Linux For The Normal

Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04
Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

The Missing Kies To Android Phone Syncing (2)

The MyPhoneExplorer Settings dialogue. Don't be scared.

When I told you about MyPhoneExplorer, the software that does for free what Samsung and other Android phone makers seem incapable of doing for money, I mentioned that there were helpful, comprehensive instructions. I did not, however, tell you where to find them… Here they are. There’s also a forum where you can ask any questions you might have. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in German, it’s an easy language to pick up.

Oh OK, the English section is here.

What follows are a few things I discovered for myself that may help you set it up right. It’s worth noting first that there are two parts to the software – a desktop application for Windows, and a phone app available from Google Play. Don’t bother downloading the latter though. On first using the desktop version, go the the Settings dialogue in the File menu and tell it that your phone is an Android and that you connect by USB (or set it to Autodetect the connection). Then when you plug the phone in it will install the Android app itself.

All I wanted to do was back up my photos and other files, without having to remember. Backups that need to be remembered are backups that don’t get done. Not when I’m in charge. MyPhoneExplorer can sync over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but as I often recharge my phone by plugging it into a PC I thought the most dependable way would be to do it automatically whenever the USB cable connects.

For this to happen of course, the program must be running on the computer. So I searched through the menus trying to find the checkbox that would make it launch on startup. And searched, and searched. To save you some considerable time, there isn’t one. You have to do it the old-fashioned way by creating a shortcut in the Startup folder. (Find the MyPhoneExplorer folder in the All Programs menu, click and hold the program icon and drag it to the Startup folder.) You know it’s freeware when the author finds the simple way just too boring.

There are other options for you to play with. Many, many other options. For example, you can choose whether to sync your contacts with Outlook or some other program. Under the menu item “Advanced 2” you can select the folder where your photos will be copied, so if you’ve already set up Kies to put them in a certain location you may as well use the same one again. Several copies of your pictures on different computers = Good management. Several copies on the same computer = Pointless (but pretty normal).

The crucial settings for syncing though are under the menu item “Multi-Sync” (see picture). A Multi-sync is what it calls a pre-set choice of items to sync all in one go. You can select exactly what you want to be copied, and where to. And while all the usual ones are available – photos, contacts, calendar and so on – the great thing for the power user is that you can create custom file syncs. For example, I copy across podcasts I’ve downloaded to the PC during the day. In the opposite direction, I have it transfer things I drew or wrote on the phone.

The crucial one here though, if you want things to happen all by themselves, is “Start Multi-sync if connection is initiated automatically”. Once that is checked the program should detect when you’ve plugged the phone in and start to sync, making backing your phone up as easy as putting it on charge.

If it doesn’t start, I dunno what you’ve done wrong. Try poking things randomly.

Getting To Know Your Android

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Android 4, which I don't have yet

Ah, the slow terrible frustration of it…

I’m trying to be good here and give my new phone’s battery the best possibly start in life. I was advised that the way to do that is to completely flatten it and then recharge it for seven or eight hours, while switched off. Several times. That means I can’t use it while it’s charging, and as most of what I do want to do means going online, I can only squeeze maybe eight or ten hours of messing around with it out of a day. No of course that’s not enough!

Connecting it to the PC would charge it too, so I can’t synchronise it properly and, what’s much worse, can’t download the latest firmware. Ah! Nerd hell. And of course, I can hardly use it as my working phone either. So for the first few days it’s an invalid.

Just as well perhaps. At least I’ll have had some practice using it before anyone sees me trying in public. Having a phone as noticeable as this and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with it has too much comic potential. And I’ve never had an Android phone before (well, I did have an experimental Android install on my N900, but it wasn’t really usable), so I’ve little experience with it.

It has to be admitted, Android is a whole other operating system.There’s a lot I like about it already, but there are constant reminders that it’s not Windows or Mac OS, or even Maemo. I think what I miss most is control keys. Control+z especially… After that, definitely arrow keys or an equivalent. Moving back a single letter, for example, is not easily done by poking text on screen. I feel like the interface was conceived to work with single as well as multi-touch input, and in consequence is more restricted than it really needs to be now. But the Swype keyboard at least tries to make up for that, and works impressively well.

Plus I haven’t really used a capacitive screen before. With the N900 I could hit tiny links and so on with a fingernail, without having to zoom in, and it’s frustrating now when that doesn’t work. Basically I have to unlearn what I spent the last year learning.

First world problems.

Backing Up Against The Wall

The first developers of IBM PC computers negle...
Kind of Soothing

Well I was right, they were just codding about the charge for medical cards, attempting to make today’s frenzied attack seem somehow merciful by comparison with what it might have been. The assault on the poor will be much less obvious, more spread out. Death by a thousand health cuts.

Enough of this, it’s too depressing. All I did today? Sort out my computer backup regime. Someone recently paid me for fixing their computers by giving me a computer and – now I’ve fixed that one – I’ve something I can use to back up my portable PC with relative ease. Hours were spent testing and tuning the system so that it will run easily in the future. It wasn’t work I strictly needed to do today – except insofar as the right time to have your data backed up is always now – but I did it anyway. I think it’s comfort work in a way. Not exactly mindless, but all logic and repetition; a task done in a kind of soothing trance.

There is a useful maxim in back-up: A computer file should not be considered real until it exists in three different places. And now all my important files do – most, in fact, in five. The world may be going to hell, but my tiny little corner of it is prepared for the worst.

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How To Play With Windows 8

Windows 3.0, released in 1990
Lovely, isn't it? Wait, wrong picture

So, you want to have a go on Windows 8? It’s easy enough, but there are a few things you must bear in mind first:

  • Only do this if you have a spare computer to try it on, or are familiar with setting up a dual-boot system. If you install it as an upgrade on your working computer there will be no way back afterwards short of completely re-installing your old version of Windows. And all your software. Assuming you can even find all those discs. And remember all those hundreds of settings. Basically it’s a world of pain and you don’t want to go there.
  • You’ll need at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of free hard drive space (20GB for the 64-bit version), and a DVD burner.
  • You indemnify me for anything that can, and probably will, go wrong. Windows 8 is Not Ready For Prime Time, and the management is not responsible for lost data or computers exploding in sprays of white-hot metal.

OK, You Ready? 

(If you’re starting with an empty hard disk, or one you are OK about permanently obliterating, you can skip the first two steps. Otherwise, skip nothin‘.)

  1. First, back up any important data on the hard drive you’re partitioning. (If you don’t know what partitioning a drive is you are in too deep and should back out now…) If it also has your working Windows installation it would be a very good idea to image the whole drive, then if everything goes horribly wrong you have a good chance of easy recovery. (Macrium Reflect is a free yet reliable way to image drives.)
  2. In your spare drive space, make as large a partition as you can afford – it must be 16GB at least. It should be a primary as opposed to a logical or extended partition.
  3. Next, download the Windows 8 Developer Preview, choosing the right version for your hardware. (If you aren’t sure which is the right version then, again, you shouldn’t be trying this.)
  4. Once downloaded, burn it to a DVD. (If you try to mount and run the ISO image it will only offer you the option to install to your C drive, which you don’t want.) Label the DVD “Deadly Space Virus”. Or, you know, whatever you like.
  5. Boot from the DVD. (Just possibly, you may need to change your BIOS settings to allow that.) You’ll be offered a nicer-looking version of the usual Windows install dialogue. Go through it, selecting your options with great care.
  6. Take PARTICULAR care when you are asked which partition to install Windows 8 to. Make sure it’s the one you just created. One error here, and you return Earth to the stone age. Well all right, you destroy your existing Windows install and/or all your data. Which is bad enough.
  7. Once you pass this point, things go remarkably fast for a Windows installation. When it’s finished, you’ll be greeted with Windows 8. It’s quite pretty. You’re not finished.
  8. Get online. You may have a problem with this if the Developer Preview doesn’t happen to contain all the right drivers for your hardware, but you will probably find that an Ethernet connection to a router will work. Or if you have a 3G dongle there should be no problem. Once online, get all the Windows 8 updates. (Users of some earlier Windows versions may have trouble finding Windows Update, it’s: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/Windows Update. These downloads will make Windows 8 look and act a lot more polished.
  9. Simple! Oh wait, one other thing…
  10. If your other operating system is XP, you’re going to discover that you can’t boot back into it now. Bummer. This is because Windows 8 introduces a new bootloader that’s not compatible. To get around this, set XP as the default operating system. Go to: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/System, click “Advanced System Settings” and then “Start Up And Recovery Settings”. Here you can change the default to “Earlier Version of Windows”, after which you’ll be faced with an option screen when you boot. Phew.

So, could this be the answer to iPad and Android? Have at it.