Archive for March, 2011

2011-03-31

Scientific Linux 6: RHEL for Research

I am a long-time Debian fan.  As with many people in 1997/98, I started with Red Hat 4.2 and flipped between many Linux distributions before setting on Debian at home.  Ever since then, I’ve pretty much stuck to Debian-derived distros, from Storm Linux to XandrOS, Mepis to Progeny, and most recently Ubuntu.  I’ve been using Ubuntu at home and at work for years now and am generally very pleased with it.  Canonical has done more for end-user Linux than any other company by a country mile.  They’ve made Debian usable, and available on Dells, HPs, and many other laptops, netbook, and desktop machines.

Scientific Linux on my ThinkPad X61

However, I’m a full-time sysadmin.  On the server side, we have been moving very slowly from Solaris to Linux.  In general, we have a mix of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, CentOS 5, and Ubuntu 10.04 (and 8.04) on servers.  While RHEL is certainly less usable as a desktop, it makes a fine server OS.  Red Hat is also the strongest backer of the Linux kernel and other key parts of the plumbing that forms the basis for the Linux ecosystem we all enjoy and should support.

All of this to say that, while I prefer Ubuntu on a day-to-day basis, RHEL is my reality for core servers.  So, I thought it best to use it for a while on the desktop as well.  The results have been surprisingly positive.  For this test run, I am using Scientific Linux (SL.)  It, like CentOS and White Box Enterprise Linux, is a community-supported rebuild of RHEL.  You can mix and match sources between these distributions, ending up with a remarkably flexible and well-supported base.

I have been focusing mostly on SL6, a new rebuild of RHEL6.  Thus far, I have installed in on the following machines:

  • Sun Ultra 40 Workstation (Dual dual-core Opteron, 32GB RAM, Nvidia Quadra FX5500 video)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM, 64GB OCZ SSD)
  • IBM ThinkPad x24 (Pentium III, 640MB RAM, 1.8″ PATA drive)

I also tried unsuccessfully to install SL6 on an IBM ThinkPad X40.  The processor in this machine doesn’t support PAE, so I have reverted to SL5.5 on this machine instead.  This has given me the opportunity to test both major releases on a variety of hardware, from the low to the high-end.

Overall, all systems have been remarkably stable.  SL6, being based on Fedora Core 13, is very straightforward to configure with Google Chrome, Firefox 4, LibreOffice, and all of the modern niceties that Ubuntu users take for granted.  SL5.5 is based on the much older FC6.  This means that adding newer versions of software is far more problematic.  That said, both can be very usable systems.

I’ve also been impressed with Scientific Linux’s additions.  Flash worked out of the box, and adding support for MP3s and other file formats, while not as straightforward as Ubuntu, is easy enough to manage.

Still, I miss Debian’s 10,000+ packages.  This is unfortunately a common find:

Missing packages: Not an uncommon occurence

Thankfully, I have yet to find a package that I need that isn’t easily installable. True, there isn’t too much in the repositories, however you can still find RPMs of most programs. For the example above, Cluster SSH is packaged here. In general, this has been my experience using an RHEL-based distribution for a week. Overall it is a bit more work, but is no big deal for someone who has been using Linux for a while.

Overall, I’ll stick with SL6 on my desktop machines for a bit.  It’s no Ubuntu, but I try not to get too tied to any OS vendor.  I like Red Hat as a company and it’s worth trying to use their product (or at least a community rebuild of it) for day-to-day use.  I’m not a huge RHEL5 fan but it is very stable.  My biggest beef with Red Hat Enterprise Linux in general is the lack of upgrade-path.  I find it nothing short of stunning that there is no supported way to upgrade a server or desktop machine from RHEL5 to RHEL6.  Yes, it’s good that Red Hat is ready to support their releases for many years but upgrading OS releases is a problem that Debian solved ages ago.  Here’s hoping that Red Hat will tackle this with the inevitable RHEL7 release that is to come in the years ahead.

Next up:  Tips and tricks for making RHEL6/SL6 usable as an end-user desktop.

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2011-03-31

Archos 70 Internet Tablet Review

Well, after being fairly positive in my review of the Coby Kyros, I am now getting a chance first-hand to see how their warranty process works out.  I won’t go into the details but if you have a Kyros and it breaks, you have to mail the unit to the US ($20CAD) and include a $20USD money order for the return trip.  I have my fingers crossed and in no way blame Coby for either the problem or the cost associated with the repair.  They are a low-price, high-volume company.

With that out of the way, I have purchased an Archos 70 Internet Tablet while we wait (im)patiently for the Coby to return.

Archos 70 Internet Tablet

My overall impression:  At $350, the Archos 70 is very reasonably priced for what you get.  it’s no iPad.  In some ways it’s  better, in many ways it is not.

Where the Kyros is a sub-$200 bottom-of-the-barrel Android tablet, the Archos 70 is a mid-range model.  It’s not as high-end as a Galaxy Tab or iPad, but it has many of the features that I care about from these more expensive devices, while still keeping well under $400.  In fact, I gather it’s often at $300 these days.

Me, I paid $350CDN at Tiger Direct.  For this, you get:

  • Pure Android 2.2
  • 1GHz CPU
  • OpenGL-capable graphics
  • 7″ Capacitive multi-touch 800×480 screen
  • A basic but appreciated kickstand
  • A Mini-USB port and Mini-HDMI port, Bluetooth
  • Not much else.

The Coby managed to swing a rather nice case for the money.  It would have been nice for the Archos to do the same.  However, the Kyros case didn’t stop the warranty call, and I find the Archos’ kickstand to be invaluable.

In day-to-day use, the Archos 70 is much faster than the Coby Kyros.  The CPU is clocked a bit higher and is a generation newer than the Kyros and this makes a huge difference.  It’s still not as fast as an iPad, but it is about as fast as the Samsung Galaxy Tab.  It looks like dual-core CPUs are going to be the norm from here on out, so no doubt the Archos 70 won’t age well.  Still, for the money it is no slouch.

The screen is a dust and fingerprint magnet and some people complain about the viewing angles.  I think it looks fine and is appropriate for the price.  If you expect this to be the same quality as a $600 tablet you’ll be disappointed.  If you’re realistic, you’ll be fine with it.

Like the Kyros, the Archos comes with AppsLib rather than the Android Market.  However, it’s even easier to install Google Apps on the Archos.  It took me 10 minutes to find the .apk and another two to install it, then it was off to the races.  As a hackable tablet, it’s a total win.

A small but versatile array of ports

As far as ports go, it has a Mini-USB port that you can apparently use with devices such as USB keyboards.  I haven’t tried this yet, but suspect that it would work fine.  It also has a mini-HDMI port, headphone jack, and power plug.  The power plug looks much like the headphone jack, and I’ve tried plugging the wrong thing in to the wrong spot more than once, so that was unfortunate.  In fact, to me it would have been ideal to have the Archos charge over USB.  Alas, no dice.

One thing I felt was lacking from the Kyros was bluetooth.  Thankfully, the Archos 70 has this.  This means that you can pair with a keyboard, tether to your smartphone, and otherwise use the device for work on the road.  In keeping with Archos’ hackable past, the device can also dual-boot Linux.  This is something that I will get to when the Coby comes back, and likely means that the device will have a fairly useful future ahead of it.  I will report back on this when I test it out.

The Archos easily paired with this Bluetooth keyboard

Android 2.2 works very well on the Archos 70, and Archos seems committed to the device, releasing updates fairly regularly.  The Kobo and Kindle Android apps work well, as do common Android games.  (Yes, Angry Birds works great.)  Thus far, this is the best Android device that I have used.  The browser works very well, and the entire system is quite responsive, even with a paltry 256MB of RAM.  There is a very active community around this device, and the Archos-supported Linux distribution available for the Archos 70 is a very interesting option that isn’t available for anything else that I am aware of.

Overall, the Archos 70 is a very flexible and peppy mid-range Android tablet.  After evaluating the options, I think it’s the best that’s out there for under $500 and certainly the best under $400.  Archos has a 10″ version, the S101, that is $399CDN with 16GB of storage.  They also sell a version of the 70 with a 200GB hard drive, rather than 8GB of flash. I initially purchased the hard drive version for someone at work, as the flash version was unavailable at the time.  While I understand the attraction of a 200GB tablet, the noise, delays, and additional weight of the hard drive version weren’t my cup of tea.  Still, I like having the option, and kudos to Archos for branching out in this regard.

The Archos 70, like the Coby Kyros, highlight the virtues of an open platform.  Sure, they aren’t a slick as an iPad, but the price and size are nice.  If you’re looking for a 7″ Android tablet, I don’t think you’ll do better all-around than the Archos 70.  It’s a big step up from the Coby and is still very reasonably priced.

The Archos, a Kobo, Palm Pre2, and Sony PRS 505

2011-03-22

Firefox 4.0 Now Available

Not to be outdone by Microsoft or Google, Mozilla has released Firefox 4.0, with beautiful visualizations to show the roll-out.

Mozilla Firefox 4.0

I’ve been using late betas and RCs for a while now and like what I see.  It has a nicely minimal interface and seems quite a bit faster than Firefox 3.  It still doesn’t load as quickly as Chrome 10 on older hardware, but Firefox is a champ, and is still my favourite all-around web browser.  Best of all:  Firefox 4.0 is available for Linux, Mac, and Windows (yes, even XP.) to say nothing of smaller, lesser-known operating systems and platforms.  (Firefox for Android seems to be progressing nicely.)

Congratulations, Mozilla.  I look forward to your shorter development cycles.

(Now, don’t forget Thunderbird.  It’s feature-complete to me but could certainly use some belt tightening.)

Here’s to an open, standard, and competitive web!

2011-03-22

Congratulations Microsoft, IE9 is great.

Anyone that knows me knows that I have been decidedly anti-Internet Explorer since version 3.

In fact, I haven’t liked Internet Explorer at all since IE4.

However, IE9, released recently for Windows Vista and Windows 7, is pretty darn good by any measure.

It is standards-compliant, fast, has a nice UI, and greatly helps to advance the state of the web.  In fact, by some measures, it’s more standards-compliant than Mozilla Firefox.

My only gripes with it are that it won’t be available for Windows XP, let alone Mac OS or Linux.  Still, great options exist for most platforms, and as it is standards-compliant, the burden of testing is significantly diminished.

So, congratulations Microsoft.  You’ve done  a great job with IE9.

2011-03-17

Palm Pre 2 Review

Well, it’s finally here, and just in time to be replaced by the HP Pre 3 and HP Veer. The Palm Pre 2 could very well be the last Palm-branded smartphone.  In better news, Rogers has started selling the Palm Pre 2.  I’ve actually had one since December, as a part of HP/Palm’s Developer Program.  HP/Palm first shipped me an EU model but it had serious stability problems (and wouldn’t work on North American 3G GSM bands)  They have since shipped a North American model, which has pretty much sorted the random reboots, though WebOS 2.1 is still a little less stable than 1.4.5.

So, just to be totally clear, HP has given me a Palm Pre 2, unlocked, in order to help spur development.  I am working on a few apps at the moment, though I haven’t published any of them on Palm’s App Market yet.  I consider this review to be unbiased, though you can take it with a grain of salt if you so desire.

I am also writing this review as someone who has purchased and owned or owns the following smartphones:  BlackBerry Curve 8330, iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, LG Eve (Android 1.5 and 2.2) and now a Palm Pre 2. The Pre 2 is by far my favourite device.

The Palm Pre 2

Why I Like WebOS as a Platform

The software is slick and fast like the iPhone, with true multi-tasking. The app catalog, while small by Android and iPhone standards, has everything I need: Some fantastic games (including Angry Birds, and many high-end iPhone games that have been ported), decent RSS readers, streaming CBC apps, Twitter clients, optional Facebook integration, Google Maps, and great news apps.

WebOS/Palm for Developers

The Pre’s WebOS 2.0 is the best mobile operating system I have used. Developing for it is also a breeze. Native apps are written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. games can be written using Palm’s PDK in C++. Apparently, porting from iOS is a snap, as they’ve purposely kept the APIs similar.  If that’s not enough, WebOS also supports PhoneGap, a cross-platform JavaScript library that lets you easily write apps that work on iOS, Android, WebOS, and BlackBerry.  HP/Palm even provide tutorials that show you how to write a PhoneGap-based app and bundle it as a native app for WebOS, Android, and iOS.

If you’re a tinkerer, you’ll like to hear that there is no need to root the phone. Just enable developer mode, and you’re set. Palm even includes a Terminal program, if that’s your thing. WebOS has a very active homebrew community, which Palm and now HP have been very supportive of. WebOS is Linux underneath, though it’s more like a traditional Linux, not the very stripped-down version that Android uses.

My first WebOS app!

There is no such thing as a locked-down WebOS phone.  All of them have a “Developer Mode” app which, with a single swipe, roots your phone and allows you to install from 3rd-party sources.  While it may not be open source like Android, WebOS and HP/Palm are very developer-friendly.  I signed on as a Palm Developer because I like the platform.  In my opinion, the development model is very open, the software is fantastic, HP are moving the SDK in the right direction, and are keen to support all types of developers; from small-time hobbyists to large software houses such as EA and Gameloft.

Using the Pre 2

As an end-user, the phone just works without the fiddling associated with Android devices. No need to install Task Killers, no slow-downs over time. People coming from the original Palm Pre will feel right at home and users coming from iOS or Android should have no problems picking up WebOS.  It works very logically and is very fluid.

WebOS 2 features Just Type. Basically, you start typing anywhere and the Pre 2 instantly searches your address book, calendar, web, etc. It works very well. WebOS also has what they call Synergy. It is a layer that syncs back and forth with cloud services such as Google’s calendar and address book, or Facebook etc. It is pretty much transparent and just works.

WebOS Cards

The Pre 2 itself is almost identical to the Palm Pre. It is, however, much faster. It uses HP’s new WebOS 2 software, it has a much improved 5.0 megapixel camera, and takes great videos. The Pre 2 camera is the best phone camera I’ve used.

The keyboard is OK; I like the LG Eve keyboard better but the overall size of the Pre2 evens this out. It is a lovely, small, extremely capable device.

The web browser is easily just as good as the browser in the iPhone, which, in my opinion, means it’s much better than the current Android offering. It’s fast and fluid. The Pre2 even has beta Flash support, though I always turn Flash off, even on my computers; so I have no comment as to the quality of the Flash port.

The Pre 2 is also surprisingly suitable as a work device. The basic PDA applications are very thoughtfully laid out and are much more usable than the stock offerings for iPhone or Android. In particular, the Calendar and Task Manager “Tasks” work very well. They look nice, and are fast to use. In the Calendar, one tap adds/edits an event, then you can just start typing. The Pre2 has a great PDF viewer and can read MS Office documents as well, so attachments aren’t a problem.

WebOS 2.1 Exhibition Mode and the last Palm? (With Touchstone)

Room for improvement

It would be nice if the Pre 2 had a higher-res screen than the original Pre. 320×480 isn’t great by today’s standards. Still, it’s a nice, bright and responsive screen with intuitive touch-screen controls.  It also works great in full sunlight.  The Pre 2 has a glass cover; a vast improvement over the original plastic cover of the Pre.  Still, the glass comes at the expense of the smooth feel of the original Pre.  It looks nicer, it’s nicer to use, but doesn’t feel as nice in the hand.

The Pre 2’s biggest weak-spot is the small app catalog compared to iOS or Android.  However, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in quality.  The stock apps are great, and there are some very high-quality apps in the catalog to fill in the few remaining gaps.  HP is also aggressively courting developers, so hopefully this will continue to improve over time.

Having used WebOS 2.0 for a while now, I mostly think it’s a big step forward.  Adding words to the spell check is very well done, as is the text replacement feature.  This was something that I sorely missed from the BlackBerry.  On the downside, 2.x is buggier than 1.4.5.  My random lockups are mostly gone but the device has still rebooted a few times in the last three weeks.  Things are better in 2.1 but the situation still leaves some room for improvement.

Finally, Palm could improve the hardware keyboard, as well as the overall quality of the device itself. My LG Eve feels like it’s better built than the Pre 2. However, overall, the Pre 2 is just lovely to use. It’s fast, it has fantastic software, it makes a great MP3 player, it’s small and unobtrusive, and has the best calendar/address book/task apps I’ve used on recent smartphones.

Wrapping Up

I’ll be completely honest:  HP/Palm have a lot of ground to make up to be competitive with current iOS and Android devices.  Still, WebOS is a very cool platform.  It feels just as polished as iOS without many of the developer constraints of iOS.  It feels almost as open as Android but without my lingering fear of Google having yet another way of reaching into my life.

The Palm Pre 2 is a fine hold0ver device for HP but they really need to push new devices to advance the platform.  They need to do this soon, too, as Android keeps picking up market and mindshare, while iOS picks up the profits.  Hopefully HP will have compelling announcements this February.  WebOS would certainly make a fine tablet or netbook OS.

I’m using my Palm Pre 2 every day.  If HP hadn’t given me one, at $99 on a three-year contract from Rogers, I still think it’s their best smartphone offering for people who just want a smartphone that works but don’t want an iPhone.  HP’s biggest problem here is a lack of marketing.  Everybody knows about the iPhone and Android.  Hardly anyone knows about WebOS or the Palm Pre 2.  In fact, even the Palm name is a double-edged sword.  Long-time users love the brand but just as many people have visions of 7 year old PDAs that crashed all the time.  The Pre 2 is good but it’s not great.  HP needs to have something new ready soon.  I hope the Pre 3, Veer, and Touchbook are actually released on time and are enough to turn the tide for WebOS.   It would be a complete shame if WebOS as a platform was never given a chance to truly shine.

2011-03-17

Windows 7 SP1 and Language Packs: Watch out

I am fortunate to work in a very multi-cultural department at work.  One of the improvements in Windows 7 Enterprise is that it includes access to 34 language packs.  These language packs, or MUI for Multilingual User Interface) finally provide localizations for Windows.  However, there is a massive bug, reported a month before the release of SP1, that prevents the Service Pack, available through Windows Update, from installing properly if users have also installed additional language packs, also available through Windows Update.

Microsoft’s big fix:  Remove the language packs before applying SP1.  Here are the details of the bug, how to avoid it, and how to recover from it:

The Problem

Again, the problem occurs when users install language packs available through windows update prior to installing SP1.

How do you know if you’ve been hit by the bug:  First, applying the service pack takes hours.  Then, on reboot, the computer will hang at about 30% of Configuring Service Pack.  Eventually this will lead to a blue or black screen with:

Fatal Error C0000034 applying update operation 282 of 114599

The ‘Fix’

Assuming you haven’t disabled System Restore, you should be able to reboot and run Startup Repair.  From here, you will hopefully be able to boot from a previous restore point.  Assuming this is successful, remove the language packs detailed below, and re-install the service pack.

The Workaround

To avoid this problem in the first place, or to continue after booting from a previous restore point, remove the language packs and reboot before (rre)installing Service Pack 1:

  1. Run lpksetup.exe by hitting the Windows key and R , or by opening a command prompt and running lpksetup.exe
  2. Select Uninstall Display Languages
  3. Select everything except US English
  4. Remove the additional languages
  5. Reboot
  6. Install SP1 through Windows Update
  7. Reboot
  8. Reinstall the desired languages either through Windows Update or from lpksetup.exe

What if I have disabled System Restore?

In short, you’re sunk.  It’s time to find the installation disk.

The first time I was hit with this bug, the user had disabled System Restore.  I have read that it is possible to “fix” things by renaming a pending.xml file and possibly commenting out portions of that file.  I briefly tried to comment and was unsuccessful, fiddled with DSIM, and more. I imagine that I could have eventually sorted it.  For me, renaming pending.xml certainly got past the Fatal Error, but the machine still wouldn’t boot.  After a colleague  attempted further repair and a reinstallation over top of the existing setup.  I believe he eventually gave up and rebuilt the machine from scratch.

Stay calm, you won’t lose data.

The only silver lining in this whole process is that at no point are you likely to lose your files.  If you boot from a Linux disk or plug the drive in to another Windows machine, you shouldn’t have any problems backing everything up before reinstalling.

Some potentially helpful links