New laptop!

Posted on 28 January 2010 in Gadgets

Back at the end of October, I asked whether when I bought a new laptop I should get one with a Core 2 Duo T9600 or a i7 720QM. They both cost the same, and there seemed to be pros and cons to each.

After weighing things up, and particularly with the advice of Greg Bray in the comments there, I'd pretty much decided on the i7, so on 2 November I was ready to buy. I went to the Dell shop... and discovered that they'd added GBP400 or so onto the price for both models in the spec that I wanted. Welcome to the pre-Christmas price rise.

So I waited until early January, and finally the price for the i7 returned to where it had been (though the T9700 was still expensive). And last Thursday, the new machine arrived. i7 720QM quad-core at 1.6GHz (up to 2.8GHz when only one core is active), 4Gb RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4670 with 1Gb RAM (which can do 432 GigaFLOPS[!]), Windows 7 Pro 64 bit, 256Gb SSD, and a 16" RGBLED screen (if I understand that correctly, the backlight is an array of LEDs in groups of 3, and it adjusts the backlight colour in a screen segment to match the colour in that part of the screen). All for the same price as the cheapest 15" MacBook Pro.

It's lovely. The build quality is excellent -- the only comparable machines I've tried have been the MacBook Pros and the Air, which are nice but slower and considerably more expensive. (To be fair to Apple, the MacBook Pros are better-made than this Dell. But it's a close thing, and I don't think it's worth the extra. YMMV.) The screen is the best I've seen since I saw high-end CRTs on SGI Workstations back in the 90s.

Size and weight-wise, it's comparable to a MacBook 17" -- smaller, but in the same category. So I wouldn't recommend you get one as a netbook -- but as a desktop replacement, it really looks like it's going to be perfect.

The only thing that sucks is the face recognition login widget, which has so far managed to recognise me once. Out of 30 tries. But hey, it can be uninstalled.

New gadget: Nokia N900

Posted on 23 December 2009 in Gadgets, Linux

I got an early Christmas present today! Robert was able to find a Nokia N900 at a very reasonable price, and Lola decided to get it for me as combined Christmas and birthday presents...

The is a fascinating device. Nokia bill it as a "mobile computer"; it has about the CPU power of a 10-15-year-old PC (say, a Pentium II), but also has a modern graphics processor, and it runs Maemo, Nokia's rebranded version of Debian Linux. Earlier this month, Robert showed me his one running his own port of Frotz, and demonstrated that it had a full version of Linux; I saw the video of it running WebGL later on the same evening, and fell in love :-)

One thing I've noticed, though, is that although you can get a full Debian install running, it takes a little work and there's no good step-by-step documentation. I'll post about that next.

Dear lazyweb: To i7 or not to i7?

Posted on 28 October 2009 in Gadgets

So, my home laptop is finally on its last legs. I'm sure a full reinstall would help, but to be honest now that I'm playing with WebGL and now OpenCL (a new standard for number-crunching using graphics cards, which sounds like it has interesting Resolver One possibilities) has appeared, a Centrino Pentium M at 1.6Ghz and a crappy Intel graphics card really won't cut the mustard. Add on to that the fact that I'm dropping my home desktop machine and becoming a laptop-only person, and it's really time to change.

The most tempting lappy out there for me is the Dell Studio XPS 16, which is extremely high-specced, has a very well-reviewed screen, and has what looks to me like an underpriced SSD upgrade (£240 upgrades you from a 500GB 7,200rpm drive to a 256GB SSD). The only downside I've noted is that apparently they run quite hot, but so long as I keep it on the arm of my armchair or on the desk, the risks should be minimal.

My big question is, though, which processor? I don't want a fully-loaded system (largely because I can't afford it) so the choice appears to be between a Core 2 Duo T9600 (2.80Ghz, 1066MHz FSB, 6MB cache) or a i7 720QM (1.60Ghz, 1333MHz FSB, 6MB cache). They're pretty much the same price. The i7, when running single-threaded code, overclocks itself using Intel's "Turbo Boost" and runs at 2.8Ghz anyway. And the benchmarks are better for the i7, so while it's hard to work out what's likely to be best for my ultimate usage patterns, the i7 looks most likely to win out speedwise. OTOH it consumes more power, which means that (a) battery life will be worse and (b) the heat problems that people have mentioned will be worse. And I'd rather not have a laptop that turns into a small puddle of silicon while I'm using it, bringing the Thomas line to a premature close -- or that, alternatively, makes a noise like a jet fighter taking off every time I run something computationally non-trivial.

Sadly, googling for comparisons between the CPUs (even after filtering out all the spammy "shopping comparison sites") didn't really lead to anything useful to help me make a decision. So, does anyone reading here have any ideas?

(UPDATE I got the i7)


Posted on 18 March 2009 in Gadgets

I'm very tempted to switch to SSDs for my home machines' boot drives. Videos like this aren't entirely representative of what's easily affordable, but it's pretty impressive...

Dear lazyweb: what is is about Linux and WPA?

Posted on 11 January 2008 in Eee, Gadgets, Linux, OLPC XO, Rants

I don't think I really have enough of a readership for this blog to get an answer to this, but... perhaps someone passing by will know. Why is WPA support invariably so bad in Linux-based OSes?

Three examples:

  1. Despite having been a Linux user since 1992, I held off on switching my primary laptop, an aging Fujitsu-Siemens machine, from Windows for many years because no distribution I could find supported WPA out of the box with any kind of user interface I was willing to spend the time learning. This is not because I'm lazy -- I'm willing to put in weeks to learn web server configuration details, and years to learn programming languages. These things are inherently difficult and cannot be reasonably simplified. But connecting to an encrypted wireless network? Sure, the underlying tech is as complex as it gets, but if Microsoft can make it easy to use then why did it take so long for anything usable to get into any Linux distro? Sigh. Well, anyway, I eventually tried out Ubuntu 7.10, Gutsy Gibbon, and was delighted to discover that its support was OK. Not as good as Windows XP's, but good enough for me to switch the old lappy over, which I did sometime last autumn, and have never regretted. So, standard defined in 2004 or so, decent support in mid-2007. Hmm.

  2. So along came my new Eee, just before Christmas, and for some reason I have difficulties connecting to my work or home networks. Why? Well, I banged my head against it for a while, and eventually discovered that there was a bug in the scripts used for WPA connections that meant it could not connect if you had a key with a space in it. A bit of digging around on the Eee Wiki helped me sort that one out, but seriously...

  3. Anyhow, I posted earlier on today that I'd not been able to connect my OLPC XO to my work or home networks. No prizes for guessing what the problem was... from the wiki (found via):

    WPA is not working from the User Interface in Build 650! Some OLPCs (including in the G1G1 program) cannot connect to wireless routers protected with the WPA protocol. Although the networks are visible from the OLPC, the stall when user enters a password.

    The first solution they suggest is to switch off WPA. Right. Sorry, but I'm not Bruce Schneier, and there's no way I'm switching to WEP. It's almost enough to send me into some kind of Fake Steve Jobsesque rant.

    Luckily, some kind soul has worked out a hack to work around the problem, so I'll try that. [UPDATE, posted from XO: it works!]

But seriously -- what is the problem? Linux is a great OS, but WPA support seems to be seriously messed up. It can't just be a driver problem, because both the XO and the Eee have OSes built for them by the hardware manufacturers. Does anyone out there know?

New gadget!

Posted on 10 January 2008 in Gadgets, OLPC XO

My OLPC XO arrived today. First impressions:

  • It's quite big!
  • Nice build quality - not as good as the Eee, but then it costs half as much.
  • The "rabbit ear" wifi antennae are incredibly cute.
  • It boots bit slowly compared to the Eee.
  • My first attempt at connecting to wifi failed -- I could easily find out the first steps of what to do, but was foiled when the dialog where you enter the network key refused to close when I hit OK

More later.

Eee, day 2

Posted on 22 December 2007 in Eee, Gadgets

My second day with the Eee has been much better than the first. It has connected happily to every wifi network I've pointed it at, it stayed in standby overnight without problems (though that did drain 70% of its battery power), and although there is no Remote Desktop icon on the default menu, it is installed in the default OS, so a quick Home-T (to pop up a terminal) followed by a rdesktop -f allowed me to connect to my media center PC and use the Eee as a glorified remote control. (If you use the command line above without having used an RDP client on Linux before, you should know that it's control-alt-enter to exit full-screen mode and get back to the local desktop). It's also happily displayed every web page I've visited, though the tiny screen has been problematic with a few -- Google Reader is particularly bad.

The most positive thing? I'm writing this post on the Eee. While I'm still struggling a bit with the tiny keyboard, it's usable -- and getting more so as I adjust.

I think my next step will be to install some interesting development environments on it, so that I can play with them on the to go. I'm thinking Django, Erlang and Squeak. Is there anything else I should be looking at?

Eee PC

Posted on 21 December 2007 in Eee, Gadgets

I received my Eee PC today. Its a lovely little gadget, but my first impression is that it's not ready for prime-time yet.

The machine itself is very neat -- quite tiny, and beautifully-built considering the cost. A quick poke around the applications shows lots of useful-looking stuff. But in order to use the device, you really have to be on the Internet. And, for me, that was when things started going wrong.

I wanted to connect to a WPA network; however, when I tried to connect to it, the machine stuck in a "Pending" state. A quick poke around the details in the connection dialog showed a weird error -- a message saying something like "Invalid parameter: XXX" where XXX was the second word of the two-word network passphrase. Sudden thought -- perhaps the system was trying to call some kind of command with the passphrase unquoted on the command line? A poke around the EeeUser forums showed that there is a problem with WPA passwords with spaces, and someone has written a simple patch to work around it. The fix was, as I suspected, to add some quotes to a couple of shell scripts; thanks due to EeeUser forum member Cmiller82, who packaged everything up nicely so that it was easy enough for a fairly-experienced Linux user to fix.

That all looked sensible, and I applied the patch, restarted the machine, and tried to reconnect. The old error disappeared -- but it still stuck in "Pending", and now appeared to be failing to be able to get a DHCP lease. Even worse, when I left the machine alone for a while, it hung completely! Even the trackpad refused to work. Time to press the power switch for a few seconds to force it to power down.

Once the machine came up again, I tried reconnecting -- and, mirabile dictu, it worked!

So, we'll see how it stands up to the next few days' work. But... silly bugs in the scripts that make up the operating system? Patching shell scripts by hand to get WPA working? Random hangs? Not a great start.

I think I'll hold off recommending one of these to my mother for a couple more revisions of the OS and hardware. After all, it's been more than a decade since she wrote her last compiler.