Categories
Hardware

A New Lease of Life

I changed jobs about 18 months ago, and I’m already getting known as ‘that’ guy when it comes to fiddling with technology!

So, a colleague turned up at work with a laptop which had been given to him by a family member, after they’d bought a newer machine. He said it was running slowly and asked me if I’d have a look.

It seemed reasonably modern, probably about 7 or 8 years old. However it was running Windows 7, which I don’t really know my way around too well having not used Windows myself since the days of Windows 98 and Windows XP.

I was able to find out enough information to establish that the machine was slow because the hard drive was struggling with multiple read errors. My colleague also said it crashed a lot and some files had disappeared. A quick boot into Linux with my trusty USB stick (which is always in my pocket!) confirmed the SMART data on the drive showed it was unserviceable. So I gave him the bad news and suggested it needed a replacement disk.

We discussed use cases to decide on a size, and he ended up ordering a small solid state disk for about £25 including delivery. I showed him which screws to undo to swap the drive out and gave him a USB installer for Ubuntu, explaining that I didn’t have a way to get him a copy of Windows and he’d need to talk to someone else about that.

The new drive duly arrived, and my colleague was able to fit the disk and install Ubuntu from scratch using the USB stick I’d lent him. My colleague would be the first to say he’s not very technical, so I think credit is due to the GNU/Linux community for making Linux so easy to use these days.

Even more exciting (to me!) is that my colleague has absolutely no plans to go back to Windows. He’s found software to do everything he wants, says the machine is faster than it ever was and is happy to have an up to date and modern laptop for an outlay of £25.

I really enjoy helping people to try Linux and realise that when they thought they needed a new computer, they often don’t. Machines are saved from landfill, and resources aren’t wasted on an unnecessary new machine. Everyone wins!

If you’d like to try running Linux on your computer, I’d recommend trying Ubuntu because it is well thought out and works on most things with ease. You can download it for free from this link.

Categories
Stuff

What I learned at OggCamp 2018

I last attended OggCamp in Liverpool in 2015 and had a great time. There wasn’t one in 2016, and in 2017 it was in the wrong part of the UK for the gods of time & space to allow.

I did though make it to OggCamp 2018 in Sheffield, so here’s some of the things I took away:

Sheffield is Super

It’s been a long time since I was last in Sheffield, and an even longer time since I arrived by train on the Penistone line. The rolling stock is still the faithful old Pacer, that I’m sure they were going to replace when I was still in my teenage years…

Anyway, some lovely new buildings in amongst the old, and some nice ‘modern’ uses for re-purposed places too. One of which was where I had coffee and breakfast – Tamper Sellers Wheel on Arundel Street. Absolutely amazing food, coffee and service.

OggCamp

I got the feeling there were fewer attendees than at Liverpool, but I couldn’t be sure. The layout in Sheffield wasn’t ideal, with venues being split by five storeys, so it felt a bit disconnected. However, once the Welcome Talk was underway, there were plenty of familiar faces around and it soon felt like OggCamp again.

I went to a talk on The Things Network, as it’s always good to find out what other groups are doing, and if there are any ideas I can use to help with my own TTN projects on the Isle of Man. It seems the main thing we need to work on here in the island is a use case which builds a community around it, as that looks like the most successful way of involving enough people and getting access to some funds.

The next talk was about delivering images over the mobile web. Not something I’d specifically thought about but quite interesting nonetheless.

  1. You can wind up your JPEG compression without really noticing on small screens.  A nice tool called cjpeg-dssim, which looks at structural similarity, can help with this.
  2. File formats matter. SVGs are a kind of XML, and can even go inline with your HTTP code – BUT beware. If you create them in Adobe products, it seems about 98% of the resulting file size is cruft that you can remove! WebP seems to be the best format in terms of quality vs filesize, but is only supported in Chrome and Android browsers for now.
  3. Size matters. Most mobile browsers download loads of pixels, and then throw most of them away before displaying. This wastes mobile data, slows down load times, as well as making the processor in the mobile device work harder than it has to. Ideally create lots of versions of an image which differ by about 25 kB in size, and then use some responsive scripts to load the correct size image for the current viewport size. Speeds things up a lot.
  4. Lazy loading saves data, as most pages don’t get viewed in their entirety. Loading images just as they scroll up towards the viewport means that if the user doesn’t scroll, no data is wasted (and page loads quicker) but if they do scroll, they still see all the pictures.

The final talk before lunch was about hacking the O2 Joggler. This was great, as the presenter was clearly very passionate about re-using old kit that would otherwise have gone to waste. I’d never really considered hacking as a force for environmental good before. It seems that the Joggler is quite versatile with hacked firmware, and they’re available fairly cheaply at the moment.

Beer with Friends

As much as OggCamp is great (really, you should attend), I received a Twitter message from someone I’d never met in real life but who I’ve swapped messages with for years. They’d noted I was in Sheffield and wondered if I wanted to meet up. A very chilled afternoon of drinking in the sunshine and exploring various drinking venues and beers of Sheffield followed, before riding the train again.

Categories
Hardware

Printing from a Chromebook

Chromebooks are nice machines, but of course they dance to Google’s tune. Google are usually pretty good at adopting open standards but occasionally they think they can do better. There are established protocols for printing over a network, but Google have ignored these entirely by ensuring that all Chromebooks only support Google Cloud Print printers!

To be fair to the mighty G, they do explain how you can leave a PC running with their Google Chrome browser open to make your existing printer available to your Chromebooks but electricity on the Isle of Man is not very cheap, so I don’t want to leave a PC running all day long.

Instead, I’ve deployed a humble Raspberry Pi along with the magic of GNU/Linux and the Google Cloud Print connector for CUPS to achieve the same result without wasting the planet’s resources.

However, efficiently sipping electricity like this won’t help the island to pay off its debts!

Categories
Hardware

Hello Chromebook (Again!)

Having already dipped my toe in the water of Chromebooks with my wife’s HP Chromebook 11, I knew that I liked Chrome OS. The very fast boot time, stable and full featured browser together with a real physical keyboard make these great devices for people who like to create content, rather than just consume it.

I managed to get a few Chromebooks to use with students at work too, and they’ve found the same thing. Switch on, log in, work. Simple. No hassle about updates, apps, or who was using the device before you and left it all messed up. Sadly, I’ve been told that we can’t roll out more Chromebooks for students to use because our government don’t want to support another platform. Yes. Really. Support. For a Chromebook(!)

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Anyway, I digress. The whole point of this article was to tell you about my new toy! My wife hasn’t been able to get near her Chromebook, so I decided to get my own. I’ve gone for the Acer C720, which at £179 was cheaper. There are some compromises compared to the HP Chromebook 11 – most notably the screen, which while being perfectly adequate on the Acer is poor when compared to the screen on the HP. The keyboard isn’t quite so roomy either. Also the Acer C720 looks like a ‘functional’ laptop, and lacks the refined design touches of the HP. It’s not all doom and gloom though – the device runs a touch faster, and has a built in SD card reader and an standard sized HDMI output, which the HP doesn’t have.

One of my main reasons for choosing the Acer other than the price, was that it has an Intel processor. I knew that this would mean that I could find Linux kernels that would be more likely to run on it, without too much hassle. In fact, it has been very easy to tweak. It seems that Acer knew that ‘geeks’ would be drawn to a lower cost device with a screen and keyboard, so they’ve made it quite easy to work with. In developer mode, you can boot from USB devices, and the Acer also has a cut down ‘BIOS’ called SeaBIOS which can be booted from the Coreboot bootloader, effectively meaning anything written for a ‘standard’ x86 PC can be booted.

After just a few minutes of tweaking, I’ve now got my Acer C720 to be a Chromebook OR a fully-fledged Ubuntu laptop. I can choose the OS at boot time depending on what tasks I want to get done. It’s definitely the best of both worlds. Ubuntu runs well, and the battery life is pretty good.

If you’re in the market for a Chromebook, or a cheap Linux laptop, then I’d recommend the C720 at this price point. Very portable, and great for people who like to get things done when out and about.

Categories
Hardware

Hello Chromebook

I bought my wife an HP Chromebook 11 for her birthday this week. I’ll admit that part of the reason for my choice of gift was my own curiosity. I wanted to see how good a Chromebook was, and whether it would be a better choice to use in schools than the current (expensive) tablet craze that seems to be going on…

First impressions are that the device is the perfect size and weight. The keyboard is great to type on (I’m using it now), with well spaced keys that have a responsive travel and good tactile feedback. Error-free typing without looking is definitely easy on these things, so anyone who needs to write a lot would find an HP Chromebook 11 very nice. The screen is much better than I expected at this price point, with a very bright and crisps display with excellent viewing angles. ChromeOS is easy to use without training, and of course it plays very nicely with the Google Apps stuff. If you’re a heavy user of Google Apps, I’d highly recommend carrying a Chromebook around with you!

The only snag was the inability to print. Sure, you can collect your docs from Google Drive on another machine with a printer, but that’s a bit clunky. Also, given that we have a networked printer at home I wanted to be able to use that. This is another of those Linux-to-the-rescue stories, so with a bit of tinkering all is well. Here’s my solution:

  • Install CUPS onto my HP Proliant Microserver and add our network printer to it
  • Connect CUPS to Google CloudPrint with some python magic from Jason: https://github.com/armooo/cloudprint
  • Set up an application specific-password to use in my Google Account (just in case…)
  • Give cloudprint the account details
  • In my Google account, share the new Google Cloud Print printer with my wife, so she can use it too.

I still need to tweak things so that the cloudprint connector will start automatically, but I very rarely reboot the server, so not sure when I’ll be bothered to get around to that!