Things are on the up?

Yesterday was a very bad day indeed. I woke up feeling ill, and that feeling just got steadily worse through the morning until I had to give up and go back to bed again. I’m not even sure I know what the problem was, but I suspect a combination of tiredness, dehydration and the heat of what turned out to be a gloriously sunny day finally caught up with me. In the end, the cause made no difference – the result was the same. I was only out of bed long enough to take my medicines and eat breakfast, lunch and tea. Which for me is nothing short of staggering. I’m typically a night owl, and happily get by on 5 or 6 hours sleep a night. Whereas yesterday I got by on only 5 or 6 hours of wakefulness.

Fortunately, today was a lot better. I woke up early (hard not to after so much sleep!) had breakfast, decided I was feeling much better, and tried to decide whether I was going to try to do something special with the day or not. In the end the decision was taken from me, as my new Acer Aspire One (the second I’ve bought) turned up before I’d managed to make any decision. And so I suddenly had a task to achieve – to get it set up for my daughter. Since I needed to add more memory to it, this involved a trip to the local computer hardware store in Fareham, the disassembly and reassembly of the machine (to fit the memory), and the installation of both Windows XP and Ubuntu UNR on it, plus some configuration to make it play nicely on our home network. Quite enough for one days efforts.

It’s not clear if having a target for the day made any difference or not, but apart from feeling incredibly thirsty all day, I’ve felt fine, kept busy, and achieved some stuff. I’ve also drunk my way through 2 litres of bottled water, plus some tea and coffee (so far) and would really fancy a pint of bitter about now, if only I didn’t know for certain that it would have repercussions later.

Meanwhile my various other side-effects seem to have sunk into relative obscurity; the only thing that niggled at me (that I particularly remember anyway) was a touch of the peripheral neuropathy which caught me by surprise while I was trying to fight the ground coffee back into the freezer again.

So, after the last few days I declare today to be a massive success, and if it holds until tomorrow then I’m going to plan on going for another cycle ride and work on building some more stamina.

Wireless broadband internet – fixed

An exchange of emails with the friend who has lent me his 3G USB modem revealed that there is no PIN number on the SIM. However, apparently these things can be a little awkward, and error messages can be obscure, especially when there is no 3G or GPRS signal.

Reassured that I’m not about to lock myself out of the network by getting the SIM PIN number wrong too many times in a row, I did a little debugging. The modem may be recognised as a USB device, but it most definitely is not recognised as a modem. A quick check on my kernel configuration parameters reveals that I’ve not included a couple of crucial drivers.

15 minutes recompiling and reinstalling my kernel, insert the USB stick, and Network Manager cuts in, and establishes a 3G connection to the Internet. It really was as simple as that.

So expect updates from my hospital bed in due course 🙂

Wireless broadband internet

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m hoping to be able to take my Aspire One into hospital with me. Assuming that I’m well enough, then from my perspective, it will be the ideal distraction from boredom. I’ve got 20GB of music on it, and I’ve just been given another 10GB of plays and drama etc that have been recorded from the radio. I’ve even got a digital TV/radio tuner, which ought to let me watch a bit of live TV if I want.

However, what would be really cool would be to be able to continue updating this blog from my hospital bed. And its now looking like that might be possible, as I’ve just been loaned a Vodafone USB 3G modem for the time that I’m going to be in hospital – thanks Andy!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with the custom kernel that I’m currently running to help improve the performance of the One. So it looks like I will need to spend some time tweaking the configuration of my custom kernel again. In addition, when I switched back to the “normal” kernel, the modem still doesn’t work, failing this time at the request for the SIM pin.

So, I guess I need to resolve the kernel compilation, and find out either what the pin code is for the SIM card, or what I’m doing wrong… 🙂

Man bag

The Ultimate Addons bag arrived today, and it really is small. Very small. There is barely room for the Aspire One and a few odds and ends. There isn’t really room for all the stuff that I normally carry everywhere, but it’s close enough that with a little more rationalisation, I think it will be just fine.

Being so small, it doesn’t look like a laptop bag which is good; there’s less chance of it being stolen, or me being mugged for it. However, it does look rather like a “man bag”; I haven’t decided whether that is good, bad or indifferent yet, but it’s certainly not a look that I’m used to!

In terms of packing, the things that are proving hardest to fit into it are the power supply/mains cord, and the ethernet/security cables. However, I don’t see any easy way to avoid carrying them. I suspect that coiling the cables in larger loops may help a little, though sadly the slimplug that I mentioned in a previous post doesn’t seem to exist any more, so I’m stuck with fitting the large UK plug in there too.

Smaller is better – reprise

Having been using the Aspire One as my main work machine for about 2 months now, I’m pretty sure I’m going to continue with it for at least the time being. It’s simply a much better fit with the kind of work that I generally need to do. Now, if IBM were to offer me one of those rather nice X300’s … well, that might be a different matter.

Back in the real world however, I’m currently transporting my diminutive little netbook around in a massive backpack. The backpack actually weighs more than the netbook. So it’s time to shrink the luggage to match the contents, and I’ve been looking for the smallest “laptop” bag that I can just fit all my everyday “stuff” into. In general I carry the following things around:

  • the aspire one (obviously)
  • a bluetooth mouse
  • the power supply
  • a mains cable
  • an ethernet cable
  • a kensington lock
  • a couple of pens
  • an A5 notebook
  • my cell phone & its wired headset
  • a couple of USB memory keys
  • my car/house keys

At the moment I’ve found three candidate bags:

At the moment the ultimate addons shoulder bag is the prime candidate, though it looks like it could be tight squeezing everything into it. However, at £20 with a 30 day return policy, I think it’s definitely worth a try. A colleague has also pointed me at this ingenious (if rather expensive) collapsible mains plug, which will definitely help with packing the ungainly UK mains plug into it. The only problem is, it has the wrong sort of IEC connector, so I may need to modify it somehow. I’ve dropped the manufacturer an email to see if they either do an alternative with the right sort of connector, or if its simple to replace the cord with another.

Living on the bleeding edge

As detailed in an earlier post, my Acer Aspire One has been doing a sterling job, replacing my larger, more powerful, but MUCH less portable Thinkpad.

And it occurred to me that the One might well be the ideal machine to take into hospital with me so I can listen to my entire music collection. And then I thought how it would be nice to also be able to listen to the radio. Or watch TV. And I remembered that Hauppauge make really good USB digital TV tuners, which can also receive radio. It was too much for a geek to resist, so a day later I was the proud owner of a Hauppauge Nova-T USB2 stick.

Only to discover that the highly optimised pre-compiled custom kernel that I was running (to keep the performance high) on the One lacked any support for TV tuners. Ooops. So all I need to do is produce a new kernel thats as efficient as my current one, but includes support for the TV tuner.

The last time I tried to compile a linux kernel was back in the days of SUSE 7, and I failed. Big time. So big time that I managed to also destroy the machine I was trying to compile the kernel on. I’ve avoided compiling my own kernels ever since. But hey, time heals all wounds … I’m smarter now, and much more linux-savvy. How hard can it be?

And the answer is, it’s a complete breeze. I plugged in all my hardware, and ran autokernconf, which worked out what kernel options I needed for my current hardware. I then merged it with the kernel config from my pre-compiled kernel, and sorted and uniq’ed it. A little bit of tweaking, and some judicious use of “meld” to check my new config against the original, and then I then downloaded the latest 2.6.28-7 kernel source, imported my kernel config, brought it up to date with newer config options, and ran the compile. All in my own home directory, without the need for root, or messing about in /usr/src. And the output was a pair of .debs that could be easily installed on any machine with next to no effort.

The physical process is about 10 minutes for the minimal kernel I created. Of course, working out exactly which options to select/deselect can take longer. A lot longer. But overall, I am deeply impressed with the effort that has been put into making compiling the kernel both a simple, and more importantly, safe job, with little to no risk of damaging the existing installation.

Oh yes, and now my TV tuner works just fine under Kaffeine 🙂

Smaller is better?

Work provide me with a laptop for business, changing them every three years or so. I’ve had a succession of IBM Thinkpads, which I have to say are truly the Rolls-Royce of laptops. Relatively compact and portable, stuffed with features and the kind of build quality that allows them to survive years of abuse (mine have travelled all over the world with me). My experiences with them have been exemplary … until the last few years, when IBM sold the Thinkpad business off to Lenovo. The last couple of machines have not been so great. My top of the range T40p needed 3 motherboards in as many years. My current T60p has already had 2 motherboards, a fan and a heatsink assembly in two years. And now the screen (a rather nice 15″ 1600×1200 job) is showing lines of dead pixels that probably indicate either the LVDS connector is failing, or I need yet another new motherboard. In addition Thinkpads seem to have been steadily growing. My last two machines have not fitted into my “old faithful” laptop bag, requiring a bigger heavier bag to carry them in.

So recently I found myself wondering why I needed a machine with 2 x 2.16GHz processors, 2GB of ram, and a 1600×1200 pixel 15″ screen. Fundamentally I do the same stuff on this machine that I did on my old Thinkpad 600 some 10 years ago. I do email. I browse the web. I use IM. I follow some (real NNTP!) newsgroups. I create documents and I read documents. I do presentations. I occasionally print stuff. So why do I now need the above monster specification, when I used to get by on a single 300Mhz processor, with 384MB of ram, and a 1024×768 13″ screen? And the more I thought about it, the less I could understand it. All I’ve done is adopt a much bigger and heavier machine, that runs a lot hotter, to do the same stuff. The bigger machine isn’t actually allowing me to do anything faster … I still think at the same speed. In fact, in one area my performance has actually decreased – I actually walk a lot slower with it because it weighs so much.

So at Christmas I decided to have my own personal “grand challenge” – to see how small a machine I could get away with to do my job. So I went out and bought my first ever laptop – an Acer Aspire One “netbook”. I got the one with 512MB of ram, and a 120GB hard drive. Cost me 200GBP here in the UK (I know, they’re a LOT cheaper in the USA – we get screwed on computer stuff here).

A day playing with the preloaded Linpus Lite linux (aka hacked Fedora 6) convinced me that while it was set up to be a foolproof computing appliance for the computer-illiterate, I needed something fuller-functioned. So after a little bit of fiddling with gparted, I now have the Aspire set up to triple boot any of (a) the original Linpus Lite, (b) Windows XP SP3 and (c) Ubuntu 8.10. Ubuntu will be my OS of choice, with Windows there purely for the odd work application that I have to use that isn’t supported under Linux. I kept Linpus purely to compare my performance tuning of Ubuntu to the stock preload.

To Ubuntu I added Thunderbird, Lotus Notes and Sametime (our corporate-standard groupware) and some VPN software. I then added OpenProj, Freemind and Dia, and upgraded the OpenOffice install to v3.0. And to my astonishment, in the last month I’ve needed nothing else.

There have been some teething problems though.

The first problem I experienced was that on Linux, Lotus Notes is implemented as an eclipse plugin, so unfortunately by the time it’s loaded there’s very little left of the 512MB of ram. I gave up after a couple of days, and sprang for another 1GB of ram, at another 13 GBP. Installing it required the complete disassembly of the Aspire … but in actual fact only took about 20 minutes with a set of jewellers screwdrivers. This maxes-out the memory on the Aspire One (at 1.5GB), but I now seem to have memory to burn, even when I have all my applications open at once.

The second problem is that as a long-term thinkpad user, I’m used to having a trackpoint (the little red “nipple” embedded in the keyboard) for moving the cursor. Compared to the control that that provides, a trackpad is a hopelessly painful experience. Fortunately I already had a Logitech bluetooth mouse (a V470), but unfortunately the Aspire One doesn’t come with internal bluetooth. So I had to add an external USB bluetooth adaptor. I imported a USB Bluetooth 2.0 EDR micro-stick from Hong Kong for 6 USD which resolved that problem, and is actually small enough to be left permanently attached, though longer term I’ll probably solder the internals of one to the motherboard somewhere.

Other than that, it’s proving a remarkably solid little performer. The keyboard is a little cramped, but just about big enough to almost-touch-type on. The screen is painfully small, but with multiple workspaces and compiz-fusion doing its thing, you can work around that. And I have external monitors at home and at the office, so it’s only really a problem while travelling anyway. If I have a lot of stuff going on then some applications can be a little sluggish, but even then it’s not problematic … just noticeable.

Boot times for standard Ubuntu were very slow compared to the preloaded Linpus lite, but a custom kernel tailored to the Aspire One has got that down to about 25 seconds, which is faster than standard Ubuntu boots on my T60p. Still not as fast as Linpus though – which is up in about 15 seconds. Battery life on the standard 3 cell battery is only about 2:20; a high capacity 6 cell 3rd party battery should take that to about 7 hours but for my working patterns that’s unnecessary, and would start to add to the weight and size again.

Which leads us to the question of do I declare the challenge beaten or not? I’d justified buying the Aspire One on the basis that if I couldn’t live with it, I’d simply give it to one of my daughters, as I figured it would be fine as a first machine for school-work etc. Well, at the moment I’m not prepared to give it up. It does everything that I need – just, and no more. In fact, these Aspire Ones would be great for my daughters, and the only thing holding me back from going out and buying them a pair is the faint hope that we may see some netbooks built around NVidias ION platform this year.

Replacing the Intel 945GSE chipset (which seems to be based on 3-4 year old designs) with the NVidia GeForce9400 chipset ought to result in a stupendous graphical performance hike for no increase in power consumption. The only question is, will anyone do it? The problem is that it makes low-end netbooks compete with mid-range laptops (problematic for the manufacturers), and Intel is sure to price the Atom/945 combination in such a way that its almost as cheap to take the pair as an Atom on its own – which would stuff any chance that Nvidia have. Will be interesting to see how it works out.