of the systems available. It’s a little finicky to setup — I tend to refer to Retro Game Corps’s excellent starter guide. But once it’s configured to your liking, it offers an excellent experience for PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Nintendo Entertainment System, and more.

PPSSPP — This is the best option for emulating PlayStation Portable games on iOS. RetroArch has a core that supports PSP games — based on PPSSPP — but the performance just isn’t up to par with the standalone release.

Limon — It’s still in the early days for this Nintendo 3DS emulator — there isn’t currently a way to exit a game, for example, you have to force quit the app instead. There’s definitely limited compatibility with games, but I’ve been using it to run New Super Mario Bros. 2 and it’s been great.

Other Emulators

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the remaining emulators on iOS, but they’re the ones that I’ve tried myself. I don’t recommend the first three primarily because they require the use of just-in-time compilation (JIT). This is a method for executing code that allows for more performance, but it isn’t available by default on iOS.

In order to use JIT, you have to enable it with a tool on another device — AltServer has this built in. Since the release of iOS 17, though, I haven’t been able to get JIT working at all. So unless you have better luck than I or you have an iOS device that you haven’t updated to iOS 17 yet, you’ll likely have to wait for a more robust method for enabling JIT.

DolphiniOS — An excellent release of Dolphin specifically for iOS that supports GameCube and Wii emulation. When I was able to get JIT working on my iPhone 13 Pro, it was a fantastic experience. I played many hours of Mario Kart Wii and Tony Hawk’s Underground on it. I only ran into a single game that didn’t run well — Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland — but I could probably get it to a reasonable frame rate with a bit of tweaking. If the JIT situation changes in iOS 17, DolphiniOS will be the first thing I install.

Flycast — A Dreamcast emulator available for iOS. I never ran into any compatibility issues with the games I’ve played on it. It’s a shame that there isn’t an option to run it without JIT enabled. There are plenty of low powered Android handhelds that are capable of emulating Dreamcast at the top end and the iPhone 15 Pro is significantly more powerful than those devices. I don’t know, maybe the current iPhone wouldn’t be capable of emulating Dreamcast games without JIT, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the iPhone released in a few years was able to. And in the meantime, there could be some RPGs or what have you that would be playable at lower frame rates.

Play! — A PlayStation 2 emulator with pretty pitiful compatibility. I haven’t had much luck with games I’ve tried in this emulator. The only one that seemed to run flawlessly was Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, which isn’t a particularly good game, but you could also just run the PSP version in PPSSPP instead.

The remaining emulators all work well, but have overlap with the systems supported by RetroArch:

Provenance — An all-in-one emulator akin to RetroArch. I prefer RetroArch’s interface over Provenance, though, especially if you have a large library of ROMs.

Delta — It emulates Nintendo systems and has excellent skins for touch screen controls, but RetroArch is able to emulate everything Delta supports.

MAME4iOS — An arcade emulator that I’ve spent very little time with. I’m generally not too interested in emulating arcade games, though, and the few I have enjoyed run just fine in RetroArch.

Emulation Frontend

This is the only piece of the puzzle that there isn’t a solution for on iOS. On Android you have apps like Daijisho and on PC you have apps like Launchbox. I’m not aware of anything like this on iOS at all.

The best I’ve been able to come up with is a shortcut that uses the Choose From Menu action to list each of the emulators I have installed and then opens the one I select using the Open App action.

You could just save that shortcut to your Home Screen and tap on it whenever you’d like to play a game, but if you chose a controller that has a companion app that can be launched using a button on the controller, there is an option for a more seamless experience.

If you’re using the Backbone controller, for example, you could setup an automation in the Shortcuts app that automatically runs the shortcut whenever the Backbone app is launched. Now when you want to play a game, you can attach the controller to your device, press the Backbone button, and select one of your emulators from the shortcut’s menu.

If you’ve come up with a better solution for this, though, I would absolutely love to hear about it. Feel free to reach out to me with the details.

Assistive Access

Assistive Access in iOS 17

I only just discovered this new feature in iOS 17. Assistive Access gives you a simplified, focused interface with access to only the apps and features you choose to enable. It was designed for people with cognitive disabilities, but there are plenty of other uses.

I’m thinking it could be an excellent way to setup an iPhone for a child. You could configure it so they only have access to Messages and the ability to make calls, for example. With no way to use other applications without first entering an Assistive Access-specific passcode.

Last night I set it up on my iPhone to only have access to Camera, Day One, Home, Photos, Things, and Messages — only listing my wife as a contact I’m able to send messages to. The idea being that I could enter Assistive Access when I wanted to spend less time on my device and be more present with the family. I’d still have access to the most crucial features, like taking photos and videos, but everything else would be hidden.

I do have a few gripes with the feature for my use case, though.

Some applications are built with Assistive Access in mind. Those applications offer an entirely different user interface than what you get from the app in the traditional iOS Home Screen experience. I wish that there was an option to just use the non-Assistive Access version of each app.

Of the apps I’m using, Camera, Photos, and Messages all use an alternative interface in Assistive Access. They’re mostly fine, but I really wish I could disable it in the Camera app. You don’t have the option to zoom, you can’t switch lenses, you can’t take photos in portrait mode, etc. — there’s a whole host of features that I wish I had access to that aren’t available. I’ve considered installing Halide or another third-party camera app for the additional features, but I generally find them difficult to use when compared to Apple’s Camera app.

The other complaint I have with Assistive Access is the giant “Back” button displayed along the bottom when you’re inside of an application. I’m sure it’s great for some users of the feature, but I would like to see an option to display something a bit more elegant — maybe show an old school iPhone home button instead?

Lastly, it doesn’t seem that there is a way to use Bluetooth or AirPlay speakers at all while in Assistive Access. It may sound like that would defeat the purpose, but I often have music playing on a Bluetooth speaker when the family is on the back deck or I play music over AirPlay to the HomePod in the kitchen. It would be rad if you could choose within Assistive Access’ settings whether that is available or not.

Ive seen others using a dumb or light phone for this type of use case. But whenever I’ve looked into that as an option the limitations were a bit more than I would prefer. There was always something that I need that these devices just couldn’t do or it would be too cumbersome to setup and use.

Using Assistive Access on the iPhone I already have seems like the perfect solution. I don’t have to buy an additional device and I have much more control over what I do and don’t have access to.

My First Macintosh

In late 2006 I purchased a base model MacBook with a 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive.

Apple made a big deal about how upgradable these machines were — the memory slots and hard drive were accessible behind a metal plate inside the battery compartment. I upgraded the hard drive and memory myself, ending up with 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive.

I still have the machine today, albeit with a replacement battery, new keyboard, and top case. I actually had the machine out a few days ago after finding it in my office closet — I’ve been reorganize and cleaning up the home office while on parental leave.

The MacBook still boots, but I have no idea if the battery will hold a charge at all. I only booted it up for a minute or two to see if it would still run. It hasn’t seen any regular use in over a decade. I think the last time it would have been used was as a backup machine for my wife when her MacBook Air needed repairs.

As for my use of the machine, it was my primary computer until I bought an iMac in 2008. I continued using the MacBook as my portable machine until it was replaced by an 11-inch MacBook Air in 2011.

I’ve been on a kick of configuring old machines with new uses — most recently setting up a 2014 Mac Mini as family computer in the basement. I might end up installing Linux on the MacBook or a fresh copy of Lion, which is the most recent version of macOS that it supports. I have no idea what I’d use it for, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something.

The machine is significantly thicker and heavier than any of the laptops I’ve used since then. The plastic casing is prone to cracking and the trackpad has a dedicated button below it for clicking — this was prior to the integrated button built into the trackpad in later MacBooks.

But despite all of that, I still have a great deal of nostalgia for this era of Macs. I feel like the design language of Apple’s software was at its peak and the hardware had a much healthier balance of elegance and upgradability.

The latter of those two seems like we’re continuing to move further away from. The transition to Apple Silicon has all but solidified a future full of Macs that offer zero upgradability. Sure you can still buy a Mac Pro, but you can’t add a graphics card, you can’t upgrade your system’s memory, and you can’t install a new CPU. It’s a lame duck product and everyone knows it.

I still hold out hope for a brighter future in that regard, though. Even if you can’t replace the integrated components it would be rad if you could add new components to augment the system. For example, imagine being able to twist off the bottom of a new Mac Mini to reveal a single M.2 slot. You could use it for additional storage, as a new or alternative boot drive, or as a quick and dirty Time Machine drive.

There’s definitely enough room in the Mac Mini’s chassis for this and I’m willing to bet other machines could offer similar upgradability without having to sacrifice the lineup’s existing form factors.

But that’s all a pipe dream. If you want real upgradability, you’ll have to get used to running Windows or Linux.