Thursday, January 31, 2013

Intel NUC

(picture source: PCWorld)

Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing platform). This is a 4"x4" i3 Ivy Bridge micro pc. As you can see in the picture above, it is very small. To the left of it is a Seagate 2.5" Go-Flex portable hard drive. That is how small it is.

NewEgg sells them for $300-310 (the higher one includes Thunderbolt). Both come with USB and HDMI. All you need is an mSATA drive and a few laptop dimms. And apparently according to a few people over at tonymac, these are hackintosh friendly.

I am so tempted to pick up a Thunderbolt model. I am very, very, very tempted but I need to justify it.

Here is a youtube video intro

Read more: Intel NUC

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poor man's nifty minidrive

Nifty MiniDrive made a big splash on Kickstarter; raising some cash and excitement for their flushed micro-sd adapter. These adapters allow you to use micro-sd cards flushed against the side of a Macbook or Macbook Air.

The concept isn't new. Some people have been cutting out micro-sd card adapters and jerry-rigging flush mounts.

Today, I got myself a poor man's version of the nifty mini drive. It is simply called the MiniDrive. They can be found on Amazon. The Nifty minidrive comes in assorted colors and indentation for a paper clip to eject the adapter. Mine is a cheap piece of plastic with another cheap piece of tape that allows you to pull and eject the adapter.

Compared to a normal micro-sdhc sdcard adapter.

As you can see, a regular sdcard sticks way out of the chassis on a Macbook.

With this minidrive adapter, I now have an extra 64GB of storage. In fact, you can use the sdcard as a boot partition. Apple hardware boots off SD media without fuss. I now have Ubuntu 12.10 boots off microsd on a Macbook!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is there a Perfect Linux tablet

Will we ever see an awesome Linux tablet or Phablet? Ubuntu and many have been promising glimpse of an Ubuntu mobile OS to challenge Android and other players. I've seen countless dual boot devices that boot Android and a Debian. Yet, I have not been really impressed with anything I've seen. I'm hoping that changes in the near future.

Portable Linux has been the holy grail for me for the past 10 or so years. As far back as 2001, I wanted a portable UNIX like small form factor computing device. I've been using Windows CE as far back as 1996 and I had transitioned to UNIX in my career around that period. I wanted a UNIX version of  a Palm Pilot or HP Jornada. I've seen so many products failed in a span of ten years that I conclude that we may never see the perfect Linux MID (Mobile Internet Device). You can call it whatever you want, a phablet, a UMPC, a tablet,etc. I am talking about a small portable device that runs the Linux kernel and a full blown working distro with all the great GNU applications. Android doesn't really count. It uses the kernel but it adds so many layers that it doesn't really count. Basically, I want to run the great GNU open source applications that I've been running for over a decade: ImageMagick, FFMPEG, Postgres, MySQL, Apache.

The Sharp Zaurus was the first Linux based PDA that didn't gain any traction.

Nokia made a great line of PDAs. The N770, N800, N810. They were slider based PDAs with the potential but failed to gain any traction in the market place.
Chinese and Taiwanese companies like SmartQ attempted to make some Linux only PDAs. They also failed to gain any traction. The Stylus for a 5" form factor does solve a lot of problems.

The problem with these older devices is that they did not have an ecosystem in place.  Hence,they failed to gain any  mass consumer adoption. This doesn't bother me too much because I know I'm part of a fringe group on consumers - uber geeks.  Companies rather maximize profits and cater to the general public. Unfortunately, what really killed them for uber geeks like myself was the poor performance and the technology wasn't quite ready.

Well, the iPad changed a lot of misconceptions.  ARM architecture is now good enough for my needs.  It has a great app ecosystem and the hardware is fairly robust. Touch technology is pretty fast and we now have high-bandwidth cellular connectivity. Yet, it still isn't Linux. However, iOS is still based off OSX. If it gave end-users direct access to the Darwin kernel through an accessible interface, the iPad would be the perfect device.  We all know Apple will never open up iOS like that so I hunt for the alternatives.

I've been following the mod scene in Android for a while. There is CHROOT and Linux on Android projects but they are quite not native Linux. They run in a looped file-system and are accessed via VNC that makes them feel as if they are running in an emulated environment.

I got one of those HP Touchpads during the great $99 firesale and the first thing I did was install Debian LXDE to see if I could realistically run Linux on a tablet. It was a great exercise. I installed Debian and carefully picked the applications I wanted tailored for my needs. I had LibreOffice, GIMP, MySQL and a full DE (Desktop Environment). Look at the pictures below. Looks cool, huh?

Well, the reality soaked in. A modern Linux distro like Debian and Ubuntu simply sucks on a tablet. X Windows apps are designed for mouses. We are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

I tried installing a few open-source multi-gesture and touch-screen input aides. Apps like Easystroke allows you to draw gestures to simulate mouse clicks and key commands. However, in practice, they never worked quite the way I like them to.

The console is the most important application in any *NIX operating system. This is the application where I spend 80% of my time in. Guess what? It is horrible with the onscreen keyboards I've used. I've downloaded quite a few of them to get my cursor and function keys. They don't quite work either.

This brings me back to my iPad. I need a console most of the time to SSH into remote servers. Applications on the iPad like iSSH solve most of the on-screen keyboard issues with tactile multi-gesture functionality and adjustable keyboard transparencies.

Still, the iPad isn't quite there for my needs. I still want to run GNU applications and install whatever I want.

So I concluded, a touch-screen only Linux tablet will never, ever be ideal. The fact remains, traditional *NIX Desktop Environments require a real keyboard and mouse/trackpad. CHROOTing Linux on-top of Android doesn't really cut it.

What now? I'm carefully eyeing out Transformer style X86 tablets running the ATOM Clover Trail. However, Linux doesn't run on Clover Trail yet. Acer makes a Windows 8 tablet, the W510, that has an attractive price point. This may be the foundation for a working Linux tablet in the future.
If Ubuntu can work on their UNITY UI , many of the general tasks applications can be served by that. And when I dock, I'd want a more traditional desktop UI like Linux Mint's Cinnamon or Gnome 2.

As a geek, I can only speculate. It will be interesting to see what 2013 and 2014 brings us. Pricing is also important as well. Some of these tablets are approaching $600-700 with keyboards. At that price, I would rather buy myself an 11" Macbook Air, keep my iPad for entertainment, and forget any hopes of an all-in-one Linux based ultra light device.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Linux and Thunderbolt : Initial Findings

A reader asked me about Linux and Thunderbolt. Well, I tried it out today and I am here to report some basic findings.

My motherboard is a Gigabyte Z77 Dual Thunderbolt ATX motherboard GA-Z77X-UP5-TH.

The rest of my build includes an i7-3770K Ivy Bridge CPU along with 32GB of RAM. I booted off a Linux Mint 14 Live USB which has the new 3.5.7 Linux Kernel. This kernel has experimental support for Thunderbolt devices.

A few comments:
Hot-plug does not work. You need to have the devices cold-plug at pre-boot to work.
I could not get Thunderbolt display to work. I assume there has to be some sort of driver to route the video signal to the Thunderbolt's PCI subsystem.
I could not boot from Thunderbolt. This is more of a BIOS issue than an OS issue. Macs boot off Thunderbolt just fine.

SATA based Thunderbolt HDDs work just fine. Thunderbolt is recognized in the system profiler as it should, an INTEL DSL3510 (Cactus Ridge 4C) controller. I've read online that the Apple's Gigabit Ethernet adapter works as well.

I connected an Seagate STAE121 Thunderbolt Go-Flex adapter along with a Samsung 830 SSD. Here are some preliminary benchmarks.

I did a quick 7GB copy which took around 4 seconds to copy from an Intel 240GB SSD.

I proceeded to do a full install of Linux Mint 14 onto the SSD and it installed without issue. Unfortunately, booting off Thunderbolt does not work. I took the drive and docked it into a SATA dock and it booted just fine.

I didn't want to try my luck with Linux and a Drobo 5D via Thunderbolt. The last time I tried it with Windows, I corrupted my RAID's filesystem; only to find out the 5D was not supported under Windows. I didn't want to take the same risk with Linux.

So there you go, my initial findings on Linux with Thunderbolt.

Anker USB 3.0 Gigabit adapter

Well, I was going to give you readers a report on a USB 3.0 Mac compatible Gigabite Ethernet adapter. Unfortunately, it was DOA (Dead on Arrival) so I'll have to RMA and report back.

I picked myself up an Anker USB ethernet dongle with the ASIX AX88179 Chipset. This apparently is Windows 8 and OSX Mountain Lion compatible. The drivers loaded up and I can ifconfig en4 up and down. The systems see the Mac Address and lights but I think there was a short in the cabling.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Go-flex lives on in the form of USM

It seemed as if the Seagate line of portable Go-Flex have been discontinued. You can often find 1TB Go-Flex drives in the bargain bins of Target for as low as $39.99. At first, I was very disappointed. I invested in a few Go-Flex docks and adapters; including the Thunderbolt Adapter.

To my surprise, my fears were misplaced. Go-Flex lives on but in a different name and different format. It is thinner, smaller and more compact. It is called USM (Universal Storage Module). In fact, there is a newer Thunderbolt Adapter (STAE128 instead of the STAE121). Seagate didn't do a good job of informing the consumer about this.

Well today, I picked up a USM drive and I didn't even know about it. The Go-Flex drives have been replaced by the new line of Backup Plus drives. They're thinner and more compact as seen below.

Compared to an original Go-Flex drive.

Here it is attached with older Go-Flex attachments like the Thunderbolt STAE121 adapter.

Old Go-Flex Firewire adapter works just as fine.

As I wrote earlier, Seagate didn't do a good job of informing consumers about USM.  After a few googling, a few other companies are implementing the USM format. Here are some examples of other USM products in the market place. There are Pogo plugged devices, desktop computers with slide-able docking bays, media players and NAS servers that now employ USM.

(image from Anandtech)

USM is basically a small format enclosure for 2.5" drives. They have interchangeable dock connections via standard SATA. The key thing is the standardized size.

When you look for an enclosure or portable drive, give USM a consideration. The ability to switch between USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, direct SATA and future connectors is pretty compelling.

Some reading links on USM:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

RamDisk in OSX Mountain Lion

RamDisks have been used on Macs since the early mac classic days. A RamDisk is in essence a virtual disk using your available RAM. It will be faster than any HDD or SSD.

If you have a lot of RAM on your mac, you can easily make a RAMDisk in the terminal.

Here is how you make a RAMDisk:

 diskutil erasevolume HFS+ “ramdisk” `hdiutil attach -nomount ram://xxxx’  

Replace xxxx by the number of megabytes (MB’s) * 2048. For example, if you want a 8GB ramdisk, use 8192*2048 = 16777216. You can use whatever name you want for the mounted volume in double quotes.

Copies are insanely fast. Typical benchmarks tools like Black Magic cannot even run.

There are plenty of good use for ramdisks - scratch, working on projects like database with lots of I/O. Ramdisks are great at being source drives for testing the write speeds when benchmarking drives.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Galaxy Tab 2 7"

People ask why I didn't get a Nexus 7. Well, I already own a Galaxy Tab 2 7" and I saw no need to get another small tablet. I got the Tab 2 at launch and have been using it ever since. I decided to keep my Tab 2 for the reasons below.

I use it primary as a video player.  I started to use my Tab more during the winter when I wore coats with larger pockets. I'll be using it a bit more until warmer weather comes along.

The Tab 2 is a nice little device. It pretty much plays any video I throw at it ( WMV/MKV/AVI) with the default player. Sure, there are other players on the market but it is nice to know the default player handles them.

USB OTG works out of the box; without rooting. I normally have 64GB on my internal SD card slot and I can add more. I often have up to 256GB of portable storage (bus powered) . Sure, you can dock a 3TB external desktop drive but it is nice to know you can use a cheap OTG adapter and a few USB sticks for days of video playback.

Galaxy Tab 2 vs Nexus 7? Well, 64GB on board (via microSDHC) is hard to beat. Nexus 7 has a better screen and faster processor. It also has the ability to use cellular connectivity on the $300 model.

This particular OTG dongle has 3 USB ports and various flash card inputs. I often use my TAB 2 as a remote console with a USB keyboard.

There is one major drawback. The tablet only supports FAT and FAT32 through external storage. This means you can only store video files smaller than 4GB. There are a few other tablets that support NTFS or EXT3 which overcomes this limitation. Ultimately, this means you cant store a 6-10GB mkv file on a SD card.

The TAB 2s are currently being discounted right now and I've seen them go as low as $180 at CostCo. 
If you are looking for an alternative to the Nexus 7, take a look at the TAB. It also has another nice feature that is unique to itself; an infrared sensor that makes the tablet a large universal remote control.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

PHP 5, MySQL web server on Android

Want to run a web app server on your smartphone or tablet? Specifically, run a full fledge PHP-MySQL Web Server straight from your Android device.

Well, there are a few pre-built apps on the Google App Store. In the past, there were a few lightweight HTTP servers running customize apps like AirDroid or PAW. These new ones have full PHP and MySQL run-times.

I tried a few and settled with Bit Web Server. I also tried KSWEB.

Bit WebServer also comes with PHPMyAdmin (PMA) installed and you are ready to go.
You can install Drupal and Wordpress as well. I got Code Igniter running without any problems.

A few notes. These apps tend to be a bit buggy. They can force-quit or hang under load. I can't really blame them as the fault may be with Android OS itself or the hardware I am running. I've tried them with the Galaxy Nexus and a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. I've been reading that the OS (Jelly Bean and ICS) may starve the apps due to power savings and other reasons such as auto close.

I can't really complain though. I'm not running anything mission critical. If the app crashes, I simply restart it. It comes in handy show off web apps.

Moreover, it runs LIGHTTPD instead of Apache so PHP run as a CGI.

The apps range from $2 to $3. Yeah, you're paying for open source software and may have an issue with it. However, think about the time you are saving without having to resort to building PHP/MySQL from scratch and make it work on your phone. I have no problem with the pricing.

Just add a keyboard and you are ready to go!


Bit Web Server

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

iCade Jr for iPhone Review. Awesome retro goodness in a small package

I've always raved about the iCade cabinet for the iPad. I simply love mine. See my earlier posts on it. Now, ION, has made the iCade Jr. specifically designed for smartphones.  Advertised for the iPhone 4 and previous iPod touches, this retro game controller/dock/cabinet also works with some Android phones and the iPhone 5 (with caveats). 

For comparison, here it is next to the full sized iCade (for iPad and tablet).

It works awesome just as a stylish desktop dock accessory. You can route a USB charging/data cable underneath and have it simply sit on your desk.

The operation is very simple. This is a bluetooth device and all you need to do is pair it with your phone. There are games that are compatible and designed to work with the iCade controller. ION has a list of games that are compatible with the controller

As I said earlier, this device works with other phones beside the iPhone 3GS/4/4S. You can use it with the iPhone 5 and other smartphones (of similar dimensions) by simply flipping back the top cover. It is not as pretty as an enclosed case but it works. If you are on Android, this dock may only work with phones with similar width dimensions as an iPhone. Moreover, the only supported iCade game app I know for Android is MAME4ALL.

Here it is with the iPhone 5 running some MidWay arcade classic games, Defender.

It is also designed to work in landscape mode. Here I have Namco's arcade versions of Galaga and Pacman.

And if you have MAME4ALL installed, you can play hundreds of retro mame games as well.

I gotta say, after a few minutes of playing with it, it is one cool retro toy to have around. This is great for old phones you have lying around that you don't use anymore. I plan to either use my old iPhone 4 or HTC Droid Incredible (fits perfectly).

Link: ThinkGeek's iCade Jr Product Page.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

SansDigital TOWERRAID TR4UTBPN review

The SansDigital TowerRaid TR4UTBPN is a 4 bay RAID enclosure with eSATA and USB 3.0 interfaces. It was recently on sale so I picked one up.

I've had this sitting around for a few weeks and I've finally freed up some time to play with it.

SanDigital makes over a dozen different enclosures and it can easily get confusing which one to get.
You may have seen some on sale combined with eSATA cards. Take note, many are simply JBOD (Just a bunch of disk) enclosure box that require an eSATA port with port multipliers to function.  Otherwise, you only see the first disk. Hence, the reason many come with eSATA card bundles.  Port multiplication is not common on many eSATA interfaces; including most laptops and motherboards. Those cards often require some sort of software to run them in RAID.
So it is very critical you are aware of the difference when you shop for these type of enclosures.

Luckily, this is not a JBOD enclosure. This has a built in RAID controller and when it was priced the same as a JBOD box, I decided to pick one up. This device supports RAID 0,1,3,5,10 and as well as JBOD. These go for $179-199. I was fortunate to pick this up for $99.

Physical characteristics:

The box is rather tiny and minimal to accommodate 4 drives. They drives do not use a tray but do require you to fasten them down with screws.

The back takes a standard prong power plug (power supply is internal). There are two interfaces - eSATA and full size USB 3.0. There is also a dial and reset button to set the RAID modes. The front side has some little ventilation but I would prefer that the front door provided better airflow.

Setting the RAID mode is a straightforward affair. You simply turn the dial to the mode you want. You can also overcome the dial settings through the RAID manager application.

Front indicator shows activity and which drives are failing. In this case, the 3rd drive has gone bad.

The Raid Manager app shows you status and has other options to create and delete new RAID sets.

The application also provides diagnostic and notifications controls. I've read that the email settings may have some problems with SMTP servers using START/TLS authentication. I did not test to find out. Unfortunately, I could only get the Windows version to run. The Mac app didn't appear to work for me. This may be a Mountain Lion compatibility issue.

USB 3.0

Forget about it. USB 3.0 simply didn't work for me. I've read this complaint on various customer reviews and it appears the JMicron controller has some incompatibility issues with other controllers. I've tried on 4 different machines under OSX, Linux and Windows 7. All had problems with disconnects or simply not mounting. Under OSX, it would disconnect under heavy load or large file transfers. Under windows and Linux, it would randomly disconnect and reconnect every few seconds.  Windows 7 would prompt me to format the unit every 5 seconds.

There may be a firmware update and I'll look into it and update this post later. For now, I would not recommend this as a USB 3.0 RAID enclosure. I've been reading other brands and make have similar problems.Customer reviews on Newegg and Amazon corroborates similar experiences. However, under USB 2.0, I didn't notice any problems.


Unlike most of the customer reviews I've been reading, I've been getting the 200 MB/sec sequential read transfers in various testing when using eSATA. The drives I used were 500GB 7200 rpm Seagates.

Windows appears to perform better (using benchmarks as well as real copies).

I only tested RAID 0 and RAID 5 but I did not see much of a performance loss going to RAID 5. The 4k/512k was about 1/4 slower  in writes but the sequential read/writes were similar to RAID 0. In short,  copying large files saw little loss while your random files will be faster under RAID 0 as it should be.

Here is a RAID 5:

and RAID 0

RAID 0 under Linux


This box is cheap enough to get if you are using it with eSATA. I would not recommend for USB 3.0 use.

If you are a laptop user without eSATA, I recommend using a USB 3.0 eSATA adapter like this NewerTech one I reviewed earlier.