Monday, March 31, 2008

Ubuntu on the Eee: Way Cool!

I’ve been having a couple of nagging problems with Xandros on my Eee. It’s probably what you’d call “power user stuff” that nobody except me is going to run into. So, I decide to give Ubuntu a try instead.

I had actually tried loading Ubuntu 7.10 on my 12” Toshiba laptop, but there is some bug preventing audio from working, and I got fed up with fighting with it. I thought to myself, if this is the kind of trouble I’m going to have with Ubuntu, historically considered the “easy” Linux, then I’m in for a world of hurt.

But, I did a bit of reading, and found that a bunch of other folks are running Ubuntu on the Eee just fine, and there’s a website chock-full of info on how to get it installed and running.

The installation process was pretty easy. I have an external CD-ROM drive, so I downloaded the normal ISO disk image of Gutsy Gibbon (7.10) and installed it via their normal installer. Afterward, I copied the Ubuntu Eee script to an SDHC card, and ran it, to tweak everything that requires tweaking. (As the instructions suggested, I had to re-run it after loading a bunch of updates…and I did have do those mod probe commands before everything completely behaved.)

After all that, I’m up and running, and very happy.

I can tell that Ubuntu (or Gnome) is putting a bit more load on the Eee than Xandros/KDE was. I may try loading Xubuntu instead and seeing if that makes it slightly more responsive. But even accounting for that, I’m very happy with the results. I have a fully working system, don’t have to worry about filling up the drive space as quickly (by, say, upgrading OpenOffice without the old one taking up space on the default UnionFS partition), and lots more unixy-stuff “just works” without having to tweak it or work around Xandros/Eee customization issues.

I’ve been using the computer with Ubuntu on it since Thursday or Friday (today is Monday), and have even been using it for work today. I work for an internet company, so we’re all about web applications and Outlook. I’m using Thunderbird instead of Outlook, and that’s working just fine (though I have to login to the webmail interface to get at my calendar). Firefox is just Firefox, like on every other platform, and I’m having no issues there. Same with OpenOffice…all working excellently.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Strange Adventure

What a strange and wild ride it’s been through the land of UMPCs and ultralight laptops.

I’ve been through a gazillion different laptops over the past few years. Here’s just a few highlights. (And this isn’t even accounting for normal size laptops/work computers provided by employers/etc.)

For the longest time, I had an Averatec 3200 series laptop. It was a bit slow, but the price was right ($999 new when I bought it, back whenever that was), and it ran like a champ. It was tiny. 12” 1024x768 screen, only a few pounds, very tolerable for hauling around. I did much of my blogging on that laptop. I rarely traveled for work back then, so I didn’t take it on the road with me very often. The furthest I got with it was the Starbucks down the street. I’d still have that laptop today, but the power supply connector slowly came loose from the motherboard. I wasn’t up for soldering, so I gave the laptop to a more technically-inclined friend, who repaired it and gave it to his mother.

I replaced that with a Toshiba U205. 12” widescreen, 1280x800 screen resolution. When the Averatec finally died, I decided I needed a replacement 12” laptop immediately, so I dragged my girlfriend to Best Buy and picked this one nearly at random. The laptop base is very thick, which makes it less fun for transporting it around. (It just barely fits into a 12” MacBook sleeve, one that would probably held two of the Averatec laptops.) And, this laptop was my first experience with Vista, which made me want to poke my eyes out. I ended up buying a retail XP license and downgrading it myself. After I went to XP, everything was golden. Until recently, it’d been my workhorse, every day, Powerpoint, Word, Outlook, etc, laptop. The screen is bright and gorgeous.

Beside the huge annoyance of Vista, I also had to deal with the huge annoyance of Best Buy – I had to argue with two employees and a manager about how no, I did not want to buy antivirus from them, no, I did not want to buy an extended warranty, no, I am not interesting in hearing more about why I’m wrong. They had a whole script worked out and they weren’t planning on “letting” me buy the laptop lest I invested in security software and a warrantee. I should’ve gave up and left at that point, but instead, I raised my voice and let them know, very loudly, that we can either stop talking and just sell me the laptop, or I can leave. They shut up and sold me the laptop at that point. That experience, combined with all the stuff I read about various other Best Buy shenanigans (read the Consumerist sometime), pretty much guarantees that I will never step foot into a Best Buy store ever again. But I digress.

I’ve still go the Toshiba. But, I wasn’t finding it suitable for travel. So, in my quest for smaller, lighter, more easily transportable, I bought an OQO Model 02. I tricked it out. Max RAM, max disk, Sprint EVDO built-in, docking station, spare battery, rugged case, tablet pen, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, etc. Every appropriate piece of kit I could think of, all to help maximize my OQO experience.

I ordered the OQO Model 02 back in May, right after it became available. (I think shortly after people found their pre-orders getting filled.) After using it, here’s what I found: The OQO Model 02 is a piece of garbage.

I had nothing but problems with the integrated Sprint EVDO modem (and I have had Sprint EVDO for a long time, so I know what I’m doing). I’ve had the thing brick for no reason. (Thankfully, I had the dock with DVD drive, so I could reload it.) I’ve had simple flash animations in Firefox hard freeze it. I’ve had the thing decide it doesn’t want to start up for no reason. I even ended up RMA’ing the first one. OQO Support has been very helpful and kind, but even replacing the unit didn’t really make things better.

I gave up and cancelled the Sprint service and went back to using an external EVDO modem, because it works a thousand times better. Talking to other geeks who have EVDO built into their laptops, I found that they seemingly never had issues – only I did.

I was traveling all the time for work, then. The point of having the OQO so was that I could catch up on emails or work projects while sitting bored at the airport. Or on a train. Or on a bus. Or at a café. But the EVDO connection flapped intermittently, seemingly right in the midst of me trying to fix some important problem while logged in to work. It drove me nuts. I had visions of throwing this thing out of the window off the train a number of times. And beyond that, something about the CPU speed, bus speed, backplane, or something else, is just too painfully slow for everyday use in Windows. And keep in mind that we’re talking XP – not Vista!

So, forget that. The OQO became rarely used. For a while, we hooked it to our living room TV, and used it to run Slingbox (which it could barely do) or play movies I had converted to XVID format (which it also could barely do). Laughably, the thing has an HDMI port on it, yet it struggles to handle higher rez video. I’m not talking about running Adobe Premier, I’m talking about simply playing back an already compressed widescreen movie. I have no clue why they though to put an HDMI connector on it; all I ever did was end up converting it to VGA. It would’ve been much better to have a VGA connector on board, for PowerPoint warriors to use on the road. The thing is just absolutely not suitable to drive an HDTV.

Office 2007 was unbearable on the OQO, so I ended up rolling back to Office 2003 instead. It worked alright, and it did come in handy to have Outlook in my pocket while traveling. With two batteries, the thing can last all day long, which is neat. It comes in handy when you’re at a conference, sitting in the audience, and don’t really have the room for a full laptop.

But overall – with the problems I had – I’d call my OQO experience negative. I had always wanted an OQO since the first ones hit the street way back in 2005. Finally, I could afford one, and I could even get it with EVDO built in. Boy, do I regret that purchase.

I ended up selling everything to a friend at a substantial loss. I was pretty frank with him that the Asus Eee was cheaper and way better. But, he really wanted it, so I gave him a good deal. There’s been no complaining since, so perhaps it’s better suited to what he wanted to do with it.

I even consider my Sony U750P UMPC better than the OQO. I’ve had the tiny Vaio for years, and will likely never sell it. Mostly, we use it as our bedroom TV. It’s an excellent companion to a Slingbox. It’s only got an 800x600 screen, but that’s more than enough for simple web surfing or watching videos. If it had a built in keyboard, I’d probably still be using it as my work computer, to this day. When I worked in an office and had to go to meetings constantly, I had my employer set it up as my work computer. When docked at my desk I had a large monitor and keyboard. When in a meeting, I had just the touchscreen and a stylus. I've since then left that job and taken another one, where I travel quite a bit more. Without an integrated keyboard, I just don’t find the Sony suitable for travel, so it stays at home. (It has a neat, foldable USB keyboard. But it’s not really something you can successfully wrangle on a plane or a train.)

And that brings me to my current primary work/travel computer: The Asus Eee! I love this little guy, and have spent endless hours tweaking settings and fiddling. It’s working great for work, it works great for blogging or surfing while traveling (with my external Sprint EVDO modem), and I’ve even used it as my sort-of-cell-phone, using Skype over hotel wifi or my EVDO connections.

Laptop Magazine calls the Eee, “pound for pound, the best value-priced notebook on the planet,” and I couldn’t agree more. I added a 2GB RAM stick to mine, and a 16GB SDHC card, and it does everything I need to do, easily. The keyboard, while small, is suitable for travel. I wrote a blog post on an airplane recently. I’ve never been able to do that. There’s just not enough room and not even a 12” laptop fits in there well enough to allow you to touch type. But the Eee did!

The Eee has a few rough edges here and there, stuff I’ll likely talk more about in follow-up posts. But overall, my experience has been extremely positive since I bought it back in November. We actually ended up a three-Eee household for a bit. My girlfriend saw how much I was using my white Eee, that she ordered a pink one. When the pink one arrived, it dawned on me how neat it would be to have one in some other color, so I ordered the Galaxy Black 701. Now the Eee has gone from “neat” and “cute” to just amazing looking – it looks really great in black, and I’m very happy.

I’m selling the white one to a friend.

Office Space Hunt

I've been on the hunt for office space in our fair neighborhood lately. I had an office downtown, which was in a neat location, but it was an interior office with no windows, very tiny, and not all that cheap. I figured that up 'round these parts it'd be easier to find something at a reasonable price that was much nicer. Also, I like Rogers Park, like the idea of supporting it more, and like walking around the neighborhood. We frequent neighborhood stores, restaurants, and bars often. The area just feels like home.

In my hunt, I've looked at a few different spaces. I have a strong lead on one place that, if everything works out, I'll go for. It's right by the coffee shop Ennui, which would be nice for my morning coffee and snack needs.

I talked to another guy at another space on Morse. He showed me the space, I liked it, but didn't want to make a rash decision, so I thought on it overnight. In the mean time, he had even called me and offered to drop the price. Great! Definitely was within my budget. So I called him back the next day to agree to make a deal, and I received a strange, "Uhhh, I'm not sure if I can rent it now," reply from the guy. He indicated that somebody else had called him and is negotiating to lease the entire space. Could I wait a week and see if that falls through? If we had that discussion in person, he would've seen me roll my eyes. Tell ya what, I'm gonna keep looking. If you still have space next week, you feel free to ping me and offer it up. Strangely, that same day, he put up a new ad on Craigslist, asking for more money. Maybe he had second thoughts about what he offered the space to me for?

Anyway, that space was right by where people keep busting out windows these past few days. And I was fonder of the next space I looked at.

Anybody have any other leads on office space in RP? Need a one man space, maybe internet, maybe phone (or depending on the space I can use my sprint card and cell phone). I work for an Internet company and just need a quiet place to work. Ennui and Starbucks work for short periods, but not for the long haul.

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