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.

So Where *Do* You Begin?

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A Stonking Motherboard, Earlier Today

Going back then to my guide to making your own computer, it’s at this point that I’m supposed to say something wise like: “Before choosing the parts for your PC, ask yourself what you’re going to be using it for”, or “Decide now how much you really want to spend”. To my mind however, the only sensible answers to these questions are:

A) Everything! And

B) As little as I can possibly get away with.

PCs are meant to be flexible, inexpensive and upgradeable computing machines, so let what you can get be the guide to what you should get; what happens to be available at a good price now. Perhaps memory is really more important than that crazy amazing video card, but if the card is on sale at a great price now, memory can always be upgraded later. Seek bargains, go with the flow. Though bear in mind that by a bargain I mean something that’s cheaper than it usually is, not the kind of part that’s always cheap. Reliability is everything in a computer, so quality is worth paying – or at least waiting – for. Look out for brands with a track record, read all the reviews you can get your hands on.

So you could say that the place to start is wherever you’re at. See a bargain? Start! But from another point of view, your real starting point is the motherboard. Virtually everything else slots or plugs into it – as you may guess from the photograph – so more than any other it’s your motherboard that will define what components you’ll be able to use. It’s crucial therefore to have a nice one. But what goes into the choosing?

One choice is between the two major makers of processors, the chips that sit at the heart of a computer. Intel you will surely have heard of; AMD perhaps not, though they offer the chip design Goliath some degree of rivalry. Indeed – though l may be lynched for saying this – I suspect their David status may help explain their lasting popularity with system builders. Their image is not so sleek and corporate as Intel’s.

AMD have been technology leaders from time to time – producing the first 1 GHz processor, developing the 64-bit architecture that Intel themselves later adopted – but I think Goliath has it all over them just now. Processors have to fit into a socket on the motherboard, the design of which usually changes with the technology. Intel however have just introduced a new generation that are largely compatible with the socket – known as LGA 115 – used by the previous. That means these boards can use processors ranging in price, to go by Dabs.ie, from €35 to almost ten times that much. That is a hell of a range of options.

And that means you can get a cheap one now and upgrade at least once, perhaps more, over the lifetime of that motherboard. Which is exactly the route I chose, purchasing a dual core, 2.7 GHz Celeron G555 – a processor that could by no means be described as feeble –  for only €50. So you may have a particular reason to prefer some other family of processors, but to my mind that LGA 1155 socket is the thing to look out for in a motherboard right now.

But there’s more…

The Leviathan Takes Form

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Still Life With Celeron, by the author

To build a good system cheaply, you need the help of a friend: Sheer damn luck. You’re going to have to find bargains.

But this is the sort of luck that only happens when you’re ready for it. You can’t get good deals until you know exactly what you’re looking for, so the magical serendipity comes only after the painstaking research.

This article aims to save you some of that. To start with the basics then, the minimum you’ll need for a PC is:

Video card is in brackets because many motherboards and processors have video built in. You have the option of adding one (or more) for demanding tasks like gaming.

Similarly, audio and wired networking usually come integrated these days. (Be aware though that Wi-Fi isn’t so common.) You may notice I’ve left out speakers, on the basis that they’re not strictly necessary – and of course there’s a good chance you’ll have passable speakers or at least headphones lying around somewhere. Can we cut the bill down still further? Well, you may be able to do without the monitor. If your motherboard or video card has an HDMI output you can probably plug it straight into your new flat panel digital TV. And if you happen to have a portable USB DVD drive, that should do the job fine. (And arguably is a better investment than a built-in one, which these days is going to spend most of its time idle.) If you want you can add these pieces, and much more besides, as and when you have the money. This expandability is the nicest aspect of the PC architecture, and it’s worth exploiting while it’s still here to be enjoyed.

It is essential therefore to begin by planning for the future. You’re building a good-but-inexpensive system now with a view to transforming it into an amazing-but-still-not-too-expensive system over time, so you need to start out on the right track. There’s no point in saving money on say a cheap motherboard if the memory it takes won’t be made any more. A component is no bargain if it’s only compatible with others that are expensive, and to an extent every component of a PC is dependent on, and so must be compatible with, every single other.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Where the hell do you begin?

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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Windows 8 – First Impression

I.Doubt.It - installing untried, unstable software so that you don't have to. Not that you ever had to.

It’s like being a year into the future – probably more, the way these things tend to go. I’m writing this on a computer running Windows 8, the OS that is meant to get Microsoft back to the forefront of personal computing. On Windows 8, the complex and resource-hungry operating system of the past will be pushed into the back seat. The front end of your PC is going to be more like a… well, more like an iPad. More like a phone, or other lightweight browsing device. The main “Metro” interface is attractively tiled with little apps to do the little things you probably spend the larger part of your time doing. A basic browser, games, Twitter client, news feed reader, Facebook app, that sort of thing.

I have to preface my remarks with a caveat: It is not a fair test by any means. This is what Microsoft calls a Developer Preview, and it’s being released now, long before its ready even for beta testing, to give programmers a better idea of the forthcoming look and feel. Nonetheless I can start with unreservedly good news. This really does seem to be the lightest that Windows has been for some time. The spec of this computer is dated (1.2 GHz single core processor and 1.5 GB of memory), merely adequate for XP, yet XP’s great-granddaughter seems to run as well if not better. In the past I’ve used this or fairly similar hardware to test the betas of both Vista and Windows 7, but this pre-beta is more immediately impressive than either.

There aren’t a lot of other obvious changes from 7; perhaps the most notable is that the “ribbon” from Office is now in Windows Explorer. Version 10 of IE on the other hand is refreshingly clean and simple – and frighteningly fast. But of course we’re mainly here to get to grips with that weird new interface. Microsoft says it requires a multi-touch screen, but I’ve been getting by with pen input or just a mouse – Metro provides a scrollbar when needed. Presumably there are multi-touch gestures I’m missing out on. Indeed my first impression was that some such two-fingered salute must be a vital part of the interface, because for the life of me I could find no way to get those cool little apps to shut once I’d opened them.

That was when l discovered perhaps the strangest aspect of the future Windows: These apps are not meant to close. They stay suspended in the background, ready to spring back to life from wherever you left off. Which means of course that they use memory while they’re suspended, and I wonder how much they will be allowed to squander before something is done about it. Presumably the oldest will eventually be shoved onto the hard disk. If you’re desperate for memory right now you can kill them from a new-look Task Manager, but that seems a bit ad hoc.

To use the new “Metro” interface, you need to discover a couple of gesture controls that might not be immediately obvious: A stroke from either the top or bottom (with the mouse, a right-click) brings up a sort of context menu / taskbar in any app. A stroke inwards from the left edge (or touching the edge with the mouse) swaps between the two most recently-used apps – one of which can be the desktop – and most important of all, a stroke from the right (or bringing the mouse to the bottom left corner) opens the replacement for the old Start Menu. This though could hardly be more different. It holds just five icons, the main one returning you to the tiled Metro interface – which of course is the real replacement for much of the Start Menu’s functionality. Here you will find shortcuts to “traditional” application programs as well as the new apps.

Weirdly though, I found the lightweight Metro interface a little sluggish and unresponsive compared to Windows 8 proper. Pen input, smooth as silk otherwise (I’m writing this using the handwriting recognition and it works astonishingly well) is jerky in apps. Perhaps it makes too much demand on my Centrino-era graphics hardware. But if it’s still a little rough, it’s also surprisingly usable and interestingly different. Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you how to start using Windows 8 yourself.