Fry’s Electronics is dead

How’s that for a spoiler of a headline?

After a day or two of rumors, a Bay Area TV news report last night confirmed that Fry’s Electronics, a mainstay of Silicon Valley electronics sourcing and more for almost 40 years, would cease operations today, February 24, 2021.

History of Silicon Valley Indeed: Is Fry’s Electronics Dying? | rsts11

Revisiting Fry’s Electronics a year later | rsts11

Fry’s confirmed this on their website early on Wednesday, February 24.

Many locals have seen the stores dry up, but there were still some goods they were useful for; I myself bought a few flash drives and SSDs for mining rigs and appliance builds earlier this months.

I’ve seen a few outlets declare that Fry’s fell to the pandemic, but people who’ve paid attention know this was not the core cause. The stores failed to adjust to competition, both local and online, over the past decade. Despite being the prime source of technology in the Bay Area for decades, they didn’t really keep up with the tech, internally or in the competitive environment.

The cascade through the consignment transition and then through the pandemic didn’t help, but there was a lot more going on long before COVID-19. A couple of friends joked that if they’d just sold toilet paper last year at this time, they would’ve been even more rich and weathered the storm, but like the failure to capitalize on the last two Black Friday sales opportunities, they missed the boat on perma-work-from-home.

Ironically, Micro Center, who are doing well in other parts of the country, failed in Silicon Valley around the turn of the century for similar reasons to Frys’s – failure to compete with what was at the time a very unique retail environment in the Bay Area. In today’s market, they might be able to make a comeback if they can find an affordable location (maybe the Fry’s building in Sunnyvale could be refitted with some windows and fewer ceiling leaks?).

For now, Silicon Valley denizens will have a choice of national websites like Amazon, Newegg, Zones, and the like; the local Best Buy stores; and Silicon Valley’s “other” local computer store, Central Computers (founded in Sunnyvale decades ago like Fry’s). For electric and electronic components, we still have options like Anchor Electronics (also a South Bay staple for around 40 years) and Excess Solutions (which has adjusted and expanded three times in the last 20 years or so).

For the past year or two, a trip to Fry’s for me has been an exercise in controlled disappointment, similar to vintage computer and car aficionados who might drive past the building where their favorite was invented, designed, built. Even more than before, I’d likely leave with nothing purchased, and the 64 empty registers would remain silent. Now they’ll be silent forever.

Money Pit: 3D Printing Part 3 – OctoPrint and OctoPi

This is one topic in a series of what I’m calling “money pit” projects. To be fair, it’ll be money and time pit topics, and nothing that you’d really have to get a second mortgage on your house to do… but things always get a bit out of hand.

This project is the 3D Printing project. Expect it to be an ongoing series, and I’m hoping to have some friends join the effort and offer their feedback as well. Links and prices are accurate as of November 2020, and may get updated in the future… but don’t count on it.

See the previous parts for the lead-in to this project. From here we’ll get into the enhancements and early printing.

Octopi / OctoPrint

The first day or two, I was running out to the garage to check on prints, and shuttling the included 8GB MicroSD card back and forth to load print files onto it. Since the only storage the printer has is this MicroSD card, I couldn’t add files during a print run, and it got somewhat tiring.

Enter OctoPrint and OctoPi.

OctoPrint is an open-source management program and web front-end for many/most 3D printers. It communicates with the printer over a USB cable. It can be installed on a Linux, Windows, or MacOS computer. However, you might not want to dedicate a full-sized computer to this task.

OctoPi is a Raspbian (Raspberry Pi Debian image) based distribution with Octoprint and the video streamer software included. you just need a Pi 3B or later board (and case and power supply) and an SD card with OctoPi installed. Older boards will work, but with the camera option or other intense plugins (like gcode viewers) you won’t like it according to the folks behind OctoPrint and OctoPi.

When you’ve installed OctoPrint / OctoPi and connected it to your printer, you’ll be able to see the status of the printer, the active print, environmental details, and (with a camera like the PiCam or any supported USB camera) the actual motion of the printer.

You can also upload gcode files to the OctoPi instance, storing them on the internal storage of the Pi. Note that you lose some of the progress details on the Ender LCD display (and the power outage recovery feature) but

There is a thriving plugin ecosystem as well, so if you want to run multiple cameras, have a fancier gcode previewer, or add all sorts of other features, the options are there.

Building your OctoPi

We’ll look at options here for your Raspberry Pi board, flash card, cable, camera, and case.

You can buy pre-collected kits from various worldwide sources on the Octoprint website, but you may be better off just building your own.

Amazon of course has a number of starter kits from CanaKit and Vilros that would be good choices, from a $60 CanaKit Pi3B+ kit with case and power supply or a Vilros Pi 4 kit from $64.

If you’re planning to mount your OctoPi to the printer (see below), you will probably just want the Pi, maybe a fan, and a power supply. CanaKit still sells the 3B with a 2.5A power supply and two heatsinks for $48. There’s a 3B+ board only for $41.90, but for a buck more you can get the 2GB Pi 4B or go to $55 for the 4GB Pi 4B.

I have not felt limited by my 3B non-plus Pi, but it probably doesn’t hurt to go with a newer board if you’re going to be buying it new anyway.

You will want at least a 16GB MicroSD card (U1 Class 10 or better). I had a 64GB Samsung Evo card ($12.45) handy so I put it in there, so I probably won’t run out of space anytime soon. And OctoPrint contains a web-based backup option to save your entire image, or you can access your files via ssh/scp/rsync however you like.

You will need a mini-USB cable (yes, mini, not micro) to connect to the controller on the Ender 3 Pro printer. The AmazonBasics USB 2.0 A-Male to Mini-B cable is fine for this, or anything you may have from ancient cameras or other devices. A 3-foot cable should be enough, unless you’re mounting your OctoPi pretty far away.

Caveat with the Mini-USB cable: The printer’s motherboard and display will remain powered by your Raspberry Pi over this cable, even if you turn off the power supply to the printer. You can tape over pin 4 in the USB-A connector if you prefer, or you can use a buck converter to power it from the printer’s power supply to have it turn off when you shut off the printer. You can also script USB power control on the Pi itself if you prefer. This will probably be more of an annoyance than an actual problem, unless your printer is anywhere that you might want darkness.

You will probably also want a camera. I went with the official Raspberry Pi Camera v2 with case/stand ($32.99). If you know you’ll be using a 3d-printed camera mount, you can go with a camera without the case for more like $24. You can probably use most modern USB webcams as well; I connected one of the old Cisco-branded Logitech ball cameras during a period of quirkiness from my PiCam. The tiny ribbon cable on the front of the Pi camera had come loose, so the camera wasn’t being recognized by the Pi. Easy mistake to make.

Mounting your OctoPi to the Printer

As far as mounting the OctoPi to your printer is concerned, there are a couple of options. You don’t have to mount it on the printer; I had mine sitting on a nearby computer case originally, and it worked. But with the rails of the printer having convenient slots for things to be attached, why not attach them?

Single rail – mount on one of the upright rails (i.e. over the power supply – don’t block the Z rail though)

  • robstall on Thingiverse has an Ender 3 Pro Z Axis Raspberry 3 B Case and Camera Mount that I’m halfway using and will probably migrate to. The camera mount attaches to the frame without removing any pieces, snapping over one of the rails. The case easily mounts above the power supply keeping your Picam cable out of the way.
  • Tested3D on Thingiverse has a Raspberry pi 2/3 base with 2020 Slot, a compact single rail model that has the Ethernet and USB ports sticking out above the level of the case.
  • lainchy has an Ender 3 OctoPi 3B+ case that uses screws/bolts and bits to attach to the rails, good for placing under the LCD display control panel. .

Double rail – mount on the right rail to the left of the LCD panel (or the left rail facing the other way if you prefer)

Of course you can use any other type of case and mount it separately from the printer if you prefer. In that case, pick any of the thousands of Pi cases to fit your needs.

Setting up Octoprint

For the most part, OctoPrint is plug and play. You’ll choose a printer profile to match your printer, check the Features settings to fit your preferences, make sure undervoltage detection is enabled under Pi Support, and enable the webcam if it isn’t pre-enabled. See the Octoprint site for more details.

You may also want a mobile app for the OctoPrint system. I use OctoPod for iPhone and OctoRemote for Android myself, but there are other options out there. In the settings menu you’ll go to Application Keys and set up a key for each client, using the app to scan the QR code in OctoPrint’s menus to enable access.

Note that you must have network access to the OctoPi to use these clients (or the web interface for that matter; if you leave the house you won’t be able to control the printer over the Internet unless you have the printer exposed (BAD IDEA DON’T DO THIS) or unless you have a VPN into the network your OctoPi is on (beyond the scope of this post series of course).

What’s next?

At this point you’ve set up your printer, made or purchased a couple of essential upgrades, and configured your OctoPi for web-based (or app-based) control of your printer.

You’ll probably want to install a slicer (a program that turns STL model files into GCODE which your printer uses to actually print the objects). Creality Slicer is included on the microSD card that came with the printer, but you may find Cura or other products to be more useful when you outgrow it.

For the first spool or two, just use Creality Slicer to prep your prints, and see how it goes. You can resize objects, combine items into one print batch (as long as they fit the bed), and change temperature and layer settings as needed as you get used to the printer.

Some common starting prints that can be fun include:

  • MatterHackers’ Mascot Phil A Ment – you may want to resize this, and it can be a good test for new filaments or beds.
  • #3DBenchy – called the “jolly 3D printing torture-test.” It has a dozen or more interesting characteristics for testing your printer setup.
  • You might consider printing 2010’s Pi Zero rack, designed to hold six of MJW’s Raspberry Pi Zero W cases and then print a case for each filament color/style you have. Good use for the intriguing $10 Pi board, in case you can accumulate a few of them.

If you’ve found a test print that you like, feel free to link to it in the comments. And watch for the cluster series, which is why I ended up buying a 3D printer in the first place.

Revisiting Fry’s Electronics a year later

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the decline of Fry’s Electronics. I have to admit that I didn’t expect the pandemic and its related impact, but I didn’t expect Fry’s to continue on its steady coasting path.

I figured they would either rebound over the holidays or fade into history. As you may recall from the updates, they did not make any visible advances over the holidays, dropping the ball on Black Friday/Cyber Monday, but they didn’t disappear altogether.

This weekend I went back to the Sunnyvale Fry’s store, the one I’ve probably been to more than any other. I think this was the first time at least since February, if not before, that I’ve been to a Fry’s store.

I was a bit surprised.

Fry’s Sunnyvale parking lot, November 1, 2020

The shopping cart corrals were empty, but the parking lot had a couple dozen cars. When I walked in, there were a few people around, and I saw a couple of employees. One was working in the repair shop, and two were behind the register counters where one register was open. There was no register line.

Motherboard display, Fry’s Sunnyvale, November 1, 2020

As I made my way to the flash memory section looking for some MicroSDXC cards for my new Jetson Nano development kit, I was surprised to find the motherboard display disassembled altogether. Last time I was there, they had one motherboard in stock, with five pieces on the shelves that used to be here. This time, I saw absolutely no motherboards.

They did have a modest assortment of SD/MicroSD cards, some even priced on the shelf, and a couple of adapters for reading them on PCs. I believe there was one brand name card, a 64GB Samsung EVO of some sort, and a lot of fringe brands (including the Hyundai cards which actually work pretty well).

Computer component station

The stations where you would normally go to talk to a sales associate or get an invoice and/or price match were marked for social distancing, and abandoned. I saw this in components, computers/printers/monitors, and the television section. I will admit I’d feel guilty price-matching at this point, but it seems like it would be a challenge to get help if you needed it. The only employees I saw were re-shelving things near what used to be the computer section.

I didn’t get photos of a lot of the store. There was one desktop and a couple of semi-offbrand laptops in the computer section (on the former Apple islands), and the remainder of the computer display was limited to a couple of monitors and a few open box PC cases (moved from the far end of the store apparently). Car Electronics has been pretty much decimated, along with the bedding and exercise gear displays.

3D printer filament display

A couple of positive surprises were visible though. There was a healthy display of printer filament for your 3D printing needs (pictured above). I’ve bought almost all of my filament from Central Computer, but I would consider trying some of the colors from eSUN here before ordering online.

I also found the “maker” / Raspberry Pi accessory section, also in the aisles where electronic components used to be (and some still are). There was an abundant selection of cheap 120 and 240 gigabyte SSDs, for prices similar to what I’ve paid for used drives on eBay, so I may go back for some of those when my next Rabbit door comes in. It looked like memory and CPUs were in short supply, but there were reasonable (think Best Buy level) stocks of USB flash drives and SD cards.

The one thing Fry’s seems to have outdone themselves on is personal protective equipment (PPE). The front aisle adjacent to the checkout line was half PPE (several varieties of hand sanitizer, including gallon jugs, as well as masks and protective clothing). So if I run out of what I’ve picked up at Marshalls or TJ Maxx, I could probably stock up here.

Where do we go from here?

It’s hard to tell whether Fry’s will improve their rather stagnant effort to convert to consignment models with their vendors. A few stores (including Palo Alto and Anaheim, as well as one in Georgia) have closed, and it looks like the others haven’t improved much in the past year (based on my observation and some social media posts friends have shared with me from other stores).

At this point, for some limited categories, they are a viable option. With the stores being rearranged, you may have trouble finding a “Fry’s Advisor” or the new location for the products you’re looking for, but they have improved on a couple of categories.

I’ll keep you posted on what I hear – watch for updates here if they happen.

See last year’s Fry’s post here — History of Silicon Valley Indeed; is Fry’s Electronics Dying?

And pour one out for Billy, the Fry’s Electronics social media guy. He takes a lot of flak from people wanting to rag on the store, but stays coherent and professional through it all.

Money Pit: 3D Printing Part 2 – First Round of Enhancements

This is one topic in a series of what I’m calling “money pit” projects. To be fair, it’ll be money and time pit topics, and nothing that you’d really have to get a second mortgage on your house to do… but things always get a bit out of hand.

This project is the 3D Printing project. Expect it to be an ongoing series, and I’m hoping to have some friends join the effort and offer their feedback as well.

See the previous part (The Back Story, The Rationale, and The Assembly) for the lead-in to this project. From here we’ll get into the enhancements and early printing.

Our first round of enhancements include:

  • Power protection
  • Metal extruder and printed filament guide
  • PEI print bed
  • Upgraded Bowden tubing

I mentioned OctoPi / OctoPrint in the first installment, so I’ll leave the details out this time other than to say you really should set one of these up. Let me know in the comments if you’d like more details in a future post. 

Continue reading

Money Pit: 3D Printing Part 1 – The Back Story, The Rationale, and The Assembly

This is one topic in a series of what I’m calling “money pit” projects. To be fair, it’ll be money and time pit topics, and nothing that you’d really have to get a second mortgage on your house to do… but things always get a bit out of hand.

This project is the 3D Printing project. The second part is available at First Round of Enhancements and part 3 should be out within a week. 

The Back Story

It all goes back to five or so years ago, when I bought a couple of Banana Pro single board computers from LeMaker in France.The Banana Pro was a Raspberry Pi-inspired board, but with gigabit Ethernet and external SATA on board. Great idea, but they didn’t sell as much as the RPi, so the accessory market was a lot lighter. I think there were 4 cases I found in the past 5 years, many of which were not readily available in the US.

I did order a few cases from China that had a section for the SATA drive, and stocked up on cables for the SATA drives. But I wasn’t too happy with what was out there.I found some of the 3D printer sites where people had built some cases, and thought “someday I’ll get a printer and make some cases.” I said that about every year for 4 years.

Then earlier this year, some more usable cluster kits came onto the used market from the now-defunct rabb.it startup. By “some,” I mean about a thousand of them. (Click on the photo below if you want to buy one of the kits yourself. It is an eBay partner network link but I have no association with the seller other than as a buyer of one cluster kit so far.)Single Board Computer Array with Intel NUC5PPYH and NVIDIA Jetson TK1They each contain ten NUC5PPYB quad-core pentium NUC machines and five NVIDIA Jetson TK1 dev boards. I pondered it for several months (not as long as the printer), finally bought one, and it showed up a week later. (I’ll write more about that project separately, and you can read my friend Stephen Foskett’s Pack Rat series about the rabb.it clusters here.)

About the same time, I broke down and bought a Creality Ender 3 Pro printer from my local geek shop, Central Computers. Central also stocks the Creality-branded filament for $20 per 1kg roll, and they’re about four miles from home. You can also buy directly from Creality, or choose some sellers on Amazon like SainsmartContinue reading