Pondering travel device consolidation using an Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

It was a change of job in 2010 that got me interested in using devices with internet connectivity on the go. Until then, the attraction of smartphones had not been strong but I got myself a Blackberry on a pay as you go contract but the entry device was painfully slow and the connectivity was 2G. It was a very sluggish start.

It was supplemented by an Asus eeePC that I connected to the internet using broadband dongles and a WiFi hub. This cumbersome arrangement did not work well on short journeys and the variability of mobile network reception even meant that longer journeys were not all that successful either. Usage in hotels and guesthouses though went better and that has meant that the miniature laptop came with me on many a journey.

In time, I moved away from broadband dongles to using smartphones as WiFi hubs and that largely is how I work with laptops and tablets away from home unless there is hotel WiFi available. Even trips overseas have seen me operate in much the same manner.

One feature is that we seem to carry quite a number of different gadgets with us at a time and that can cause inconvenience when going through airport security since they want to screen each device separately. When you are carrying a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a camera, it does take time to organise yourself and you can meet impatient staff as I found recently when returning from Oslo. Checking in whatever you can as hold luggage helps to get around at least some of the nuisance and it might be time for the use of better machinery to cut down on having to screen everything separately.

When you come away after an embarrassing episode as I once did, the attractions of consolidating devices start to become plain. In fact, most probably could get with having just their phone. It is when you take activities like photography more seriously that the gadget count increases. After all, the main reason a laptop comes on trips beyond Britain and Ireland at all is to back up photos from my camera in case an SD card fails.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

Parking that thought for a while, let’s go back to March this year when temptation overcame what should have been a period of personal restraint. The result was that a 32 GB 12.9″ Apple iPad Pro came into my possession along with an Apple Pencil and a Logitech CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case. It should have done so but the size of the screen did not strike me until I got it home from the Apple store and that was one of the main attractions because maps can be shown with a greater field of view in a variety of apps, a big selling point for a hiker with a liking for maps who wants more than anything from Apple, Google or even Bing. The precision of the Pencil is another boon that makes surfing the website so much easier and the solid connection between the case and the iPad means that keyboard usage is less fiddly than it would if it used Bluetooth. Having tried them with the BBC iPlayer app, I can confirm that the sound from the speakers is better than any other mobile device that I have used.

Already, it has come with me on trips around England and Scotland. These weekend trips saw me leave the Asus eeePC stay at home when it normally might have come with me and taking just a single device along with a camera or two had its uses too. The screen is large for reading on a train but I find that it works just as well so long as you have enough space. Otherwise, combining use of a suite of apps with recourse to the web does much of the information seeking needed while on a trip away and I was not found wanting. Battery life is good too, which helps.

Those trips allowed for a little light hotel room blog post editing too and the iPad Pro did what was needed though the ergonomics of reaching for the screen with the Pencil meant that meant that my arm was held aloft more than was ideal. Another thing that raised questions in my mind is the appearance of word suggestions at the bottom of the screen as if this were a mobile phone since I wondered if these were more of a hindrance than a help given that I just fancied typing and not pointing at the screen to complete words. Copying and pasting works too but I have found the screen-based version a little clunky so I must see if the keyboard one works just as well though the keyboard set up is typical of a Mac so that affects word selection. You need to use the OPTION key in the keyboard shortcut that you use for this and not COMMAND or CONTROL as you might do on a PC.

Transcend JetDrive Go 300

Even with these eccentricities, I was left wondering if it had any utility when it came to backing up photos from digital cameras and there is an SD card adapter that makes this possible. A failure of foresight on my part meant that the 32 GB capacity now is an obvious limitation but I think I might have hit on a possible solution that does not need upload to an iCloud account. It involves clearing off the photos onto a 128 GB Transcend JetDrive Go 300 so they do not clog up the iPad Pro’s storage. That the device has both Lightning and USB connectivity means that you can plug it into a laptop or desktop PC afterwards too. If that were to work as I would hope, then the laptop/tablet combination that I have been using for all overseas trips could be replaced  to allow a weight reduction as well as cutting the hassle at airport security.

Trips to Ireland still may see my sticking with a tried and tested combination though because I often have needed to do some printing while over there. While I have been able to print a test document from an iPad Mini on my home network-connected printer, not every model supports this and that for NFC or AirPrint is not universal either. If this were not an obstacle, apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote could have their uses for business-related work and there are web-based offerings from Google, Microsoft and others too.

In conclusion, I have found the my iPad Pro does so much of what I need on a trip away that retiring the laptop/tablet combination for most of these is not as outrageous as it once would have seemed. In some ways, iOS has a way to go yet before it could take over from MacOS but it remains in development so it will be interesting see what happens next. All the while, hybrid devices running Windows 10 are becoming more pervasive and that might provide Apple with the encouragement that it needs.

Rough?

Was it because Canonical and friends kept Ubuntu in such a decent state from 8.04 through to 9.04 that things went a little quiet in the blogosphere on the subject of the well-known Linux distribution? If so, 9.10 might be proving more of a talking point and you have to wonder if this is such a good thing with the appearance of Windows 7 on the scene. Looking on the bright side, 10.04 will be an LTS release so there is some chance that any rough edges that are on display now could be resolved by next April. Even so, it might have been better not to see anything so obvious at all.

In truth, Ubuntu always has had its gaps and I have seen a few of their ilk over the last two years. Of these, a few have triggered postings on here. In fact, issues with accessing the BBC iPlayer still bring a goodly number of folk to this website. That may just be a matter of grabbing RealPlayer, now helpfully available as a DEB package, from the requisite place on the web and ensuring that Ubuntu-Restricted-Extras is in place too but you have to know that in the first place. Even so, unexpected behaviours like Palimpsest seeing every partition on a disk as a different drive and SIL Raid mappings being seen for hard drives that used to live on the main home PC that bit the dust earlier this year; it only happens on one of the machines that I have running Ubuntu so it may be hardware thing and newly added hard drive uses none of the SIL mapping either. Perhaps more seriously (is it something that a new user should be encountering?), a misfiring variant of Brasero had me moving to K3b. Then UFRaw was sluggish in batch but that’s nothing that having a Debian VM won’t overcome. Rough edges like these do get you asking if 9.10 was ready for the big time while making you reluctant to recommend it to mainstream users like my brother.

The counterpoint to the above is that 9.10 includes a host of under the bonnet changes like the introduction of Ext4 hard drive formatting, Xsplash to allow the faster system loading to occur unseen and GNOME 2.28. To someone looking in from outside like me, that looks like a lot of work and might explain the ingress of the annoyances that I have seen. Add to that the fact that we are between Debian releases so things like the optimised packaging of ImageMagick or UFRaw may not be so high up the list of the things to do, especially with the more general speed optimisations that were put in place for 9.10. With 10.04 set to be an LTS release so I’d be hoping that consolidation is the order of the day over the next five or six months but it seems to be the inclusion of new features and other such progress that get magazine reviewers giving higher ratings (Linux Format has given it a mark of 9 out of 10). With the mooted inclusion of GNOME 3 and its dramatically different interface in 10.10, they should get their fill of that. However, I’d like to see some restraint for the take of a smooth transition from the familiar GNOME 2.x to the new. If GNOME 3 stays very like its alpha builds, then the question as how users will take to it arises. Of course, there’s some time yet before we see GNOME 3 and, having seen how the Ubuntu developers transformed GNOME 2.28, I wouldn’t be surprised if the impact of any change could be dulled.

In summary, my few weeks with Ubuntu 9.10 as my main OS have thrown up no major roadblocks that would cause me to look at moving elsewhere; Fedora would be tempting if that situation were to arise. The irritations that I have seen are more like signs of a lack of polish and remain peripheral to day-to-day working if you discount CD/DVD burning. To be honest, there always have been roughnesses in Ubuntu but has the lack of sizeable change spoilt us? Whatever about how things feel afterwards, big changes can mean new problems to resolve and inspire blog posts describing any solutions so it’s not all bad. If that’s what Canonical wants to see, they might get it and the year ahead looks as if it is going to be an interesting one after a recent quieter period.

Ubuntu upgrades: do a clean installation or use Update Manager?

Part of some recent “fooling” brought on by the investigation of what turned out to be a duff DVD writer was a fresh installation of Ubuntu 8.10 on my main home PC. It might have brought on a certain amount of upheaval but it was nowhere near as severe as that following the same sort of thing with a Windows system. A few hours was all that was needed but the question as to whether it is better to do an upgrade every time a new Ubuntu release is unleashed on the world or to go for a complete virgin installation instead. With Ubuntu 9.04 in the offing, that question takes on a more immediate significance than it otherwise might do.

Various tricks make the whole reinstallation idea more palatable. For instance, many years of Windows usage have taught me the benefits of separating system and user files. The result is that my home directory lives on a different disk to my operating system files. Add to that the experience of being able to reuse that home drive across different Linux distros and even swapping from one distro to another becomes feasible. From various changes to my secondary machine, I can vouch that this works for Ubuntu, Fedora and Debian; the latter is what currently powers the said PC. You might have to user superuser powers to attend to ownership and access issues but the portability is certainly there and it applies anything kept on other disks too.

Naturally, there’s always the possibility of losing programs that you have had installed but losing the clutter can be liberating too. However, assembling a script made up up of one of more apt-get install commands can allow you to get many things back at a stroke. For example, I have a test web server (Apache/MySQL/PHP/Perl) set up so this would be how I’d get everything back in place before beginning further configuration. It might be no bad idea to back up your collection of software sources either; I have yet to add all of the ones that I have been using back into Synaptic. Then there are closed source packages such as VirtualBox (yes, I know that there is an open source edition) and Adobe Reader. After reinstating the former, all my virtual machines were available for me to use again without further ado. Restoring the latter allowed me to grab version 9.1 (probably more secure anyway) and it inveigles itself into Firefox now too so the number of times that I need to go through the download shuffle before seeing the contents of a PDF are much reduced, though not completely eliminated by the Windows-like ability to see a PDF loaded in a browser tab. Moving from software to hardware for a moment, it looks like any bespoke actions such as my activating an Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner need to be repeated but that was all that I needed to do. Getting things back into order is not so bad but you need to allow a modicum of time for this.

What I have discussed so far are what might be categorised as the common or garden aspects of a clean installation but I have seen some behaviours that make me wonder if the usual Ubuntu upgrade path is sufficiently complete in its refresh of your system. The counterpoint to all of this is that I may not have been looking for some of these things before now. That may apply to my noticing that DSLR support seems to be better with my Canon and Pentax cameras both being picked up and mounted for me as soon as they are connected to a PC, the caveat being that they are themselves powered on for this to happen. Another surprise that may be new is that the BBC iPlayer’s Listen Again works without further work from the user, a very useful development. It very clearly wasn’t that way before I carried out the invasive means. My previous tweaking might have prevented the in situ upgrade from doing its thing but I do see the point of not upsetting people’s systems with an overly aggressive update process, even if it means that some advances do not make themselves known.

So what’s my answer regarding which way to go once Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope appears? For sake of avoiding initial disruption, I’d be inclined to go down the Update Manager route first while reserving the right to do a fresh installation later on. All in all, I am left with the gut feeling is that the jury is still out on this one.

Whither Fedora?

There is a reason why things have got a little quieter on this blog: my main inspiration for many posts that make their way on here, Ubuntu, is just working away without much complaint. I have to say that BBC iPlayer isn’t working so well for me at the moment so I need to take a look at my setup. Otherwise, everything is continuing quietly. In some respects, that’s no bad thing and allows me to spend my time doing other things like engaging in hill walking, photography and other such things. I suppose that the calm is also a reflection of the fact that Ubuntu has matured but there is a sense that some changes may be on the horizon. For one thing, there are the opinions of a certain Mark Shuttleworth but the competition is progressing too.

That latter point brings me to Linux Format’s recently published verdict that Fedora has overtaken Ubuntu. I do have a machine with Fedora on there and it performs what I ask of it without any trouble. However, I have never been on it trying all of the sorts of things that I ask of Ubuntu so my impressions are not in-depth ones. Going deeper into the subject mightn’t be such a bad use of a few hours. What I am not planning to do is convert my main Ubuntu machine to Fedora. I moved from Windows because of constant upheavals and I have no intention to bring those upon me without good reason and that’s just not there at the moment.

Speaking of upheavals, one thought that is entering my mind is that of upgrading that main machine. Its last rebuild was over three years ago and computer technology has moved on a bit since then with dual and quad core CPU‘s from Intel and AMD coming into the fray. Of course, the cost of all of this needs to be considered too and that is never more true than of these troubled economic times. If you asked me about the prospect of a system upgrade a few weeks ago, I would have ruled it out of hand. What has got me wondering is my continued used of virtualisation and the resources that it needs. I am getting mad notions like the idea of running more than one VM at once and I do need to admit that it has its uses, even if it puts CPU’s and memory through their paces. Another attractive idea would be getting a new and bigger screen, particularly with what you can get for around £100 these days. However, my 17″ Iiyama is doing very well so this is one for the wish list more than anything else. None of the changes that I have described are imminent but I have noticed how fast I am filling disks up with digital images so an expansion of hard disk capacity has come much higher up the to do list.

If I ever get to doing a full system rebuild with a new CPU, memory and motherboard (I am not so sure about graphics since I am no gamer),  the idea of moving into the world of 64-bit computing comes about. The maximum amount of memory usable by 32-bit software is 4 GB so 64-bit is a must if I decide to go beyond this limit. That all sounds very fine but for the possibility of problems arising with support for legacy hardware. It sounds like another bridge to be assessed before its crossing, even if two upheavals can be made into one.

Aside from system breakages, the sort of hardware and software changes over which I have been musing here are optional and can be done in my own time. That’s probably just as for a very good reason that I have mentioned earlier. Being careful with money becomes more important at times like these and it’s good that free software not only offers freedom of choice and usage but also a way to leave the closed commercial software acquisition treadmill with all of its cost implications, leaving money for much more important things.

Firefox 3, RealPlayer, Ubuntu and BBC’s iPlayer

With the record attempt due today for Firefox 3 downloads, I thought that it would be a good time for me to update my advice for getting BBC’s iPlayer going in Firefox running on Ubuntu. First, you need RealPlayer 11 for Linux. Once downloaded, the file RealPlayer11GOLD.bin needs to be made executable before running it with administrative privileges. The following command do this:

chmod +x RealPlayer11GOLD.bin

sudo ./RealPlayer11GOLD.bin

There is a catch though and it is that while the RealPlayer 11 installation is seamless for Firefox 2, the same cannot be said for Firefox 3 because directory locations have been changed such plugins are now found in /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins. The result that copies of or symbolic links to nphelix.xpt and nphelix.so are needed in that location. The following commands do the trick:

sudo ln -s /opt/real/RealPlayer/mozilla/nphelix.xpt /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins/nphelix.xpt

sudo ln -s /opt/real/RealPlayer/mozilla/nphelix.so /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins/nphelix.so

To cap all of this, I have seen advice that libtotem-complex-plugin.so needs to be removed from the Firefox plugins directory as well. I am not sure about this but I did that and all is working well for me. Let’s hope that continues to be the case.