The Bose sunglasses I thought I might hate but are actually kind of great?

There’s a podcast run by a friend called All Consuming and the premise is fun: two people try out any weird products they get in their Instagram feed, with a full review and rating that follows. At first, the show started out mostly mocking an endless sea of direct-to-consumer drop shipped junk that almost everyone finds in their instagram feeds. But every once in a while, they’d find something that seemed silly but turned out to be way better than they thought.

I found this true for their review of the pillow cube. It’s an overpriced pillow on a silly looking site, and I’ve hated every foam pillow I’ve ever tried, but the hosts quite liked them so I ordered my own hoping for the best. Much to my surprise after the first night, some pain in my back from side-sleeping on very thin pillows for the last few decades instantly went away.

There aren’t a lot of things on earth that make my back pain feel better, so now I pay close attention to the items that Adam and Noah really love.

The sunglasses

I was surprised to see an episode of the podcast discussing some sort of new Bose Audio Sunglasses, and I reluctantly listened to it, hoping it’d be a fun romp ripping apart expensive sunglasses that look like they’re for boomers that refuse to use ear buds. But the hosts seemed just as surprised as I was while listening that they loved them.

So I figured I’d trust Adam again and order a pair. Luckily, Bose’s own site had a link to get prescription lenses for them from a company I’d already used in the past, had my prescription on file, and made the ordering process quick and easy. Customized Rx sunglasses with bluetooth audio in them aren’t cheap (about $350, they’re $224 with normal lenses), but I figured I might as well try them out.

What day to day use is like

I’ll come right out and say it: I love these things for very specific situations. For me, I go on several long walks with my dog each week, often on crowded shared paths or on rural roads shared with 5,000 lb cars that could kill us in an instant. Neither situation ever felt comfortable when I was wearing AirPods, as riders or walkers could be trying to pass me on paths, and cars could surprise me either from behind or ahead of me on roads. So I tend to walk for miles in silence, always keeping an ear out for trouble.

I wanted these glasses because I heard you can still hear the outside world. And from the first walk to the last, they’ve been absolutely great for that. I can now listen to podcasts or music while walking on the shoulders of roads or on busy trails and hear people coming and going well in advance. I don’t keep them super loud but I’ve never missed a show or song and still feel like I can easily hear about 90% of what is going on around me.

I haven’t done many bike rides with them, but I suspect that’ll be the next killer use for them. It’s never super safe to ride a bike with headphones in your ears for a variety of reasons, but I typically ride on remote dirt roads so much that I might only see one car an hour. But still, headphones while riding makes me a little nervous and I can definitely see moving to using these on future rides.

I’ve also found these glasses great for doing yard work or gardening around the house. Or anytime I’m tooling around the house on my own fixing things or fetching things, and want to listen to something along the way.

The sound

The first time you put them on and fire them up, they do a little audio surround sound trick that’s really quite impressive. Tiny speakers above and behind your ear each do a little THX movie preview sound in a fun way.

I’ve spent the last month or so listening to podcasts and music on them and the sound isn’t at all full spectrum, sounding pretty tinny and small, like wearing early apple headphone buds. There’s a nearly complete lack of bass, but you barely notice it on podcasts and with music, the freedom of hearing the outside world along with your music is kind of nice, even if it lacks any low end.

I didn’t have super high hopes for the sound quality so I kinda got what I expected here, and I think they sound good enough for what they are.

The sound of these to other people is lower than you’d think. I can have some music cranking on them, take them off and hear just a small tinny version of it. I probably sound like I’m wearing open ear headphones (like some Grado SR60s) when I’m around other people. More annoying than total silence, but nothing close to having a big bluetooth speaker box with you. If someone were to casually pass me on a walking path they’d probably barely hear or realize I was listening to anything on my end. I’m usually alone while listening to these, so it hasn’t been a problem, but I wouldn’t suggest wearing these next to someone who was trying to read a book as the small sound bleed might bug others.

The look and fit

I’ve never in my life purchased sunglasses online without ever trying on a pair in the real world on my face. So I bit the bullet, picked the Tenor frame that looked cool enough online, and in a couple weeks they showed up and fit well. They look pretty good, and you can barely notice the temples on the side of them are taller and thicker to carry batteries and bluetooth speakers, just being a little thicker than normal.

The fit is great, and I like the looks of them. No one on the street has ever noticed them or asked me about them, so they’re not such weird tech that they stick out in public. Kudos to the Bose team for figuring this out, as every other sort of “AR Glasses” product ends up looking super strange and weird and people rightfully could think you’re a creep for wearing them.

The battery life

One of the last things to impress me has been the battery life. The sides of the frames are not that big or thick and I was concerned they would require frequent recharging. I also never wanted the batteries to die while I was using them.

I’m happy to report after a month of using them, the battery typically goes down by about 10% for each hour you use them. My dog walks take just about an hour and I find I can do several and still have the battery above 50% when I boot them up each time (a voice tells you the current level). At my current rate I only need to recharge once every couple weeks, which is great.

Conclusion

Like the All Consuming podcast, I would give these glasses very high marks. If you’ve got a situation where you want to listen to music or podcasts but also have a job or situation where you have to stay engaged with people and situations around you, these might be a killer bit of tech that fills a role like no other.

I do wonder what Apple might do if they had done a version of this product. They could be a bit more stylish looking, fully tap into Siri features, and maybe become more like augmented reality sunglasses but without any cameras. Perhaps you’d get audio cues for things around you or walking directions or your texts read aloud to you. I’d love to see them take a crack at this.

CarPlay is finally (just barely) good enough that you should never look at your phone while driving ever again

As a person that grew up driving many hours each day in California and to a lesser extent (still more than zero) in Oregon, I take car audio seriously. I love big stereos for listening to music and these days I spend about half of my car time listening to podcasts.

I’ve always been a big fan of car mounts for iPods, and later iPhones. Here’s a photo of my first one from 2004 and an article I wrote at Lifehacker (missing photos?) in 2005 about how to mount your phone/iPod right next to your steering wheel so you can control it easily. That’s back when I discovered ProClip, and since then I’ve put one in every car I own.

All those years, I told myself it was safer than holding your phone/iPod and that I could do a quick fast forward or pause by barely taking a hand off my wheel, but ever since CarPlay came out I knew it was a safer path to just never touch or look at your phone while driving. Instead of a tiny device, CarPlay is like a giant iPad in your dash and it comes with Siri so you never need to type on a screen keyboard.

The problem was, CarPlay lacked so many features and apps at its launch, I still found myself going to my phone mounted on my dash too often when an app didn’t work in CarPlay or I needed to select some option that wasn’t in the CarPlay app.

About a year ago, I bought a car and for the first time didn’t immediately buy a phone mount and I drove around for a few weeks and realized CarPlay really has matured enough where your phone is no longer necessary. After a month of driving the car, I removed my mounts on other cars and I haven’t looked back since.

Here’s what tipped it for me:

A new home screen that supports Google Maps

A few versions of iOS ago, CarPlay added a new home screen that split your maps and audio into one view so you could access part of both apps at once in the same Screen. It only allowed for Apple Maps at first, which I don’t use. A couple years ago, they added support for Waze and Google Maps (whichever you’re using takes the space), and I suddenly found this to be the most useful screen in CarPlay.

Whether or not you have audio turn-by-turn directions enabled, you can quickly glance and see your path, figure out when you need to prep for turns, and skip songs in a tap.

Instead of switching between music apps and mapping apps, I keep this screen going pretty much all the time when I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar, switching to audio apps only when I need to select a new podcast or playlist.

Another point worth mentioning: A year or so ago Google Maps also added voice search in CarPlay and it works really well. To enter a new destination, you just tap the Voice Search button and say where you’d like to go and Google does its magic to figure out what place you meant, and it’s usually correct.

Setting a default music service

In iOS 14.5, Apple added the ability to set your default audio app for Siri, away from Apple Music as the only option. This means every time you ask Siri to play and album or song, you no longer have to add “on Spotify” at the end of every request.

What this means is using Siri to select music is a lot more reliable than it used to be, probably because there are fewer words for Siri to interpret.

Siri is generally doing ok, probably getting songs/artists/albums right for me about 75% of the time in the car these days, but it’s nice that it defaults to Spotify now, as it makes using Siri in the car that much easier.

Podcast playback is top-notch

I’ve used Overcast for many years to follow dozens of podcasts and it has continued to evolve and the CarPlay support is terrific. You can customize the number of seconds your forward and back buttons jump (mine are set for 30sec forward to skip commercials, 7sec back in case I went too far). Overcast in CarPlay respects your speed up settings and cutting of silence (mine is set around 1.2x, I’m not a monster), and Overcast shows up in the hybrid home screen shared with maps as well.

You do need to jump into Overcast’s CarPlay screens to select different podcast episodes, if you want something besides the next older episode in your feed when you finish one and it’s time to go to the next.

Siri is getting better all the time

I’ve never been a huge user of Siri on my phone or in my house because I’m usually in a shared space and talking to devices in front of others feels weird. But in my car, I’m often by myself and I find every year I’m using Siri more and more there. Getting text messages read to you and responding using Siri is actually pretty easy while driving and not too distracting. You can tap the Messages tab, and then a message to hear what someone sent you, then follow a couple audio prompts to reply back.

It’s a great way to tell a friend “hey, I’m five minutes away, be there soon” in just a few seconds without taking your hands off the wheel, keeping your eyes on the road, and not getting distracted in the process.

You can also use Siri to set reminders like “tell me to turn off the garden hose when I get home” and I’ve even used Siri for the Notes app. You can say “hey Siri, start a new note with blah blah blah blah” and when you’re done driving have a new page in Notes with whatever ideas came to you while you were out.

Things that CarPlay still needs to improve

CarPlay is far from perfect, even though I think it just hit the “good enough” level for daily use. If you rely on Siri a bunch, you will be disappointed by it typing wrong words into your texts, grabbing the wrong albums by the wrong artists, and you having to redo your audio requests several times to get it right. Again, it works about 75% of the time for me, so you do have to repeat requests fairly regularly.

I’ve also found a big problem of having my phone set to silent (in order to not annoy me or others when it’s in my pocket or on my desk) isn’t that helpful when you’re in a car and your eyes are on the road and your phone is buried in a center console bin.

See this CarPlay screenshot? Notice how there are three icons along the left side showing my last three used apps? You know what happens when you use a few apps, then someone texts you but your Messages app wasn’t used recently and you stay on this home screen view?

That’s right, you’ll never know you got a new text unless you change screens to the one of all your apps and spot a red “1” on your Messages app.

The funny thing is Apple knows how to change your settings based on context. I have my phone set to silent 100% of the time, but if I’m wearing AirPod headphones and doing the dishes, when someone texts me, I get an audible sound, my music is paused, and Siri reads me their text.

Why doesn’t it do that in CarPlay as well? I get that someone in your car might not want to hear your texts or it might have sensitive info inside, but CarPlay should still have an audio indicator of some sort to let me know I’m missing out on a text that isn’t showing up on my current screen.

I’d love to see this fixed because there are times I’ve missed a text that meant I was driving somewhere and I had to go back to get something I forgot.

The challenges of designing CarPlay

To describe CarPlay as like an iPad but for your car glosses over all the design challenges inherent in it. Yes, it needs to have a big graphical display that makes tapping icons as easy as possible, but it also needs to be as powerful as your iOS devices but do it with much less complexity. There’s no safe way to do a lot of typing or searching or long scrolling while you drive, and many aspects of iOS apps need to be removed to their bare essential functions. Lots of features need to become audio only, to keep drivers from having to look at or touch their screens. I had high hopes for CarPlay when it came out, and it came up short at first, but I finally think they’ve rounded a corner and are getting closer to an ideal way to let you enjoy music and podcasts in a safer way than before.

Use CarPlay, and never look at your phone while driving ever again

For the last year or so I’ve been putting my phone deeply away whenever I get in a car and I can’t imagine ever going back. It’s what I’ve always wanted out of a car’s entertainment system, and though it’s far from perfect, CarPlay is decent enough and does enough that I can do pretty much everything I need to do without taking my eyes off the road.

It goes without saying that reading your phone while driving is a terrible, terrible idea. When you’re behind the wheel of a 5,000 lb car that can kill others instantly, you shouldn’t take your attention away from the task at hand. I regret that for years I used to have my phone mounted where it was easy to read and use because even though I was never involved in any accidents while using it, it was still a lot more dangerous than I ever realized.

Note: Most new cars released in the last five years have come with CarPlay, and I would strongly suggest if you’ve got an older car with a single or double-DIN stereo that can be replaced (check Crutchfield to see what fits in your car), you should totally get a CarPlay-capable aftermarket stereo that to make your old car feel new again (and be safer to drive).

Tips on buying a used Sprinter van

Photo of my 2012 Sprinter van
My 2012 Sprinter van

Sprinter vans are fun as hell, look cool and can be customized in any way you can imagine. A brand new, completely stripped cargo van from Mercedes is only about $35k-40k from the factory, but building sleeping platforms and storage and kitchens into them can easily add $100k to the price or more. Over the last ten years a bunch of outfitters have popped up to build highly customized versions that can do it all, but they’re frequently in the $100k-$150k price range new and take 6-12 months to build. I remember Outside Vans as one of the first, but now in the Portland area where I live there are dozens of shops building these.

If you’ve got plenty of cash and you want it all, I would heartily recommend a brand new Revel build by Winnebago, which typically run around $150k and are filled with storage and creature comforts in an all-the-options 4WD van and the owners I’ve heard from all say it’s an amazing machine.

If you aren’t flush with cash, you can find Sprinter vans used in various states of build, from stripped out former work vans you’ll have to build up yourself, to every stage of already modified camping-ready Sprinters from people just looking to sell their old ones.

Typically, it’s not too hard to find used work vans for $20k-$30k and partially built up ones can be found for $30k-50k used. Sometimes it might be worth paying $75k for a used van if it’s everything you wanted and is outfitted and ready to go.

A little backstory

I’ve always loved Sprinter Vans. Initially they seemed exotic and European, these narrow, tall and long vans used by trades people. I probably saw my first camper version of one around 2005 at a bike race, and I was hooked. It looked so versatile, like it was ready for anything, AND you could sleep in it.

For the next dozen years, I dreamed of someday owning one. A few years ago, I got serious about it and started looking, and after 2-3 years of casually looking and about six months of totally seriously looking I finally found one I liked.

Since then, I’ve upgraded a bunch of stuff on mine to fit my needs. Friends ask me all the time about it, so I promised I’d write up some tips learned after researching these things for years, along with the lessons I learned after a year of ownership.

For reference, I own a MB 2012 2500 Crew High Roof 144 Sprinter that has about 160k miles on it and was mildly built up as a weekender type of van (no kitchen, or I’d call it a true camper), with two queen bed sleeping platforms in the back, seating for five, with a small collapsible table, an ingenious diesel heater that keeps the cabin warm when winter camping, and a house electronics system for camping separate from the engine battery. I paid about $35k for it used and put another $5k into engine and suspension and upkeep, and about $10k into upgrades since.

Decide the type of van you want that fits your needs

Vans come in a lot of shapes, sizes, years, and configurations. I’m going to ignore the Dodge Power RAM versions (I don’t like the looks or gas engines in them) or the Ford Transit series (mostly also gas engines) and focus only on Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (which also sometimes are badged as Freightliners, and for a short time, also had Dodge badges but forget I said all that).

They come in three different lengths and a few different configurations.

First you’ll need to decide if you want a 144″ wheelbase version or the 170″ or the 170″ extended version. The longest model has a couple feet more van behind the back wheels that gives it extended storage space for building out the interior. But driving either of the 170 models feels more like driving an RV to me. I wanted something more car-like that was possible to street park and easily drive around in cities, so I stuck to the 144″ length.

The next thing you’ll have to decide is if you want a low roof or a high roof option. I’m 6′ 3″ and though you lose a few miles per gallon by having a high roof out in the wind, I can walk around standing up tall inside it and the higher roof give more space to do things like put a bed in the back (mine fits two removeable queen beds stacked like a bunk bed).

You also need to decide on the configuration of the van. A Passenger van includes windows from front to back and four rows of seating for a dozen people (seats are easy to remove). The Crew van comes with two side windows and usually has a second row of seats while the Cargo version typically has no seats and no windows, giving you a clean slate to build from.

Passenger versions look most “normal” and can pass for a large minivan in any city but the windows along the side limit your options for building shelving or bed platforms, because you can’t screw into the walls when they’re all glass. The Cargo version is the most ready to upgrade but will require more work because they’re usually shipped as raw metal shells inside. The Crew version is a happy medium, with windows and seating for five, giving you the back half of the van ready to customize for storage and sleeping.

I looked at all the options and knew I wanted a 144 High Roof Crew or Cargo van when I started shopping.

Decide which era of Sprinter to get

There are three major eras of Sprinter vans released over the years, and they have three different code names: T1N, NCV3 and VS30.

The T1N is the late 1990s to 2006 van that first hit the shores of the US. They’re very customizable but given they’re roughly 15-20 years old at this point, they tend to have a lot of miles on them. I don’t often see one with less than 200 or 300 thousand miles on the odometer. Sprinter diesel engines can go for 500k miles or more, but the T1N version is getting pretty long in the tooth and you might want to avoid them unless it’s a low mileage one.

The NCV3 model was sold from 2007-2018. Mine is a 2012 and it’s totally utilitarian inside, with few creature comforts. The 2014-2018 models embraced the Mercedes Benz label and offer things like heated seats, lane keep assist, radar cruise control, and blind spot warnings. There were other small changes during the run but mostly the NCV3 model falls into two eras within the model.

VS30 is the new and improved version, from 2019 to present. It’s very nice inside, feels almost like a high end modern SUV inside, and has better suspension and braking systems. Unfortunately, being new, they’re still quite expensive used.

If I had to choose a used Sprinter to look for today, I’d say a 2014-2018 model would be the best bet, and I would look for one with 100k-200k miles on the odometer.

A bit more about used vans and mileage

A Sprinter van’s V6 Turbo Diesel engine is pretty robust and bulletproof (and has decent acceleration that’s not far off from what a SUV feels like), while also getting pretty good gas mileage. Mine typically gets around 20mpg, which isn’t bad for something that weighs 7 thousand pounds. The engines are known to drive well into the 400k-500k range of miles and even if your engine blew up, there are plenty of replacements sitting around in wreck yards.

When shopping for used vans, I typically stayed away from low mileage vans due to price, as they are often owned by families that only occasionally drove them as their extra car. It’s easy to find clapped out work vans with well over 300k miles selling for cheap (sometimes <$10k), but you may have to spend a lot more on suspension upgrades and engine work to bring things back to working order.

Personally, I think the happy medium for a used Sprinter van is one with 100k-200k miles on it that wasn’t used in heavy industry (like plumbing, drywall, or electrical, which requires them to carry heavy materials that wear out the suspension). This is the sweet spot where you can find decent prices on vans that have a lot of life left in them.

Having owned one for a year now, I will say we don’t drive it a ton, using it for several camping trips a year, runs to Costco, and whenever someone needs to hang out inside it, like when you take your kids to sports practice while you work on your laptop inside on a table. We put about 5,000 miles on our van in the first year and I suspect that’ll be a normal average. With the way the engines hold up, buying a used one with some mileage isn’t a dealbreaker, since you’re not typically going to put tens of thousands of miles on it each year unless you’re doing the full #vanlife thing and traveling all over.

2WD or 4WD?

One question you’ll need to answer before you shop is if you want a two-wheel drive van or a 4×4. The four wheel drive model typically sells (even used) for about $10k more. If you live near mountains or deep snow or hope to get off the beaten path, definitely think about looking for 4WD models (keep in mind, this will limit your search results greatly). If you’re not going off pavement or live in a flatter part of the US, a 2WD van will work just fine. I will say that I’ve seen a 2WD Sprinter get stuck on flat ground when driving on wet grass. There have traction control, but with stock street tires don’t have much grip and there are no locking rear differentials.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably opt for a 4WD Sprinter if one was available. I wanted to save some money and I got a 2WD model but I put beefy all-terrain tires on it for better grip. I live near the mountains and still sometimes do get the rear tires to slip on gravel roads.

Figure out what you want to do in your van, so you know what to look for used

Before you start a search in earnest, figure out a list of things you must have, and what would be nice to have, and what might be a deal breaker. Think about how you’ll use it so you know what to shop for.

Personally, I didn’t want a big camping build. I didn’t want to worry about water storage, or worry about the drain on batteries from a built-in refrigerator. Some builds even have a full bathroom, but I didn’t want to lose interior space to that. Those were deal breakers for me.

I knew I wanted seating for at least five (a removable 3rd row for hauling more people somewhere was a nice to have), I wanted sleeping for at least two people (with sleeping for four as a nice to have), and I wanted plenty of storage for bikes and camping equipment, along with a table to eat at and front chairs that swiveled back.

I eventually found a build closest to what I wanted, with not too many things I didn’t want. It was built well, didn’t seem rough or DIY, and I added things later that I felt was missing.

Tools to look for used vans for sale

Everyone will tell you to search on Craigslist, but with me being in the Pacific Northwest, Sprinters are always in high demand and good deals don’t last long on the service. I found the prices high and if you watch listings for a few months you’ll start seeing the same people that flip these vans, sometimes for too high of prices with minimal additions to old work vans you likely saw for sale on Craigslist earlier.

Twice when I was ready to buy something, I had to work against other buyers, and I lost. Once I was five minutes away from test driving a van I really liked on paper but they called to say it was sold to the person that arrived an hour before me.

It’s a good idea to look outside your area, and Auto Tempest is a (somewhat hacky, desktop only) nationwide Craigslist search engine you can use to track Sprinters for sale all over the country. Since they’re hot where I live and in places like Utah and Colorado, I looked for Sprinters in other areas and found a few good deals I seriously considered. I don’t know if I’d fly to Florida just for a test drive, but if the build was exactly what you wanted, and it much cheaper than a west coast van, it might have been worth it.

I also tried options like OfferUp and Sprinter Forums and other classified ad type services, but my best luck was Facebook Marketplace. I found a great deal on a van for thousands below what it’d fetch on Craigslist simply because not as many people use FB Marketplace for car buying. While Craigslist felt like a battle to email a seller first and test drive a Sprinter as soon as you could, the van I bought sat on FB Marketplace for months without a bite, making it an easy low stress sale.

Things to check in a test drive

When test driving a Sprinter van, go with a plan and a few tools. Before you meet, ask the seller for the VIN so you can look it up on CarFax (this costs a few bucks but it’s worth it for vans you’re seriously considering). I did this and found info about all three previous owners of the van, I saw records of a small fender bender I could look for signs of, and I learned what industry the van was used in before it was reused for camping (environmental testing) as well as what states the owners had all lived in.

Take it for a test drive and note how easily it starts (keep in mind you should turn the key halfway, wait for the diesel coils to warm up after which a yellow curly light goes out in the dash, then you start it) and when you drive it off, check how the brakes feel and drive it a few miles. Is the turbo functioning? Can you floor it and get it moving pretty well? Does the heater and A/C work? Do all the lights work?

Listen for squeaks and movement, as these vans can sound like an old RV sometimes. This usually gives you an idea of how well it was built and how it is holding up. Look for any water damage on the headliner inside, and look for any warning lights on the dash.

When you finish the test drive, bring a bright LED work light (I use a handheld bar like this one) and use it to look around for rust in the doors and at the bottom of the body and underneath on the frame. Check over the engine from above with the hood up, and most importantly, from below. Lay on the ground and put your LED work light up to inspect the bottom of the engine. Do you see a bunch of oil everywhere? Is it black and shiny from a fresh leak? Is it a big leak or a small one?

I mention this because this is typically what you look for in any German engine from a luxury brand, but especially in the NCV3 era of Sprinters. If you see oil at the bottom of the engine and you see oil stains where it was parked, you may have a oil cooler seal leak. It’s a popular problem and people on Sprinter forums say they can fail every 100k miles or so. The 2010 and newer NCV3 engine was redesigned to fix this, but mine still had this problem even though it was a 2012.

The bummer is this gasket leak only requires about $100 of parts to fix, but it’s at the very bottom of the engine and requires about $3,000 in labor for two full days of mechanics working on it as they tear the engine down to the block to fix it. The good news is it’s not a deal-breaker, if you spot this you can ask the seller to take $3k off the asking price to get it done later on from a sprinter mechanic familiar with it, but it’s good to know what to look for so you aren’t surprised later on.

Things to fix or upgrade

If you’ve found a year, model, and configuration you like, and you’ve driven it and you end up buying it, know there are endless options for what to do after to tailor it to your needs. I happen to live near the Sprinter Store, one of the biggest online sellers of aftermarket parts. I’ve purchased tons of replacement and aftermarket parts from them to date. They have everything. There are half a dozen other similar online stores.

I’d suggest putting a modern stereo with CarPlay and Android Auto into your Sprinter for adding Google Maps and streaming music that can also work with the existing stock Sprinter backup camera. If your view out your back windows is obscured (mine has a bed in the way and blackout shades on the windows) I really love this second rear facing camera that replaces your rearview mirror with a monitor shaped like your mirror. It greatly adds visibility and driving on freeways and in cities is much easier and the van feels safer to drive. The kit on amazon is about $300 and a good stereo installer can put it in for a few hundred more.

If the van you like is raw metal in the rear, know that insulation, flooring, and wall paneling kits can cost quite a bit, even before you start putting in beds or cabinets. I’ve seen them go for $5k that cost $10k in labor to install (or you can do it yourself over a few weekends, there are tons of YouTube video how-tos). Interior storage can be pricey as well, I added a shelf above the front seats for storage that lists for around $500 for a piece of metal with a couple small brackets. I’ve seen storage shelves go for thousands, but if you look for deals on eBay or know your way around a woodshop, you can save some money.

My van came with recently replaced front struts, but the rear of the van was bouncy and squeaky and would sway when taking turns. I complained about it to my mechanic who suggested I put in new high end Koni rear shocks with a bigger sway bar in the rear. I got both things from The Sprinter Store and the van drove like new after. It turned easier and faster, was quieter and more stable in the rear. It was only about $1200 for parts and labor and made it feel like a new van again.

I also put a roof rack on mine you can walk around on, along with a ladder to get on top, side mounts for paddle boards, and new front and rear bumpers, all from Aluminess with some additional high-powered LED lights for driving on dark mountain roads and in dense fog. My van came with an awning, but if you don’t have one, it’s a great way to always have shade when camping. Inside, I’ve updated basics like a new cabin air filter and I replaced a broken heater fan (they fail every couple years and replacements on amazon are much cheaper than a dealer). When I first got it I also hired a specialized sprinter mechanic to do full fluid changes, conduct a thorough engine check, and do full tune up on the engine. I also put new wheels and off road tires so it wouldn’t get stuck so easily in the mountains and be safe to drive in the snow.

What else you can do besides go camping

Sprinter vans are great for camping and travel and biking and any outdoor activities you can think of. It’s like having a bedroom on wheels and I’ve pulled into rest areas before to nap in the back. It also makes outdoor sports easier because you have an entire room where you can change clothes privately, rest, and eat, and still bring everything you might need.

After owning one for a year, I’ve found it surprisingly useful for lots of other things. It’s easy to help friends move, especially if it’s raining so you can put their TVs and furniture inside a van rather that out in a truck bed. I’ve fit a 12′ tall xmas tree in mine easily, and could have fit half a dozen more stacked on top. I’ve hauled 14′ lumber on the floor reaching all the way to the front passenger section with the rear doors closed. In a 170 Sprinter, I’m sure you could fit full 16 foot long lumber inside. It’s a dream vehicle for sporadic Costco runs to buy tons of food in bulk, it’s strong enough to tow small boats, and you can fit pretty much any stand up paddle boards inside.

Mine has a little table that the second row and front row can all sit around (the front rows swivel back), so eating as a family on the road is fun and easy (especially useful during COVID with closed restaurants!).

Overall, I’m happy with my purchase and all the upgrades I’ve done to personalize it and optimize it for how I use it. If you’re in the market for one, figure out what you want, see what’s out there, and make a smart purchase, and finally, enjoy the heck out of your Sprinter van and go see the world in it.

Getting a Brother HL-L2350DW to work

Early in the 2000s, I got way into photography and soon after into inkjet printing so I could print my images at home. But after a few years of spending money on Cyan cartridges, I realized I wasted lots of money on ink printing simple pages. Soon I realized I could send digital prints to professional printers and instead get a small home black and white laser printer version of the giant expensive ones I used in offices.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, HP or Brother made a lot of them, and I bought what was back then a $200 printer and I swear the toner that came with it lasted for the next ten years, dutifully printing tickets to scan at events, directions to houses, and every legal document I needed to sign.

In 2019, I moved to a new house, my dad’s printer died, so I decided to send him my trustworthy old Brother (with a new toner cartridge) and I would buy whatever the newest version of it was. That was the Brother HL-L2350DW.

Taking it out of the box, the first weird thing I learned is the printer ships with a very small toner cartridge that is only good for about 100 pages total. After going years between toner replacements, I was getting warnings to buy a new one a month into owning it. Also? Without an ethernet jack, I had to get the printer on WiFi in order to work, but after a month or so it was very buggy, never visible on the network, and I mostly gave up, went back to a USB cable and only printed from one computer near it (after power cycling it to wake it up each time you wanted to print).

And that’s where my printer has been for the past year and a half.

Today, I complained on Twitter, people joined me in solidarity, but a few people offered tips and I did some digging and eventually got everything working again. So I might as well write everything down that helped.

Kill the Deep Sleep

The first problem with this printer was that it would quickly become unresponsive to computers on the network. But when you looked at the status panel, the lights were on but the small LCD screen would say Deep Sleep. There doesn’t seem to be a way to “wake up” out of it, so I spent the next couple years power-cycling the printer to use it.

I suspect there is a wake up problem over the network or USB cable (I’ve tried both), but here’s how you turn it off:

  1. Tap the OK button until you see GENERAL SETUP on the LCD, then hit OK
  2. Use the arrow keys until you get to ECOLOGY in the menu, hit OK
  3. Use arrow keys to get to the SLEEP TIME option, hit OK
  4. It will display a time (default of 1min), push the down arrow and BACK buttons together at the same time, then press OK
  5. You’ll see a DEEP SLEEP ON message on the LCD, use the arrow key to change to OFF, then hit OK.

That’s it. Your printer will still go into a sleep mode after inactivity, but it won’t go into Deep Sleep and be unresponsive.

Get on WiFi

With no ethernet jack in mine, I had to add the printer to WiFi to gain access to more settings and make it available to others. It’s not fun, but you should only have to do this once.

  1. Press the OK button to get the menu, use the arrow keys to go through options until you hit NETWORK, then hit OK
  2. Use arrow keys to scroll options until you get to WLAN, hit OK
  3. Use arrow keys to scroll to SETUP WIZARD, then hit OK
  4. If you get a screen saying “Enable WLAN?” scroll to YES then hit OK
  5. It will search for available WiFi SSD, select your network, then hit OK
  6. It will ask you for your NETWORK KEY and you’ll type in your WiFi network password. This will take a while, since each digit needs to be selected with the up/down arrow buttons, and the options will cycle through 0-9, then a-z and so on. My network password is just a bunch of numbers so this wasn’t too tedious.

When you’ve saved the network key, the printer will attempt to connect to your WiFi. Hope and pray it works, and if not, go back and repeat the steps. Once it’s on the network it should be found by your devices that also share your network.

Find the hidden web server

The next thing you want to do is figure out the IP address your printer uses on your network. Log into whatever router you use for WiFi and look for a list of all clients somewhere. In my UniFi setup, it wasn’t too hard to find the device.

This next step is optional, but if you can, set your router so it always gives that same IP address to your printer so it’s something you can always get back to. In my router there’s an option to set this IP to static to this device.

Load http://{your internal address}/ in a browser. In my case, pulling up http://192.168.0.195/ gave me the following screen:

From here, you can play with lots of settings. Go through each item in the nav on the left. The only major change I made was setting Auto Power Off to OFF to ensure it would work and not be in deep sleep.

If you set your printer to use a static IP all the time, you can bookmark this URL and save it in your browser to return to if you ever have printer problems.

Update your printer’s firmware to the latest

If you’ve gotten this far, and put your Printer on the network, and found the secret web server inside of it, you may think you’re done, but there’s a whole new level to this interface. See the tiny LOGIN in the upper header area? You’re going to login to your printer with a default password set by Brother to gain more control of it.

The default factory password is: initpass

Type that in, and suddenly you’ll get a new line of tabs across the middle showing Print, Administrator, and Network options.

Select the Administrator tab. There you can change the default password or leave it as is. Next, you’ll want to choose the Firmware Update option. There you can check for new firmware, and update it with a click.

You can check the Network tab and customize options like allowing printing via AirPrint (for iOS devices) or FTP or even email into the printer. I left everything at the defaults since it allowed almost everything. You can also tweak some deeper printer functions on the Print tab like setting higher resolutions for printing.

Hopefully you’re good now?

After a test print, I could instantly get to my printer from my Macs on the network. I pulled up a screenshot image in my iPhone’s Files app and was able to also print via AirPrint. I jumped on my kid’s gaming windows PC and could print a web page. None of this ever worked reliably before.

After a few hours, with Deep Sleep canceled, it still shows up as a printer and prints instantly when you send a file. It still sleeps but doesn’t deep sleep, and although this likely uses more electricity, I won’t have to power down and power up my printer in order to use it.

I’m kind of amazed I put up with this being so buggy for so long, but for now, it seems that everything is working and if you own one of these and were also in the same boat, hopefully there’s a tip in here you can also use to get yours working better as well.

Quick update a couple days later: Everything is still working great, I really think the Deep Sleep function was killing my printer before. I set the auto-off back to 1hr and it still wakes up instantly. I’ve printed a bunch of stuff over the past couple days since I got it working and this morning I got the most encouraging error message ever.

It’s working so well I ran out of paper for the first time in months AND it’s working so well on the network it was able to tell my phone when I was trying to print something from it.

My Favorite covers

I’ve always loved cover songs. They’re a perfect combo of recognition but hearing it in a new way for the first time, and my favorite way to experience them was always at concerts, where a performer you’re familiar with often has one or two weird covers up their sleeve they do on the road just for fun.

Later on, movie soundtracks and file sharing apps turned me on to a whole new world of covers, and during the Napster years, I spent much time collecting cover songs, the weirder, the better. At one point I’m sure half my catalog was by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes or The Gourds.

Recently, Kottke posted about some covers that are “better than the originals” and with such a high bar, the day he posted it, my spouse and I both texted each other at almost the same time going “did you read this and hear them, they’re terrible, right?”

This morning, I was running some errands in my car, a good cover came on, and I thought to myself, I should make my own list of covers I think are better than the original. So here they are, along with some liner notes.

Heard it through the grapevine

The original by The Miracles with Smokey Robinson (“what’s chaw-new-kah?”) is great but the cover by The Slits transforms it. It’s wild that it’s from 1979 (I had no idea until I looked it up, I first heard it maybe 5 years ago?) because it feels modern, fresh and recorded yesterday. Put this song on at a party and people will love it but won’t recognize the lyrics for a minute or two and realize why they instantly liked it. It’s the gold standard for covers that are different but better than the originals.

Everything Turns Grey

This punk classic was everywhere in the early 80s and I loved it then, but in 1999, I was showing Napster to a friend and I jumped on some random kid’s library and said “look there are 20 songs from the same band, this is probably a whole album, let’s grab them” and turns out I grabbed Lagwagon and fell in love with their cover. It’s tough to miss with a classic but Lagwagon’s take drives harder and sounds better and in the years since I’ve come to love it more.

Livin’ Thing

ELO’s Livin’ Thing is a classic. It’s everything ELO was, which is smashing together a rock band combined with an orchestra combined with gospel singers. It’s ELO so it’s everything at 110% with over the top theatrics to match. Then there’s Matthew Sweet. An aging rocker doing tons of fun covers and fun projects instead of getting grouchy about showing up on “where are they now?!” lists every few weeks online. I love this track because it reminded me anyone can take an untouchable song from karaoke like Queen or ELO or Michael Jackson and if you sing it with heart it’ll still sound amazing even if you can’t do the high notes.

99 Luftballoons

Yes, everyone covers Nena’s Cold War classic and you can hear loads of versions in different genres but I love the death metal cover that’s also from the My Name is Earl soundtrack that unfortunately has been completely scrubbed from the internet and I can only find a sample clip here.

It’s a little bit of a hat-on-a-hat to do a death metal kinda jokey version of an 80s song with a lullaby-like opening that makes the transition stick out even more, but with what sounds like Henry Rollins shouting lyrics gave me a whole new appreciation for the song, which I’ve never heard much in English or shouted over music. Fuck the copyright gods but try and find this, because it’s a gem.

Instant Karma

You never mess with the Beatles and especially John Lennon, but another John, this time Hiatt, is yet another cover from the My Name is Earl tv soundtrack (what can I say? It’s all bangers) and it’s fucking great.

Since U been gone

I have to make a confession here. A friend saw Ted Leo on tour in the mid-2000s where he surprised the entire audience by doing a Kelly Clarkson cover of her current pop hit during encores (along with a bit of Maps). Everyone who went was enthralled, because it would happen late in the show and no one talked about it or spoiled the surprise for others.

Anyway, a friend said some magic happened at the Ted Leo show he just saw, and I couldn’t see Ted live (he already swung through my town) so I asked what it was. Another friend who is a superfan said on some music forums they found one way to hear it, as he’d done it during a promotional livestream for a new college social network sponsored by Coca Cola.

Ted Leo doesn’t know this (even though I’ve met him in a casual, personal encounter before), but I had to sign up for this network, run a special app on a PC and his live taping only played in Microsoft Windows Media Player. I had to use some pretty gnarly apps to record the stream’s raw audio to a WAV file I converted to MP3.

I know it was me because there were no copies of this cover anywhere online until I created a MP3 from the stream and shared it on this very blog. It got out and shared widely and a couple weeks later I heard he stopped doing the song at concerts because the secret had been spoiled, which was likely my fault.

I was a huge fan of his, missed his show and really wanted to hear it, and later on, share it with everyone else and I fucked it up and I’m sorry Ted Leo if you ever see this. You were nice to me that one time I met you and Amiee Mann. (looks like someone also captured that livestream and threw it on YouTube)

Rudy, A Message to You

There’s an excellent documentary called Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records that chronicles the quick rise and fall of a record label that discovered artists from Jamaica and England, came up with the term “ska” and “reggae”, put out the first albums of many famous godfathers of both genres, but crashed and burned within just a few years.

Rudy, A Message to You by Dandy Livingstone is one of my favorite tracks in the documentary but I realized I loved it even more when The Specials covered it in the 80s. It’s not just the remastering and recording on modern equipment, but the English Beat pep it up into a dance hit I can’t help but love.

OPPOSITE DAY: Jet Airliner

Everyone knows Jet Airliner from the Steve Miller Band, but few know the creator of it is Paul Pena and I’m gonna do a 180ยบ here and say it’s better than the more famous cover. It’s slower, but the lyrics feel more real coming from Paul rather than a big ol’ popular megahit group doing it, plus the guitar solos will melt your face off.

PS: music licensing, man

Just a quick note that I tried to make an Apple Music playlist of all these tracks, then a Spotify playlist, then just a YouTube playlist, and no single system had all of them, so I tried to put one link to the song in each section but cover song licensing is a pain it seems.