Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

XPS 13 Developer Edition (2015): Rushed

July 29, 2015

Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition from 2015 has some nice hardware, but it was rushed to market. The machine isn’t usable as delivered. Either no QA testing was done, or an impossible deadline was imposed. I’m pretty sure it was a deadline. It took the managers a while to realize this is a problem, but they finally decided to act by no longer selling it until they fix it. Someone with basic Linux sysadmin skills and some time to install the various fixes can get it working quite well so long as they aren’t a fast typist; key repeats are only mostly fixed as of now. With the fixes, I find it can still fail to resume from suspend, but it doesn’t happen often and leaves nothing logged to indicate the problem. Overall, I like the machine more than I should.

I went for a model with the 1920×1080 display and no touchscreen because I don’t like glossy displays. I do like resolution, and this is plenty for the small size. I’ll be using font anti-aliasing for a while longer; probably could turn that off with the higher resolution model.

Dell shipped it in a cardboard shipping box that distinguished itself by including a plastic handle so it can be carried around like a briefcase. Inside that is the power supply and cable, and a black box. A very nice looking black box. Inside that is the XPS 13 with foam above and a plastic tray below that is very well fitted. Clearly a lot of though went into this, more than I have managed to convey. Underneath the computer is a folded paper on using MS Windows. I know the Developer Edition uses the same hardware as the XPS 13 with Windows pre-installed, but I didn’t expect it would include the same, but useless, documentation. Not a big deal, but maybe a harbinger.

When turned on, the XPS 13 quickly boots and brings up a legal document. Fun stuff. After a short delay, although long enough that I thought it would let me read the document, a video starts playing full-screen. The video cannot be stopped, and trying to switch away doesn’t work. Alt-tab brings up the window switching menu, but it doesn’t switch. I also couldn’t mute the audio or change the volume; I’m used to pressing two keys to get the functions like volume control, but only one was required. I eventually figured that out, but it did make the compulsory video rather annoying. What made it obnoxious was that it was just an animation of logos zooming about put to music that meant nothing.

With the video done, I got back to reading the legalese. I needed to scroll the text, so I got to use the mouse. It occasionally quit working for two seconds or so before accepting more input. There is a fix for this from Dell, but not on the part of their website for supporting purchased products. That is, if you were to purchase a XPS 13 Developer Edition, log into your account on Dell’s site, find the item you bought, and try to download fixes, then you won’t find them. The fixes are on Dell’s website, just not there. It is apparently reserved for Windows related fixes and system firmware, aka BIOS. A search engine is the best way to find the Developer Edition fixes. Once applied, the mouse no longer ignores input, but occasionally when trying to scroll with it, the system will respond like alt-tab is down and cycles through the windows super fast. I have no idea how to reproduce the issue. It hasn’t happened in the last couple of weeks, but I’m not sure it won’t happen again.

Soon after that, I got to try typing. It regularly repeated key inputs until another key was pressed. This didn’t take fast typing to observe. A BIOS update mostly corrects it, but people who type really fast report that the change only mitigates the problem. The issue affects Windows as well. Considering that keyboards are common computer hardware that have generally worked well for decades, and that Dell botched it in 2015, it is amazing the rest of the hardware came out as well as it did. The group within Dell that put Ubuntu Linux on the XPS 13 clearly had a hard time dealing with this hardware.

After this, it was time to update the installed software. The Ubuntu Software Updater ran until it got to grub, then seemed to hang on the update while still responding to user input. After waiting half an hour, I killed it and what seemed to be a related process that was eating processor time. Then I used apt-get from a shell and ran whatever command it told me to run when it complained about some problem. Since then, updates have worked correctly. I have to wonder if an uncorrected hung update would render the system unbootable.

Following that, the system needed updates for the graphics to resume reliably from suspend. I still have an occasional issue with it, but matters greatly improved. A remaining issue is how the screen brightness automatically adjusts: it darkens for a mostly dark frame, brightens for a bright frame, and offers no user configurability at all. I was worried this would be an issue for working with photographs, but the screen’s limited color gamut, at least compared to another display I have, has proven a much bigger issue. I just have to learn to avoid over saturating the color.

Other than that is an occasional crash for no apparent reason. I’ve had it happen shortly after booting the computer and starting to browse the web. It was occurring twice a week, but hasn’t happened in a couple weeks or so; maybe something was fixed.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition was in no condition to ship. Asus did a much better job with their Eee PC line; they might have been limited by their Linux distribution, but they worked fine right out of the box. Still, I’d rather not buy a computer with Windows pre-installed, and I like that Dell is going through some effort to support Linux, including getting patches into the mainline kernel to improve hardware support. I’m guessing the XPS 13 issues were unexpectedly time consuming to fix and management didn’t want to wait.

A belated Tron Legacy review featuring mass

May 23, 2011

I finally got around to watching the new Tron movie. I enjoyed it overall, but there were a few flaws. Other people have already pointed out the hyper-sexuality used in their portrayal of female programs. Then there are the details that programs have gender, time away from work to go clubbing, relationships that go beyond interprocess communication, and a thirst for blood in entertainment that would have worked well in ancient Rome. They are still using end-of-line where they should be using end-of-file. Further, they are mixing programs and processes together suggesting a system that only uses self-modifying code, but no system has ever made that requirement, few developers even try to use it, and some systems don’t allow it, all with good reason.

But that isn’t what really bothered me while watching. Instead, getting a whole army out of the computer bugged me, even after accepting that people, and perhaps even program/processes, could go into and out of the system. Were they going to send one through at a time? Would someone notice before many got through? Maybe a few technicians would be sent out at first to setup something better? It looked like they meant to send a whole bunch all at once. Would they be toy-sized?

The biggest problem of all was what this army would be made from. The device that allowed both Flynns to be inside the computer had only collected mass from them. A whole army of adult-sized conscripts cannot be made from the mass of two adults. Maybe a toy-sized army could, but that would make it impossible for each conscript to have a complex brain. While this could be seen as a benefit, the small size alone might make it difficult for a toy-sized army to be effective against many regular sized people without an absurd number of conscripts orders of magnitude greater than what the movie depicted. Two technicians would have quite a difficult task of solving the mass problem by attempting to create matter from energy. The enormous amount of energy would ensure the attempt would get a lot of attention before it could be successful.

I suppose the only way would be to send two conscripts out to abduct two people, then use the mass for another two conscripts, and keep repeating the procedure. Eventually, people would take notice of what was going on, but would it be soon enough? Cutting power likely would not be realized as a possible solution, and considering that the system seemed to run for twenty years straight without maintenance, it probably wouldn’t have helped. The rate of abductions could increase exponentially at first, but soon would become limited by the device’s placement and the physical constraints of moving to and from it.

On the positive side, I did like the black and white film look used on the closeup of one of the conscripts.

Off with the mosquitoes, on with the gas mask

July 10, 2010

I started looking to alternatives to DEET since I get a mild rash where I apply it if I’m not careful to apply very little. I don’t even use a very concentrated formula, just 23%. Some research shows it’s a bit toxic, so I’d rather not buy more of it.

One alternative is a clip-on product from OFF!. It has nothing to apply to skin and uses a fan, so it is obviously distributing an airborne chemical that repels mosquitoes. The chemical is metofluthrin, which I know nothing about. Presumably, the product will work best when the vapors it puts out surround the person it is supposed to protect.

There is one catch: the package clearly warns the user not to inhale the vapor as it can have negative effects on the nervous system. If you’re going to use it, you might want a gas mask, too.

Easy Peasy: the Linux that isn’t easy

October 13, 2009

I recently tried out Easy Peasy on my Asus Eee PC 901. It promises to be an easy to use system that is well adapted to computers like the Eee PC. Unfortunately, it comes up short of that promise.

I had problems with it right away. I downloaded Easy Peasy 1.5 and used Unetbootin 372 to put it on an SD card. The Easy Peasy site recommends Unetbootin, but the result wasn’t bootin’ anything. All I got was a blinking cursor on an otherwise black screen. Based on what I found in their forums, I used dd to write the Easy Peasy disk image to the card. This makes the card look a lot like a CD to a computer, albeit an 826MB one. That got the Eee PC booting Easy Peasy. It seemed to work well enough, although the touch pad mouse doesn’t move as easily for some reason.

Since it was just a minor issue getting the Easy Peasy image to boot, I decided it was working well enough to install to another SD card. I selected the install option, and after maybe a half hour it was done. The Eee PC rebooted, I told it to use the card, and I got a black screen with a blinking cursor.

That wasn’t enough to stop me because I don’t much care for the Xandros Linux distribution the Eee PC shipped with. I put the SD card into my Gentoo running deskunder computer and proceeded to re-install Grub on the card. That took some trickery. I also had to modify Grub’s menu.lst file and the /etc/fstab file because they referenced the SD card device incorrectly. I had used two cards during the installation. The one with the disk image was /dev/sdc, and the install target was /dev/sdd. Now that the install was over, there would be no disk image, and the root filesystem would be found on /dev/sdc.

I fixed all that up and put the card back in the Eee PC. This time it booted Easy Peasy from the card. After a while, it came up with a text menu like what can be found on Redhat installs a decade old. The age of the interface doesn’t bother me; that it worked a decade ago but not on the much newer Easy Peasy does bother me. It noticed that I had changed menu.lst and presented me with options. Pressing any keys in an attempt to select an option resulted in garbage text being put on the screen, just like from programs that are busy ignoring stdin.

After a while, I decided to use my Eee PC again with the old Xandros. Even with the Easy Peasy SD card removed, I get Grub error 21. Easy Peasy wrecked the Grub configuration on filesystems that I never asked it to mess with. This is a major problem. If you do give Easy Peasy a try and decide to  install it, be prepared for nothing to boot.

Since I still wanted to use the Eee PC, I booted Easy Peasy. I hit a few more keys when the menu came up and got lucky. I really don’t know what I pressed to get past the menu. After the X server came up, I logged in and tried to get the wireless connection to work. It didn’t. It did earlier when I used the Easy Peasy disk image, but it is broken after an install. It seems that it needs to open /etc/Wireless/RT2860STA/RT2860STA.dat, but there is no /etc/Wireless.

In the process, I decided to switch to a virtual terminal for some reason. I didn’t really need to, I just did. I was able to login and get a prompt from bash. But when I tried to return to the X server, all I got was a black screen. I could switch back to the terminal, but X wasn’t being useful. I tried the common keystroke to kill the X server without success. After about a half hour of sitting around on terminal, I found the computer brought up a graphical login on its own. I was logged out of my X session, and X was being useful again. Weird and obnoxious.

Overall, I would have to say that Gentoo is a little easier to install on a regular deskunder than Easy Peasy is on an Eee PC. Gentoo’s directions are clear, well written, and work. Easy Peasy has few directions, they often fail, and you’ve got to figure out how to fix it on your own. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Oh, the included Firefox doesn’t go to the previous page when backspace is pressed. I hate that about the Xandros install.


The wireless problem wasn’t fixed by restoring the missing /etc/Wireless files. After that attempt, I shutdown the system through the graphical interface for the first time. When I later started the system with the intention of seeing if any updates might help, the filesystem was not clean and was mounted read-only preventing the X server from starting. Using the shutdown command from a shell worked fine, but not the pretty GUI.

Don’t touch Easy Peasy unless you are ready to spend time fixing it.

Another update:

I put Eeebuntu standard on my Eee PC a couple months ago. It is working out quite well, and didn’t have the install trouble of Easy Peasy. Compiz gives it plenty of nice eye candy, and it runs acceptably fast. Unfortunately, Compiz and Google Earth don’t seem to play well together. It is no fault of Eeebuntu, and Eeebuntu doesn’t force the use of Compiz.

In any case, Eeebuntu is keeping me happy with my Eee PC for now.

False Steps

The Space Race as it might have been

You Control The Action!

High Frontier

the space colony simulation game

Simple Climate

Straightforwardly explaining climate change, so you can read, react and then get on with your life.