Dealing with Schiit Audio

I was originally going to review the Schiit Hel 2 external sound card, a headphone DAC/AMP combo, but i'm really not in any position to do so since a) it's the first and only decent external sound card i've owned and b) i only have one pair of headphones and they aren't great. What i am in a position to do however is review Schiit, the company, based on my interaction with them. Here's the story...

I originally ordered a Hel 2 from their website and waited for it to show up in my mailbox. And i waited, and waited, and nothing. I was never sent a tracking number or anything else regarding the status of my order and so i finally contacted them and asked what's up. The rep said that there was a supply problem and that the Hel wouldn't be available for another 6 to 8 weeks. That's great, i said. Were you planning on ever telling me this??? Again i waited and i eventually decided that i didn't really need the Hel and so i canceled the order and ordered a Fulla. During this period i had sent a few emails informing them that, because their 1/8 to 1/4 in. stereo adapter that shipped with their devices was considered junk by several reviewers, i wanted to make sure i was sent a good one since i had none. Although they (as in, more then one person) addressed part of my brief mails, not once did anyone acknowledge my concern regarding the adapter and i mentioned it no less then 3 times.

To my surprise i received the Fulla shortly after i order it and was quite excited to have it ... right up until the point where i plugged the f'n thing in to test it. It was DOA. The power LED never lit. I tested with a powered USB hub and, nothing. I tested with a dedicated power supply and, nothing. I tested with different cables and, noting. Most of the reviews i've read regarding Schiit equipment have been exceedingly positive, however a few reviewers mentioned quality control issues. You can add another one to the bunch. I sent the Fulla back and re-orderd the Hel 2, pleading with them to place me high upon their list since the Fulla was DOA. I didn't expect them to do so since they obviously don't fully read or respond to emails, but to my surprise i received the Hel in short order, and it worked!

Given my limitations i mentioned earlier, i'm reasonably happy with the Hel, however there is a latency issue and the microphone gain seems to be anemic. Regarding latency, this may be due to my operating system; Manjaro Linux with the KDE desktop and Pulseaudio sound system. Listening to music is totally fine, but watching a video results in roughly a 200-300 ms delay between a mouth moving and the sound hitting my ears. Hopefully i'll find a way to fix the problem. Regarding the mic gain issue, one of the major reasons i wanted an external DAC/AMP combo with a mic input was to cleanup the microphone noise floor which the Hel does wonderfully, however i have to crank up the gain very high (about 85% or better) to get a good sound level and i expected more from a $200 dollar AMP. The Hel also takes a rather long time to boot after powering it on. If you keep it powered on this obviously isn't a problem, but i tend to turn it off when i'm not using it.

In the end, i'm not trying to sway people away from Schiit, but i would suggest using caution. The problem i had with their Fulla DAC/AMP had nothing to do with my machine since i tried to power it with 3 different devices, yet it never powered up. When i returned the Fulla i enclosed in the package a note stating the procedures i used to troubleshoot it but, as i expected, i never received a reply. If you decide to deal with Schiit Audio, good luck. I suspect you won't experience the problems i did but, then again, you never know.

Product Review: Corsair M65 RGB Elite Gaming Mouse (on Linux)

Rather than critiquing the gaming performance and digging deep into the specs of the Corsair M65 RGB Pro, the focus here will be to inform others as to how well i personally like this mouse and its usability and compatibility with a Linux based OS.

the TL:DR version

Stay away from this mouse! Corsair is using horrible, very poor quality micro-Omron 50m switches for both the primary and secondary buttons which do not last long at all.

intro

My Cooler Master Inferno finally gave up the ghost after 11 years. It started clicking the primary button by itself and although i might have been able to resolve the issue, i've had it apart several times to clean crap from the wheel sensor, chipping the case in the process, and its feet were just about worn down to the nub. Oh, and all that nice rubberized coating was worn off and it didn't take long for that to happen either. Time for a new rodent.

Corsair M65 RGB Elite Gaming MouseThe Corsair M65 RGB Elite is a wired, right-handed, 7 button (plus the scroll wheel and its button) gaming mouse with solid specs, like a very accurate 18,000 DPI optical sensor which provides a max resolution that's an order of magnitude higher than any human could ever manage, but bigger numbers are more impressive apparently. With the KDE desktop and the mouse sensitivity set to 50% and acceleration enabled, the M65 is set at around 600 DPI for a 17 in. 1080p laptop display.

looks and feels

I think the M65 is a very nice looking mouse. I'm not entirely sure if it looks more like a weapon or a mouse with its somewhat prominent red 'sniper' button and vented aluminum frame, but i do like its angular yet smooth looks. The one piece top seems to be made of silicone and it feels velvety smooth. The plastic, concave sides have a hard, sandpaper-like texture which, as i suspected it would, is already wearing smooth after only several weeks of daily use.

The M65 feels good in the hand, but it's not as ergonomic as my Inferno was and because of the way the sides are shaped it's a little harder to lift off the pad, even with the rough textured sides and even though all the rubbery coating was worn off of my Inferno. I removed all the weights to make the mouse lighter and although this surely made a difference, it wasn't one i could readily feel. It also feels narrower between my thumb and pinky fingers, yet it's actually a little wider in that area compared to the Inferno. The M65 is a shorter mouse designed to be 'claw' or 'fingertip' gripped and this is certainly my preferred style of holding a mouse.

As implied, the M65 has three removable weights, each located in a different spot, however the way this feature was implemented wasn't well thought out. The weights are held in place with screws and replacing a screws after removing a weight is a little tricky because the hole in the weight guides the screw into it's threaded socket, though one could just leave the screws out entirely for more of a weight reduction. Had the engineers had their thinking caps on, they might have used these screws to hold the mouse together as well instead of adding two more which, to their credit, at least aren't located under the damned mouse feet, thus disassembly is very easy requiring only a Phillips driver. Although on the smaller side this mouse is quite heavy, even with the weights removed. It also has a very solid feel thanks to the rigidity of an aluminum frame and there's no detectable rattles when shaking it or squeaks when squeezing it.

Like many wired gaming mice, the M65 uses a braided cord which i find to be a gimmick. These cords are often rather stiff and unlike the older rubber/plastic/silicone sheathed cords, the slight noise that the nylon braiding might make as it drags across a rough textured mouse pad could be annoying to some, though this can be managed with some creativity.

the buttons

The primary and secondary buttons, both rated at 50 million clicks, are significantly quieter and lighter feeling than those of most mice and while i personally don't like loud buttons, these are so quiet that there's hardly any audible feedback and so sensitive that i couldn't rest my fingers on the buttons without clicking them. Whereas with the Inferno i knew i had clicked something because of the audio and tactile feedback, i now find myself looking at the display for confirmation. If we were to compare the feel of these buttons with the trigger of a gun, the words 'hair trigger' would certainly be appropriate. The throw of the buttons -- how far they move before a click is registered -- is much less than with the Inferno and i'm fine with that part of it.

Overall the click of the right and left buttons just doesn't feel good with the right button feeling slightly crisper the the left, possibly because its switch is positioned slightly differently than the one for the left button. Several times i had the mouse apart to see if anything could be done to adjust the pressure required to click and though that was easy enough to do with some strategically placed foam tape, nothing solved the problem of the very mushy feel of the buttons.

Corsair is using the Omron 50m switches for the primary and secondary buttons and though they are rated at 50 million clicks, they are absolute garbage and apparently quite a few gaming mice use these switches. Mine lasted a few weeks before developing what i might call 'switch chatter' and clicks not registering. Besides the laughably short lifespan of these switches, they are so sensitive and mushy that you actually end up pressing the buttons much harder in order to make sure the click registered, thus they more fatiguing to use. I ended up replacing them with a pair of Huano Blue Shell Pink Dot switches.

The down-click of the wheel button is significantly stiffer and crisper than that of the primary and secondary buttons, leaving me with no complaints here. One thing i very much disliked with the Inferno was the barely noticeable notches of the wheel when scrolling and the M65 is little better in this regard. Also, as with many mice, one can scroll the wheel a half notch and it will stay there instead of rotating to the nearest detente in the wheel. Unfortunately there is no side scroll function, though pushing the wheel to the right results in a middle click because the switch is located on the right side of the wheel shaft.

The M65 has three buttons on its left side and, thankfully, none are of the 50m type. The 'sniper' button requires perhaps a little too much effort to press, though i'm sure this was done intentionally in order to prevent accidental clicks since the user is likely to rest the tip of their thumb on this button. The back and forward buttons are OK.

The last two buttons behind the scroll wheel control sensitivity by default and require more pressure to operate than is necessary, though i'm not complaining. Their location is good, making them candidates for binding to other functions for game use.

Missing from the M65 are the 'wing' buttons of the Inferno which were located on the outside edges of the primary and secondary buttons. In my opinion these were great buttons to have and there's no reason to not have them on all gaming mice since they don't interfere with any other operation as long as they're placed smartly.

configuration

The M65 will of course work as a standard 5 button mouse on Linux without any additional software, however when i first plugged it in, it defaulted to a 'breathing' mode where the LEDs slowly changed colors. I find this to be really annoying and Corsair's ultra-bloated, ultra-buggy and Windows-only iCUE crapware is needed to configure the RGB lighting, DPI and button assignments since they don't do Linux. I grabbed a Windows 8 image and installed it in a VM in order to be able to use their crappy software and the process was about as frustrating as it could be in that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. Many times it refused to write to the mouses internal memory or froze the OS and changing something as simple as the USB report rate caused all of the settings in that section of the GUI to become disabled. Sometimes re-plugging the mouse worked, other times a soft reset did the trick. The latter is accomplished by unplugging the mouse, holding down both the primary and secondary buttons and plugging the mouse back in while continuing to hold the buttons down for about 15 seconds or so. After a while the mouse seems to reboot and all settings should be at their defaults.

You can also access the firmware file directly which might of been helpful were i able to download different versions to try but Corsair doesn't make them available. To boot the mouse in this mode, unplug it and unscrew the upper-right weight retaining screw. In the hole where the weight goes is another smaller hole with a button in it that you can press with something small like a toothpick. If you press that button while plugging the USB connector back in, the mouse boots in something like USB storage mode and you can open a file manager and see the new device/folder inside of which is a firmware.bin file. Apparently you can replace it with another version and, i presume, reboot the mouse again by re-plugging it.

While there is a Linux configuration utility for the M65, the ckb-next software means having to run a daemon in the background since, at the time of this writing, they haven't yet reverse engineered the communication protocol that Corsair is using to talk to the device and so you can't store any settings on the mouses internal memory. Also i was warned about a stability issue when i installed it on Manjaro. Using the the utility, any button can be assigned to any other button, macro, or keyboard key, or it can be used to invoke a program and, unlike Corsair's iCUE crapware, you can adjust the lift-off distance with ckb-next. Honestly it would be a great utility were it able to write to the mouses internal storage.

If you don't want to use any 3rd party software to configure the mouse, there is yet another potential option for Linux by using Xorg configuration files, though there appears to be limitations.

conclusion

I'm quite sure some people will not like the way the primary and secondary buttons work since the throw is very short, they require very little pressure to operate and they are very quiet. If you're wanting a satisfying and crisp 'click' sound and tactile feel when you actuate these buttons, look elsewhere. On the other hand, these characteristics may be a plus for some, especially if working or gaming in the vicinity of those trying to sleep, however the atrociously short lifespan of the Omron 50m micro-switches used for the primary and secondary buttons makes buying this mouse a really poor decision in my opinion. Stay away from this mouse (and Corsair products in general as far as i'm concerned), as well as any mouse/device that is using the Omron 50 million click switches.

resources

Tor versus a VPN - Which is right for you?

This article assumes you have a basic understanding of The Onion Router (Tor) and Virtual Private Networks (VPN), as well as a desire to protect your privacy on the Wild World Web.

Having chosen to not take refuge under a large, dense object for the last several years (not that i'd blame you), you're probably aware of how fragile privacy, and thus freedom has become in the digital age. At the network level a lot of people (including Ed) recommend The Onion Router (Tor) in order to protect ones privacy. Others prefer using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and still others recommend using both with a VPN preceding the connection to Tor. If you're wondering what i recommend, i don't; i'll leave that up to you to since it's not a one-size-fits-all thing and, more importantly, i'm not qualified to make such a suggestion. What i would like to do however is point out some of the differences between the two as i see them because each has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

  • Using the Tor network is free, as is the Tor Browser, a privacy and security hardened version of Firefox which is used to connect to the Tor network. The Tor Project source code is public and the servers can be run by anyone, including people or organizations which may be malicious, however there is debate as to how much impact a malicious operator can have. Using a VPN will cost you roughly $5 to $10 per month and a lot of the companies providing VPN services are highly unethical. As a rule of thumb, never trust a VPN provider offering their service for free!
  • Picking a bad VPN that logs traffic and doesn't respect your privacy is easier than getting your drone stuck in a tree, however there is only one Tor Project and one Tor Browser and the source code for both is public and auditable by anyone.
  • When using the Tor network, it is strongly suggested to use the Tor Browser in its default configuration. Remaining anonymous on the network depends heavily on uniformity and so, with few exceptions, you can kiss your beloved add-ons goodbye. With a VPN one has more choices as to what browser and add-ons they use, though these choices must be weighed carefully.
  • Avoiding browser fingerprinting and tracking is much easier to achieve with Tor, while preventing fingerprinting outside of Tor is quite difficult whether using a VPN or not. In both cases however, the websites you visit will not know your physical location and will be less able to fingerprint and track your browser as long as you take some necessary precautions. That said, nothing can protect your privacy if you log on to privacy toxic surveillance platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc., using your real identity or the same credentials you used prior to using Tor or a VPN.
  • Because of the layers of encryption that Tor employs, bandwidth limitations, the load on the nodes, etc., Tor will generally provide a slower web experience, higher latency, and a less stable connection than a good VPN. This problem is exacerbated if one adds more nodes to the Tor circuit. File sharing is discouraged with Tor and latency sensitive gaming is out of the question. Even watching high definition videos can be problematic.
  • Tor may insulate users from a malicious operator better than a VPN, partly because a Tor circuit is composed of multiple nodes whereas a VPN usually presents a single point of attack. Though some VPN providers offer an option to route traffic through more than one node, all the nodes are controlled by the same company. One could chain multiple VPNs, but then the price increases.
  • Different people require different levels of privacy. A journalist wishing to communicate privately with a source may be better off using Tor. On the other hand, someone wanting to download copyrighted content whilst avoiding nasty-grams from their ISP, or stream high resolution videos or most other non-sensitive and bandwidth intensive activities, may be better off with a VPN.
  • With Tor it is non-trivial (and ill advised) to choose what exit node you want to use, whereas any good VPN provider will allow you to connect to any of their servers and usually this requires only a couple of clicks using their client software. One advantage of being able to choose among servers is the ability to access content which is blocked in a particular geographical region, such as certain videos.
  • VPN client software may not be open source and may not respect your privacy even if it is, however any good VPN provider will allow connections using other methods, such as with OpenVPN or, perhaps better yet, WireGuard. This issue is non-existent with Tor.
  • Both Tor exit nodes and VPN nodes are subject to having their IP addresses blacklisted by governments, corporate websites, and even private website owners which results in the inability to connect to them. In the case of a VPN this is fairly rare in my personal experience, however those who shop online are more likely to have trouble with either Tor or a VPN, though the problem may be exacerbated with Tor. With a VPN one can always switch nodes.
  • Choosing to use Tor is a simple yes or no decision, while choosing to use a VPN requires serious research in order to locate a trustworthy provider. The VPN market is exploding and so are the number of ethically retarded providers. Be careful when reading VPN "reviews" because many of them are written by VPN providers or their paid bloggers. I've had several offers from VPN providers asking me to post content here in exchange for money (i always turn them down).
  • The only traffic routed through the Tor network when using the Tor Browser is the web traffic generated by your browser, whereas with a VPN, typically all network traffic generated by your computer is routed through the VPN. With a suitable router you also have the option to set up the VPN on the router so that anything that connects to your local network will be routed through the VPN. This is fairly easy to do with routers that support it, or those for which you can install custom firmware, such as DD-WRT or the formidable and open Turris Omnia or Vikings routers.
  • An entire Tor network, including the entrance and exit nodes, can be run on a single machine using software such as The Shadow Simulator. This may present serious privacy/security issues that undermine Tor network layering if a Tor network is created by a malicious party such as an ISP or law enforcement.

Because of the garbage disseminated in the mainstream media, much of the public sees Tor as being synonymous with the 'Dark Web' which many believe is nothing more than a haven for criminals. Tor is simply a tool and like any tool it can be used by bad people to do bad things or good people to do good things. For the average person wanting to protect their privacy the Tor network simply provides a portal to access the same websites one visits every day, but in a more private and secure way. That said, yes, there is a 'dark' web that is accessible only through software like Tor and while some of the content available in that sector is indeed illegal and extremely offensive, there is also a lot of quality content which is otherwise censored on the open web.

Some people believe that using Tor will attract the attention of the intelligence community. While it is apparently true that using encryption will raise the eyebrow of 'The Man', such criminal spying on the public by governments is not at all limited to those using Tor. More importantly, our inherent right of free speech is under severe attack not only by governments, but by ourselves as individuals simply because those who believe they are being watched tend to self-censor. This is a very dangerous situation because we cannot work toward a free and transparent society if our ability to communicate is compromised.

I'm hesitant to recommend a VPN provider if you decide to go that route, however in the interest of hopefully steering you away from much of the garbage out there, i will offer my personal insight.

NordVPN is a huge player in the VPN market and i have used them in the past, however the size of the company and their cheap prices has always bothered me. Nords service wasn't very good either, for several reasons, one being the stability of the connection and another being blacklisted IP addresses. Many speak highly of Mullvad VPN and it is recommended by PrivacyTools, though i have no experience with them. I have also used AirVPN which i rather liked, but it has its caveats also.

More recently i switched from Nord to AzireVPN, a small and unique Swedish company that focuses on the WireGuard protocol which has some distinct advantages over OpenVPN. There are a few key reasons i switched to Azire, one being that they own and install their hardware rather than lease it like virtually everyone else, Nord and Mullvad included. They also employ some very interesting security measures to prevent tampering, including physically plugging ports and running everything in RAM. This is the only company i know of that takes these precautions. Regarding performance i have had next to zero trouble with their service and latency and bandwidth has been excellent. Unlike Nord, i haven't had to switch server locations every few days because of service degradation or blacklisted nodes. Lastly, Azire accepts cryptocurrency so you can purchase their service anonymously without having to provide any personal information. If you choose Azire, please consider using my affiliate link which gives me some free time with them.

FreePN is also another interesting player in the privacy market. This project is building a free, open-source, distributed VPN service similar to the Tor network. There are caveats with this service however, so please do your homework. Read: FreePN: Free, open-source, distributed VPN.

Lastly, i recommend reading the following articles by Sven Taylor of Restore Privacy:

Regarding the article, Why Does Anyone Still Trust Tor?, it is my non-professional opinion that Sven goes a little overboard in attacking Tor. I think that you could swap out the word Tor with any VPN service or web browser or operating system and make several of the same arguments. There have been many bugs and vulnerabilities discovered in Tor that were patched and very likely many more that have yet to be discovered, or have been discovered but not disclosed, and the same is true for software in general. In the end, privacy on the internet can ever be guaranteed.

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