Regarding #3, yeah, I would recommend roasting outside too, -even in the winter. It just kicks out waaaaay to much smoke, and the popper should be able to handle it just fine. I find that in cold weather, it extends the roast times on my Air Crazy maybe 3 minutes or so (compared to Summertime).
If you can't even reach first crack though, after say, 8 minutes, then I'd probably look to just giving it a whirl with another unit. You could have a dog :/
Regarding batch size, I'm running into the same problem myself! I've just recently decided to switch to using a heat gun and a bread-maker, which can roast up to a pound at a time. You don't need a breadmaker though, -some DIYers just use a heat gun and a dog bowl with a long wooden spoon to stir :) It's pretty hands on.
As far as batch sizes on the Air Crazy, I roast 80-85 grams at a time, and I generally constantly do a light shake for the first 3 or 4 minutes. I generally stop shaking for sure once I get to 1st crack in cold weather, and let it proceed to second crack in the chamber without agitation.
Edit: Forehead slap.
I just realized what your problem could be. You mentioned you used a half a cup of beans then decreased the amount to 1/4 cup. With a fluid bed roaster like this, the hot air comes out of the chamber near the bottom of the heating chamber. Decreasing the bean density lets the hot air escape, and increasing it retains it. Roasting with fewer beans actually increases the time it takes to reach 1st and 2nd crack, and roasting with too few may make it really difficult.
I would try it with 85 grams of beans. That is the max I can roast in mine effectively. You don't want too many, but you definitely don't want too few! I bet that will help a lot. It should shorten the time to 1st crack to a more acceptable range. Ideally, you want to be hitting it between 4 and 7.5 minutes in.