The Portable Stack – Is there a place for the EeePC?

Recently I was successfully marketed to by and aquired an Asus EeePC 900 Linux netbook. For those who are not familiar with these puppies, they’re hyper-small fully functional ‘laptop’ computers, scaled down to be the size of a hardcover book. The Netbook article on Wikipedia is a good summary of these devices.

The Asus EeePC 900 is an ‘older’ version (hence the reason I got it for only $149) with 512meg of RAM and a 4 gig SSD drive. It has all the basic features you’d expect for a laptop – wifi, decent screen, touchpad, USB ports, good battery life (about 3.5 hours), etc. In all respects, it should be a geeks dream. A fully functional Linux box that is only a few pounds, and can run for hours.

So why am I considering handing it off to my son?

The main problem is that in the current portable computing environment, the ‘slot’ that Netbooks like the EeePC can fill is narrowing rapidly. On the ‘full laptop’ side, there’s a trend toward longer battery life, lighter designs, and stuffing all the functionality of a full desktop machine into a portable form. Many people don’t even have desktop machines anymore, they use their laptops for all work (that’s my situation). On the other side we have the emergency of smartphones like the iPhone (which I have). The iPhone is an enormously capable device. I can read my email, chat online, browse the web, play games – all the things I’d likely do on my laptop if it were small and light – the space that the EeePC and others are shooting for.

Even in the face of all this, I really did give the EeePC a try. I carried it around for a week, trying to see where I’d use it and where I wouldn’t. I never ‘clicked’ into it in any particular fashion, due to a number of obstacles that were either filled by my iPhone or by my laptop:

  • Very small keyboard
    The EeePC has a very small and somewhat wobbly keyboard. I have quite large hands, and though I could ‘shrink’ my hands down to type away, it took some serious concentration, and really only worked when the EeePC was flat on a desk and I was sitting in a proper chair. If I were in that situation, I’d just use my laptop.

  • Wireless twitchy
    This is probably a fault of the Linux distribution the EeePC uses, but I had all sorts of problems with the machine waking up and not reassociating with any available wifi (it wouldn’t even show networks available).

  • No LEAP support
    The wireless also could not use LEAP authentication on wireless. This meant I could not use the EeePC anywhere at the office. Total loss there – I was hoping to be able to bring the machine with me to meetings so I didn’t have to undock and haul my normal laptop along.

  • Update failures from Asus
    ASUS has broken their updater. The EeePC will not software update properly from ASUS’s servers. This is a real problem. There are workarounds, naturally, but it likely means there won’t be OS updates from the manufacturer anytime soon. The answer seems to be to use Eeebuntu, a version of Ubuntu linux designed specifically for the EeePC netbooks.

  • Touchpad
    I don’t like the touchpad. I don’t know why – I just can’t get comfortable with it. The two-finger scrolling is cumbersome and prone to ‘pausing’ (this compared to the two-fingered scrolling on a macbook, which is smooth as silk).

  • Yet Another Power Supply
    I have a problem with power supplies. If I’m going to carry another laptop, I have to have another power supply with me. So now I have 2 laptops, 2 power supplies. This is not saving me anything in weight in my backpack.

Given all these issues, I find myself either picking up my iPhone to twitter or check something on wikipedia, or get out my laptop if I’m going to do any real work.

So what to do? The current plan is to reload the EeePC with Eeebuntu and evaluate that. If it’s stable, is able to browse youtube, run Python’s IDLE environment, and play nethack, then it will be a perfect upgrade for my son, as he’s outgrowing his XO laptop.

Dear iPhone Developer Community…

You see that switch on the side of the iPhone? That little switch that means “Be quiet, I’m in a place where a vibrate will do?”
Pay attention to it!
There is absolutely no excuse to write a game, app, utility, or tool that starts making sounds or playing music upon startup if that switch is set to ‘silent’!
At the moment, I’m talking to you, Ezone, and you’re Crazy Snowboard app, that, despite having the phone on “SILENT”, you start playing music loud and clear upon startup!

iDracula for the iPhone. iCarnage!!!

Just a quick one before I head off to my next meeting. My latest addiction for the iPhone is called ‘iDracula’. It’s sort of a mix of Diablo vs Quake vs Robotron. The 19th century ‘van helsing’-esque setting is beautifully rendered, and the soundtrack adds the appropriate head-banging necessary for any good vampire slaughtering.
There’s a great video of it in action on YouTube.
One thing I have to comment on – this is the first interactive action game on the iPhone that I feel gets the controls right. They use a pair of ‘wheels’ on the screen – one for motion, one for firing. Given the iphone’s lack of any other gaming controls, this seems to be an excellent compromise, allowing very easy motion and action.
There are a few known bugs. Settings aren’t being saved between games, it’s occasionally tricky to switch weapons in mid-melee, and there are occasional pauses. I picked it up off the appstore during a sale for $1, but it’s easily worth a lot more than that.
I hope the developers do continue to update it – a larger play area, or a decent levelling mechanism (finish this level, waste the bosses, move on to the next level) would be a definite win.

A Panoply of Pidgin Plugins

pidgin-screenshot-20090308.pngI have this ongoing personal philosophy. “Don’t get too wedded to a single environment, because the designs will channel your way of thinking, and those ‘new fangled’ ideas about UI’s and systems? They they may have something there, give it a try.”
To that end, not long ago I switched from KDE to Gnome. That has had it’s ups and downs, but regardless of whether it’s been a good move or not, I now understand Gnome a lot better.
One of the tools I’ve used the longest has been X-Chat – a fairly decent IRC client that does pretty much everything I want in a client. I have screenshots of me using Xchat going back many years – a sure sign it might be time to try something else.

Continue reading “A Panoply of Pidgin Plugins”

Classics app for the iPhone

A few years ago, I posted about reading books on my Treo – an exercise I thought I’d never enjoy, but in the end, enjoyed quite a lot.
Ever since I got my iPhone, I’ve been considering setting up an ebook reader, but never got around to it. Recently I found the Classics app, a reader for the iPhone that is set up to provide a series of ‘classic’ books for the iPhone.
The reader app is quite good, and very easy to navigate (and pretty to look at). What I’ve been enjoying the most though is that the books that are available are, as the name implies, all ‘classics’ – books I should have read, but never got around to.
I finished reading ‘Flatland’, and now I’m about halfway through ‘Robinson Crusoe’. As always, it’s convenient having books with me at all times. I suspect when i’m done with these books, I’ll look at another reader app for other books, but for now, Classics makes it so I have at least 15 books with me at all times.

A few of my favorite iPhone apps

I’ve had my iPhone for a few months now, and gone through the brain replacement that’s sometimes necessary to use Apple products, so I think it’s time to talk about some of my favorite iPhone applications.

At the top right now is AirShare from Avatron. It’s a simple app that starts up on the iPhone and sets up an active WebDAV enabled HTTP server. With some tools under windows, mac, or linux, you can mount that DAV as a filesystem, and voila, you have your own portable wireless data repository.

Admittedly, what I really do is play a lot of games on the phone. So, here’s a quicky list of some of my favorites:

  • Dr. Awesome!
    This game plays much like the old arcade game ‘Qix’, but has a wonderful comic bent to it. Presentation and gameplay are excellent, music track is enjoyable, and the steadily increasing difficulty isn’t too hard to deal with, though I agree with some commenters that after a certain point, it’s nigh on impossible to win the levels.
  • Tap Defense
    In the ‘Tower Defense’ model, this game fleshes out the premise with a mildly interesting storyline (Demons are escaping from hell, you’re trying to keep them from getting into Heaven). It took me about 4 weeks to complete the game on all three levels (easy, medium, and hard). And on the Hard level, I had to go to the net to get some hints. Each full game can take 30 minutes to an hour to complete.
  • Jewel Quest 2
    This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s been around for ages from I-Play in various forms, but the iPhone version is a good clean port of it. Very long storylines, steadily increasing difficulty. Took about 3 weeks to complete the game end to end.
  • Galcon
    Galcon is a realtime strategy game for the iPhone that’s faster paced than most RTS games, but still keeps the tactics element alive. It borrows many ideas from some old skool strategy games I played in college. The higher levels are hard to win, though you can play network play against other ‘live’ players anywhere on the net.

The potential for the iPhone to be a powerful gaming platform I feel is only just being realized. More and more high resolution excellent games are coming out, and the phone handles them with great aplomb. I’m looking forward to finding more.

Music Server Remote Access with MPD.

It seemed like a simple question. Consider the problem of [a], a collection of ripped music from a large CD collection, [b] a server containing said mp3’s, located on a bookshelf in the corner, [c] a very nice Bose Lifestyle 48 audio system, and [d] a couch potato like myself wanting to listen to that music, but not willing to walk over to the workstation, hook up a monitor (it’s normally headless), and play something.

There were several things I wanted under the general heading of “I want to listen to music stored on that machine,” but no clear path in sight.

So how to approach this problem?

Continue reading “Music Server Remote Access with MPD.”

Battle for Wesnoth : A free turn based strategy game

While sitting around waiting for Starcraft 2 to be released, why not try out some of the other excellent offerings out there? Personally, I’ve been itching for some “You, move there, you kill him, you, build that” action for quite a while, and I was not particularly up for reinstalling Warcraft on the windows machines.
I had taken a look at Battle for Wesnoth about 2 years ago, and while I found it ‘interesting’, it didn’t really grab me. I checked the project page, and saw a lot of work had been done on it, so decided to give it another try, and boy am I glad I have.
I won’t go into details about the game. There’s a very nice Youtube trailer here that shows some basic gameplay and highlights the amazing artwork that has gone into the game. Artwork tends to be the achilles heel of many opensource games. Getting good artwork (and in the amount necessary) is very difficult. The Wesnoth folks have filled in their entire tileset, characters, and dialogs with very clean, professional artwork. It’s a joy to play.
Check out the Youtube video of the trailer.
Sure, by World of Warcraft standards, this game looks primitive. But the gameplay is intricate and detailed, no rough edges nor incomplete implementations. There is a decent music soundtrack, and sound effects in the game are amusing and bolster the enjoyability.
And it’s free. And runs under Linux, Mac, or Windows.
What more could you ask for?

Photo Managers – Digikam rocks

Today I am full of Mad Love for DigiKam, the photo manager distributed with KDE. I’ve been using it off and on for a few years, and for one reason or another, I would stray away and use manual file copies for a while.
As of about a year ago though, I’ve moved to using it full time for managing the (sometimes hundreds) of pictures I take in a given session. There’s a whole slew of wonderful functions in it, but the ones that made me finally stick with it can be summed up as follows:

  • Automatic directory creation and sorting when importing from the camera. Directories can be created according to the date the picture was taken (importing 250 pictures from my camera may make 4 directories, if I was shooting over several days)
  • Direct support for my Canon 400D. When I plug in the USB, KDE prompts me to start Digikam, and everything is imported.
  • Full support for Exif data, including image orientaton, etc. Exif data is never removed or ‘flushed’ from the images.
  • Excellent export functionality to either Flickr or to a series of HTML files and thumbnails.
  • Very good gallery organization, sorting, and previewing. I can work with thousands of images and sort them into appropriate directories.
  • Tagging allows sorting and categorizing of images without reordering the directories. Searching for tags, dates, or other data generates a new view based on the tag criteria.
  • Easy calling of external programs such as The Gimp for post-processing.

All of this, combined with, well, it LOOKS great, make Digikam one of my favorite KDE apps.

Journeying Abroad – Life without Mozilla

It’s become almost a truism that if you use a Linux machine for your desktop, you must be running Firefox as your web browser, and Thunderbird as your mail client. The former is certainly more prevelant than than the latter, but even so, both of these programs are fairly common in the greater Linux community.
However, despite their popularity, they have their drawbacks. On the Firefox side, the program suffers from it’s core dependance on XUL, the XML based rendering engine that is at the core of the product. While XUL is remarkably flexible, powerful, and useful, it is also a performance hog. Firefox, even on yawl, my desktop machine, which should have enough oomph to drive it, can come to a painful crawl after only a few hours of use.
The memory leaks in Firefox are well known, and to Mozilla’s credit, they are being addressed in Firefox 3, currently under development.
On the Thunderbird side, I’ve been having some absolutely infuriating problems with sending mail. Hitting send will regularly cause a pause of 5-10 seconds in my complete desktop before the mail actually gets sent. I’ve checked DNS, my SMTP configuration, everything, I can’t find the problem.
So why not use this opportunity to play the field?
Here there be dragons…
For the last week, I’ve been on a No Mozilla campaign, with an audience of one. I have on occasion needed to start Firefox (most notably to view Google Calendar), but for the most part, I’ve been using Konqueror, the browser within KDE, as my primary web browser.
Konqueror has been remarkably stable and useful, I will happily admit. It is noticeably faster than Firefox in almost every way, and I’ve seen only 1-2 websites where rendering has failed completely (noteably Google). KDE’s inherent ability to allow keyboard redefinition has made the transition to Konqueror quite easy (for instance, Firefox uses ^L to jump to the address bar and edit/copy/whatever your current URL. Konqueror has ^L bound to ‘clear address bar’, something that was driving me bonkers for a few days, before I realized I was simply using the wrong function. A quick key redefinition, and I was happy again).
For the most part, all my plugins are working correctly as well. Konqueror adapts the Flash, Java, and Shockwave plugins as used in Firefox without any problems. In stream videos and animations work just fine.
Will I continue using Konqueror? Most likely I’ll stick with it for a while. I do miss a few basic things though. For instance, I use Google Browser Sync to make sure all my bookmark folders are synced across all my machines. My Konqueror installation does not have my, er, large selection of bookmarks I’ve accumulated. Secondly, I’ve been using Sage as my RSS reader (as it syncs in with the Firefox bookmarks quite nicely). That naturally won’t work with Konqueror, so I’m without a centralized RSS reader right now.
Even with these niggles, I’m finding myself using Konqueror more and more. Speed, stability, and functionality. How pleasant!
Great Dave, but what about mail?
Oh yeah, the mail. Well, this one doesn’t have quite as happy a story.
In my journey away from Thunderbird, the first choice was naturally KMail, the mail component of the Kontact system in KDE. I’d used KMail on and off several times over the year, and I’m sad to say, it really hasn’t improved at the pace other applications have. In many ways it’s quite pleasant to work with, snappy rendering, good layout and feel, complete and workable dialogs, but it still suffers from a Linux ‘half complete’ feel. The keyboard bindings for mail navigation are obtuse and, oddly, impossible to reassign (I even have a bug open on it – it’s still not fixed). The thread model in KMail is abysmal – making it very easy to freeze the entire interface on very large mailboxes, etc etc.
So KMail was okay for a bit, but wasn’t cutting the mustard for regular use. The next natural check was of course Evolution, the Gnome mail client.
I’ve used Evolution off and on a lot over the years, and in general, it’s okay. I don’t particularly like GTK based apps (I find them overly hungry for screen real estate, and a bad combination of eye candy and ham-handed attempts at UI design), and Evolution shows many of these traits. However, even with those faults, it’s not a bad client. I got it up and running without any problems, and it’s working fine.
So why am I gripey?
I miss Thunderbirds spam filtering. I get a LOT of spam. My monitors regularly log 500-700 spam messages a day into my inbox. boomer does an awesome job of catching the lions share of the spam (about 80%), but the rest shows up in my inbox. Thunderbird was catching perhaps 90% of -that- spam, and tagging it for me. I could review what was tagged, agree with whatever it set, hit “purge”, and it would all go away.
Evolution has very rudimentary junk filtering, and it’s not catching much of this spam. I’m finding myself spending much of my time just deleting spam messages, and growling.
Will I stick with Konqueror for a while? Yes, I think so. I have to rethink my RSS aggregation and viewing. I’m not keen on a locally managed RSS list (because I change machines so often), but I’m also not excited about a remote ‘web’ based system (Web 2.0 can bite me, and old sk00l type applications are not fast enough for my reading habits). So that need is still missing.
Will I stick with Evolution? Perhaps, if I can fix the spam filtering problem. Evolutions handling of multiple accounts is FAR better than Thunderbirds (have a bug open on that one too), and the UI is one I can deal with, if if if…
I’m just never satisfied I guess.

Calendar sharing. Nirvana found?

What is seemingly the bane of existence for most non-Microsoft users is the constant problem of “How can we share calendars?” Exchange does this extremely well, and there are many a Linux zealot, when confronted with the “Okay, we’ll try Linux. How do we share calendars?” has had to hide in shame.

For me, the problem has been “how do I sync my Treo 650 so I can see my family and friends’ calendars, without having to manually do some rigamarole involving synchronizing through some Windows based custom tool?

My savior may have arrived in the form of a tool called GooSync.

The concept is simple. The world in general has failed to come up with a standard calendaring system that actually makes sense, and allows multiple people to share, view, and update each others’ calendars. iCalendar, while very good for publishing calendars and allowing people to subscribe to them for viewing, does a poor job of allowing others to update someone else’s calendar.

Along comes Google Calendar. Ahh, a good, interactive, free calendaring service that allows multiple users to share, update, and publish calendars interactively. Not only that, Google Calendar has a published API specification that allows users to write programs that interact with it.

I had been using CompanionLink to hotsync my Google Calendar down to my Treo, but after months of complaints to their tech support and sales department, explaining that without multiple calendar support, their tool had only limited functionality, and after they even said to me “If you can figure out a way to keep the calendars synchronized without duplicating entries, feel free to tell us how” (and I did), and still not getting an update, it was time to look elsewhere.

GooSync has a number of very strong advantages over CompanionLink and, frankly, any other tool I’ve seen so far.

  • The base version is free. It allows you to sync one personal calendar to and from the Treo to a single Google Calendar
  • For a small fee (about $20 a year), it supports multiple calendars, with read and write access.
  • It keeps all the calendar entries separate on the Treo, either via a text tag in the entry, or using categories.
  • It syncs wirelessly. That means it’ll use the Treo data network (whichever one you have) to talk to their servers to get updates and to post changes. This means you do NOT have to cradle-hotsync your Treo and run some Windows app to synchronize your calendars

That last item bears closer scrutiny. Once the GooSync client is installed on your phone, all subscriptions and maintenance to your calendar list is done via Goosync’s website. Want to add a new calendar to your phone? Go to the website, say “show me all my Google calendars” (and it does), and click the checkbox next to the one you want to show up on your Treo. On the phone, run the Synchronize function in the GooSync client, and 30 seconds later, your Treo is updated with all the new entries.

I’ve tried this with my own calendar, and shared calendars I have write access to, and it works perfectly. No duplicate records, nothing showing up in calendars that I didn’t have there before, it just plain works. I now have full control and view into all my Google Calendars from my phone.

With all the gloom and doom about the PalmOS platform (both from me, and also from very well known tech blogs like Engadget), this is a small ray of sunshine. Note that GooSync supports a ton of different devices, so even if you don’t have a ‘smartphone’ per se, you can probably sync your Google Calendar to your device.

Yay technology, and thank you Google for making it possible, and thank you GooSync!

Another Linux user. Our ranks grow.

About 6 months ago I was having a conversation with my roommate Beth, talking about her aging Dell laptop. She was considering getting a desktop machine to use as her primary workhorse for her up and coming graduate student immersion.

I thought a bit, and said “Hey, I could probably get you something decent. We could even make this an interesting experiment. Tell you what, I’ll get you a machine, but it’ll run Linux. Up for it?”


And we were off…

Continue reading “Another Linux user. Our ranks grow.”