Dan Newcome on technology

I'm bringing cyber back

Archive for January 2013


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I’m in the middle of reconfiguring my computing environment for the new year, and I’m splitting up the role that my laptop has served for the last year or two. I ditched having a desktop a while back, settling on getting a pretty powerful laptop instead. That was something of a tradeoff since the then-current generations of desktops were quad-core machines and the laptops that I was looking at were dual core.

I don’t like lugging around big laptops, and I haven’t owned anything over 14″ in over 5 years. My current Lenovo X200 feels like a pinnacle in ultraportable computing power, but sadly it’s getting a little bit dated and isn’t quite capable of doing the heavy lifting that I need out of it now. I could refresh to the new X230 but I’m looking to change things up a bit (going Mac).

This got me thinking a little bit about the roles of physical devices in our computing lives. I have a powerful computing device that I carry around in my pocket all the time that could do most of the non-programming tasks that I do day-to-day but the form factor is too small and it is actually very expensive to replace (iPhone). However, bigger devices like the (still expensive) iPad are awkward to use in different ways. Typing on my iPhone is easier for me than trying to touch-type on the iPad, and then you still need to compromise on how the iPad is oriented in order to make it work well.

Why am I bringing all this up?

I’ve had a few thoughts that are all converging on one idea – that the netbook is actually a good solution for what I’m looking for. I know that this flash-in-the-pan category is all but dead now, but after owning an iPad for a few years, I know that the tablet form factor just isn’t what I’m looking for. Sure I could get a Bluetooth keyboard and a stand, but then what do you have really? A netbook? Not really, since now you have a special-purpose touch platform masquerading as something resembling a laptop. And apparently I’m not the only one that’s thinking this way.

During the time I’ve been writing this post, there has been some debate in the news over the fate of the entire netbook category. Maybe my timing is perfect for writing about this, as I’ve ordered an Acer Aspire One netbook just a few days ago. I still haven’t received it yet so I’ll have to reserve judgement until next week sometime.

In the meantime I didn’t want to wait any longer to post this since I’ve been seeing a lot of netbook articles recently.

My initial thoughts on what constitutes an ultraportable productivity device:

Fits in a gallon zip-lock bag
3 lb or lighter
8 hour battery
full-size qwerty keyboard
under 200USD

The idea here is that it needs to be as unobtrusive as possible and still be able to take care of tasks in a pinch. I want to be able to pack it and not think about it. Putting it in a zip lock bag lets me have it camping or on the beach and not worry about it one bit. Presumably with disk encryption and a low enough price, something like this could be very close to worry-free computing, rather than guard-it-with-your-life computing.

Written by newcome

January 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm

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Palm Pre as an ARM development environment

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As I play around with my Raspberry PI, I keep having these flashbacks to the days when I first put my Palm Pre into developer mode. I logged into the phone as root and it was a Linux box!

That was a bit of a revelation to me then. I went ahead and installed GCC and friends and felt smug that I was walking around with a full ARM compiler toolchain in my pocket!

I never did much with that environment (besides use it as a phone of course) but along the way I saw some coding challenges that focused on using mobile devices as development platforms.

I dug my old Pre out of the drawer and plugged it in to pull it out of its deep sleep. I installed novacom and tried to remember the commands to get a terminal connected. My goal was to enable WiFi and just leave it plugged in and on my local network.

There are a few things needed to use the Pre as a general purpose ARM board.

Install Novacom to get a shell over USB:

c:\> novacom -t open tty://

Remount the file system read-write

mount -o rw,remount /

Install dropbear sshd. And enable WiFi on the phone. I just used the normal Palm UI for this part.

I already had the phone in developer mode and I already had the ipkg package manager installed. I won’t go into that here though, you’ll have to look around for information on getting up to the point where this post will help you.

Now, the Pre doesn’t have any GPIO ports or anything like that, so I’m not sure what to do with it besides maybe run a node.js service that I can ping from the Raspberry PI. Or maybe the Palm will work as a WiFi router attached to the PI’s USB port?

Written by newcome

January 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm

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First thoughts on the 13″ Retina Macbook

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I recently got a new retina Macbook Pro for my main work machine. I had been using a Thinkpad X200 and then a 13″ Macbook Air. I’m very opinionated when it comes to computing devices and the Thinkpad X series is actually one of my favorite laptop designs of all time. I know it isn’t that pretty but it doesn’t get much more functional.

After having used a Thinkpad for so long, the hardest thing I’m having to get used to is the keyboard. To put it nicely I’m not a fan of the new Mac keyboards. I think that Apple could have still made a beautiful chiclet-style keyboard that feels better under the fingers. Lenovo actually went to a chiclet style keyboard for the X230 and they defended it from their loyal fans as being one of the best keyboards that they have ever produced. I haven’t actually used it but forgive me if I have a little bit of blind trust in those designers after having produced my favorite laptop keyboard of all time.

There does seem to be a slight difference between the Air keyboard and the Retina keyboard. The keys feel ever so slightly taller, which is an improvement in my mind. This difference might also be just the fact that my laptop is newer and the keyboard hasn’t been broken in yet. I don’t have a caliper handy to measure the key heights, and visually the difference isn’t really discernible. There is the possibility that there is more key travel, I’m not sure.

One of the most common typos I make as a result of the low-profile keys is that I miss the space bar with my thumb. I also accidentally miss the n and v keys and hit the space bar by accident. I’m still adjusting to the option key placement and the page up/down arrangement (which I submit is a superior design to the common PC keyboard layout where the “big six” are placed somewhere above the arrow keys).

The touchpad is one thing that I think is great. I don’t think it’s better than the Trackpoint on my old X200, but it is certainly on par. Really, I love three-finger drag and tap-to click (neither of which are enabled in the system preferences by default, unbelievably). I miss not having to move my fingers off of the home row keys though. This is one advantage that the trackpoint had that is not likely to be replicated by any other pointing device. I have to admit that there are some times when I accidentally nudge the pointer when typing but it is extremely rare once you get used to the keyboard.

So it kind of seems silly to judge a laptop so harshly on the keyboard and pointing device, but unfortunately that’s a big part of how my laptop gets used. The display and IO devices are very important to me.

Speaking of the display, of course the retina display is really amazing. However, some legacy software doesn’t display well with it. One of the biggest issues I have with this is VirtualBox. When I’m running my Windows virtual machines the emulated display is kind of fuzzy. The VirtualBox guys will probably address this soon, and it’s not a show stopper for me, as it’s still very usable.

The new retina design doesn’t include a DVD drive so the body is a little thinner and smaller than the regular 13″ Mac. It’s also something like a full pound lighter. I weighed mine and it came in at 3.6lb, 0.2lb lighter than my old X200 (which was amazingly light, even with a 9 cell battery).

I had some WiFi speed issues that turned out to be caused by my router, rather than the Mac. I’m not sure what the problem was, but the Air had the same issue. When I switched from the wireless access point provided by my ISP to my own D-Link router, the speed problems went away. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to fix this issue so hopefully this saves a few of you some time.

The other surprise for me was that like the Air, nothing is upgradeable on the Retina. I was hoping to use my new 256GB SSD instead of the 128GB drive that I got, but it turns out not to be possible. In making the body thinner, they have foregone the traditional laptop drive form factor. My understanding is that there are some third parties out there making SSD modules that will fit the Retina, but they are expensive and won’t help me use my existing SSD.

This isn’t intended to be a full review, just my initial thoughts, so I’m not going to get into any details about speed or other hardware. I’m just interested in noting the differences between my beloved Thinkpad and the Air (which I really wish was powerful enough to be my main machine – maybe in the future).

Written by newcome

January 2, 2013 at 5:19 pm

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