Tech, Toys, and Tidbits

Hardware

So I’ve been using a Dell XPS 15 9530 as my daily (and nightly!) driver for the past 8 months.  I have the top-end version (3200×1800 touch, Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD)

It’s not the perfect laptop, but it’s damn close.  I primarily use it for work, which is to say I use Windows, light virtualization, and spend a fair bit of time in Colocation facilities or at client sites.  I also use it for all my gaming needs – at least once I week I play a few hours of Borderlands 2, or Mechwarrior online.

Things I like:

  • Thin and light – For it’s size it’s remarkably powerful.
  • Touchscreen – I didn’t think I’d use it a lot, but I often find myself poking at the screen.  It’s nice to have the option.
  • Keyboard – The keyboard is great.  Absolutely no complains.  It’s a joy to use.
  • Screen – The screen is gorgeous.  Though I usually run it at half-res (1600×900) since a lot of the apps I use day-to-day don’t scale nice YET.  e.g. VMWare console, RDP, etc.  It’s bright, quick, and crisp.
  • SSD – The SSD is huge and zippy.   Once you go SSD you can never go back.
  • Battery life – Exceptional!  I regularly go all day without plugging in.  The battery in this thing is awesome!

Things I wish were better

  • Cooling.  Gaming on this thing requires some compromises, and it’s all due to cooling.  Most games can run at half-res + high detail at 60 fps for about 10 mins and then things drop to 10fps due to heat throttling.  To get around this I’ve had to run things at lower settings and cap framerates at 30fps.  With those compromises it can play for hours, but it would be nice if the cooling system was capable of handling the head load the hardware is capable of generating.  I get that compromises were made in order to make it thin & light, but IMHO Dell got the balance wrong here.
  • Trackpad.  The trackpad is OK most of the time, but sometimes it gets stuck down and I have to flex the chassis to get it to unclick.  Doesn’t happen enough for me to put in a call to support yet, but that’s something I’ll have to do before the warranty expires.  Heard similar complaints from other XPS owners.
  • Ethernet.  Why is there a trend to not put Ethernet on laptops?  For the love of Pete PLEASE give me back my Ethernet port.  Dongles suck.  For casual users wifi may be enough, but for anyone serious it’s just too slow and flakey and not always an option.  Had I realized that the 9530 didn’t have Ethernet when I was selecting it I probably would have gone with something else.

Overall, I’d give this laptop an A-.  It’s very very good, and juuuust shy of great.  If Dell had done a better job of balancing the components against the cooling system it would get an A+.

 

I’ve decided to spend my tax return on a pair of new media systems and a projector. Here’s what I’m looking at so far: Projector: Epson 705HD.

  • It’s a nice inexpensive projector that has been getting rave reviews.  It will be perfect for our living room.

Media Server: For the living room – running the projector

  • Mythbuntu front and back ends
  • Will also run rtorrent, rtgui, file services, and the MPD music server.
  • Core i3 530 @ 2.93GHZ
  • 2gb DDR3 1600 RAM
  • Gigabyte GA-H57M-USB3 micro atx motherboard.  It is tiny and has HDMI output from the i3 AND raid5 onboard.  Shwing!
  • 4 x Seagate Barracuda LP 5900.12 1.5 TB drives in a RAID 5 for a total of 4.5 TB of storage
  • nMEDIAPC Red Wood HTPC 8000 ATX Media Center Case (simply beautiful!)
  • Should use ~100 watts total power.

Media Client: For the bedroom – running a 22” monitor (eventually replaced with a 37” TV)

  • Mythbuntu front-end only
  • Zotac IONITX F-E – Dual core Atom/NVidia ION platform
  • 2 GB DDR2 800 RAM
  • Whatever 2.5” drive I have laying around.  Probably a 40 or 80gb from a broken laptop I have laying around.
  • Antec ISK 300-65 case.  About the size of an old-school external CD drive.
  • Should use ~25 watts total power.

I’ll document the build as I progress – I should be starting in about 3 weeks.  🙂 The machines that these are replacing are currently VERY dated and I expect I’ll end up almost eliminating ambient noise in the living room, and should reduce our power usage to about 1/4.  Woo-hoo!!!

CyrilLD over at XDA found the serial console header on the GW620! It’s the 5 contacts in a row underneath the SIM card. The center one is the TX pin. This is a 3.3v serial port, so you’ll need a level converter of some sort to connect it directly to a PC’s serial port, but most USB-Serial adapters already operate at 3.3v so they should work fine.

I’m now trying to build a kernel (based on the default LG sources) that will output to that port during boot. If I can get boot messages on that serial port, then I should be able to duplicate the settings on the 2.6.29 kernel and hopefully get enough info to figure out where it’s crashing. Finger’s crossed!

To quote King Crimson: “Frustration will be my epitaph.”

<vent>

Sooo I’m trying to port the changes that LG made to the kernel (that let it run on the GW620 hardware) and it is being a serious pain in the arse.

We need kernel 2.6.29 in order to fully run Android 2.0. So, a porting I will go! Gah! I started by trying to use diff to merge the changes automatically in to the newer kernel. I tried a few different approaches, and they all failed badly. Either there were 100s of merge errors, or the code was uncompilable spaghetti at the end of the merge, or a combination of the two.

I’m now trying to bring just the required hardware drivers in to a stock 2.6.29 source tree, and even that is giving me an insane amount of grief. Arg!

Arg Arg Arg Arg.

</vent>

Edit: I have the video driver folded in to the new kernel now. Kernel still won’t boot though. There’s a few more Eve specific drivers I need to incorporate.

Important note:  There’ve been a few reports of people being unable to boot their restored backups.  This is due to the version of unyaffs installed on the system.  It is very important that you use the patched version detailed here.

If you use the ‘stock’ version of unyaffs then permissions are not correctly extracted, and the backup of your system partition will be corrupted.  You may still be able to get around this by restoring the system.img from whatever firmware you’re using and then restoring the userdata.img from your backup.  YMMV.

Nandroid for the LG Eve GW620. Modified by Zacpod (www.zacpod.com) from Nandroid 2.0 I’ve modified Nandroid and the CM Recovery image to (Mostly) work on the Eve. So, we can now take backups of our devices. Yay! Unfortunately this will not work from Windows – you need to use MacOS or Linux. Windows just doesn’t have the tools required to make it work. It might work in Cygwin under windows, but I’ve not tested it. Here’s the tool! Disclaimer: This software is provided as is. I take absolutely no resposibility for anything that may break while it is in use. All I can say is that it works well for me. Your mileage may vary. Instuctions for use: Backup:

  1. Boot the device in to Fastboot mode. (e.g. power the device on and hit space within about 2-3 seconds)
  2. From a Linux root command prompt (#, not $) cd to the directory you unpacked this archive in to
  3. Type “fastboot boot everecovery01a.img” You may need to specify the full path to the android sdk. E.g. “/usr/android-sdk-linux/tools/fastboot boot everecovery01a.img”
  4. Wait while the recovery image boots on the device
  5. Type “./nandroideve01a.sh <backupname>” where <backupname> is the folder you want the img files to go to.
  6. Wait patiently, especially for the system and data partitions
  7. Study the output. Ensure there are no errors! I can’t stress this enough. If there are errors listed you probably do NOT have a valid backup.
  8. To verify your backup you can use the unyaffs command on the system.img and userdata.img and examine the results to ensure they match what’s on the device.

Restore prep:

  1. Boot the device in to Fastboot mode. (e.g. power the device on and hit space within about 2-3 seconds)
  2. From a Linux root command prompt (#, not $) cd to the directory you unpacked this archive in to
  3. Type “fastboot boot everecovery01a.img” You may need to specify the full path to the android sdk. E.g. “/usr/android-sdk-linux/tools/fastboot boot everecovery01a.img”
  4. Wait while the recovery image boots up
  5. Type “adb shell” to get to the phone’s command prompt. Again, you may need to specify the full path to the adb command if you haven’t put the sdk in to your $PATH
  6. From the devices command prompt: (Note: These commands are destructive. Make SURE you have a complete and valid backup of your device before executing!) We zero out the system and userdata partitions because simply restoring an image, even if you “fastboot erase” first, results in a corrupted filesystem
  7. Type “cat /dev/zero > /dev/mtd3” to erase the Cache partition (you’ll get an error about device full at this point. That’s ok, it just means the command finished.)
  8. Type “cat /dev/zero > /dev/mtd4” to erase the userdata partition (same error here as in the previous step. Ignore it.
  9. Type “cat /dev/zero > /dev/mtd6” to erase the cache partition (same error here as in the previous step. Ignore it.
  10. Type “exit” to get back to your Linux shell prompt
  11. Now you can do the restore!

Restore:

  1. Boot the device in to Fastboot mode. (e.g. power the device on and hit space within about 2-3 seconds)
  2. From a Linux root command prompt (#, not $) cd to the directory you specified as your <backupname> in backup step 5
  3. Type “fastboot flash boot boot.img” (specify sdk path as before if req’d)
  4. Type “fastboot flash system system.img”
  5. Type “fastboot flash userdata userdata.img”
  6. Done! Reboot, and you should have your system back!

Note: For steps 3, 4, and 5 of the recovery process. If you get a FAILED message when writing the img file, simply reboot in to fastboot mode and try again. Sometime fastboot can only write a few times before it needs a reset. Also, for any of these processes I find it easiest to take the battery out and leave it out till I’m done. Fastboot and the Recovery image will both happily work via USB power, and it makes the resets as simple as unplugging the USB cable.

A few of us over at XDA have been trying to root the Eve for a few weeks now, and we’ve finally done it! W00t!

This guide assumes you already have ADB access to your device. If you don’t you need to google for the android SDK and get yourself connected.

Let me know how this works for you all, or if anything is unclear. 🙂

  1. Download this version of Superuser Whitelist and unpack it somewhere safe
  2. On the GW620 dial “3845#*620#” to get in to the secret menu
  3. Tap “Module Test” then tap “Stability Test” then tap “Enable Root Permission”
  4. Open a shell/command prompt/terminal. (cmd, or bash, or zsh, or whatever you use)
  5. Type “adb shell” (You may need to use “/path/to/android/sdk/tools/adb shell”)
  6. You should get a #. If you get a $ then something didn’t work. Shutdown the phone and PC and start again from 2)
  7. If you get a # then all is well. Type “exit” to return to your PCs command prompt.
  8. Type “adb remount” to remount the GW620’s file system as read-write so we can make changes.
  9. Type “cd /path/to/the/unzipped/superuser.zip”
  10. Type “adb shell cat /system/xbin/su > /system/xbin/su.original”
  11. Type “adb push bin/su /system/xbin/su”
  12. Type “adb push bin/su /system/bin/su” (You need this one too, as some apps look for it there. E.g. Quickboot)
  13. Type “adb shell chmod 4755 /system/xbin/su”
  14. Type “adb shell chmod 4755 /system/bin/su”
  15. Type “adb install bin/Superuser.apk”

Done. That’s it. You should now be able to run apps that require root. If an app needs root access a window will pop up on the phone asking for permission to use root.

After playing with this phone for almost a week now, I can say that I am very impressed. Not since the first time I played with a Palm Pro have I been so enamoured of a handheld computer. This little beauty is amazing! I know it’s not as slick as the Droid, but it fills a sweet spot in the market that I am smack dab in the middle of. It’s a tiny, powerful, android based smartphone with a full slide out querty keyboard – and it’s actually smaller than any other handheld I’ve ever owned. Plus, with a 3 year contract it only cost me $50 Canadian! Bonus!

To be fair, there are a few things I don’t like about it:

  1. The “LG IME” predictive text helper / software keyboard is horrible. Really, really, horrible. Turn it off as soon as you can. For the longest time I thought the space bar was broken because of the way the IME uses the first space to select the word, and the 2nd to actually insert a space. Sad, and on a full keyboard it’s completely pointless. But, it’s easy to turn off, and once it’s off the keyboard behaves the way a keyboard should. 🙂
  2. It’s Android 1.5 instead of 1.6 or 2.0. It’s a small gripe, really, and I assume it’ll be fixed in the near future with an over-the-air software upgrade. Still, it would have been nice if this new device came installed with the current version of Android. Version 1.5 works fine, however, and most of the missing features are fairly minor.
  3. The battery. The battery lasts me all day from 8am to 8pm under fairly heavy use with wifi on. Barely. I’m sure I could save a tonne of power and add a few more hours on to that by turning wifi off, but why use my data-plan when I have wifi at home + work? Still, I’ve yet to actually run out of power, and since it comes with a handy USB cable, I can charge it from my laptop in a pinch.
  4. The home and back buttons are too sensitive. Maybe it’s just my big paws, but I often end up exiting the app I’m using by mistake. It’s happening less now than when I first got the device, but it’s still an issue.

That’s it. Everything else is awesome:

  1. The OS. Android is amazing! The number of apps, utilities, and games is astounding. Plus, as a bonus most of them are free! I’ll cover the highlights a little farther down.
  2. My phone has a command prompt, and I didn’t void my warranty to get it. Hear that apple?
  3. 5mp auto-focus camera with LED flash that can also take fairly high res video. It works well, and takes a waaay better pic than my Blackberry does. It’s not a dedicated digital camera, but it’s as close as I would expect to come in a PDA/Smartphone
  4. Size – this device is as small as I would want it to be. Small enough that it fits in the front pocket of my jeans without problem, but big enough that it doesn’t feel too cramped
  5. The keyboard is backlit! Awesome for working in the dark!
  6. Has a build in GPS/Compass/Accelerometer. This device knows where it is, and which way it’s pointed, which opens the door for some truly astounding apps – e.g. Google Sky.
  7. The touch screen. A LOT of people are complaining that it’s not a capacitive multi-touch. Phoey to them, I say. I think LG made the right call making this a resistive touchscreen. It means you can use a stylus, and sometimes that’s important. This device is small, and my fingers are big. When I’m RDP’d in to a server the start menu button is about the smallest thing I can reliably hit without a stylus of some sort.
  8. Wifi! Free data when I’m at home or at work. Cuts down on the data package requirements by a massive amount!
  9. Media – It plays DivX and MP4 movies. Sweet! I can watch some Connections or Red Dwarf while waiting for the bus.

Mostly what I’m using this device for is as a mobile internet device. I already have a Blackberry tethered to my hip for work, but I needed something that could get me online while I’m on the phone on the BB. E.g. Someone calls me. A server is having issues. I can be on a bus, or at a cafe, or anywhere – whip out the LG, open an RDP session to the server, and fix the problem. For me, the RDP client available for it is the killer app. But, as a bonus I get all kinds of other fun apps. Here’s a brief rundown of my favourite Android apps so far – in no particular order:

  1. wpToGo – I could be writing this blog entry on the Eve. The client is perfect. Small, tight, and does everything required for a quick post or edit.
  2. Touchdown – ActiveSync exchange synching for Android. It’s amazing! Miles beyond what the built in stuff does. Absolutely required if you have an exchange server you’d like to talk to.
  3. Google Maps – Duh. Never get lost again!
  4. Google Sky Map – Truly amazing. Lie on the beach, gaze up at the night sky, wonder what that star is? Hold your Eve up beside the star and there it is on the screen complete with constellations. The device can tell which way it’s pointed and where you are, so it’s totally effortless to find the star you’re looking at. Beautiful!
  5. Remote RDP – Remote Desktop in the palm of your hand. You can connect to your machine at home, or servers at work. Fantastic for more things than I can mention here. If you manage any servers at all this app is a must have.
  6. Samba Explorer – Browse and copy files off network shares on to your SD card.
  7. ShopSavvy – Scans barcodes with the camera and finds deals nearby. A killer app for any shopaholic.

Oh, and did I mention the games? There are a few really well done Tower Defence games, logic puzzles, bejewelled clones, and the like. However the killer for me are the emulators. NES, SNES, Sega, Commodore 64. Even ScummVM has been ported to run all those fantastic old LucasArts games! I have The Curse of Monkey Island in the palm of my hand!

Basically, I can not imagine a better deal. $50 for this phone is a total and complete steal. if you’re in Canada and in the market for a great smartphone on a budget the LG GW620 deserves serious consideration.

The short version: This laptop rocks. End of story. 😉

The longer version: This is my first ever Mac, and I have to say I’m impressed. As a long-time PC geek, I’m finding it very easy to adapt to the Mac way of doing things. There are still a few things Ineed windows or Linux for, most notably Outlook and Xen Center, but for the most part I’ve been able to find OSX apps that suit all my needs. For the rest, VMWare Fusion fills the gap by letting me run my needed apps on my OSX desktop.

I bought the higher end 13.3″ MacBook at 2.4 ghz with the backlit keyboard, and it is totally worth the extra cash. The keyboard was a huge point of contention for me. Though the Mac keyboard is growing on me, I still miss the keyboard from my old Dell. The feel of the Apple KB is nice, but it’s keys are spaced far apart and it’s missing a few important keys as a result. No page up, no page down, no insert and no delete – it’s killing me right now, but I expect I’ll get used to it. The backlight is just plain sexy. It makes the machine a treat to use in bed.

Oh, and speaking of bed – this beauty has no vents on the bottom. You can toss it on a bed/couch/carpet/whatever and not have to worry about it roasting due to lack of airflow. It’s been a mystery to me for years why laptops insist on having vents on the bottom where they get blocked if you use the thing on the top of your lap. In all honesty, this was one of three main selling feature of this laptop for me. The other two being the trackpad and the ability to run OSX+Win7+Linux.

Ah, the trackpad. It is an absolute joy to use. Seriously. Working on any other laptop now feels cramped and counter-intuitive in comparison. The trackpad is HUGE, and the gestures are a joy to work with. The main thing preventing me from getting a Mac earlier was the continuing (retarded) decision to stick with a single mouse button. On the new-style pad removing the button and creating the two-finger right click-anywhere has totally resolved that issue for me, and then some!

The screen is lovely, with a bright led backlight, and a fairly decent viewing angle. The res is a little low (especially after playing with my boss’s thinkpad with it’s 1280×1050 res.) but I have no real complaints. It’s a screen, and it does it’s job admirably.

I should also mention that heat doesn’t seem to be an issue, even with the 2.4ghz proc. I’ve never seen it above 60 C, and usually it’s hovering around 49 with an almost completely silent fan. Compared to my Dell running around 79 this is a real treat!

For the most part, OSX is wonderful to work with. I’m especially loving the “Spaces” take on virtual desktops. I’ve used Virtual Desktops on almost every OS I’ve ever used, but Spaces totally nailed the experience. It’s flawless. I’m also loving having access to a bash prompt in a mature and friendly OS. (No offense to Linux… Linux rocks, and I use it on a regular basis, but it’s not something I’d install on my mom’s PC – yet. Soon, but not yet.)

I have a few minor complaints with OSX – mainly around the fact that OSX seems to think that “Connection failed” is a valid error message, where windows would say “Conection failed – unable to negotiate compatible encryption protocol.” I know the extra info might be confusing to some people, but when shit goes wrong I like to know why so I can fix it. But, there are 3rd party ways around OSXs insisting on treating me like I’m computer illiterate. GeekTool, for one, is saving my sanity. With it I’m able to have the system.log file always tailed on my desktop, so when I get a “Error” message, I just have to look at my desktop to know what the actual error message is.

There are a few must have apps for me already:

GeekTool. As mentioned above. It’s a keeper!

rEFIt. As a PC user, I absolutely must have rEFIt installed. This thing of beauty lets me triple boot between OSX, Linux, and WIndows with ease.

VMWare Fusion. Also mandatory, allowing me to boot those same OS’s virtually from their installed partitions – Impressive!

Ecto. Almost as good as Microsoft’s Live Writer. Almost. It does all that it should, and then some, and I feel no need to use Live Writer via VMWare instead of Ecto. It’s a lovely little app well deserving of it’s purchase price.

Remote Desktop Connection – I need this for work. Hard to admin a network if you can’t rdp to any servers.

Citrix Client – Same as above.

ZTerm or PuTTY – Both are just lovely for talking to switches etc on the console port.

MacSaber – Turn your MacBook in to a light saber. Do you need any other reason to download it?

That’s about it… There are lots of other must-have-apps for the mac, but those are the ones I use the most. You can find some other, more comprehensive lists here, here, here, and here.

If you found this article worthwhile then feel free to click one of my ads on the right to throw a googlequarter in my hat. 🙂

I just got myself a new Aluminium Macbook. It’s my first ever Mac, after being a PC user for decades. I’ll write a review of it shortly, but so far I’m loving it!

I will be a reviewing the Logitech G25 force feedback wheel as soon as I get my grubby mitts on one!  I should be getting one this weekend!  Stay tuned!