Status update

Exciting hardware in 2015

Posted in Gaming, Hardware, Status update on January 28th, 2015 by abolte – Be the first to comment

It’s been a long time since I have seen any new hardware truly excite me. The last time I can recall such an event was perhaps the release of largish affordable SSDs, or perhaps the release of high-resolution displays, which sadly are only now starting to become readily available to those of us outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Unfortunately most hardware improvements are so incremental that it’s hard to feel truly excited about something.

That all changed today, with the release of the MSI GS30 Shadow.

I’m currently the owner of an Asus G55VW Republic of Gamers i7 laptop. It’s a good mid-range “laptop”, however it’s actually a desktop replacement due to the sheer size and weight of it (and I did indeed use it to replace a mid-tower desktop – the first time I’ve ever used a laptop as my primary computer). I’ve maxed out the RAM to 32Gb, and added in a 1Tb m-SATA SSD and replaced the 1Tb mechanical SATA drive with another SSD. It also has a GTX660M which is powerful enough to run any game on the market, and thankfully doesn’t require me to deal with software to switch between the Intel integrated graphics and the Nvidia GPU – Intel graphics are not available. Unfortunately it is no longer powerful enough to run everything in the highest detail settings on recent titles as evidenced during a recent play-through of Far Cry 4. A graphics card upgrade may be in order in the near future, although that’s usually not possible on a laptop – a replacement is generally necessary. I usually use the laptop propped up on a stand with an external keyboard, HDMI-connected LCD, mouse and external Creative X-Fi 5.1 sound card.

In addition to this, I have an old Sony Vaio 11.3″ laptop with a measly AMD E-350 APU and 1366×768 resolution display. This is the laptop I use as an actual laptop – I take it everywhere with me since it’s quite light and is tough enough to take a few drops or knocks while in my bike pannier on my commute to work. Since it has some work files on it, it uses full disk encryption via LUKS. This is painfully slow on the E-350 (even with an SSD) as the APU lacks an Advanced Encryption Standard Instruction Set implementation and is a very underpowered processor in general. However it has proven tolerable for light workloads.

Interestingly the E-350 has a relatively high powered graphics processing capability. Many games such as Killing Floor actually run slower when game-play settings are set to the lowest graphics configuration due to the false assumption by the game developers that a GPU would be the bottleneck, as this option transfers more work from a GPU and onto a CPU (at the expense of graphical quality). Boosting the graphics quality up a bit shifts more work to the graphics component of the APU and results in a slight performance improvement! Ultimately, a game such as Killing Floor still runs too poorly to be playable as more enemies appear in later waves. The E-350 is best suited to simple games like the original Counter-Strike (yes, the one from 1999), and even then probably not at 1920×1080 if using an external monitor.

Since I don’t use the Sony Vaio for gaming (mostly just SSH and a basic instant messaging client), up until recently it’s worked out fine for me. It’s 100% compatible with free software drivers (although I think I may have replaced the wireless/bluetooth module at some point to avoid needing a blob), and has survived a lot of rough treatment over the years, largely due to a single fan being the only moving part. However now my workplace wishes to depend more and more on SaaS applications. I despise the direction things are heading in in this regard – where websites such as Slack, Trello and PassPack have become the norm – perhaps the subject of another post/rant. However this is the company data that is being dealt with – not my own. These proprietary SaaS applications are not being forced onto other people as is the case with traditional proprietary application vendors. It only hurts the companies which choose to use it (well, in addition to employees such as myself), so maybe I can live with it… however my computer certainly can’t. The E-350 just isn’t up to the challenge of these CPU-intensive websites.

Since I’m always on call to deal with any possible infrastructure emergencies which may arrive, I need to always have a computer with me. The E-350 was the perfect small cheap lightweight machine I could slip into my backpack or bike pannier and take with me anywhere. It is relatively fast at booting to an Xfce desktop and opening Terminator (the most time-consuming aspect is getting past the lengthy LUKS passphrase and LightDM login password). However the second I need to open Firefox to log into Slack, the browser loading times can be longer than the entire boot-up time! It’s ridiculous, especially given how PSI+ or Pidgin loads almost instantly on the same machine and provides the same functionality only with a different interface and open standards.

So now I’m in the market for a new computer. I can’t lug around my Asus G55VM as that’s too big to even fit in my bike pannier and would make my back sore if I had to carry it around in a backpack all the time. But if I’m going to get a new laptop, I’m going to want something fast, light, with a high resolution screen. It might be asking a bit much, but I was hoping to be able to use this as an opportunity to replace the G55VM as well if I could find something portable with a graphics card more powerful than an Nvidia GTX 660M (eg. perhaps a GTX 860M). This might be possible since I’d happily forego the Blu-Ray drive – I have external USB Blu-Ray drives which are faster and don’t have the firmware issues playing DVDs which the Matshita UJ160 drive (built into the Asus laptop) has.

You might be starting to get the impression I’m quite fussy with choosing a laptop, and you would be correct. In addition to the above, I also require a 1Gb ethernet port, upgradable RAM and SSD, EFI which allows manual upload of custom signing keys for Secure Boot (which I imagine means restricting my options to the three big-name Taiwanese computer manufacturers, since those are the companies that tend to market more towards people who know what they are doing and expose all possible options), a HDMI port for an external monitor (as I’m yet to see an LCD in person that uses DisplayPort), and a dedicated 3.5mm mic-in port for use with my Sennheiser PC 360 G4ME headset when I don’t have my external sound card with me.

Ideally I would also like I/O MMU virtualization (AMD-Vi or Intel VT-d) support, so I can use the laptop as a new home server when it is time to retire it from laptop use (I use Xen and would make use of PCIe pass-through to guest for the NIC in a dedicated firewall VM), a backlit keyboard, no USB 2.0 ports (everything should be USB 3.0 these days), support for a second SSD, and a matte screen. I also don’t want an Asus Transformer laptop, since I’m not interested in tablet or touch-screen functionality (which are usually glossy anyway), and I’m not confident the hinges (with the detachable keyboard) would be able to withstand much punishment.

Now, I’ve been looking for something that fits all of the above as best as I can, but everything I have found requires compromising somewhere. Maybe something comes close, but doesn’t have an Ethernet port, or is too heavy, or doesn’t have VT-d or AES CPU support. Maybe it only has a GT 840M GPU, which wouldn’t really be an upgrade over a GTX 660M. It’s almost impossible to find something in a small form factor with support for two SSD storage devices. Everything I have seen has failed to impress, so I’ve been procrastinating on making a decision about what to do.

Well, today I was browsing the PC Case Gear website, and noticed something strange in the gaming laptop section which I had not seen before. That laptop is the MSI GS30 Shadow, and it amazingly ticks all the boxes with ease due to an impressive feature. A feature so simple, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. In addition to being a kick-ass Ultrabook, albeit one without a dedicated GPU, it supports and includes an external enclosure which can be used to connect a real PCIe 16x graphics card to it of your choice! This external enclosure doubles as speakers (which I probably won’t use since I already have a nice 5.1 surround sound setup), a 4-port USB 3.0 hub (so I can leave my keyboard, mouse, external sound card, external optical drives, etc. permanently connected) and includes a 3.5″ SATA expansion port for an SSD to store all those games on that require a powerful GPU. The enclosure is actually a docking station which the laptop sits on top of, so I could use this to replace my existing laptop stand as well.

I’m absolutely stoked. This is almost exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve wanted an Ultrabook-like machine which has upgradable RAM and storage (this provides two SSDs connected via two M.2 SATA connectors), and yet is lightweight and portable and has a high-end quad core processor with IO/MMU and AES CPU extensions. But the main feature is easily having the ability to finally upgrade the graphics card in a laptop. I don’t need portable GPU power since I mainly use my laptop away from home for work purposes, but I do want it at home for personal use. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the external GPU enclosure includes an additional 1Gb ethernet NIC – perfect for re-purposing this machine as my home server in the distant future. I also wonder if I might one day find alternate uses for that PCIe slot, such as a SAS controller. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

Although this laptop comes close, it isn’t perfect. It seems the laptop will only support up to 16Gb of RAM. I’m used to 32Gb (mostly for when I’m experimenting with various virtual machines or using it as cache for slower external mechanical/optical drives), but I’m confident 16Gb will still be enough to not make the decrease too noticeable. I would have liked to see a QHD display resolution option, although omitting it is probably reasonable given it would only be used with the integrated Iris Pro 5200 graphics. I also have the usual complaints about Windows being forcefully bundled (and a version of Windows that I especially hate), but given how fussy I am with hardware specifications (and my dabbles with Wine which sometimes uses licensed Microsoft components), I’m not as upset about it here as other people would be. It would also be nice if the dock supported more than just one 3.5″ SSD and PCIe slot. I also wonder if other future laptops will be released by MSI that will be compatible with this dock, although that seems doubtful given the dock size doesn’t look big enough to support larger laptops.

Upon reading reviews of the GS30 Shadow, I saw references to another recently-released device with similar functionality compatible with some Alienware series of laptops – Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier (which I’ll hereafter refer to as the AGA). This is something purchased separately to the Alienware laptops it is compatible with, and has the advantage of being able to pass the external GPU graphics onto the laptop display – a feature I can’t imagine myself using – but my gut feeling is that this might complicate GNU/Linux compatibility. The Alienware solution also has some significant drawbacks:

  • The AGA connects to the laptop through a cable instead of via a dock. Although the AGA includes a PCIe 16x slot, the cable limits the bus bandwidth to PCIe 4x speeds, which will surely hinder the ability to upgrade down the road as performance will be compromised on faster graphics cards. I also feel Dell is misleading people about this as the limitation is not mentioned anywhere I could find on the website, although I can’t say I’m surprised.
  • It doesn’t include a SATA controller or mounting brackets. This is a great feature of the MSI solution in my opinion, and something I’d like to make use of.
  • It doesn’t look like something I could sit my laptop on reliably. That means I’ll have to find more desk space, and I’m not sure I would be able to comfortably find the room. I also can’t imagine cable length would be great.
  • Alienware is nowadays owned by Dell. Dell and I have a bit of history, and I’d like to avoid that company wherever possible.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there is no comparable Dell laptop compatible with the AGA – no 4th Generation i7 CPU with VT-d support in a 13″ machine, and the 13″ laptops on offer are almost twice as heavy as the MSI.

So there we go, the MSI GS30 Shadow is a winner. It isn’t actually released in Australia for another two days, but I’m convinced that the GS30 will be my next laptop sometime soon. I’ve never owned a MSI laptop before, but now I’m certainly looking forward to it.

StatusNet now a part of System Saviour

Posted in Freedom, Software, Status update on October 14th, 2012 by abolte – Be the first to comment

Last week, the FSF dented about a MediaGoblin fund-raiser. Shortly after, Ben sent an email out to the FSM mail list indicating that he had used the service in the past and found himself donating. A couple of days later, a FSF e-mail hit my inbox pressuring me some more.

The funny thing is that whilst I’ve heard of the project, I don’t fully understand how it works and why I would use it. After all, if it’s just for sharing images I would either add them within WordPress, or otherwise simply do this by scp’ing them to a directory my server and link to them as required. This functionality works fine with my N900 as well, although clearly posting images online is not a service I have much demand for. Heck, not a week goes by that I don’t just use elinks for something.

Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I’m probably also misunderstanding what MediaGoblin is all about. How does it compare to say ownCloud? The best way to understand it is to take it for a spin. Let’s take a look at the documentation… they compare it to Identi.ca and Libre.fm right off the bat. Wait a second… I use Identi.ca a lot but I’m not running it on my own hardware right now. Despite this I’m deploying some Goblin to my server that I don’t really understand? Time to change priorities.

What followed was me spending the rest of the day re-organising my DomU machines, web server configurations and finally installing my own StatusNet micro-blog at http://micro.systemsaviour.com/.

So far I haven’t customised my install too much. I haven’t even replaced the Status.Net heading with the site name, but can do that all in good time. As my usage of Identi.ca was previously almost exclusively limited to other Identi.ca accounts, I had not until now had a good chance to see for myself how well the federation features worked. While not perfect (eg. no direct messaging functionality, documented bugs preventing messages to groups sometimes appearing, etc.) I think it will live up to my expectations and be sufficiently useful to me to want to make the switch away from my boltronics@identi.ca account.

As for MediaGoblin, I’ll have to look at that again another weekend to see if I can figure out how it might be useful. As for Libre.FM, I don’t think I’ll be hosting my own GNU FM server any time soon given it doesn’t appear to have federation capabilities currently which would pretty much restrict its usefulness to scrobbling (which I don’t really care much for anyway). I have decided that I also want to run my own Gitorious install sooner rather than later. Too much cool tech… arrggh!!

October 28th 2012 update:
As expected, I have since spent some time messing around with MediaGoblin. The results are visible from the Images menu button above. I have yet to create a custom theme, and do not have registrations enabled – with no plans to do so; at least not until the software matures.

Tough time for Debian Wheezy users running fglrx (and farewell GNOME)

Posted in Software, Status update on December 19th, 2011 by abolte – 2 Comments

Do you run the fglrx driver on Debian Wheezy? I sure do, and if you’re like me I feel your pain.

About a month ago, the fglrx packages were added back into Debian Testing so the previous workaround is no longer required. Unfortunately not long after things appeared working, the Debian guys decided it would be a good time to upgrade to GNOME 3, which caused all kinds of graphical corruption and made Debian all but unusable for me. I actually found myself booting into my Windows install for a while.

A newer fglrx driver was then released which fixed most graphical glitches, however things were still far from perfect. As an example the alt tag pop-up text in Firefox was rendered incorrectly and barely readable, but for the most part things were okay… until I tried to play a video. Hello bug #649346 – “fglrx-driver: using xv extension crashes Xorg”. At the time of writing, this still isn’t fixed. Naturally this is all terribly frustrating.

I generally use mplayer whenever I need to watch a video, so the work-around for me was adding “vo=gl” under the [default] section in my ~/.mplayer/config file, and being extra careful mplayer is the default video player for everything!

There’s one other interesting thing that happened to me over the weekend – I ditched GNOME. I’ve been a GNOME fan-boy since the pre-1.0 releases back around 1998, so you might imagine the significance of this. Certainly some of the lead GNOME guys have previously upset me by encouraging some further development to be in Mono, but my real reason for doing this is simply because modern GNOME 3.x versions just don’t seem to cater to me any more. After using it for a few weeks, I just feel too constrained.

For example, I wanted to find a way to select an appropriate font size. I couldn’t – I could choose “Small”, “Medium” “Large” etc. I know I like font size 8, but there was no way to select it – all the options gave something too big or small for my liking.

Another thing I use all the time is virtual desktops. Right now, I’m using 3, but sometimes I find myself using 10 or more depending on my workload. Because GNOME has always defaulted to two horizontal panels along the top and bottom of the screen, my virtual desktops have also always been aligned horizontally. GNOME 3 changes this – you have to get used to managing them vertically. Further, I can’t assign e-mail to virtual desktop 7 – GNOME only creates them as you need them. This may seem like nit-picking, but it’s too difficult to get used to, and it just feels inefficient.

Then there’s the Alt+Tab functionality. How could they screw that up? Well, if you have 10 Terminator (xterm) windows open for example, GNOME considers them all to be a single application. So when you Alt+Tab to switch through them, they all appear as a single item. Instead, you must Alt+tab to Terminator, and then Alt+` to switch between the individual terminals. I’m sure they were aiming for efficiency here (for a change), but it all feels very tedious and breaks conventions everyone is already used to.

Opening a new program is also annoying in GNOME 3. You need to move the mouse over to the top-left corner of the screen, then click an Applications icon that appears a few centimetres away (probably further away on larger screens). An large (huge?) icon for every application will appear after a few seconds of loading time – which is impractical for most people since the list is so big, so you need to narrow down the results by category. So now move the mouse way over to the right side of the screen to what looks a bit like the traditional GNOME 2.x menu options. These limit the giant application icons to only those that fit within that category.

What happens if the application you have has been installed manually and does not have a GNOME launch icon? Well, you need to create one manually, of course! Fire up your favourite text editor and create one under ~/.local/share/applications/ or some such. What a pain in the ass! Unlike the good old days of creating a custom application launcher through the GUI, in GNOME 3 you need to do it all through text editors.

You can add commonly used application launch icons to a dock on the left-hand side of the screen, but if you’re like me and use a bunch of different applications depending on the task at hand, that’s not particularly helpful. In fact, quite frequently I find myself hitting ALT+F2 to just type the name of the application I want to launch. This functionality is still there in GNOME 3, however it’s far less useful than it used to be. Auto-complete functionality seemed to be missing, however it’s still the best option for launching applications when you don’t want to bother with creating launch icons.

Some of the GNOME 3 options simply aren’t even implemented. For example, telling GNOME you want your user to automatically log in doesn’t work – you need to edit configuration files. How a major release ever made it out in such a state I’ll never know.

Another thing I wanted to do was tell GNOME that my default terminal should be Terminator, since it was clearly ignoring my /etc/alternatives/x-terminal-emulator setting. Unfortunately, that’s a matter of firing up gconf-editor and hunting down the option. What used to be a simple drop-down menu in GNOME 2.x no longer exists!

Some of the above issues are able to be worked around via Shell Extensions, and GnomeTweakTool, but it seems stupid to be forced to waste time with hacks just to get basic functionality going. Firefox provides everything needed for efficient web browsing out of the box, and if you want extra uncommon functionality the extensions are there to help you out – but it’s still a perfectly good web browser without them. GNOME 3 on the other hand just feels useless as a desktop without them. It’s a disaster.

So what have I switched to? I wanted something Debian was likely to have good support for, so I started poking around the available packages:

$ for i in $(apt-cache show task-desktop | grep ^Recommends: | cut -d ' ' -f 2- | tr -d ',|') ; do [[ ${i} = *desktop ]] && echo ${i} ; done
task-gnome-desktop
task-kde-desktop
task-lxde-desktop
task-xfce-desktop
$

I’ve given KDE a number of chances over the years, but have always switched back to GNOME due to its complexity. When you get frustrated trying to hunt down an option you know should exist, something has to be wrong. However, my N900 does run LXDE in a chroot and it seemes okay, so I gave it a spin. Ouch was it buggy! Trying to configure options would spit out random errors which had been fixed in newer releases which made it into Ubuntu over a month ago, but were still an issue in Debian Testing? Seemed to me like the Debian guys haven’t given LXDE much love, so that leaves me with Xfce. Linus Torvalds switched to it a while ago… how bad can it be? Well, I did try it years ago, and my memories of it were not good… but given the lack of options I thought I’d give it a try anyway. And boy was I impressed!

GNOME 2.x users will feel right at home. Imagine GNOME 2.x… except with more options for configuration out-of-the-box! I was able to make my Xfce desktop look and behave almost identically to GNOME 2.x, and it feels quicker to boot! I don’t know why the Mate project (aiming to fork GNOME 2) is bothering – Xfce just feels so right. 🙂

I did have one issue with Xfce sound however. I have basically two sound cards – an Intel HD Audio Controller located on my motherboard, and my Logitech G35 USB headset. Stock Xfce did not seem to provide any option for switching between these on the fly, however audio was one thing that GNOME (both 2 and 3) got right.. which gave me an idea. Under Settings -> ‘Session and Startup’ -> ‘Application Autostart’, I added /usr/bin/gnome-sound-applet (which comes from the gnome-control-center package). Now, audio works just as well under Xfce via this applet as it does under GNOME. Beautiful!

There’s a few other little things I’ve found in Xfce where I’ve thought “wow that’s a nice touch”. Eg. I regularly Alt+drag windows around, but with Xfce you can actually drag them to neighbouring virtual desktops! It might not sound that amazing, but it feels nice. Also, when you want to move an applet around on the panels, you get a square appear that makes it very clear what the panel will look like if you left-click to confirm – as opposed to the GNOME way where you see the results as you have already made the change by dragging. Lastly, say I click on a launcher for a program that is already open in another virtual desktop which I forgot about, instead of getting a flashing icon in the task panel and having to click it to jump to a different virtual desktop (as would be the case in GNOME 2.x), you just have the application instantly move from whichever virtual desktop it was on to the current one. These are all minor details, but have made me pleasantly surprised.

As for the Xfce panel applets, some are better than those in GNOME 2.x, and some aren’t quite as good. Overall, I didn’t feel any worse off. I did think the Directory Menu applet will be really useful, but I haven’t relied on it much yet (perhaps out of habit of not having it). If you like GNOME 2 and hate GNOME 3, definitely do yourself a favour and give Xfce 4.8 a try for a few days and see what you think.

Y.A.B.

Posted in Status update on March 24th, 2009 by abolte – Be the first to comment

I’ve had a number of personal websites over the years.

http://iprimus.com.au/boltronics/

http://yallara.cs.rmit.edu.au/~abolte/ (also redirected to by psychoreactor.com for a while).

http://boltronics.dyndns.org

These have all now disappeared. The first two were taken down by the hosting provider as I am no longer a customer or student. Just like non-free software, these hosts locked me into a non-flexible solution that could not last. I could have kept my iPrimus host, but that would have likely meant keeping iPrimus as my ISP. I could have kept my RMIT account, but that would have meant continuing to study there. Neither requirement was one that I was prepared to accept.

Eventually, I decided that if I wanted things done properly, I needed to do them myself. I wasn’t going to let myself be held hostage any further by hosting company terms and conditions – I can run my own darn web server on my home ADSL2+ Internet connection. That is exactly what I did when I made boltronics.dyndns.org.

All was going well for what was likely the better part of two years. Initially I was using a Sun SPARCStation 5 that was thrown out by a pharmacy my sister used to work at. It was already in use as my DNS server, DHCP server and MLDonkey bittorrent client. Having a second server in my small appartment running 24/7 just for website hosting was more than I was willing to tollerate, so I added just a couple more things – Apache, MySQL and PHP for WordPress. This was slightly more than the box could hande. The main page would take 15 seconds to load, so it would not have taken much to DOS attack. An upgrade was in order.

Enter the Pentium 166MMX, which I believe I acquired new back in the day. I was happy with this configuration for a time, as it was noticably quicker than the SPARCStation 5 (but I didn’t run any benchmarks). Soon afterwards, I hit my next requirement: Samba for my home NAS. Suddenly my 166MMX wasn’t cutting it.

I reluctantly upgraded to an AMD Athlon K7 Slot A 500MHz-processor based system that a colleague from my place of employment at the time gave me. It did the job, but holy bananas Batman was the CPU cooler noisy. Still, I put up with it. I even added a second NIC, and used it as my home Internet firewall/gateway. Using mdadm, it was running a RAID1 configuration. The /boot partition was on a 256Mb CF card thanks to a CF->IDE adapter that installed onto a back-plate, so I didn’t need to worry about potential GRUB/BIOS issues in the event of a HDD failure. Life was good… for a while.

My wife is not quite as computer savvy as myself. When something doesn’t work as expected, her general rule of thumb is to reset the problem device. It was not uncommon for her to hit the server restart button when there was actually only an issue with the modem or her desktop. One time when I was remotely performing a dist-upgrade to the latest Ubuntu release over SSH, my wife was simultaneously using bittorrent on her desktop – which used the server for DNS, routing, etc. She noticed that things weren’t working correctly for a moment (as expected when services are stopped for an upgrade) and hit the server restart button. The timing could not have been worse.

The system was left in an unusable state – half upgraded, half unconfigured. There were also filesystem errors. I couldn’t trust the installation any more, and there seemed so many problems that it was easier to simply reinstall. It was at this time that my wife wasn’t using her old desktop anymore, so I decided to use that instead – an AMD Athlon64 3000+. There are two main advantages to this newer system: firstly (and most importantly) it is trusted by my wife as a reliable system. I have convinced her by using this that the reset button should never be pressed – even when things aren’t working. The second advantage is that it has more grunt and memory, so I have been able to take advantage of OpenVZ virtual machines. This has given me a virtual DMZ, and individual machines for any services that I wish to run. The result is a more reliable and secure configuration, with a bit more management overhead. This is partly why boltronics.dyndns.org has been down for as long as it has been.

Whilst I do have backups of the old blog, I wanted something new and completely mine. If my wife wants “our” old blog back, I’ll add that at her request and link to it from here. I don’t expect that to happen though, as I believe she has lost interest.

I am hopeful that my fourth server and fourth website will be the ones that last the longest. So much so that I have registered this domain for the next 10 years.

Welcome to yet another blog. I hope you enjoy your stay.