The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Operating Systems' Category

Dharma / Maya – A New Virtualization Platform for Silverfir to Replace Minimus

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd March 2014

Back in 2009, most of Silverfir.net’s services were migrated from an aging behemoth of a Compaq server named Frankenputin onto what was hoped would be a much more manageable platform which I christened Minimus. Minimus was designed to be a server that could run contentedly in a closet for year’s on end. It was based around a dual core atom motherboard which sipped power and featured completely passive cooling and used a solid state drive as its boot drive for greater reliability. The host OS was Windows 7 running VMware Server 1.x to host a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine. Eventually VMware stopped supporting the free VMware Server 1.x line and we were forced to upgrade to VMware Server 2.x, which featured a barely functional web based management interface.

Several months ago, Silverfir started experiencing unexplained lockups every few days that required the virtual machine to be rebooted. This became annoying (especially for a box-in-the-closet) and very inconvenient for both Ryan and I. Eventually, the VM failed to boot entirely and the chunk of Silverfir hosted by Minimus was down entirely. This coincided with an extended trip by me to Rarotonga, an island in the middle of the pacific ocean with very minimal internet access. While Ryan and I were jointly remotely investigating the causes of this misbehavior, we found several VM metadata files that were 0 bytes and backup copies of these files were zero bytes as well. I reinstalled VMware Server and Ryan recreated the VM definition files from scratch. During this process, the web interface was very difficult to work with, as it wasn’t working properly in modern versions of IE and Firefox. Eventually, Ryan was able to get everything working again, and took the opportunity to upgrade from Ubuntu 9.04 to the current Long Term Support edition of Ubuntu, 12.04. Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem with the VM locking up every couple days. I decided it was time to modernize Minimus.

After spending a week experimenting with a number of modern hardware assisted hypervisors, I eventually decided to use Xenserver 6.2 Xenserver is a free (in multiple senses of the word) minimal footprint hypervisor similar to VMware ESXi. Unlike VMWare Server, which required a full fledge host OS be installed, Xenserver’s host footprint is very minimal, leaving more of the system’s resources (especially ram) free to be allocated to guest virtual machines. Because Xenserver relies on hardware level support for virtualization (a cpu feature called VT-x), guest virtual machines run much closer to the “bare metal” and feel a lot snappier as a result. Xenserver also has support for another newer hardware virtualization feature called VT-d which allows for hardware devices to be directly shared with guest VMs. This allows for devices like GPUs to be directly accessible to virtual machines. Citrix likes to show off this feature by running demanding, modern games like Skyrim in a VM and playing the game through a thin client device like an Ipad. Neat, but not very relevant to our particular use case.

The main things that I liked about Xenserver were:

  1. Free in multiple senses of the word. Based around an open source project, Xen, with widespread adoption both within the OS community and among major commercial users such as Amazon. Xenserver stores its VM metadata in standardized formats that are directly importable into other virtualization environments. Because of this, I have some confidence that I am not going to be bitten by a product discontinuation or lack of an easy forward migration path as occurred with VMware Server.
  2. After a week of hammering at it, Xenserver feels very mature. I only experienced one bug, relating to migrating VMs with associated snapshots, in a week of testing oddball cases. The windows based management tool, called Citrix Xencenter, is a pleasure to use.
  3. Xenserver allows me to create redundancy “pools,” clusters of  Xenserver hosts and shared storage resources that allow for guest virtual machines to be moved back and forth between multiple physical servers without needing to be taken offline. It is VERY cool to have a server being run off one physical box one moment and 30 seconds later having it be running off a different server with less than a single second’s network downtime. This should allow for Silverfir to stay online while hardware maintenance is being performed, something that wasn’t possible under the previous VMware Server environment.
  4. Xenserver allows for easy snapshot backups of running VMs, allowing backups to be created while the server is in use. With VMware Server, the guest had to be shutdown to backup the virtual disks, a process which took hours even using an eSATA based external backup drive.

Migrating Minimus to Xenserver was a fairly straightforward process. I was able to import the primary Minimus VMware virtual disk .vmdk file directly into a newly created VM guest in Xenserver. I had to edit grub, fstab and network interfaces to get the VM working in Xenserver and also had to add an remove a few kernel modules and install the old VMware tools, but all told I probably spent less than 2 hours getting Minimus running happily under Xenserver. What wasn’t so painless was getting the second data volume .vmdk to import. This second .vmdk stored all of Silverfir’s websites, photo galleries, etc…you know…the things that people actually care about. I received errors trying to import this file using a wide variety of virtual disk management/manipulation tools. I think this vmdk file had been created in an earlier version of VMware and probably used an older version of the .vmdk format. Eventually, after almost a whole day of trying to import this file I threw up my arms in disgust. As a workaround, I put both the old Minimus virtual machine and the new Xenserver virtual machine, which I am calling Maya, on the same network segment and created a new virtual disk container in Xenserver. Ryan then copied the data from the old virtual server to the new using the magic of rsync. This took quite a while, as almost 500 GB of data needed to be copied over at 100 mbit speeds. After almost a full day of copying and some adjusting of permissions, Maya was substantially complete and took over hosting duties from Minimus. Maya has been happily hosting Silverfir without incident for over a week.

In the near future, I plan to decommission Minimus entirely and replace it entirely. Maya’s current primary Xenserver host is a Core 2 Duo with 7 GB of ram. I plan on using most of the guts of Minimus to create a new server based around an Intel Avoton C2750 motherboard. This new system, which I am calling Dharma will be the primary Xenserver host for Maya, with the current Core 2 Duo host serving as a high availability backup server. Hosting of Maya’s data volumes will be via a Readynas Ultra 6 with a 12 TB Raid 6 array. Hopefully this new setup will allow for greater reliability and fault tolerance than what was  achieved with Minimus and Maya can continue serving Silverfir’s users for years to come.

Posted in Blogging, Emulation and Virtualization, General, Linux, Operating Systems, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Ipad 2 – Easy Replacement

Posted by Deliverator on 4th June 2011

I’ve had a couple hardware problems with my Ipad 2 (which I purchased on the first day of availability). The first was that the battery life was never as good as my Ipad 1. With my Ipad 1, I could go almost a week without charging, so long as I was only using it for ebooks and light web browsing. With my Ipad 2, I found myself putting it on the charger every couple days. The other issue I had was my Ipad 2 had a leaky back-light. When reading ebooks on a black background, this was really apparent and annoying. When used for anything else, pretty much unnoticeable. However, I read a lot of books. Still, not quite enough of an issue for me to get up and do something about it.

Last week however, the battery situation worsened considerably. While reading a book (with no apps backgrounded), my Ipad 2 went from 80 someodd percent to 10% warning level in like and hour and a half. I put it on the charger and went to bed. In the morning, I found my Ipad 2 not only hadn’t charged, but was dead as a rock. When put on the charger, I could get an apple logo to show up and a “hook up to itunes” restore message, but it would turn off and not power on under battery as soon as it was unplugged.

I ended up driving down to the Apple Store in Bellevue Square. The place was a complete zoo, but Apple seemed to have enough employees on hand to keep everything moving along. I proceeded to the back of the store where the very busy “Genius Bar” was located and I was intercepted before I could quite get to the counter by a guy asking me if I had an appointment. I said I didn’t and he pulled out his Ipad, asked me some basic questions about what was going on and created an appointment for me for 10 minutes later. In the meantime, I wandered the store looking at various accessories and doodads that I probably shouldn’t buy. A tech flagged me down, questioned me about what I was experiencing, plugged it into a testing device, verified the problem and hooked me up with a new, non-refurbished unit within another 15-20 minutes. I got home, plugged the replacement in, restored my most recent backup and had my replacement unit fully functional in hardly anytime at all. Granted, not everyone lives by an Apple Store, but I was very pleased by how quickly my problem was resolved. Oh, and the new unit did not have any back-light issues.

This Ipad 2 replacement process is a huge contrast to the long, uncertain chain of events that one must go through if a PC breaks down. Especially troubling is how manual (and thus difficult for a casual end user) the process is of migrating one’s programs, settings and data from one PC to another. The PC world has had decades to get this right and still gets it profoundly wrong. Quite simply, Apple with their Ipads and Iphones currently offers the easiest and most seamless old profile -> new device migration in the computing world.

Posted in iOS, Operating Systems, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Hands on with Ipad 2

Posted by Deliverator on 17th March 2011

Well, I wound up getting myself an Ipad 2. I was able to sell my Ipad 1 via Gazelle for a substantial percentage of a new one, so the cost of upgrading was minimal. I ended up visiting 5 stores on the first day of sales (March 11th) before I finally found an Apple store at University Village with any left. I ended up getting a 16 GB model with Verizon 3g. As with the first Ipad, I purchased a 3g model not for the 3g connectivity but for the GPS functionality. I’ve been using the new Ipad 2 pretty heavily the last few days and thought I would share my thoughts:

-The Ipad 2 feels very different when held due to the curved edges and flat back. The flat back is really nice, as the first generation Ipad had a curved back and wouldn’t lay flat on a table and tended to want to scoot around when used. The curved edges are frankly quite annoying, as it makes it extremely difficult to plug in the main dock connector and the 1/8th” headphone port doesn’t fully mechanically support the headphone plug on all sides, making it difficult to determine if headphones are properly seated. This may also prevent the use of certain headphone designs.

-The Ipad 2 includes only a single speaker like the Ipad 1. It would have been nice if they had gone with stereo speakers, but that said, the speaker on the Ipad 2 is a LOT better. The original’s speaker was overly quiet and wasn’t much good for watching movies and the like.

-Upgrading from the Ipad 1 to Ipad 2 was super-easy. I ran a full backup of my first generation Ipad and then synced my Ipad 2. Itunes transfered all my apps and data. I only needed to manually restore settings for a few program, such as my twitter client, online banking client, etc. which don’t allow their data to be backed up. This had to be the easiest old computer->new computer migration I’ve ever done.

-I purchased an official Apple leather “smart cover” to go with my unit. I really like Apple’s minimal approach to providing screen protection. The smart cover adds only minimal thickness, provides scratch protection when you have the Ipad in a bag and folds up into a stand giving you two useful viewing angles. It also engages/disengages sleep mode on the unit. I expect this cover to be a good solution for most users. I doubt it will be the final solution for me, however. The Ipad 2, like the Ipad 1, is very slick, literally. There is no texture to the back surface, making it difficult to grasp one handed. I bought a Street Skin for my first unit and will likely do the same when they introduce an Ipad 2 version.

-The cameras are really crappy, especially for still shots. Grainy, low resolution, motion blur, poor light sensitivity are all words I would use in connection with these cameras. I really wish Apple hadn’t gone so low end in this area. The two upsides to the inclusion of cameras is that Apple has come out with a good video editing program for the Ipad for the first time and the camera works with most iOS apps designed for the Iphone. This has enabled me to deposit checks into my bank account without needing to visit my bank, for instance.

All in all, I really like the Ipad 2 over the Ipad 1, but it definitely has its faults.

Posted in iOS, Operating Systems, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Ipad 2

Posted by Deliverator on 2nd March 2011

I own an original model Ipad and use it daily. Today, Apple announced Ipad 2. Here are my thoughts on it and whether it is enough for me to upgrade:

Pluses:

-Ipad 2 is thinner and a little lighter than the original, while retaining the same general width x height and screen size of the original. The slight reduction in weight will be nice for those who use it as an book reader, as arm fatigue was a definite factor with the original.

-Ipad 2 has dual cameras. I’ve never seen video conferencing as much of a killer app, but I know some people that were really dieing for this with the Ipad 1.

-Ipad 2 has a new, faster dual core processor with what is being described as “9x” faster graphics. I am all for increased performance, but it is up in the air whether many app makers will write applications that make use of the faster subsystems for risk of alienating the large Ipad 1 user base.

-Magnetic screen cover system is a big plus in my view, as it lets you protect the Ipad’s screen when putting it in a bag or (in my case) large pocket, while adding little to the dimensions of the unit. Most cases for the Ipad 1 greatly increased the unit’s apparent bulk.

-3G models available for Verizon and not just AT&T.

-Has some extra motion sensing capability (3 axis gyro) compared to Ipad 1, which should be nice for gaming.

-One of the big pluses in my view is the new HDMI video output adapter, which works for ALL applications. This is a big change from Ipad 1 where applications had to be specially coded AND approved for TV output use. Think Hulu+, games, etc.

-Pricing is being kept competitive or slightly lower than similar Android devices

Negatives:

-No built in SD slot for downloading photos. This should have been do-able even with the thinner bezel of Ipad 2. The lack of a SD slot was a consistent minus cited by many Ipad 1 users/reviewers. I hate that Apple tries to make their devices aesthetically clutter free at the expense of needing to buy and carry a lot of easily lost adapters & dongles.

-No USB port. Nuff said. Wasn’t a big issue with me, but I know a lot of people wanted it.

-The Ipad 2 apparently still has only 256 MB of ram. I’ve bumped up against this consistently in my everyday use of the Ipad 1, which has the same amount, especially when doing tabbed browsing.

-Still requires an external power brick for charging versus being able to charge via USB on most computers, even if it takes significantly longer.

-Still no syncing over WiFi.

Externalities:

-Apple is beginning to enforce much harsher terms on 3rd parties wishing to supply content to Ipad users. They are essentially requiring any content being provided to users to also be available for purchase through their own content stores at the same price, so that they can get a (sizeable) cut of the pie. This will apparently apply even when the purchase is made “off site” and not as an in-app purchase. This will effectively make it impossible / not cost effective for competitors like Kindle, Nook and Sony to offer eBooks to Ipad users and will likely broadly apply to other types of content as well. I find this move to be incredibly anti-competitive and is a HUGE minus for me. One of the things which has made Ipad such a compelling part of my daily life is its ability to consume media from a variety of sources, whether that is news, books, music, podcasts or video. By constraining my choices to what Apple itself offers, they have greatly limited the appeal of the whole platform to me. If it wasn’t for this single thing, I would probably buy an Ipad 2. As is, if these changes take effect, I may sell my existing Ipad 1 in favor of an Android alternative.

Posted in General, iOS, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.

 

Posted in General, Mac, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Belated thoughts on the Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

I’ve been using a Nokia N900 as my cell for about 4 months now. I usually write about new gadgets in my collection much sooner than this, but with the N900 I wanted to take some more time for emotion to dampen down and to see how the platform matures before giving my take. Here are some thoughts:

Hardware

-The n900 is a big beautiful brick of a device. It feels very solid and well engineered cradled in your hands. I don’t worry much about accidental damage when I purchase a Nokia device, which is a big consideration for me, as I am a bit of a clutz.

-The screen is bright, beautiful, and daylight viewable. The resolution on the Iphone and similar smartphones is a joke compared to the screen on the n900. I wish Nokia had stayed somewhere in the 4.1 inch range or even gone a little larger, rather than shrinking the screen to 3.5″, which is a bit squint inducing to my eyes these days. The screen surface is a bit softer than those of the previous Nokia tablets, enough that I felt the need to purchase a screen protector. The screen also gathers fingerprints to such an extent that I was whipping it off multiple times a day with a microfiber cloth.

-The resistive digitizer is ultra-precise and has never needed any sort of calibrations. I’ve never had a problem with a touchscreen on a Nokia device. I’ve never found multi-touch to be much more than a gimmick in terms of usability and don’t like the other trade-offs from using a capacitive touchscreen. I really prefer using a stylus, or the edge of a fingernail in most situations due to better precision and not adding fingerprints to the screen.

-I don’t like the positioning of the slide-to-unlock switch or stylus silo. The n900 is really designed to be a two handed, horizontal orientation device and the positioning of these two components is less than optimal. Having the stylus in the lower right also forces you to pickup the phone to draw the stylus when you have it propped on its stand on a desk.

-The headphone and charging ports are located on opposite ends of the device, which makes the N900 awkward to use in a lot of circumstances while charging.

-The charging port is a Micro-USB port, rather than the standard round Nokia connector found on pretty much every other Nokia phone and all previous Nokia Internet Tablets. This forces people to buy new accessories, which is a small but non negligible issue. The bigger problem is that Nokia chose to use a surface mount micro-usb connector with no mechanical stabilization other than a few solder pads and wishful thinking, rather than a proper through hole connector. A large number of users have managed to pull this connector right out when detaching the charging cable, or place enough strain on the connector to stress the solder joints, resulting in intermittent or total loss of charging ability. Nokia’s response to user with this issue has been less than forthright or consistent. This is a design and manufacturing error, period, and is not a result of improper treatment by users. Users who experience this issue either in or out of warranty should receive a priority replacement of their device and not be forced to wait 6-8 weeks. I am absolutely dreading that this will happen to my N900 at some point. I am being extremely careful when attaching and detaching my charger and have taken the additional step of filing down two overly large metal nubs on the tip of the Nokia supplied charger, which are designed to prevent the charger from slipping out accidentally, which exacerbates the issue by requiring much greater force to be used to detach the charging cable. Most other Micro-USB cables I have also have these two nubs, but they are much less prominent than on the Nokia official charger. Just to be safe, I filed the nubs on all my cables down to almost nothing.

-The kickstand integrated into the N900’s battery cover plate is a bad joke, especially when compared to the excellent, full device width, adjustable stands built into the N800 and N810. The N900’s stand only has one viewing angle, and it is one which is suboptimal in almost any use case for the device. It is located so far to the extreme left of the device that virtually any pressure on the screen causes he device to wobble or fall over. This is a major step back in design for Nokia. It would have been better to leave it out entirely, rather than leave it there for everyone to comment on in virtually every review I’ve seen. A laser cut stand designed by a member of the Internet Tablet Talk community has proven to be a hot seller.

-The bezel around the otherwise excellent 5mp camera is chrome and allows light to reflect into the camera, especially when using the flash. This causes many pictures to have a nasty haze to them. There is also a piece of blue plastic that is too close causing many pictures to have a bluish tinge. This issue can largely be fixed with a sharpie marker, but I am surprised it slipped through QA. A cell phone accessory manufacturer could make a lot of money selling replacement backs for the N900 which fixes this issue and includes a better stand.

-The battery life is pretty abysmal. I find myself hard pressed to get through a full day without throwing the N900 back on the charger for an hour. For the first time in my life, I’ve purchased a car charger for a phone. I also bought a portable external battery from iGO for those times when I just know I won’t be able to plug in during the day. The included battery should really have been about 50% higher capacity, even at the cost of additional size/thickness to the device. Mugin, a 3rd party battery manufacturer, appears to be making an extended capacity battery along with a replacement backplate, but the backplate appears to be extremely basic and doesn’t appear to have a stand.

-In general, I LOVE the guts of the N900. The processor is an extremely zippy OMAP which provides enough ooomph for substantive applications to actually feel fluid. 256 MB of ram and a large pagefile make for useful multitasking. I often times have 6+ applications running simultaneously on my N900. 32 GB of flash gives plenty of space for my media files, and there is also a Micro-SD card slot for expansion. The n900 has a 3d accelerator powerful enough to play Quake 3. There is both an FM radio receiver and transmitter. The GPS unit is much better than on any previous Nokia device Ive used and gets a lock quickly and maintains a lock in more challenging locations than the one in the N810 or N95. It isn’t as good or as accurate as the MTK chipset Bluetooth GPS I got to use with my N800 and N810, but it is good enough that I haven’t felt compelled to carry the Bluetooth GPS, either. The N900 also has TV-out, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc….

Software

-The N900 UI is quite fluid and easy to navigate. I like the concept of multiple virtual desktops on which you can organize your various widgets, application shortcuts, etc. I generally keep my most often accessed program shortcuts on one screen, keep all my phone and communications related widgets and shortcuts on another and keep a screen-full of iconized website bookmarks on a third.

-I LOVE the multitasking experience on the N900. I often times have a half dozen or more applications running on the N900 simultaneously and rarely experience anything like a slowdown. This undoubtedly is part of the reason for my dreadful battery life, but I ultimately have the choice of how I want to use my device.

-The Nokia Internet Tablets have always offered what I consider the best pocket-able Internet experience out there and the N900 is no exception. The browser is as close to a desktop level browsing experience as I have found in a device this size. Broadly speaking, all those rich Web 2.0 sites just work. The n900 is also one of the few phones with real Adobe Flash support. Go ahead, use Youtube. For all you social networking types, the multitasking abilities of the N900 let you stay constantly connected to Twitter, Facebook, IM, RSS feeds, etc. all the time without needing to manually switch back and forth between apps as with some of the single tasking or pseudo multi-tasking alternatives out there. The N900 is also the first cell phone to receive a officially sanctioned/produced mobile version of the Firefox browser, complete with plugin support (Weave Sync, Adblock Plus, etc.).

-The Maemo 5 OS powering the n900 offers very close to the full Linux desktop stack of libraries and frameworks, making it very easy for Linux developers to write and port existing apps to the platform. Additionally, because ARM is already a target platform for Debian (the flavor of Linux from which Maemo shares its roots), a lot of existing Debian tools and apps work essentially out of the box. There is a project called Easy-Debian to make installing a full Debian environment alongside Maemo even easier.

-I really like the combined approach of having a commercial app store (Ovi Store) alongside the traditional Linux application repository approach. Nokia has also developed a multiple repository approach by which users can choose from application sources based on how much testing they have gone through. There is no need to “jailbreak” an N900. You can install and run anything you like. On the flip side, as a developer, you can write anything you like and not have to worry about having your application being rejected by the boys in Cupertino for some unclear, unstated reason. Maemo is quite simply by FAR the most open phone platform for phones as of this post.

-The commercial application market for the N900 is still quite new, but community developed applications have filled most of my mobile app needs at this point. Here are a list of just a few of the apps I routinely use on my N900:

Firefox – Firefox on the N900 is still a bit slower browsing option than the default Microb browser, but on the other hand it supports tabbed browsing and a decent subset of the full desktop version of Firefox’s plugins. I love using the Weave plugin to sync my bookmarks, passwords, etc between my desktop and N900. I also highly enjoy not having to look at ads on a mobile device thanks to Adblock+…

VNC, SSH & Remote Desktop – I frequently use these to check in on servers I administer while out and about. This can be a real lifesaver when you need to fight a fire at an awkward moment.

Pidgin – I use this for my mobile IM needs, although there are now plugins for the built in conversations application that probably make this unnecessary.

Witter – This is an excellent twitter application that is actually better than most desktop twitter clients I have used.

Gpodder – Nice podcasting client

Xchat – Cause all the people / Turing AI’s worth talking to still hang out on IRC.

FM radio app – Lets you use the built in FM radio tuner.

Canola – This was probably the best overall media player for previous Maemo devices. It works on the N900 as well, but there are some significant bugs/gotchas that the authors have been slow to fix.

Maemo Mapper – This is an excellent mapping/gps application that can use a variety of map sources. Was one of the killer apps on the previous Maemo devices. The n900 version was a bit slow out the door, but seems to be in rapid development now.

FBReader – Excellent ebook reading software which supports a wide variety of file formats and is highly configurable

Wizard Mounter – Lets me mount windows file shares on the N900. I transfer most of my media wirelessly this way.

Battery-eye – Lets you see a detailed view of battery status / discharges rates and helps you figure out if a particular application is draining battery at a abnormal/unacceptable rate perhaps due to a bug.

DialCentral – DialCentral is a client for managing and making phonecalls through Google Voice.

Skype and Sip VOIP support – I can’t think of another phone that gives you as  many options for making low cost VOIP calls out of the box and in such a highly integrated way. Making a VOIP call is just as easy as any other phone call on the N900.

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Really Digging the Lenovo X300

Posted by Deliverator on 14th December 2009

I was at a Cameras West in Bellevue searching in vain for the cable accessory kit for a Canon D10 when I spotted a real steal of a deal sitting unnoticed on a high shelf behind the counter hiding amongst a crop of netbooks, a new in box Lenovo Thinkpad X300 for a mere $800. This laptop was selling for ~$3000 a year and a half ago. While this notebook has been replaced in the lineup by the moderately updated X301, the X300 is still one of the best constructed, no compromise ultra-portables around. The specs of my unit are as follows:

-Core 2 Duo L7100 at 1.2 GHZ
-2 GB DDR2-667
-60 GB 1.8″ Samsung SSD
-1440×900 13.3″ display
-DVD Burner
-Wifi, Bluetooth
-3x USB ports, VGA, Gig Ethernet
-3 cell battery

My unit came with XP Pro installed, which I promptly ditched for Windows 7 64bit. Lenovo has official drivers for Windows 7 on the X300 and their complete gamut of system utilities available for download from their website, but most of the hardware is supported out of the box or via a quick Windows Update, so most of the Lenovo downloads are unnecessary. I also upgraded the ram to 4 GB, which only required the addition of a single SO-DIMM. The two ram slots are behind a thoughtfully provided access door which makes upgrading a breeze. The two ram slots make it possible to upgrade to as much as 8 GB, although 4 GB modules are currently hideously expensive. Two of them will cost you about $370!

What I likes:
-Heavy duty Thinkpad “brick” construction, yet only 3 pounds. This includes things such as rigid internal metal frame, keyboard spill tray/drain holes, metal block hinges, latching screen, etc. This thing just oozes quality construction that few other laptop makers even come close to matching.
-The typically brilliant full sized Thinkpad keyboard we have all come to know and love.
-This thing has both a track stick and a trackpad. Some of Lenovo’s newer, cheaper ultraportables only have the trackstick.
-The Thinklight on the X300 does a much better job of illuminating the keyboard than the one found on my Thinkpad Z61m.
-Did I mention this thing is only three pounds?!?!
-The USB ports are separated from each other by enough space to plug in bulky adapters without blocking anything, something overlooked in a lot of laptop designs.
-The fingerprint reader does a much better and quicker job of reading my fingerprints and logging me in than the one on my Z61m
-The system feels very snappy in all the tasks I have thrown at it. I’ve read a few reviews that have balked at the mere 1.2 GHZ, but this 1.2 GHZ Core 2 feels a lot snappier than the 1.8 GHZ Core Duo in my Z61m. For the type of tasks I do on the run, the processing power in this machine more than satisfies me. I have my Core i7 desktop at home for games, etc…
-The SSD in this machine provides faster transfer rates and lower seek times than any conventional laptop HDD I’ve used. I will probably replace it with a Lenovo X18-m or similar TRIM supporting SSD once they get cheaper, which will make this system even snappier.
-From the ever so slightly rubberized feel of the casing to the silky feel of the keys, this machine just begs to be touched. Thinkpad’s black on black color scheme might get lost in all the flashy neon and metal trim you see on other laptops these days, but for me it is understate, classic minimalism at its best. This is one sexy beast imo.
-The relatively full complement of ports and optical drive mean this is one ultra-light you can actually do meaningful work on.
-The screen is pretty much the perfect resolution for the size and has a beautiful LED backlight. Way brighter and nicer looking the my Z61m.
-I can use it in my laptop and there are barely any warm, much less hot spots.
-The keyboard is absolutely rigid. I can type on it at speed with no slop whatsoever.

Not so much:
-The X300 doesn’t have the now standard x-in-1 media reader, which is disappointing as I intend to use this for culling photos on trips. It also doesn’t have an ExpressCard slot, so I can’t add a card reader or much of anything else by anything other than USB. I’m considering switching to micro-SDHC in my cameras and carrying one of those so-tiny-they-are-barely-there readers on my keychain, so that I don’t have one more easily lost adapter/cable/widget in my daily carry bag.
-The 3 cell battery that the unit came with only gives 2-3 hours of useful work. I will definitely be picking up the 6 cell battery and possibly the 3 cell bay battery which can be easily swapped with the DVD drive to give me a closer to a full workday’s use without needing to plug in. This is really a necessity for me as I am often times bouncing around town seeing clients with little to no opportunity to plug in for any length of time, save for the possibility of recharging in my car.

I really love the X300 and hope I get as many years of active use from it as from my Z61M, which is still chugging along in Thinkpad style despite all my abuse.

Addendum:

I have since picked up the 6 cell extended length battery and 3 cell “bay” battery which replaces the optical drive. In doing so, I encountered the first of what I consider real faults in the X300 design.

Swapping the optical drive for the bay battery is fairly easy, but not convenient in the field. Unlike the “Ultrabay” system found on most Thinkpads, swapping in/out the optical drive/battery requires the removal of a screw. The optical drive is itself quite fragile and really needs a hard shell case of its own if you plan on carrying it with you in a bag. I feel like a hard plastic carrying case to hold the battery/optical drive and tiny screwdriver should have been included in the price of the battery.

Additionally, the X300 drains power from the bay battery first instead of from the main battery. In my opinion, the bay battery should have been the “reserve” battery, as it is not hot swappable. If the drain order had been reverse, one could drain the main battery and still be able to swap in a charged one without needing to stop working, shut down the computer, swap the battery and reboot. If you are a long haul air traveler, you get the importance of this feature.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

Notice Anything Different?

Posted by Deliverator on 20th October 2009

Ryan pulled a late night and did a final sync of data from Frankenputin (old server) to Minimus. I mainly sat back and let Ryan do the heavy lifting, just acting as cheerleader, head scratcher in chief and occasional googler of error messages. There were some struggles with Mysql and the usual Gallery puking, but eventually the beast was wrestled into submission. A few port forwarding changes and now everything is being served up by Minimus. Frankenputin has been powered down, quite possibly for good. My garage no longer sounds like a jet taking off and I kinda miss it.

If you are a silverfir.net user, please poke your head into infrequently visited dark corners and see if you find anything growing there. I plan to consign Frankenputin to its new role as boat anchor and kick Minimus into a closet as soon as it is verified that the new server is stable and no additional settings/data need importing from Frankenputin.

Posted in Blogging, Emulation and Virtualization, Linux, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Nokia N900 – To Buy Or Not To Buy

Posted by Deliverator on 25th September 2009

Ive owned all three Nokia Internet Tablets (Nokia 770, N800 and N810) and all three have been part of my “everyday carry.” Each upgrade decision has not been easy for me. Some design changes between models were extremely offputting for me. For instance, I really liked the extremely tactile, discrete buttons on the 770, which made it easily the best ebook reader of the bunch and the metal screen cover which made me feel at ease when jamming it in a pocket full of keys, coins and god knows what else. Still, each new generation has, imo, at the time of its release, offered the best pocketable “full fledged” Internet experience of any device on the market.

As soon as this week, Nokia is releasing their new N900 device to the US market and I am finding myself more reluctant to buy than on any previous release. Here are some of the main reasons why:

Failure to create an attractive developer ecosystem

– The N900 will come in at more than $620 after taxes/shipping to my location in the US. There is no carrier subsidy option for US consumers. Making the device this expensive instantly relegates it to a niche, “premium user” market category, which instantly makes it less attractive to commercial application developers. Smartphones like the Iphone 3g and various Android handsets all have robust app marketplaces in part because they are getting the devices into the hands of users through lower price points and are making more of their profits on the back end. Even relative latecomers like the Palm Pre are seeing app marketplace growth. Pricing is key to attracting developers.

– Nokia has announced that future versions of the Maemo OS will be based around a different graphical framework than is currently used (QT vs GTK+) which, given previous release cycles, only gives commercial developers about a year’s time to profitably exploit the current platform. Nokia has not even committed to releasing future Maemo OS versions for the N900 and has a poor trackrecord of supporting previous NIT devices post sale. This provides a further disincentive to both the consumer to make an initial purchase and for developers to target the platform.

Too many conflicting design imperatives to make this either a good phone or a good internet tablet-

-Nokia has done away with the 4.1 inch 800*480 screens of the previous NITs and is trying to cram the same resolution into a screen which is only 3.5.” This resolution was already highly squint inducing on the previous devices. Although a device mounted stylus is thankfully included, almost all Maemo UI elements have been significantly enlarged to be more finger friendly. All this ultimately means less useful information displayed on screen and in an increasingly smaller space. At the same time, there are now a fair number of pocket-able, competing devices which carry 1024*600 resolution screens in a similar size to the original NITs.

-The D-Pad has been done away with entirely and the keyboard is now a three row variety placing many commonly used keys on second functions or pop up symbol menus. The spacebar is shrunken and extremely awkwardly placed to the far right of the keypad. There are many better keyboards available on competing devices.

-The innovative full width  integral kickstand of the N800 and N810 has been done away with and replaced by an off center one under the camera which likely won’t work at all on non-rigid surfaces and offers extremely poor viewing angle options for watching video (which seems to me one of the better selling points of the N900)

-Almost all the applications on the device can only be used in landscape mode, which pretty much necessitates two handed use for most common functions. This will make using the device as a phone extremely awkward imo.

-The browser only supports flash 9.4. While this is better than almost any other phone, it isn’t current. I have lost confidence in Nokia releasing significant updates to Maemo devices post sale, particularly when it comes to proprietary, licensed components. I don’t feel like when I purchase a Nokia devices I am going to get a meaningful, up to date, web experience for years to come.

-The N900 does not support MMS. The Iphone has been HEAVILY criticized for this and to not differentiate on this point is just stupid imo.

Misc Hardware Criticisms

– The N900 has only an internal micro-SDHC slot for expansion. While it has 32 GB of built in storage and it shows up as a USB mass storage device, I have found transfer rates via this mode to be soo slow that I’ve found it far more efficient to pop out the memory card and use a USB reader to transfer music, movies, etc. The N800 really had the ideal situation, with not one but TWO SDHC card slots. This made the N800 supremely useful as a portable device with which to work with photos from a REAL camera.

-The USB port on the N900 can be used for charging (yay!) but uses a crappy micro-usb connector. It sounds like the N900 has even less support for using the USB port in host-mode. Previous Nokia devices were fairly popular among the linux/custom hardware crowd due to it being one of the smallest Linux devices you could meaningfully hook up to a variety of USB devices.

I don’t mind the N900 being a phone. I would LOVE to move from my current N95+N810 two pocket solution to just one. I just think the N900 compromises too many of the Internet Tablet aspects of the equation in order to do so. I would like to see a device similar in size or even a little bigger than the current N810 with both phone and tablet functionality, a better range of tactile buttons, a full size hostmode USB port and an externally accessible “press to eject” SDHC card slot. From what I can see, moving in that direction would appeal to the vast majority of current NIT users (read purchasers) and I just don’t think the direction they are heading will create broad appeal in new market segments anyways.

Posted in Linux, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

When Presentation is Everything – Coraline Needs 3D!

Posted by Deliverator on 27th May 2009

I recently learned that Coraline was going to be released this month and I hoped for a true 3d release. Unfortunately, the only announced options were either conventional 2d or Anaglyphic 3D (those cheesy red/blue glasses that moviegoers rightfully consigned to history’s trash heap back in the 1950’s). I saw Coraline in 3D in a theater using the excellent RealD 3D projection system. I felt the presentation really added something to the experience and can’t imagine watching Coraline in anything other than true 3d. It may be a while till such an excellent 3d system as RealD becomes practical for home users with budgets less than several hundred thousand dollars, but there are plenty of excellent 3d home theater options available for under 5 grand.

Here is a listing of 3d projector options at stereo3d.com. The DepthQ series of projectors from Infocus for instance supports high framerates and can be found for as little as $2300 and uses commonly available active LCD shutter glasses to achieve its effect.

Samsung has a line of DLP based 3D capable HDTV sets that all support 3D via shutter glasses starting at as little as $1000.

There are numerous 3D LCD monitors (some even sold through big box retailers like Frys) capable of displaying true 3d video, some without even needing glasses.

I have a Headplay Personal Cinema Display, which is available for around $400, and can display 3d content from several different input sources.

In short, the technology for quality home 3d viewing is out there and available at modest cost. There are a ton of 3d movies coming out this year in theaters including Pixar’s UP and James Cameron’s much anticipated Avatar. 3D has already shown it can help make movies on the front end without increasing production costs greatly, but movies have lately made a large percentage of their revenues on the post theater DVD market and I doubt nearly as many people will want to purchase watered down 2d version of movies they first saw in 3d. While not a lot of home theaters are currently 3d equipped, the cost to do so is fairly minimal and the additional costs of releasing a frame sequential 3d DVD alongside the 2d and Anaglyphic releases are likely minimal as well. It costs the studios little to grow the market by releasing frame sequential titles and the only way they are ever going to solve this chicken and the egg problem is by doing so.

Posted in General, Media, Movies, Photography, Rants and Raves, Windows CE | No Comments »