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Ubuntu Linux update

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While I'm on the subject of system updates, here's another I want to talk about: Ubuntu Linux, which is what I have on my Dell Mini 9 netbook. At the end of October Ubuntu officially upgraded from 9.4 to 9.10. (Or, according to their whimsical naming scheme, from "Jaunty Jackalope" to "Karmic Koala". I wonder what will happen when they get to Q?)

Though I was warned against trusting the automatic update process from 9.04 to 9.10, it worked just fine for me. All my data, settings, and apps were still there. (I still backed up my data first, though. Only a fool doesn't back up before a major change.)

While the improvements aren't as dramatic as the Blackberry upgrade, there are some nice ones. Probably the biggest one from my point of view is that the faulty driver for the Mini-9's graphics chipset has been fixed. It's not as dramatic an improvement as I was hoping, but it does make video run more smoothly. Flash is still problematic, as it apparently is for all Linux flavors, but it's a bit better than it was.

Firefox 3.5 is now part of the default system. There are a lot of other apps with new versions as well, like Open Office. The login screen is improved, with some language and accessibility options you can set before login. You can now turn off Bluetooth from the menu bar instead of having to open an app and type in the superuser password. File windows have a slightly more compact arrangement, a new icon set, and multi-tabbing capability. On new installations, the much more efficient Ext4 filesystem is used (but not on upgrades, so I didn't get that.)

I've been using it for a week now, and I haven't seen any problems. I'll let you know if any show up.

Back when the university cellphone policies were changed, I took advantage of it to get myself a Blackberry Storm. I was tempted to get an iPhone, but ultimately decided against it because of the hoops you have to jump through to install third-party apps. I got spoiled by my old Palm, which had a huge developer community and tons of great apps you could install without worrying about approval from Big Brother. I've given up on the Palm for other reasons, so the Blackberry platform seemed to be the best remaining choice.

I picked up the Storm because I wanted a nice big screen and I've never been a fan of the tiny physical keyboards and trackballs on the other Blackberry models; the Storm seemed like it would be the easiest conversion from the stylus-based operation of the Palm. The device seemed pretty cool from testing a co-worker's newly arrived one. So I plunked down the money and ordered one...

Continuing the mini theme

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My new keyboard got here yesterday and I installed it without much trouble. This mini is far easier to upgrade than any laptop I've ever worked with -- just unscrew two screws, lift the keyboard, pop a couple of little latches and unplug the cable and the old one's out, then reverse the process and the new one's in. The ribbon cable was a little hard to get lined up right, but I got it after a few tries.

The new keyboard is much, much better than the old one. The keys are offset like a standard keyboard, and the punctuation keys are in their normal places rather than shoehorned into odd corners or converted into function-key combinations. My typing speed is way up, even though the keys are slightly narrower. Here are pictures of the old and new keyboards together that someone posted to a forum; the topic includes instructions on how to get and install the keyboard.

I've also been delving more into Linux. Like I said a few posts ago, it's a lot easier than it was in the past -- however, all the geeky stuff is still there under the hood, ready to be poked and prodded and reconfigured. More on that later.

Mini memory

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My 2GB memory module arrived today (thanks Joanie!) and I installed it in all of two minutes, one of which was spent finding the right screwdriver. This machine is incredibly easy to upgrade. The keyboard will be nearly as easy to replace as the memory, though there's a couple of persnickety little tabs I'm going to have to be careful with. The keyboard isn't going to arrive until after Memorial day, though.

Oh, and I got VirtualBox installed without any of the finagling Michael had to do on his mini; Ubuntu 9.04 seems to have almost all the prerequisites installed already. Now I just need to figure out how to get a legal Windows CD and a drive that connects via USB-- Dell makes good machines, but even they couldn't squeeze a CD drive into this tiny box. It would have filled half the insides, even without the bigger power supply they'd have to put in.

Did I mention this thing doesn't even have a hard drive? Well, technically it does; it's just a solid-state one, like a USB stick. That means the machine doesn't have to burn a lot of power spinning a stack of metal platters, which in turn means I get over four hours of battery life even with the dinky little four-cell 32WH battery Dell put into the machine. It also means there's no need for a built-in fan, though I'm a little worried about the machine overheating and killing my battery (you do not want to get Lithium-ion batteries hot; leaving one in a car on a summer day can permanently destroy most of its capacity. For more on this see Battery University.) Ive taken to popping out the battery and running on AC only when I have a plug available; probably a bit paranoid, but I like this thing and you won't be able to get batteries for it forever.

I sprung for the extra-big 16GB drive, which may sound small compared to normal drives, isn't even a quarter full even with a full operating system, Open office, and a metric boatload of other programs. Put that in your cache and smoke it, Windows. If I ever start running out of space, there's an SD card slot for more space, plus I can always use some of the metric boatload of USB sticks I've accumulated over the years.

And I guess I'm old, because I remember when it was totally awesome that you could get a hard drive with 20 whole megabytes on it! Like, you could never fill that up for years, man! It was the size of a brick, and weighed about the same as one too. Now a thousand times that much fits on a couple of chips, and seems like not very much room. The eighties were a long time ago, and we live in the future now.

Out of stock, ha!

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You know that keyboard Dell told me was out of stock? Yeah, you guessed it, not really. I called their spare parts department (1-800-372-3355) and they found one in under five minutes. That is all.

More on the Mini

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I mentioned that I didn't like the keyboard on my mini, and it turns out a lot of mini-9 owners share that feeling. I was looking around on the forums at last night and found out about a different keyboard you can order from Dell for fifteen bucks. Apparently by shrinking the spacebar and backspace keys by a fair bit, and slightly narrowing the others, they've gotten a much more normal arrangement. I tried to order it, but apparently it's out of stock; they're going to email me when it gets back in.

I did find out about another deal, though; they were selling 2GB memory modules for thirty bucks. Oddly enough, had I ordered my mini originally with 2GB, it would have added $50 to the price, so I grabbed the chance. I want to run Windows XP in a virtual machine on the thing, and that takes a fair chunk of RAM.

Wait, you may say, aren't you running Windows already? Nope, though you can get the Dell Minis with Windows, it's more expensive that way. To get the best price you need to get them with Ubuntu Linux. In case you're not really up on the computer world, Linux is a free operating system (well, technically a group of free operating systems) very similar to Unix, which has been around since the 1970s and is still used on a lot of servers, including many here at WOU.

Linux has been around since the 1990s, but until fairly recently, you had to be a serious computer geek to get much use out of it. The Ubuntu project is one of several efforts to change that, and it's been very successful, combining the many open-source programs and systems to build a variant of Linux that's probably the easiest ever for non-geeks to get into.

It's so easy that when I decided I didn't like the somewhat idiot-proofed version of Ubuntu that came with my Mini, I was able to completely wipe and reinstall it with version 9.04, the latest and greatest, in just a couple of hours. I'm liking 9.04 (AKA "Jaunty Jackalope" in Ubuntu's naming scheme) a lot better than the version I started with, and I only had to fix one little problem for it to work perfectly on my Mini. There are a bunch of very useful instructions available at so I didn't have to spend hours hunting around for obscure snippets of information as I did when I tried installing other versions of Linux on other machines in the past.

Anyway, back to work. After a slow few months, I'm starting to feel like I'm getting some programming mojo back, and that feels pretty good. Hopefully things keep looking up, because I'm behind on some stuff that really needs to be finished soon.

Mini laptop

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A couple weeks ago, Michael Ellis clued me in on a nice little deal from Dell; through their Faculty/Staff/Student purchase program, they have great prices on their mini laptops, also known as netbooks. (If that link doesn't work, go to and choose Higher Education from the menu.)

Just for being part of WOU, you get a 7% discount at any time, though to take advantage of it you'll need to create a dell login and give them your V-number to prove you're really associated with WOU. They also have $50-off deals that come and go on various systems from week to week; if you don't see the deal on the model you want, wait a few days and look again, and repeat until you do see it. Make sure you're logged in with your dell account, or it might not show you the deals!

You can find their netbooks on this page. I got the Mini-9, and I'm happy with it except for the narrow keyboard which has several keys in odd places. The brand-new Mini-10v is almost the same price, but with a slightly wider screen and a more normal keyboard.

I'll probably be posting more about this thing as the days go by.

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