Category Archives: Hardware Reviews

A shape other than round…

15 years of increasingly sedentary computer-related jobs has taken a severe toll on my physique and health. I don’t have the physical strength, stamina, or endurance that I used to have, and I got fed up with that and decided to do something about it several weeks ago.

I wanted to build a little workout space. It needed to be compact, easily moved, and not a complete eyesore just in case we move somewhere that doesn’t have a garage. I spent a lot of time researching various types of equipment, and decided on a set of dumbbells because of their versatility, compactness, and lower cost of entry. I also sprung for a weight bench and a floor mat.

Here’s the complete setup:

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While researching the various types of dumbbells on the market, one of the standouts I kept coming across was the Bowflex SelectTech 552, which is an adjustable-weight dumbbell that uses a pair of twist dial selectors to choose a weight between 5 pounds and 52.5 pounds. MSRP is $349.00 USD, but Amazon had them for $309 USD.

I was a bit put off by the price at first, but after we walked into a local sporting goods store and priced out conventional dumbbells, I got over my sticker shock pretty quickly. If I were to buy the cheapest set of metal hex dumbbells covering a weight spread of 5 pounds to 50 pounds, I calculated that I’d need 22 dumbbells with a total mass of 566 pounds and a total price of $689.78. If I bought the rack so I wouldn’t be tripping over wayward dumbbells every time I stepped into the garage, the total goes up to $759.78, and the whole thing would take up an amount of space equivalent to a short, wide bookshelf.

At about 40% of that price, about 19% of that total mass, and a little more volume than a pair of large shoeboxes, the SelectTech 552s just made a lot more sense to me, so I pulled the trigger on them.

Close up of a SelectTech 552 dumbbell in its storage tray:

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Dial selector. There’s one on each end of the dumbbell:

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When you set the weight and pull the dumbbell out, the unused weight plates remain in the storage tray:

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The selected weight plates remain locked to the dumbbell:

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My immediate reaction when I first unboxed them was “Holy shit, they’re enormous” followed by some concern about whether or not their size would cause range-of-motion issues. I found that their size wasn’t much of an issue and that it was easy to compensate for during workouts. I was also a little worried that they might be clanky given how they work, but they didn’t feel loose or sloppy. They feel solid and well-balanced.

Their size and length also has an interesting side effect–I can feel my stabilizing muscles also getting a workout while targeting a specific major muscle. After my first few workouts, it’s easy to see why the SelectTech 552 is consistently praised by reviewers.

The weight bench is an Adidas Performance Flat Training Bench. I picked it because it was the cheapest one that had a maximum weight rating that exceeded the total weight of myself plus 105 pounds of dumbbells by a comfortable margin. $80 USD for a bench rated for 600 pounds seemed like a good deal to me.

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The fit and finish is decent, and the construction is very solid. It doesn’t feel flimsy or wobbly at all when I’m sitting on it, kneeling on it, or laying on it. The padding is thick and firm, but comfortable. The biggest problem I have with it is the fact that I have to share it with my cat.

The 6×4 floor mat is made of foam rubber and consists of 6 interlocking 24″ square tiles, with border edging strips. This particular one is made by ProSource and is about half an inch thick. It’s firmer than the spongy stuff sold for kids, but just soft enough that it’s comfortable to do floor exercises on. The tiles lock together firmly enough that they won’t come apart readily, but I wouldn’t deliberately do any exercise that puts a lot of tension between the tiles.

In addition to weight training, I looked into things that would make getting in some cardio easy and fun. I opted for a DeskCycle compact exercise bike, which lives under my office desk. It’s fun to pretend I’m commuting to/from work in a pedal-powered office chair.

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It comes with a little stand and extension cord for the display unit, which I keep on my desk. I have it set to display my speed (in miles per hour) and distance traveled (in miles).

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When assembling it, the front and rear legs offered me some pretty good general life advice:

One of the primary differentiators of the DeskCycle is that it uses a magnetic resistance flywheel system. On bikes with friction knobs, pedaling frequently feels jerky or squeaky, and a lot of times even if you torque the resistance knob as tightly as you can, you don’t really feel much resistance and the jerkiness becomes more pronounced. With a magnetic resistance system, pedaling is extremely fluid and smooth. There are 8 resistance settings on the DeskCycle, with 1 being pretty much frictionless and 8 feeling like you’re pedaling a heavy load uphill. Settings 3-5 feel like pedaling a real bike over flat ground to a gentle uphill slope.

Another differentiator is its weight–at around 25 pounds, it’s heavy enough to stay in place without scooting forward while you pedal, especially on carpet. I found with normal compact exercise bikes that I constantly had to stop and pull them back after accidentally booting them forward. If you’re pedaling on a smooth surface, the DeskCycle includes a Velcro tether that allows you to strap your chair to the bike to prevent unwanted motion.

So far, I’m very pleased with it, and have been using it daily for 30 to 45 minutes. Between the upper body workout and the cycling, I’ve already noticed a pronounced increase in my sense of well-being, an increase in energy levels, and a generally better mood.

The next items I want to acquire are a 65cm exercise ball to replace the dining room chair that I keep stealing when I want to use the Mac in the dining room, a ring base for it, and a set of push-up handles (regular push-ups are murder on my left wrist, which hasn’t been right ever since that time I rode a 250cc 3-wheeler into a chain link fence when I was 12).

IKEA Bekant sit/stand desk…MINE, ALL MINE!

I’m a big fan of standing desks, but I’m an even bigger fan of being able to do both at the press of a button. Sitting all the time is bad for you, standing all the time is almost as bad for you, so the trick is to balance both sitting and standing. That’s kind of a pain in the ass if all you have is a fixed-height desk, since you have to commit to one or the other.

IKEA finally got the Bekant motorized sit/stand desk back in stock, and I scooped one up during a sale. Regular price is $489.99 USD, but the IKEA Family discount had it marked down by almost $80, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I also took lots of photos while building mine so I could share them in the review.

The Build

The desk came in 3 boxes: one box for the table surface, and two boxes for the underframe. Hilariously, it’s the smallest box that weighs the most, and it’s the one that contains the motorized legs.

Legs and crossbraces

These legs are built like a tank. They’re pretty heavy and don’t feel flimsy at all. The crossbraces are secured to the legs with 8 thick bolts. The Allen wrench included is pretty substantial and beefy.

There wasn’t any wobble or wiggle after assembling this part of the underframe, which surprised me because the lack of a lower crossbrace initially seemed sketchy to me.

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The leg bottoms are attached with equally thick bolts. The feet are threaded and allow you to level the desk by screwing/unscrewing each foot to suit. I suspect you could probably replace them with locking casters, but I haven’t checked to see if there are any locking casters that use the same diameter and threading as the feet.

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The desk surface is particleboard sandwiched between a wood veneer and a layer of what seems to be smooth cardboard, trimmed with some sort of plastic or vinyl bumper. The attachment brackets for the underframe are secured to the desk surface by comically large plastic rivets.

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I was initially skeptical because…well, plastic rivets? I was half expecting the desk surface to fall off the second the whole thing was flipped over to stand on its feet.

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Once I pounded in the first couple, it was quickly apparent that these things hold with a surprising degree of tenacity. I still found myself shaking my head and muttering “Plastic rivets? Really?” during the rest of this assembly step, but I guess if it works, it works.

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The underframe attaches to the riveted-in brackets with more of those beefy bolts. It’s all surprisingly stiff and rigid, with no wobble or play whatsoever. I also yanked up one of the legs to see if the plastic rivets would lose the will to live, but they held fast. Impressive.

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Once the underframe is assembled, the next thing to do is wire it all up for power. There’s a power brick, a cross-connection cable, and a control box with a removable locking key. The key slides into holes on either side of the box and clicks into place with authority, and the desk will not raise or lower without the key installed.

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The cross-connector cable connects one leg motor to the other. The remaining 2 sockets are for the control box and the power brick.

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The crossbraces connecting the legs form a convenient wiring tunnel that the power brick fits into nicely.

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Once wired up, all that spaghetti is hidden in a silver-gray mesh cable management net that secures to the underside of the table by means of elastic loops connected to more of those plastic rivets. The cable management net has 2 long, springy metal rails running through the long edges for structural support, and fits pretty snugly.

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The control box can be mounted anywhere along the edges of the desk surface. You just mark and set a couple holes and then use wood screws to secure it.

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I flipped it over and couldn’t resist the opportunity to see how my stuff fit on the larger surface. My old Fredrik desk didn’t have this much room on it.


Of course, me being me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone and proceeded to modify it by drilling out a 2″ hole for a cable grommet and mounting stuff to the bottom of the desktop.

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I mounted a 12-outlet surge protector with industrial strength Velcro tape on the underside. The advantage of doing this is that the power cords for your monitor and PC only need to be long enough to reach the bottom of the desk rather than having to be long enough to reach a power strip on the floor. Plus, it just looks cleaner and there’s just one cord coming out of the desk to the wall.

I also mounted a 10-port active USB3 hub to the underside of the desk, which serves the same purposes for USB cables. I can plug peripherals into the desk and only worry about one USB cable going into the PC tower.


I’ve had the desk for a couple of weeks now. I love the thing to pieces–it is so nice being able to just switch from sitting to standing and back without having to break down the table and relocate the work surface to a different level.

IKEA claims the maximum weight capacity of the desk is something like 140lb/70kg. In practice, I find that the motors work a little too hard for my taste when I get within spitting range of that threshold. The workstation configuration pictured up there tops out at about 136lb/62kg, so I relocated the 70lb/32kg tower to the floor to take some of the load off the motors.

By eyeball, the motors raise and lower the desktop at a rate of approximately 0.5″/13mm per second, which is neither too slow nor too fast. The lowest position is about 22″/56cm from the floor, and the tallest position is 48″/122cm from the floor.

There’s plenty of work room on the desktop. The surface is about 63″/160cm wide and 31.5″/80cm deep.

At a MSRP of $489.99 USD, this is one of the most affordable motorized sit/stand desks on the market. If you’re looking for a sit/stand desk, don’t feel like shelling out four figures, and don’t intend to put a lot of heavy stuff on it, this desk is a pretty good buy.

Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000 Review

I started shopping around for a small and inexpensive travel tablet a couple months ago, since the fourth quarter of the year tends to be when we do most of our traveling. I wanted something small and light with a physical keyboard and long battery life, and I didn’t want to spend more than $200-300 on it. I went for the 64GB version of the Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000, an 8″ Windows 8.1 tablet.

To take it for a spin, I decided to use it to compose and post a review of it and its accessories here.

Initial Impressions

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It has a 1280×800 screen, which initially sounds a bit coarse compared other tablets that have 2K or Retina screens, but it’s actually a rather nice screen. Text is pleasingly sharp, images look really good, and the color is vibrant.

When running desktop programs, I find that I sometimes hunch over and squint a little bit more than I should when trying to make out small text, but the Metro-style apps work very well on smaller screens.

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The tablet’s size is almost perfect. It’s not too big and not too small for me. It’s about 5 inches tall and about 8.5 inches wide, and a bit less than half an inch thick.

The tablet’s processor is an Intel Atom 3740. Before the current Bay Trail architecture, Atom chipsets were pretty underpowered, and I wouldn’t have gone near an Atom powered Windows RT device with a 10 foot pole. The Venue 8 Pro 5000 runs Windows 8.1.

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I’m surprised by how zippy and responsive the tablet is. I was expecting it to struggle a bit, but it’s pretty fluid and responsive. This is even more true after it’s been updated with the latest drivers and software updates from Dell.

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Fit and finish is pretty good. It doesn’t feel cheap or cheesy. The back is a textured, rubbery surface that feels satisfyingly grippy, and it doesn’t look chintzy.


To get the most out of it, I also got the keyboard folio case and Dell Active Stylus. The keyboard folio is interesting–it’s a rigid plastic case with a semi-rigid cover that the keyboard attaches to magnetically.

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The tablet clicks into the case, the cover folds over the screen, and the keyboard sticks to the cover. There’s a loop on the back that serves two purposes–it holds a stylus and serves as a tuck point for the cover when you fold it up into a stand.

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The magnetic attachment for the keyboard is one of those things that sounds great on paper, but falls a little bit short in practice. The magnets hold fine for the most part, but I can see the keyboard coming off fairly easily if the tablet is carried in a bag without a built in sleeve or tablet pocket of some sort.2014-11-16 14.07.30

The semi-rigid cover is jointed so that it can be bent into a triangular stand, and tucks into the stylus loop. There are two viewing angles to choose from: upright like a laptop screen, or on its back and slightly inclined. There isn’t a mechanism to keep the cover closed, however–no strap, latch, or magnetic closure.

The keyboard feels pretty nice and doesn’t look or feel cheap. It does, however, have a number of weirdly placed keys. Several punctuation marks like single and double quotes, underscore, pipe, plus and equal signs, backslash, and hyphen are function keys in the QWERTY row. The function keys are literally function keys themselves rather than separate, standalone keys.

The sizing and placement of a few keys are also a little bit off compared to a normal keyboard. If you’re a touch typist, you might find it frustrating to get used to. I find that my typing speed is about 60% to 75% of my normal speed when using this keyboard.

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I’m also using a Dell WM524 wireless travel mouse, which works beautifully with the Venue 8 Pro 5000 and the keyboard folio. In this configuration, it feels like a tiny version of my XPS 18 all-in-one.

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The Dell Active Stylus got off to a rocky start before the A02 hardware revision and tablet driver updates. The one I received was an A02 and I’d updated all of the drivers and firmware practically first thing after unboxing it, so I had a better first experience with it than the early adopters did. It won’t put Wacom out of business tomorrow, but it’s plenty good enough for my own needs. It’s also markedly better than the stylus that came with the Gateway CX2720 convertible notebook that I carried around in the mid-2000s.

The stylus loop on the keyboard folio holds it snugly. I think I would have preferred the loop to be on the top edge of the folio rather than on the back, however.

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I can’t get over how cool it is to run something like Photoshop CC 2014 on such a tiny computer and actually be able to do useful work on it. I don’t think I would want to open any massive texture atlases or have too many print resolution documents open at the same time, but it’s totally usable otherwise.

Most of my papercraft software installed and worked fine. Metasequoia, Silo, and Pepakura Designer work just fine. Ultimate Papercraft 3D has some issues with the Intel graphics on both the Venue 8 Pro and my XPS 18 all-in-one, so it doesn’t see much use these days.

2 Months Later…

I’ve had the tablet for roughly 2 months now. I took it on a 4 day Thanksgiving road trip, and upon our return, I decided to use it as my sole computer for a week to see how it held up. I really like the little booger. It’s more than enough computer for my travel needs and is nowhere nearly as large and heavy as my old XPS 15 laptop.

I also recently replaced the original Dell keyboard folio with a Microsoft Wedge keyboard and a Poetic faux leather folio case. The Wedge has a much better keyboard layout and has a rigid protective cover that lets me toss it in the bag without worrying about it, and the Poetic folio case is a significant improvement over the Dell folio case in a number of areas. It has an elastic strap that keeps it closed, like the one on a Moleskine notebook, and is more comfortable to hold when using the tablet as a touch device.

The $23 IKEA Standing Desk Hack

After I quit smoking back in 2011, I just wasn’t taking breaks and getting out of my chair as often as I had done before, and I was starting to feel the effects of the prolonged sitting and bad posture in my ankles and back. So, when I came across this interesting IKEA standing station hack, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try for a while.

The basic components are:

1 Lack side table

1 Ekby Viktor shelf

Ekby Valter brackets

4 3″ bolts and washers from Home Depot (the Lack legs are hollow so screws won’t work well)

I picked the black-finish to match my workstation hardware. Some of the stuff was on sale and my total ended up slightly south of $23 USD, and it took me about 15 minutes to do all the measuring and drilling and assembly.

Here’s the finished product:

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I also picked up a soft foam rubber anti-fatigue mat from Home Depot.

I’ve used the standing desk for two months now. It took a little bit of getting used to, but I ended up really liking it. I alternate between sitting and standing, and I no longer have any back pain or other issues. I also find that it helps my energy level throughout the day, and I’m glad I made this change.

A bite of the Apple

After 9 years of being on the fence, I finally purchased a Mac to get my foot into the door of iOS and OS X development. I got the 21.5″ late 2013 model with the Nvidia GTX750M GPU.

The Unboxing

It came in a funny looking trapezoidal box. While removing it from the packaging, I had this weird “Damn, I feel like a rich person” response. I don’t know how to explain it other than the unboxing felt like a premium experience compared to other PCs that I’ve unpacked. I felt a wave of smug and snooty superiority overcome me, which then came to an abrupt end as our semi-outside cat Mack walked up to the outer shipping box and decided to mark it as his property.

The Machine

The iMac is a slick looking aluminum and glass construct, artfully designed to look extremely thin from certain angles. The edge of the display is a few millimeters thick, and curves gradually towards a bulge in the rear middle. It feels pretty hefty and substantial. It has only one cord, a power cord that plugs into the wall or a power strip.


The 1920×1080 display itself is nice, with excellent color and clarity. The 27″ version of the iMac has a 2560×1440 Retina display, which probably looks even more stunning if the quality of the 21.5″ model’s display is anything to go by.

The wireless keyboard is a thin aluminum slab with white plastic keys and gray lettering. It’s accented with white plastic and soft gray rubbery feet on the underside. It feels nice–not as nice as the mechanical Razer Blackwidow Ultimate attached to my workstation, but nice nonetheless. Unlike my Dell XPS 18’s wireless keyboard, the iMac keyboard doesn’t have a keypad. I have slightly mixed feelings about this, but my opinion of the keyboard is generally positive.


The Magic Mouse that came with it is interesting. I can see how it would be a “love it or hate it” sort of peripheral, and it took some getting used to. I added the third-party MagicPrefs pane to the mix to get a middle button back, and I actually kind of love it. It’s a smooth, low-profile mouse with no visible buttons and a touch-sensitive shell. It’s silver plastic accented with white and a light grey Apple logo. The touch sensitivity comes in the form of gesture recognition–you can tap, swipe, and click. Swiping up/down the middle acts like a scroll wheel, swiping sideways moves between screens, and it’s just pretty cool. MagicPrefs allows you to tap in the middle to register a middle click, which comes in handy if you also install Windows. (More on that later.)

The external ports are the one slight annoyance I have. They’re on the back of the display near the lower right corner. You get 4 USB ports, 2 Thunderbolt ports, a smart card reader, a headphone jack, and an Ethernet port. I usually have to turn the display around to see where to plug stuff in, and that’s only mildly annoying at best.

Aesthetically, I love the uncluttered simplicity of the iMac. It just looks nice on a desk.

Booting Up

The first boot was uneventful, just a normal “set up your machine” sort of thing, which went swimmingly. Once OS X loaded, the first thing I did was update the software and start downloading OS X Mavericks.

My initial impression was that after getting used to Windows 8 on my enormous Dell XPS 18 tablet and iOS 7 on my 5th-generation iPod, OS X looked and felt a little quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. I got used to it pretty quickly, however.


The mail app included with OS X beats the pants off the Windows 8 email client. It was straightforward to add my accounts to it, and I really like it so far.

I was also quite charmed by the clear simplicity of the included free apps like Numbers and Pages. They’re almost exactly at the perfect intersection of simplicity and function for casual users compared to Word, Office, OpenOffice, MS Works, and other similar productivity apps. You know that one relative everybody has who goes into an incandescent Hulk rage when all he/she wants to do is set up a resume or do a simple chart, and Office or whatever is making a simple task way too damn complicated? These apps just about nail that type of user’s sweet spot head-on and cover most of the typical scenarios nicely–letters, presentations, reports, charts, spreadsheets, presentations, it’s all there out of the box.

Waking from sleep is almost instantaneous. The speed still takes me by surprise.

Mac or PC?

Both. I got the Parallels Desktop 9 virtualization software, an OEM Windows 8.1 System Builder DVD, and installed Windows 8.1 to a Boot Camp partition. Aside from a couple of gotchas that were cleared up by consulting Professor Google, getting that up and running was a breeze. I installed the Windows-only work apps on the Windows partition. The lightweight stuff like Metasequoia, Ultimate Unwrap 3D, and Ultimate Papercraft 3D run great in a Parallels virtual machine.

I don’t use the Coherence mode (which makes Windows apps look like they’re running on your OS X desktop), I simply do a 2 finger swipe between OS X and Windows 8.1, which display on separate screen spaces. Coherence mode is cool for about ten minutes, and the little bit of extra overhead is better spent on other things.

When I need to do something performance-intensive in Windows that needs direct hardware access, like 3D games, I just boot directly into Windows. The iMac is a pretty damn good Windows PC, although you do need to get used to some minor keyboard differences.

Final thoughts

I’m still getting to know OS X and getting up to speed on the developer side of things. Overall, I really like the hardware, the user experience so far, and the possibilities it offers developers. In particular, I got a kick out of playing around with Automator, AppleScript, and shell scripting. There’s a whole hidden depth for developers to explore under the hood, and it’s just awesome.

I rewrote one of my Windows utilities (an UV scaling calculator that I use with Silo 3D) in Objective-C to get a feel for using XCode. Objective-C is an interesting programming language with some quirks that will take me some getting used to, and I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with it.

Creative Cloud apps run great on the iMac. The fact that Adobe gives you access to practically their whole suite of content creation apps for a monthly subscription is awesome. I started my self-employment on a shoestring using Paint Shop Pro 7 in 2003, and it wasn’t until 2006 that I could afford Photoshop CS. It took me until 2011 to upgrade to Photoshop CS5, and it seemed like Illustrator and InDesign were going to be totally out of the reach of my budget for the foreseeable future. Being able to use the whole suite without shelling out the cost of an used car up front is a huge bonus.

I like being able to switch between OS X and Windows on the fly. It’s especially handy when working on papercraft stuff, since the 4 applications I use for 3D modeling, UV mapping, and papercraft development don’t have OS X versions. I can also develop and test software for both platforms simultaneously.

I’m really happy with the iMac so far.