The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for September, 2009

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 »

The Last Hard Drive I Will Ever Buy?

Posted by Deliverator on 23rd September 2009

I needed to free up a fair sized hard drive to donate to Minimus and simultaneously had pretty much filled up my main content storage drive on my main desktop PC, so I went to Frys and picked up a Seagate 2 Terabyte drive and proceeded to spend a few days copying data back and forth between my main desktop’s many hard drives in order to free up a 500 GB drive. This is a process I have done MANY times over the years. I still have some data from the first hard disk my family owned, which held a whopping 80 MB (that’s megabytes folks). While doing all this, I realized I had a pretty good cross section of drives manufactured in the last 5 years in my personal possession and couldn’t resist doing some quick benchmarking. I’ve posted a gallery full of the results here and thought I would make a few quick comments on notable trends.

One of the results which is immediately apparent after viewing the results is that as drive capacities have gone up, sequential read speeds have gone up as well. This makes sense, as greater bit density on the platters means that more data passes under the read/write heads for a given unit of arc.

At the same time, random access times have gotten progressively worse.  Using a lower level drive utility like Spinrite on today’s ultra high capacity drives immediately reveals the reason for this trend – today’s drives are having an ever greater problem with seeking to the correct location over the platter in a reasonable amount of time. Spinrite shows a constant barrage of head seeking errors and reliance on error correcting code even with its extremely sequential access patterns. 12 milliseconds used to be a fairly typical random access time on a 7200 RPM hard drive. This has now gone up to more like 15 milliseconds on high density platter drives. My new 2 TB drive actually spins at a mere 5900 RPM, likely because head seeking errors were too high at 7200 RPM. This has lead to the extremely weird precedent of slowing down a drive to increase real world performance.

Real world performance is heavily dictated by random i/o patterns (particularly on fragmented hard drives).  This has created a niche market for lower capacity drives with high spindle speed and low random seek times, such as the Western Digital Raptor (now Velociraptor) line of drives. An older 74 GB model of which can be seen on the results page. This drive easily bests all the other conventional hard drives I’ve tested in terms of random access times (8 ms)  and I can attest to the fact that it basically never needs to re-seek. So, for years now performance enthusiasts have mixed and matched drives in their systems, using drives like those in the WD Raptor line for their main OS and program storage and using huge , poor performing drives for bulk storage of content such as movies, music and photos.

All this discussion is basically moot, as the one solid state disk I tested easily blows every hard disk I’ve ever used away in terms of performance. The OCZ Agility 64 GB SSD, which isn’t a particularly high end SSD, delivered sequential transfer rates 50-100% better than any conventional hard drive tested and random access times soo low I am not sure the benchmark tool even properly measured them (.1 ms). The effect this low random access time has on real world app performance is huge. We are talking Windows cold boot times measured in seconds here.

The vast majority of PC users I’ve encountered in my consulting tend to have under 30 GB of data. For these users, I see no reason for them to ever use a conventional hard disk ever again. Conventional hard disks, in my mind, should today be relegated to bulk storage and backup purposes only and by the time my giant 2 TB hdd fills up, I expect there to be equivalent size SSD equivalents available. It may very well be the last hard disk I ever buy and all I can say is ABOUT TIME.

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

Silverfir’s New Server – Minimus

Posted by Deliverator on 23rd September 2009

As Ryan indicated, Silverfir has some big changes in store for it. Since July of 2006, has been hosted on a server dubbed Frankenputin. Frankenputin consists of a monster Compaq DL380 G2 server with a very nice raid card supporting two arrays comprised of a wopping 18 hard drives. It also has a RILOE (remote insight lights out edition) card which allows for local console access over a seperate IP. This allows an administrator to remotely hard reboot the machine, check the server’s hardware event log, etc. The original intent was to put the machine in a rack at a collocation facility, but we got $ stingy and lazy and ultimately dumped the machine in a spare bedroom at Ryan’s folk’s place. I am surprised this arrangement lasted for as long as it did, as Frankenputin continuously makes noise somewhat akin to a jet taking off. Frankenputin was, quite simply, too much server.

With Ryan’s recent move to California to work at Facebook, Ryan’s folks wanted to reclaim the bedroom. I had no desire to put up with Frankenputin’s noise or power needs at my place long term, so Ryan and I drafted plans to construct a quiet, low power replacement server which could be shoved into a closet at my place.

That server, which I have dubbed Minimus, is now hardware complete and is running alongside Frankenputin in my garage while awaiting final transfer of data and configuration by Ryan. Minimus is based around an ultra low power dual core atom 330 board from Zotac, 4 GB of ram and a OCZ Agility 64 GB SSD for the OS drive. It has a 500 GB conventional hard drive for web site storage needs and a 750 GB HDD for backup. It is running Windows 7 as a host OS (just because) and uses VMWare Server 2 to support guest OSes. Silverfir will be running on Ubuntu Server 9.04 as a guest OS. This arrangement will allow for super easy backups of the server and allow for web based management of the server on much the same basis as the RILOE card in Frankenputin.

I hope this arrangement will allow for as trouble free hosting of as Frankenputin. Only time, ultimately, will tell.

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