Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why the Kindle will die ...

I was a little surprised by the latest 'news' on the gizmo arena - the 'ebook-readers' - until I have realized that one of the 'reporters' manufacturing this story is David Pogue - at that point it was just clear we were speaking about paid advertising and no journalism.

But Sony first and now Amazon are failing to understand a number of simple points:

- the price is essential - for 400-500 US$ today you can get a decent Windows notebook with a COLOR screen 4 times bigger; at the same price point you can get the new Asus EEE which is A LOT cooler (and somehow open-source); or you can get TWO of the amazing OLPC notebooks (but in the current Xmas promotion you will have to donate one to less fortunate kids);

- another reason why the pricing is dead-wrong is the 'DRM-connection' - if you want to convince people to pay for LOCKED ebooks (that cost about 0.0001 cents to make) about the same price as for paper books at least you should give the reader away for free! and if you really try to SELL it as a stand-alone product then most likely 99.99 is the right pricing point for something like that!!!

- the only way to sell such an overpriced gizmo with even more overpriced DRM content would be to place the Apple logo on it and start the media machine (with the last part actually Amazon trying to do by getting Pogue - but unfortunately the famous SteveJ reality distortion field is just missing :) )

- as long as the special paper-like (passive) screen is still expensive the ABSOLUTE best way to start selling it (and bring it into mass production, which will bring prices down A LOT) would be to add it as an option to new high-end models of subnotebooks / convertible / tabletPCs on the face of the lid opposed to the 'normal' (active) screen - by default it can be programmed to show the manufacturer logo (and this way Dell will also avoid the infamous "circle of light" generated by their stupid protruding logo) but it should also be possible to use it to display whatever else, including to read books for months !!!

Update - here is a link with extra talk on the matter - however some of the (otherwise) good observation from there should be clearly started with a "on the medium term" - since on the (very) short term some other approaches might work a lot better (like my own suggestion above), and in the (very) long term there are really zero chances to keep your customers captive so you should avoid investing in such a company ...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another fuck-up in OSX Leopard :(

Just discovered this one today, but it looks like there are so many bugs inside Leopard that you can hardly navigate them in the Google results ... and of course Apple is not quite recognizing any of them :)

This one might also never be fixed - until very-very late (like October 2005 or so) no Apple computer could hibernate - and when that 'new and amazing' feature was 'invented' (almost certainly by Steve Jobs :) ) it was only activated on the high-end line of laptops - the PowerBooks ! Of course that since an iBook G4 was almost identical inside it was only a matter of time until many people figured out a simple way to also activate it - you can take a look for instance at this post (which however is rather inaccurate in how things are on Windows and Linux).

Well, guess what - Leopard somehow managed to screw that too - the iBook still hibernates but on wake-up the trackpad is dead (and apparently also bluetooth). The list of bugs is however a lot longer - but you will not see that too often since the fanboys and the media are too busy sucking-up to SteveJ ...

Update - here is a great article on some of the OSX problems (I really like the part with the Blue Screen of Death - that is now quite present in OSX :) )

And an observation that might also explain a lot - many of the macmorons that you see mumbling on how OSX was alway amazing and never had any problems are actually newcomers with at most 2 years of experience or so - but 10.4 Tiger also had quite a number of problems when it was very fresh (but nowhere as many as Leopard).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More about notebook HDD problems ...

Just a few quick notes that are more or less related to the problems with HDD notebooks - since I have warned a number of my friends on that potential mess with the huge number of 'load cycles' I have become a local guru on this matter and a number of cases came to my attention.

I'll start with the worse of all - an 80 GB Samsung HDD that has over 170000 load cycles in less than 2500 hours of use is now dying FAST - that notebook was used like 90% of the time in Windows but it might be possible that the 10% Linux use might have created half (or more) of those load cycles :( Also SMART does not seem to be internally activated by default on Samsung HDD drives, so the failures are very abrupt ... At first the HDD might look totally beyond recovery but you might get a small second chance (if you hear the HDD spinning and seeking) by leaving the computer ON for a night or so - after some time the internal firmware might get to the point where the HDD is again at least detected and at that point you can finally try the legendary SpinRite (highly recommended) - but if the data is REALLY important and you DO NOT have a lot of experience in data recovery you should rather seek for a reliable company that does that type of things for a living!

Another huge surprise (and big warning) came from an iBook - just 1300 hours but around 130000 cycles; that one was 100% Tiger (and might probably stay that way) so the blame is not 'shared' in any way - that potentially means that the problems in OSX might be as big as in Linux so beware! The HDD in that iBook is a Toshiba - a company that does not provide any direct tools to assess the problems with their drives (or to configure some of the internal settings) and since I also had some problems with a MK1032GAX I am now avoiding disk drives from that company ...

To finish this short post on a positive note (and raise the interest in my next post :) ) - the good news is that it seems that I have found a Linux distribution that does handle very well those HDD settings ... more details very-very soon :)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Leopard - as bad as Vista but the hype is ten times worse :(

As you might know from this post, during the last weeks one of the most pleasant surprises that I have had was the new Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon - finally a Linux that works really well on my X300! And since that set me in the mood for experimenting more exotic operating systems, I have decided to also take a look at the "latest and greatest" from Apple - OSX 10.5 Leopard.

The 'test bench' was an iBook G4 with 1 GB RAM - a computer almost 2 years newer than my Dell X300 yet in so many ways inferior (with the only excuse it was about half of the price compared at the moment when both were new) - and since that iBook G4 1.33 GHz still is probably the second or third fastest ever 12'' model from Apple (after the 12'' Powerbook 1.5GHz, which is only MARGINALLY faster) the results of my tests are a perfect description of THE BEST performance you should expect from Leopard on a PowerPC notebook from Apple!

Since you have probably seen by now the title of the post I will not delay the main result any longer - on the older non-Intel notebooks Leopard is SLOW and unimpressive - just like Vista on older machines :)

Booting to the point where everything stops freaking the HDD is almost twice slower than with Tiger (and in the same range as the PPC version of Ubuntu - more details on that towards the end of this post) and I HATE WITH EXTREME PASSION the new dock (and to a lesser extent the transparent menu) - fortunately " defaults write no-glass -boolean YES ; killall Dock" will make it usable again :)

As long as you are not starting a lot of programs the performance is again OK - but starting a program that now has the same code 4 times (from which only one is usable on your machine) was definitely not the best way to make things faster; and again the new Spotlight seems intrusive, and on top of that FSEvents are written to disk even if Time Machine is NOT activated so no surprise that everything feels SLOOOW !

So the very first piece of advice on upgrading your PowerPC machine to Leopard is just that - DON'T !!! Just put those money towards buying a new Intel machine - since yet again Apple has certainly screwed its customers.

If you MUST upgrade just be certain that you first make a backup copy of all your Tiger system - if you do that wisely on a FireWire HDD you can boot it from there (and even restore it back when you become bored with Leopard). And since we are talking about external HDD drives - get a HUGE one - you will soon need it with Time Machine :)

Almost everything that was hyped in Leopard was a huge disappointment - Spaces is a rather pathetic virtual desktop manager (you don't even get a different wallpaper / icons on each desktop - something that I had in the virtual desktop manager that I use in Windows since around 2000; and also is totally lame the way how the order of windows and the active/focus window is NOT remembered on each desktop).

Time Machine is also nothing less than the 'Apple marketing distortion field' in action - not only was a rather similar feature present since Windows Server 2003 and in the consumer market with Vista about one year ahead of Leopard - but the Windows version is also more convenient - since it does NOT require a separate HDD (just like with the two buttons mouse the MacMorons seem to want to carry a lot of extra luggage with their notebooks - recently I have seen one almost crying when he discovered how helpless he was without his external mouse; and now I guess people will also start carrying extern HDDs to get Time Machine working ???). Also in Vista people can have the better Time Machine (ok, it's called unsexy - Volume Shadow Copy) OVER NETWORK - so again - when was the last time when the MacMorons really had anything valid to say ??? The only good thing about Time Machine will be that the 'marketing pressure' might make Microsoft move some of the better features from the Server on normal machines but other than that ... And two other ways in which Time Machine is PATHETIC - the user interface is AWFULLY SMALL (since 'oh so shiny-looking' was far more important than actual usability - it always is with MacIdiots) and I also see in the near future a lot of morons discovering that they don't get ANY recovery for changes that take place when the backup HDD is not plugged-in (which should be kind of obvious even for the typical Mac user) but also even with that HDD plugged-in you don't get the versions between backups (which is 1 hour at best)!!!

So yes, Apple missed a HUGE opportunity here - the actual way for the perfect Time Machine would be something that I will call (and try to trademark :)) ) 'The Versioning Machine' - Apple could have done something like that by moving entirely to ZFS but that was not the case so I guess that now Linux has the very first chance to do something like that ... and it might be possible that even the always-slow Microsoft might get ahead even more in that matter ...

So to sum all Leopard stuff on older PowerPC systems - 'nothing exciting' - and you know that is the case when the only new feature that I REALLY liked was the official Apple support for generating a right-click when tapping with two fingers :)

And since I had the external FireWire HDD handy I also decided to test the status of the latest PowerPC Linux - I have tested Ubuntu 7.10 and Fedora 8 but making those work from the external HDD was quite a struggle - Fedora 8 is still not starting at this point but helped in starting Ubuntu (which has a strange problem in yabootconfig) - Ubuntu is almost usable but the Broadcom-based WiFi is still a problem and power-management is far from perfect - but the 3D effects are better than in OSX :) With Ubuntu you should also keep in mind that F12 is a trackpad right-click, F11 middle-click and FN+Delete is the actual Del key. The preliminary verdict is that overall I kind of like Ubuntu on the iBook (uBook :) ) - but generally you can not expect a lot of support for an architecture that Apple pretty much buried so the future of that is far from bright ... (and a final mini-prediction - in 2 years all support for PowerPC 32 from Apple will be gone - meaning NO OS support, maybe the same in 3-4 years for the 64 bit version).

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mandriva 2008 vs. Ubuntu 7.10 (and a special note about a serious problem with Linux on notebooks)

It is that time of the year - when new versions of your favorite (or less favorite) operating systems are launched - and there were quite a number of interesting new things floating around so I decided to have the latest rematch between my favorite Linux distributions - and if you stumbled upon this post you already know that my 'number 1' was Mandriva - the very first Linux distribution that was able to suspend and successfully resume on my old Dell Latitude X300 - wireless was also working (with ndiswrapper) but the 3D eye-candy was not really ready for prime-time :( However even without 3D the USABILITY of Mandriva was at that point miles ahead of Ubuntu - but that was quite some time ago, and the question was if the same could be said about the latest distributions!

The quick answer is that there were some serious surprises - most of them pleasant but not all :( I have first tested the new Mandriva 2008 - and while overall it was still looking a lot more polished and very well integrated there were two important showstoppers - there were a number of minor problems making Broadcom wireless adapters a serious pain (bcm43xx open-source driver seems to be broken for certain newer b/g and a/b/g cards, and on top of that blacklisting bcm43xx was not simple - I have found quite a number of posts on that matter ...) but the final straw was that the suspend/resume mechanism was no longer working as well as in the previous (2007 Spring) version (which is surprising, since that was based on an older kernel) and the 3D part (CompizFusion) was still not perfectly integrated into KDE (and the decorator was still crashing sometimes) :(

The really nice surprise was coming from Ubuntu 7.10 - in my previous test with 7.04 the level of support for my configuration was totally disappointing and the overall impression was of 'unfinished' and 'more concerned about competing on looks' - especially when considering the huge media frenzy around Ubuntu - but what a difference a few months can make in the Linux world! The new Ubuntu 7.10 is a LOT better - it is more polished, there are a lot less 'loose ends' and the vast majority of the drivers were working amazingly well !!!

Obviously there are still minor problems - first of all an essential part of the bcm43xx driver (the 'firmware cutter') was left out of the installation CD (which is stupid since it only takes 28 kbytes), then obviously the same bcm43xx driver was still buggy in Ubuntu and not working with my Dell internal card - but with Ubuntu blacklisting that driver and installing ndiswrapper was a very simple task - and once bcm43xx was out of the picture the very nice surprise was that suspend/resume was 'just working' and so were most/all of the special ACPI function-keys!!! (including brightness and sound, I guess that the recent deal with Dell helped a lot on that direction). The minor exception was the actual closing of the notebook lid (also reported by some other owners of X300) - the hint on that matter was that the problem was somehow related to the LCD panel itself - and indeed some extra search proved that other people had similar problems - the problem is a new experimental driver for Intel integrated video cards which somehow - even if clearly marked as experimental - is by default installed by Ubuntu! The solution is to replace it with the older i810 driver (and set a fixed primary display for the precise screen resolution of the actual main screen) - and with that suspend/resume now works like a charm even with the notebook lid!!!

The really nice part is that now all the 3D eye-candy works very well - as you can see in the screen captures from the right (you can click on them for bigger versions) the venerable X300 can do on Ubuntu the same nice task-switching as in certain operating systems that are not even able to be installed on this almost modest configuration - namely Vista (top picture) and OSX (second one) - I was a little surprised that I was almost always using the first one with the keyboard (Win+Tab) and the second method almost always with the mouse (a nice 'screenedge' set for two of the corners - one for the current desktop and the most used one for all desktops). There is also a very nice feature (called Expo) to see all the workspaces (the third capture) - and everything is using 'live images' (you can get a hint about that from the last capture where the media player was working hard). The only minor drawback is that the viewports can not have different wallpapers (something that I was able to have in Windows for many years now with an old but trusted virtual desktop program called XDESK - which unfortunately was not able to do live previews since Windows itself did not have the needed features before Vista).

In both Mandriva and Ubuntu the software management features are quite impressive - automatic update managers as good as with Windows (and unlike Windows, it certainly will NOT install anything against your wish) and installation support and package management that neither Windows nor OSX have by default! Ubuntu update manager seems a tad better since it also lists the number of megabytes that will be downloaded and the speed for patching things is quite good (even if the Windows version of Firefox patched itself more than one day before Ubuntu and Mandriva updated their repositories - but that is more like an exception in which open-source projects were competing between themselves, since everybody knows that patching IE can take a lot longer for M$ :) ).

The result is that I now have on my X300 both Mandriva 2008 and Ubuntu Gutsy - but for the moment I use Ubuntu more (and this entire post was done from Ubuntu) since it seems to be faster (including the standby/resume speed) and with the right changes a little 'nicer to the eye' :) So the winner of this latest round is Ubuntu - but the competition is far from over :)

HOWEVER there still IS a potentially HUGE problem for Linux on laptops that neither one of the above distributions seems to fix by default (or even entirely acknowledge it) - the problem is related to head parking/unparking (the more precise term would be 'head loading/unloading') - and the root of the problem is in the actual firmware of the vast majority of the modern notebook hard-disk-drives - by default those disks will have a very aggressive (and rather stupid) policy on unloading the heads - with the result that UNDER LINUX (and a few other variants) a HUGE amount of load cycles are done in a very short amount of time with the result of highly accelerated aging of the hard-drive and very often disk failure in less than one year ! The problem was initially blamed on the laptop-mode packet but that is very often not active and as a result many people tend to dismiss it without actually checking the relevant numbers! The really worst part is that in both Windows and OSX those type of 'wild load/unload cycles' are not present - most likely since those operating systems will replace the power-saving policy from the HDD firmware with their own policy!

The immediate fix for people that are not afraid of a small amount of tweaking would be to add somewhere in the Linux startup scripts a command or set of commands that will activate a less destructive policy - most often 'hdparm -B 224' will be enough (and coupled with longer times for dirty writes and noatime mounting has resulted for me in reducing the load_count from over 5000/day to well under 500/day and still very good HDD power management - probably even less heat than in Windows but at the cost of slightly more load cycles). Depending on the disk model 'hdparm -B 255' or 'hdparm -B 254' might be needed (that will entirely disable that advanced power management - but since in neither of the above Linux distribution there is no explicit separate policy for putting the HDD in standby that might result in a little more heat - but I doubt most people will note it). Unfortunately that is not a 100% fix and you should first check the result of your 'hdparm -B NN' command with 'hdparm -I' - since it seems that there are certain disk models where 'hdparm -B' is not enough (very bad are certain Samsung models where smartctl must be also used). The long-term fix would be that good Linux distributions will test that on more hardware and come with a decent fix by default!

There were also a number of other things that I have disliked in those latest distributions - very unpleasant was the fact that Ubuntu already seems to have a HUGE list of things that will be done for the next version but almost all are useless or low-priority eye-candy - so in the end of this post (and in the spirit of the Ubuntu bug tracking system - where at no 1 is listed the REALLY important stuff - the people that have seen that will understand) I will take the liberty of listing ONLY 3 major goals for each of the two distributions.



2. Stop releasing stuff before it is seriously tested (especially on notebooks, today notebooks are increasingly important and a system that can not suspend and restore is a dead end) - it is the second consecutive year when something embarrassing is happening to your last major release of the year :(

3. Keep the good work with parallel KDE / GNOME support (and generally where usability can be configured by the actual user and is more important than eye-candy).



2. Stop trying to be just an OSX clone and start getting some usability hints - get icons where 'maximized' is more than 2 pixels different from 'restored', get at least one dark-blue scheme that will not hurt the eye (the old blubuntu is not a bad starting point) and generally get all the GOOD things from Windows (which by the way, since 2000 had clear rules on when focus can be stolen from the user - while in 2007 in Ubuntu still at least once per day I find myself cursing some stupid application that has stolen my focus since the window manager is too dumb to care !!!)

3. Keep the good work with a lot of testing on a lot of different machines (if possible get Dell to do some testing too) - and also don't try to be 'nicer looking but a lot slower' in the tradition started by Vista and now continued by the new OSX Leopard (but more on that maybe in my next post).

Small update on how to 'check the numbers':
a) if you do not have smartctl installed you need to go to a terminal (command prompt) and first enter 'sudo apt-get install smartmontools' ;
b) then you can do 'sudo smartctl -d ata -a /dev/sda grep Load_Cycle'
c) if you don't get any output take a look at just 'sudo smartctl -d ata -a /dev/sda'
d) if your 4 months old notebook HDD already has over 300000 cycles (and no manufacturer guarantees it over 600000) then you probably have a small problem and all the talk around this was not just defamation from M$ :(

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