More thinking on travelling without a laptop

When it comes to the technology that I carry with me on trips away, I have begun to start weighing devices on my kitchen scales. The results are a little revealing. The HP Pavilion dm5 that has gone with me to Ireland and other places weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg while my Apple iPad Mini 2 comes in at 764 grams. My 12.9″ iPad Pro with its Logitech keyboard weighs between these at 110 to 1200 grams. The idea of consolidating computing devices for travel has been discussed on here before now and the main thing stopping my just going with the iPad Pro was the viewing of photos without filling up its 32 GB of storage space.

Since then, I just may have found a workaround and it is another gadget, this time weighing only a few hundred grams: a 1 TB WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive. Aside from having a SD card slot that allows the automatic backup of photos, it also can connect with tablets and phones using WiFi broadband.

WD My Passport Wireless

It is the WD My Cloud app that makes the connections to mobile devices useful and it works smoothly on iOS and Android devices too. Nevertheless, there is more functionality on the latter ones such as DNG file support and an added slide show feature that works with JPEG files. Both of these are invaluable for viewing photos and I feel a little short-changed that they are not available on iOS. Hopefully, that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, my Pentax K5 II DSLR camera can be persuaded to save DNG and JPEG files simultaneously so that they can be viewed full screen on both types of devices without having to transfer them onto the tablet first as you would with Apple’s SD card reader. Usefully, that gets around my oversight in buying iPads with only 32 GB of storage each. That now looks like a false economy given what I am trying now.

Such is the weight difference, just taking along my Apple iPad Pro and the WD device will save around 1 kg and there is less fuss at airport security screening too. While my HTC phone would suffice for seeing photos as slide shows, I am wondering if my battered Google Nexus 9 could come too. The only dilemma then would be how to pack things since I am not sure how a large iPad screen would seem to cabin crew or other passengers during take off and landing. That makes using the Nexus 9 onboard more of a proposition and the iPad might go into the hold luggage to make life a little easier. Still, that choice is a minor concern now that I can try travelling overseas without a laptop to see how I get along.

Wiping of hard drives with Linux

More than a decade of computer upgrades and rebuilds can leave obsolete kit in your hands and the arrival of legislation controlling the dumping of electronic goods during this time can leave one wondering how anyone can dispose of them. Thankfully, I discovered that the local council refuse site only a few miles away from me accepts such things for recycling and saw me a good few times over the last summer with obsolete and non-working gadgets that has stayed with me far too long. Some were as bulky as a computer monitor and a printer but others were relatively diminutive.

Disposing of non-working and utterly obsolete equipment is an easy choice but I find this is harder when a device still works as intended and even might have a use yet. When you realise that computer motherboards still come with PS/2, floppy and IDE ports, things get trickier. My Gigabyte Z87-HD3 mainboard just has one PS/2 when predecessors would have had two and the same applies to IDE sockets and there still is a floppy drive socket on there too, a surprising sight for anyone used to thinking that such things are utterly outmoded these days. So, PC technology isn’t relinquishing backwards compatibility just yet since that mainboard is part of a system with an Intel Core i5-4670K CPU and 24 GB of RAM on there.

Even with that presence of an IDE port, I was not tempted to use leftover 10 GB and 20GB hard drives that I have had for just over a decade. Ten years ago, that sort of capacity would been respectable were it not for our voracious appetite for data storage thanks to photography, video and music. Apart from the size constraints, the speed of those drives cannot compare well with what we have today either and I quickly saw that when I replaced a Samsung 160 HD of a similar age with a Samsung SSD.

The result of this line of thought was that I was minded to recycle the drives so I started to think about wiping and Linux has a good tool for this in the form of the dd command. It can overwrite data on the disks so as to render the information virtually irretrievable. Also, Linux has a number of dummy devices that can supply junk data for overwriting purposes. They are like /dev/null which is used to suppress the issuing of output to the command. The first is /dev/zero which supplies octal zeros and I have used this. However, there also is /dev/random and /dev/urandom for those wanting a more random element to the overwriting.

To overwrite data on a disk with zeroes while having feedback on progress, the following command achieves the required result:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero | pv | sudo dd of=/dev/sdd bs=16M

The whole operation needs to be executed with root privileges and the if parameter of dd specifies the input data and this is sent to a pv command that shows a progress bar that dd would not produce by itself while sending the output on to another dd command with the disk to be overwritten specified using the of parameter. The bs parameter in that second dd command specifies the block size for the disk writing job. Unfortunately, pv is not installed by default so you need to add it yourself. On a Debian, Ubuntu or Linux Mint system, the command is the following:

sudo apt-get install pv

That pv sandwich also is invaluable for those times when dd is needed to copy partitions between different physical or virtual (in a virtual machine) disks. Without it, you might wonder what exactly is happening in the silence and that especially is concerning when you are retrying an operation that failed previously and it takes a while to complete each time.

A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

Best left until later in the year?

In the middle of last year, my home computing experience was one of feeling displaced. A combination of a stupid accident and a power outage had rendered my main PC unusable. What followed was an enforced upgrade that use combination that was familiar to me: Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and Crucial memory. However, assembling that lot and attaching components from the old system from the old system resulted in the sound of whirring fans but nothing appearing on-screen. Not having useful beeps to guide me meant that it was a case of undertaking educated guesswork until the motherboard was found to be at fault. In a situation like this, a deeper knowledge of electronics would have been handy and might have saved me money too. As for the motherboard, it is hard to say whether it was a faulty set from the outset or whether there was a mishap along the way, either due ineptitude with static or incompatibility with a power supply. What really tells the tale on the mainboard was the fact that all of the other components are working well in other circumstances, even that old power supply.

A few years back, I had another experience with a problematic motherboard, an Asus this time, that ate CPU’s and damaged a hard drive before I stabilised things. That was another upgrade attempted in the first half of the year. My first round of PC building was in the third quarter of 1998 and that went smoothly once I realised that a new case was needed. Similarly, another PC rebuild around the same time of year in 2005 was equally painless. Based on these experiences, I should not be blamed for waiting until later in the year before doing another rebuild, preferably a planned one rather than an emergency.

Of course, there may be another factor involved too. The hint was a non-working Sony DVD writer that was acquired early last year when it really was obvious that we were in the middle of a downturn. Could older unsold inventory be a contributor? Well, it fits in with seeing poor results twice, In addition, it would certainly tally with a problematical PC rebuild in 2002 following the end of the Dot Com bubble and after the deadly Al Qaeda attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. An IBM hard drive that was acquired may not have been the best example of the bunch and the same comment could apply to the Asus motherboard. The resulting construction may have been limping but it was working and I tolerated.

In contrast, last year’s episode had me launched into using a Toshiba laptop and a spare older PC for my needs with an external hard drive enclosure used to extract my data onto other external hard drives to keep me going. It felt a precarious arrangement but it was a useful experience in ways too. There was cause for making acquaintance with nearby PC component stores that I hadn’t visited before and I got to learning about things that otherwise wouldn’t have come my way. Using an external hard drive enclosure for accessing data on hard drives from a non-functioning PC is one of these. Discovering that it is possible to boot from external optical and hard disk drives came as a surprise too and will work so long as there is motherboard support for it. Another experience came from a crisis of confidence that had me acquiring a bare-bones system from Novatech and populating it with optical and hard disk drives. Then, I discovered that I have no need for power supplies rated more than 300 watts (around 200 W suffices). Turning my PC off more often became a habit friendly both to the planet and to household running costs too. Then, there’s the beneficial practice of shopping locally and it can suffice even if what PC magazines stick on their hot lists but shopping online for those pieces doesn’t guarantee success either. All of these were useful lessons and, while I’d rather not throw away good money after bad, it goes to show that even unsuccessful acquisitions had something to offer in the form of learning opportunities. Whether you consider that is worthwhile is up to you.

Still able to build PC systems

This weekend has been something of a success for me on the PC hardware front. Earlier this year, a series of mishaps rendering my former main home PC unusable; it was a power failure that finished it off for good. My remedy was a rebuild using my then usual recipe of a Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and crucial memory. However, assembling the said pieces never returned the thing to life and I ended up in no man’s land for a while, dependent on and my backup machine and laptop. That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the need for accessing data from the old behemoth’s hard drives but an external drive housing set that in order. Nevertheless, there is something unfinished about work with machines having a series of external drives hanging off them. That appearance of disarray was set to rights by the arrival of a bare bones system from Novatech in July with any assembly work restricted to the kitchen table.There was a certain pleasure in seeing a system come to life after my developing a fear that I had lost all of my PC building prowess.

That restoration of order still left finding out why those components bought earlier in the year didn’t work together well enough to give me a screen display on start-up. Having electronics testing equipment and the knowledge of its correct use would make any troubleshooting far easier but I haven’t got these. There is a place near to me where I could go for this but you are left wondering what might be said to a PC build gone wrong. Of course, the last thing that you want to be doing is embarking on a series of purchases that do not fix the problem, especially in the current economic climate.

One thing to suspect when all doesn’t turn out as hoped is the motherboard and, for whatever reason, I always suspect it last. It now looks as if that needs to change after I discovered that it was the Gigabyte motherboard that was at fault. Whether it was faulty from the outset or it came a cropper with a rogue power supply or careless with static protection is something that I’ll never know. An Asus motherboard did go rogue on me in the past and it might be that it ruined CPU’s and even a hard drive before I laid it to rest. Its eventual replacement put a stop to a year of computing misfortune and kick-started my reliance on Gigabyte. That faith is under question now but the 2009 computing hardware mishap seems to be behind me and any PC rebuilds will be done on tables and motherboards will be suspected earlier when anything goes awry.

Returning to the present, my acquisition of an ASRock K10N78 and subsequent building activities has brought a new system using an AMD Phenom X4 CPU and 4 GB of memory into use. In fact, I writing these very words using the thing. It’s all in a new TrendSonic case too (placing an elderly behemoth into retirement) and with a SATA hard drive and DVD writer. The new motherboard has onboard audio and graphics so external cards are not needed unless you are an audiophile and/or a gamer; for the record, I am neither. Those additional facilities make for easier building and fault-finding should the undesirable happen.

The new box is running the release candidate of Ubuntu 9.10 and it seems to be working without a hitch too. Earlier builds of 9.10 broke in their VirtualBox VM so you should understand the level of concern that this aroused in my mind; the last thing that you want to be doing is reinstalling an operating system because its booting capability breaks every other day. Thankfully, the RC seems to have none of these rough edges so I can upgrade the Novatech box, still my main machine and likely to remain so for now, with peace of mind when the time comes.