The Mini PC Saga

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Mini PC Home Automation Box

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Pi is a brilliant piece of kit. For me, the Pi 4 with Home Assistant, a Conbee II stick and deCONZ has served me well. There are a couple of things that are a bit frustrating:

  1. Stability – I find my Pi needs to be rebooted once a week or so. I don’t know why. It just gets slower and slower until it hangs completely and we lose control of all our devices.
  2. The microSD card conundrum. The Pi, by default, uses a microSD card for storage. These can actually have quite a short life when they’re being written to on a regular basis. I’ve been lucky, and I take daily backups but others have had the card die and had to start from scratch. It almost seems like “when” rather than if. You can run everything on an external drive but what I’ve read seems to indicate that this is a bit of a pain to get working.

I’d been toying with the idea of getting a NUC. This is a small Intel computer and they seem to be hellishly expensive if the only thing you’re going to use it for is running a, more or less hobbyist, home automation system.

I saw this Mini PC on Amazon and it seemed to get good reviews. It’s a tiny little box and tucks away very neatly. Out of the box, it runs Windows 10 but that was not really of any interest to me, You can set up a virtual machine and run Home Assistant from there but this introduces a layer of complexity that I didn’t really want.

Without reading the instructions for HA, I jumped in feet first and installed Xubuntu. The issue I had was the the WiFi adapter isn’t supported so I had to install the drivers for that manually. Hurdle one clumsily jumped over, I started digging into installing Docker and then HA into a container. This proved quite challenging. To cut a long story short, I ended up with it kind of working but without the Supervisor so it made it hard to impossible to install add-ons.

Back to the drawing board for attempt 2. I’ll keep it brief as these were dead ends.

Straight Ubuntu. Similar to before on attempt 2a. 2b was trying to install the version with the Supervisor. I followed a different tutorial for this. When I ran the installer script for HA, the bombed out with an error so back to the drawing board again.

Attempt 3 was Debian. That was a complete disaster. Horrible experience to install but this was the preferred method.

Attempt 4. Back to Ubuntu. Same result as attempt 2b. This time I thought I’d spend some time looking at the error. Turned out that the script, run via a curl, restarts the network on your computer, then runs off to try and grab the files. in my case, this didn’t give the network enough time to come up so it all fell apart there. I’ll explain how I fixed this in a bit, but I did. Everything seemed to go smoothly. HA came up, Supervisor was there, I could see the add-on store. But that was where the joy ended. It wouldn’t actually let me install anything. And in the system tab, it had messages telling me I was running an unsupported operating system. This was something that was documented but it kind of implied that it could be done but wasn’t supported.

Attempt 5 – The fun starts!

Back to Debian, which is actually the only supported OS for installing HA in a Docker container with the supervisor.

This time, I installed Debian with the mini PC plugged into my phone with the hotspot on – I don’t have a network cable where the box is at the moment. This made a pivotal difference. I still had to install my WiFi adapter drivers manually using this great step by step tutorial. This worked on Debian, even though it says it’s for Ubuntu.

After that, it was a case of installing Docker and running a command to install HA. I’ll cover the exact process for this in a future post. As I type this, I’ve migrated all my office devices over from the Pi to the mini PC. In a nutshell, this is what I have:

  • Mini PC with 6GB RAM, 120GB SSD (Check it out on Amazon UK)
  • Debian 10
  • Docker
  • Home Assistant Supervised
  • Zigbee2MQTT (Love this! I’ll do a write up on this later)
  • Node-RED
  • CC2652 Zigbee USB coordinator
Zigbee2MQTT Devices

The devices I have so far are:

  • IKEA Tradfri bulb
  • Lidl (Silvercrest?) smart plug
  • Lidl (Silvercrest?) LED strip
  • Lidl (Silvercrest?) 3 way smart extension
  • Hue motion/lux/temperature sensor
  • SmartThings motion sensor
  • IKEA Kadrilj blind
  • TuYa 3 scene switch
  • IKEA Tradfri on/off/dimmer switch

So far, this works very well. No latency and all seems very stable. I’m going to leave it at this for a week or 2 and then start moving all my other stuff over room by room.