Ubuntu also just works

23.03.2007 18:50

I should have known that my last post will backfire.

On Wednesday I installed Ubuntu 6.10 on my friend's laptop (HP Pavilion ze4600). I was greatly surprised how everything worked out of the box. Including hibernation and special shortcut buttons on the keyboard for the speaker volume, web browser and email. On the same day my Powerbook went belly-up when I unplugged my (properly unmounted) iPod. It crashed so bad that I had to remove the battery (first time the usual long press on the power button didn't work).

On the second thought, almost everything worked on Ubuntu. Getting TV output to work for example required some googling and installing the atitvout command line utility. Also GNOME's keyboard preferences crashed when I tried to set up more than two different keyboard layouts (it's a known bug - I had similar problems on Debian some time ago and it will probably be fixed in the April release). On the other hand suspend-to-RAM crashes the computer and according to some web pages I saw it doesn't look like it will be fixed any time soon.

The installation itself was also a bit tricky, but that wasn't Ubuntu's fault. The computer doesn't have a working CD driver and can't boot from USB devices, so I had to boot it through the network (roughly following these directions). For some reason then the Slovenian and German Ubuntu mirrors didn't work (the installer said the packages are corrupted) and it took forever to download everything from a US mirror.

However in the end the whole thing required far less manual tweaking than I expected (as Debian user). Congratulations to the Ubuntu developers!

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code | Comments »

Savica FM receiver

16.03.2007 23:44

Savica was an old solid state AM and FM radio receiver made by Iskra some 40 years ago. Originally it had only a mono receiver for middle and short wave and VHF bands. Interestingly this one (from my uncle) was modified by my father to also receive stereo FM broadcasts. I hear that this modification was quite popular at the time when first Slovenian radio stations began to transmit in stereo and more modern receivers either weren't available on the market or were very expensive.

Savica was particularly suitable for such a modification because the original FM detector had enough bandwidth to receive the entire stereo signal (which is encoded above the normal 15kHz of the audio signal). This meant that the original circuit could be left mostly untouched, only the original mono audio amplifier was replaced by a stereo decoder and a pair of amplifiers.

Savica front plate

Names of public middle wave broadcasts are permanently written on the front plate. Who needs RDS?

Savica front plate

Most of the original audio-frequency electronics is at the back of this picture. The audio amplifier is built with discrete silicon and germanium transistors. Power supply consists of a couple of diodes (probably a half-wave rectifier) and a large silver capacitor on the left.

Original electronics

This is the custom-built stereo decoder using the RCA CA1310 chip. The original FM detector is in the metal box in the lower left corner.

Update: the metal box actually contains only the the radio-frequency part of the FM receiver. The detector is on the main circuit board on the first picture.

Stereo decoder

And here are the two audio amplifiers, one for each channel. The two large capacitors on the left died and had to be replaced. This was the only repair needed to bring this old machine back into service.

Stereo amplifier

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Analog | Comments »

Siemens C35 firmware version

15.03.2007 18:52

How to check the firmware version on a Siemens C35 mobile phone:

  • In the menu choose Setup -> Phone -> Status -> Phone identity. Phone's IMEI number appears on the screen.
  • Press the left-most multifunction key (its function is not marked on the display).

This took me quite some time to figure out. It seems to be standard practice today to remove all information from the official manufacturer's website as soon as a particular model goes out of production.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code | Comments »

About "just working"

07.03.2007 19:56

A couple of people pointed me to this "amusing" web page about Mac users. Now while I usually ignore individuals using language like this, I am guilty of answering "it just works" when people ask me why I use an Apple laptop. So I feel like I ought to explain this a bit.

My Powerbook certainly doesn't always "just work". As any other software I know Mac OS X has its share of bugs and I can even say that when something does go wrong, OS X is the worst of all operating systems at giving you a clue about what went wrong (to give a recent example I encountered: Connection error: -5. See also my previous post about iPod problems). In that case your only hope of finding out the cause of the problem is a Google search turning up some insider information that was leaked by an Apple developer.

However from my experience if any system deserves the label "it just works" it is definitely a Mac. To give some examples why I think so:

  • My mobile phone connected via Bluetooth to my Powerbook and synchronized contacts, shared GPRS connection and sent SMSes without needing one bit of tweaking configuration or installing drivers. On a windows computer a similar trick involves spending several hours installing gigabytes of software, setting up network connections, "My Bluetooth places" and I don't know what else, including reinstalling everything once every three months because the installation mysteriously broke.
  • I have connected and printed to numerous printers from HP to Xerox again without installing drivers or configuring anything. A lot of times it was far easier to connect a printer to my laptop to print something than to convert a document to a format that can be read by some other computer that was already connected to a printer.
  • OS X is the only operating system with a usable sleep mode I saw. You close the lid, and the computer goes to sleep. You open the lid, computer is ready almost instantly. Compare this to you usual (Windows-running) laptop for example where a) suspend-to-disk takes longer to restore than a fresh boot (I can quote a number of examples of this, mostly from Compaq/HP) or b) suspend-to-RAM drains the battery in a couple of days. I have also not yet seen it crash when you connect or disconnect some device while it is in sleep.
  • Installation of native OS X applications doesn't require clicking through wizards or similar nonsense. If you no longer need an application just drag it to the trash can and its gone. Of course this one-file-per-application principle has its (not-so-short) list technical problems, but so far I haven't come across a single one. Majority of apps will work correctly 10 seconds after you drag them to the Applications folder. A lot of free software will also work without problems.
  • Another thing about software installation is that (again, from my perspective) I needed so little extra applications beyond what OS X provided by default. My Powerbook was useful from the moment I unpacked it from the box. I'm perfectly happy with the built-in address book, mail reader, web browser, calendar and music player. With vanilla OS X I access files on Windows shares, NFS exports, SSH servers, etc. and I can give others access to my files via a Windows share or a HTTP server.

Again, I don't want to give the impression that I'm making a commercial for Macs. In most cases I prefer to use free software. For example all my desktop computers have Debian GNU/Linux installed. Debian usually requires me to spend more time to set up a specific feature (for example a new piece of hardware, a new network configuration, etc.) but the flexibility provided by free software far outweighs this problem. Desktop computers also don't move much and their software and hardware configuration is quite stable and time I spend on maintaining them is minimal. On the other hand, when I'm traveling I usually don't have time to tinker with some configuration until the feature I need at that moment works correctly. I just want my laptop to be always ready.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

Microsoft acknowledges Firefox?

06.03.2007 9:19

Microsoft's web page that promotes Slovenian version of Vista says that it requires Internet Explorer or Firefox to display "advanced dynamic graphic content". They even link to getfirefox.com!

Microsoft recommends Firefox

On the other hand they seem to ignore Mac users, since the site misidentifies Safari as Netscape 5.

Perhaps they meant Microsoft Firefox?

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life | Comments »

The incredible shrinking ipod

05.03.2007 22:32

I am having some weird problems with my iPod mini.

It started when I had to reinstall OS X on the laptop because of one Debian installation gone wrong. Since I lost all music in the iTunes library and I didn't want to rip my CD collection all over again I copied the MP3 files from the iPod and re-imported them to the freshly installed iTunes (Contrary to the popular belief this is quite simple and doesn't involve any special malware-infested applications. You just copy music files from a hidden folder on the iPod to the hard disk).

The problem appeared when I tried to sync this re-imported music library back to the iPod through iTunes. It turned out that exactly the same amount of music will no longer fit on the device (although as far as I can remember there was a good 100 MB free space on the iPod before). After a bit of comparing with a music library on the other computer it turned out that MP3s didn't increase in size (iTunes could attach something the first time I imported them). So what is happening here?

After deleting a couple of albums so that the whole thing again fit on the disk the iPod worked without problems. Until yesterday, when I deleted some song I didn't like from the library and iTunes said that the library once again won't fit (with one song less?!).

The only explanation I see is that the disk space is somehow shrinking with time. Unfortunately I have no records of how much total disc space was reported by df before all this began. The number of bytes df shows now (7933880 512-byte blocks, it's a 4 GB model) doesn't seem too low. Could it be that the disk is accumulating bad blocks and that they are somehow silently detected and subtracted from the total amount of disk space by magic dust that Apple puts inside its hardware?

Some extensive googling didn't turn out anyone with similar problems. Well, if it'll get any worse, I'll probably replace the disk with a compact flash card like this guy.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Digital | Comments »