25. February 2019

The Perennial Problem of the new Linux Laptop

Choices, choices, choices, some dead-ends, such as being far too expensive, some nice-to-haves, and finally some solutions.

The last time I wrote about a new Linux laptop was in 2016, when Helen got an Entroware laptop with Linux pre-installed.  That entry is here.   When my trusty but elderly Lenovo E145 started giving keyboard trouble, I knew it was time for a replacement.  The Lenovo is nearly 6 years old, and the screen has a horrid blue tinge to it.  This made using it photography rather difficult, but otherwise I was happy with it.  Well, when I say happy, that was after having to use epoxy putty to glue the screen hinges back in place after the plastic into which they are attached came adrift, and after having to hold the thing together with duct tape.  But bumpkin, which is the name to which the old Lenovo answered, was tough enough for my  ungentle use.  It did have one Linux quirk, which was that the Broadcom BCM43228 wireless card was not well supported by the Free b43 driver, so the better option was the unfree broadcom-wl.  Power consumption for us off-grid folk is always an issue, and bumpkin, with its AMD processor, used about 8w of power at rest.  But with what could I replace it?

My preference was to stick with AMD processors, partly because of a personal issue with a sliding decrease of trust against size of corporate, and partly because of the recent  SPECTRE and other CPU flaws. It seemed to me Intel did not handle those issues well, and I suspect a lot more information about these problems will come out of the woodwork as time passes.  I know some of the flaws also applied to AMD processors, as they are design flaws, but anyway, I have always had a soft spot for AMD processors.  And the Ryzen family has started to look especially tasty.  I wondered if I could get one of those.  My fist port of call was Entroware, as a company that pre-installs Linux, and therefore you are sure it will all work.  However, all their offerings are Intel-based.  The specification I was after was also quite a bit more than I was willing to pay.  After quite an extensive search, I found that Ryzen 5 mobile laptops with 14" screens (any bigger and power consumption becomes an issue) were available, but at roughly the same price as Entroware's equivalent.  Helen suggested I look at the John Lewis web site.  We have bought some tablets from them in the past, and while we had some delivery issues, they were very good.  There I found exactly what I was after, a 14" screen, Ryzen 5 mobile processor, 256GB PCIe solid state disk and 8GB of memory for over £200 less than I found anywhere else.  I looked for the catch and couldn't' find one, other than an "Exclusive to John Lewis" note, and that it was a HP machine.  The case was plastic, as opposed to the Entroware, which could be all aluminium, but, I reasoned, my old Lenovo was plastic too.  But would it run Linux?  As always these days, these machines are preinstalled with spyware, I mean Windows 10, which I did not want.

So I phoned John Lewis in Edinburgh and spoke to someone in their tech department.  He was unsure, but promised to get a specialist colleague to phone me.  Sure enough, within an hour or two, I was phoned by someone from Bristol who understood my intention and said  "It's an HP; I would be very surprised if you had too much trouble."  That was good enough to place the order, and a day or two later the laptop arrived.

The first task was to boot with a rescue disk and take a clone of the pre-installed windows system.  That way, if I ran into trouble, I could copy the disk back to the state it was when it arrived to send it back.   Then to install my preferred Linux distribution, openSUSE.    The system basically worked but was far from running optimally. In addition, the wireless card, an RTL8723de, didn't work.  The video should use the amdgpu driver, but it was a little flaky.  I attributed both these issues to the fact that openSUSE does not exactly run the most recent kernel, so I typed the incantation to add the latest stable kernel repository and installed that.  The wireless card was still and issue, but I found that one of the maintainers, who goes by the name Sauerland, kept a version of the rtl8723de driver in step with the stable kernel.  As this was an HP laptop, I christened him hupert.

I now had a machine that booted from cold to fully in my desktop environment in less than 12 seconds.  At rest it used about 9w of power and ran for about 4 hours on a charge - the battery is quite small.  It was like lightning in comparison with old bumpkin.  Video crunching tasks that two two hours or more took 20 minutes.  Apart from the fact that my fingers still found the Lenovo's keys and therefore typed things badly wrong, like the backspace key on the Lenovo being where the Home key is on the HP, and the pipe character "|" being on the opposite side of the keyboard all was well.

Well, until a kernel update, and the wireless module suffered a problem.  Whatever the problem was, the machine would barely boot.  It was so severe, I was convinced it was a disk problem.  I even had trouble getting the rescue disk to work, but eventually I hard-removed the wireless drivers, and the machine came back to life.  This gave me an insight into the follies of using a fast-changing kernel implementation, but in the process of trying to understand what was going on, I came across a different maintainer of the rtl8723de wireless driver code. This time, it was available as a DKMS configuration father than a pre-compiled driver.  I don't like having a development environment on my machine, which is required for DKMS module creation, but it was worth a shot.   Another aspect was that this configuration only built the required rtl8723de module, while the other source built modules for all similar cards.

And to my surprise, this module acted like a sedative on the bleeding-edginess of the kernel.  The machine still went like stink, but the fragility from the wireless drivers disappeared.  Not only that, but the power consumption went down. A full charge now showed over 5 hours of use. Yes, every time there is a kernel update, it needs to download additional header files and so on, and the first boot after an update takes perhaps two minutes more, as the new module is built, but it's been a much better experience.

SO all in all, I am very happy with hupert.  Hopefully he will last as long as, or longer than bumpkin.

1. December 2018

Nextcloud on a Raspberry Pi

There is a lot on the 'net about running your own sync and other cloud services with Nextcloud and the Raspberry Pi, many concluding it's not viable for continuous use, or many losing interest after a while. In fact, with some thought-through choices, a production environment for, say 5 or fewer users is perfectly feasible.


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16. October 2018

Revisiting server-based antispam with Bogofilter

Some simple maintenance makes life interesting, but simplicity saves the day

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2. October 2018

Latest update - off-grid Linux IT services

The latest (October 2018) update on hardware and software choices when your power supply is limited

This is a technical blog post which may not be of general interest, and assumes a certain level of technical understanding

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18. August 2018

Off-grid - making do and mending

A bit of resourcefulness and "it'll-come-in-handy-some-day" hoarding saves the day

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2. May 2018

Weather Station Software

Our weather data goes back to 2011. How to maintain that collection while changing the weather station software

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5. February 2018

Raspberry Pi home server - setting up OpenDKIM with postfix

Some vague notes about setting up openDKIM against multiple domains on a single instance, all domains using one key.

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14. September 2017

Preparing digital photo files for use on the Web

Reducing size, adding copyright information and other watermarking is useful for pictures one may wish to use on the Internet. Selecting the images, or using drag 'n' drop graphically is easier than pushing specific files through a script. 

Note - I am no programmer, and my scripting abilities are severely limited. This works for me, but may not work for you. Use these ideas at your own risk.

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23. August 2017

Lightweight anti-spam alternative for small servers

Spamassassin may be the standard anti-spam utility for servers, but it can't be considered to be either fast or low on resources.  Bogofilter may offer some advantages, but unlike spamassassin, tutorials and how-to's are thin on the ground

Warning: this is a technical post, full of jargon and an expectation that it will be read by system administrators, so may not be of interest to all readers.

Integrating postfix, dovecot and bogofilter on a Raspberry Pi.

Edit: Some months have passed since installing bogofilter.  It is not as fast as a daemon, but not as slow as spamassassin, either.  As expected, it has taken a couple of months to build up accuracy, but the system is excellent, and now reliably marks some spam that always got through spamassassin. This seems a good way forward for lightweight email systems.

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16. July 2017

The Calendar Hokey Cokey

A problem with the Nextcloud calendar can be resolved with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, thanks to standards

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16. June 2017

A Digital Re-think

Some thoughts on images in the digital world...

But note, as with all things photographic, this is all just opinion.

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30. March 2017

A little dab in the wrong plaice makes you wonder...

Flying fish in the hills of Assynt

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The Queen's Mite

Finding and photographing a bumble bee loaded with mites

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26. February 2017

Lexie 2003 - 2017

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The life and times of a wonderful Westie


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27. January 2017

Tales of experience

Some stories from more than 25 years in corporate IT, some of which seem quite historical now

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1. October 2016

Serving up some Pi

You really can run on a Raspberry Pi

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13. July 2016

A new battery bank for our off-grid power supply

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The final piece of the recent power revamp

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9. April 2016

The Silver Darling - When you need a good Linux laptop

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The Entroware Apollo laptop is a good option to be sure that new hardware runs well with Linux, and the system itself is good. But the process of buying a Linux laptop could be more straight forward.

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8. March 2016

Music at home - HiFi gains a new source

Streaming music without corporate control allows you to listen to your music, not "consume" it

Self-sufficient hifi

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7. March 2016

The Northern Lights

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Forget the science, just enjoy them

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