I may have too many computers…

I’m doing some dev work on an ASUS Zenbook running Ubuntu that I am carrying around. I have a Macbook Pro that I carry around for productivity and photography apps. A hand-built WIndows box at home for Steam (tho it has been frightfully long since I played a game). A Raspberry Pi, another ARM sbc, and an Arduino that I am dorking around with. Of course an IPad and a smartphone.

I thank the lucky stars for:

* Cloud services — evernote, github, spotify, bitbucket, smugmug, dropbox, skydrive, google reader, twitter, various mail and cal systems — so that I can get to my content from any of these machines
* USB switches and HDMI switches — so that I can share keyboards, mice, and displays, or I would be awash in them
* SSH, RDP, and other remote shell/remote desktop solutions — I would die without them

One tool that doesn’t help me much, surprisingly, is good old-fashioned file sharing. I have struggled with getting Windows 7, OSX, and Samba SMB sharing systems to be happy with each other but it is a security and rights morass. I long for the days of password–protected file shares, that would be so much easier in the home.

ASUS Zenbook UX31a and Ubuntu — seem like a fine pairing

I need to be able to do some Linux-based dev work while mobile. I’ve limped along using OSX and also using VirtualBox, but neither of them are really optimal, notably for ARM-targeted work. For instance, building a Raspberry Pi kernel and then emulating it under OSX is very very tricky, and doing it in a VM is slooooow. So I decided I need a real Linux laptop to carry around.

I’m trying out the ASUS ultrabook — the Zenbook UX31a. Awesome name, but whatever. Some tips on Ubuntu install on this machine:

* Turn off Bluetooth in the BIOS. Under Ubuntu, Bluetooth seems to interfere with WIFI. You can find several solutions. One is to turn off Bluetooth which is no loss in my book. The other is to turn of 802.11n which seems like a poorer choice. With Bluetooth off, everything seems to work swimmingly.
* I tried to install Ubuntu beside Win7 and use multiboot. It seemed problematic as the Zenbook already comes with a multiboot config for Windows, system restore, and some bag of Intel utilities. Attempting to install Ubuntu next to all this just seemed to piss the machine off, it persisted in firing up chkdsk and “fixing” the disk. There is probably some smart way to reconfig the multiboot but I gave up (oh and I see that I might have needed to use the 64bit version of Ubuntu for this to work). I ended up creating a “System Rescue CD”:http://www.sysresccd.org/SystemRescueCd_Homepage, backed up all the factory installed partitions to a USB drive, and then had Ubuntu install slam the whole disk. I wanted to keep the factory installed images in case I ever wanted to drop back to Windows for any reason (for instance if I need to get warranty service).
* The “Ubuntu forums”:https://help.ubuntu.com/community/AsusZenbookPrime have a fine list of tweaks to apply to get the system fully working. I did the SSD changes, the webcam utility install, the power management tips, and the “highly experimental” touchpad support. Nothing seems to have exploded.

So, up and running. All seems well. The machine is lightweight and seems like it will serve well. I am a little annoyed with the ugly intel and windows decals slammed on the machine that seem impossible to remove, they mar the lines of the machine.

If you are coming from the PC universe, the Raspberry Pi boot sequence is funky

Read the “RPIforum”:http://elinux.org/RPi_Software outline carefully. No boot rom, no boot loader. Instead:

The boards do not include NAND or NOR storage – everything is on the SD card, which has a FAT32 partition with GPU firmware and a kernel image, and an EXT2 partition with the rootfs.
We’re not currently using a bootloader – we actually boot via the GPU, which contains a proprietary RISC core (wacky architecture). The GPU mounts the SD card, loads GPU firmware and brings up display/video/3d, loads a kernel image, resets the SD card host and starts the ARM.

I was hopelessly confused as to why I needed a kernel image and a system disk image until I read this. It is no goofier than the PC BIOS but is just different.

Dorking around with an intel atom home theatre system

“Rich”:www.tongfamily.com asked me what setup I am using — here is what I have so far

* Zotac IONITX-S motherboard with Intel Atom D525 proc Nivida ION 512MB GPU. You can pick up at “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/ZOTAC-Dual-Core-Intel-Wi-Fi-Motherboard/dp/B004V3X9D2 if you want it fast or there are cheaper slower options.

* 4G of DDR3 800Mhz FSB RAM. This is available many places, is super cheap due to modest speed of FSB.

* For a case I like the “open air techstations”:http://www.highspeedpc.com/ so I can get in and out easily. But these things are completely open, so not a great choice if you have an inquisitive cat or a toddler. Another open air case option might be the “Antec Skeleton”:http://store.antec.com/Product/enclosure-skeleton_series/mini-skeleton-90/0-761345-15127-6.aspx but whoa, a 90W power supply seems seriously minimalist

* I can find no clear doc on what kind of power supply these need (ie watts). I picked up a “20+4 pin mini itx supply”:http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817148044 because that seems to be the right thing but I am a little concerned about being underpowered. UPDATE: in email with Zotac support, they suggested 112W for the board, sans hard disk. So throwing in the SSD and Ceton card, 250W seems like it should be fine.

* and the “ceton card”:http://www.amazon.com/Ceton-InfiniTV-Digital-Cable-Quad-tuner/dp/B003B4VLJQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1338408276&sr=1-1 for cable feed

* oh yeah I need an SSD, I am using the “Samsung 256G unit”:http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820147164 but I’d really like a 1T SSD. But those are crazy expensive.

MSFT’s biggest miss — another facet of MSFT’s stagnation

“Microsoft’s biggest miss”:http://minimalmac.com/post/17758177061/microsofts-biggest-miss is a nice discussion of another issue for the company, the slippage in relevance of Office.

I can’t speak to the whole market, but my document composition has moved almost entirely to vehicles like Evernote, Dropbox-hosted apps, Google Docs, and draft emails because the absolute #1 feature I need is document availability from everywhere — work machine, home machine, iPad, phone, kiosk, etc. No other document composition feature even comes close for me, I’m happy to use simple Markdown syntax for formatting. Office has started to embrace this issue but it is a little too late, I’ve kind of moved on.

The individual Office apps are still great apps. And it is still hard to not have Office on a machine with all the inbound Excel and PPT files, so I am still an Office buyer. But it feels like this kind of buying behaviour will collapse at some point — the viewers in Mac Mail for instance aren’t terrible.

MSFT and the decline of the PC hardware ecosystem

In the late 80s, IBM attempted to reassert control over the PC hardware platform with the introduction of the PS/2 and its proprietary “MicroChannel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Channel_architecture architecture. The cloners fought back, customers voted with their feet, the PS/2 initiative failed, and the era of open PC hardware continued and flourished. This was hugely beneficial for MSFT as a thousand PC OEMs bloomed, PC-based innovation surged and costs dropped, and MSFT software rode the wave of market expansion.

And it was great for end users. Not only because it drove system costs down, but it also created a rich market of add-on products — everyone could mix and match hardware to create their optimal system, whether they cared about cost or performance or maintainability or upgradability or whatever. Corporations could spec out and build standard low cost machines, enthusiasts could build super-tweaked machines, verticals could build out specialty machines, all on the same open hardware platform.

In the last 15 years, though, the market has shifted dramatically towards the laptop form factor. This shift has been a relative disaster for MSFT. The industry has moved away from an open hardware chassis with mix-and-match components, to closed tightly-engineered all-in-one machines. This shift has played to Apple’s strengths in design and integration and has negated many of the benefits of the PC ecosystem. The PC industry is still struggling to figure out how to regain design and profit momentum — Intel’s “Ultrabook”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrabook effort being the latest scheme. But the Ultrabook is just a direct response to the MacBook, it does nothing to recapture the open hardware experience of the 90s.

The open hardware community still exists in various forms, but is no longer focused on the PC platform and is not much of an asset for MSFT. Enthusiasts still build PCs, mostly for gaming — “Maximum PC”:http://www.maximumpc.com/best-of-the-best for instance has a good guide to components, “Newegg”:http://www.newegg.com is the place to buy. But this isn’t mainstream any more. The “maker” community is vibrant but is focused on other platforms largely — “Arduino”:http://www.arduino.cc/, the “Kickstarter”:http://www.kickstarter.com community, etc. The vibe and energy around open hardware is great, but it is no longer tied to the PC experience and is no longer an asset for MSFT.

MSFT has always been great at chasing taillights and is hard at work supporting the Ultrabook, competing with the Apple stores at retail, pushing Windows Phone, etc. But chasing Apple’s taillights results in products that are more and more like Apple’s — fully integrated hardware/software/services, a captive retail experience. MSFT has to do all this, the mainstream of the market is here, but there is nothing distinctive about the resultant products and experience. The Ultrabook/Windows/Microsoft Store products may equal the Apple experience, and may offer users a few more choices of hardware brands (does anyone care?), but the experience won’t stand out. Necessary work but not sufficient to recapture thought leadership in the market — at the end of the day, MSFT will be able to claim parity but no more than that.

If I was in a leadership role at MSFT, I’d invest in strategies to recreate the open hardware platform dynamic around the Windows platform. It is not obvious how to do so with the laptop and tablet as the mainstream platform, but I would spend $100s of millions trying. MSFT clearly has the cash to spend on new frontiers and new adventures, a couple hundred million on an effort to change the basis of competition in the PC market seems like a wise bet, even if it fails.

How about putting a “maker’s corner” in every retail store with modified cases and modified machines, maybe even workshops? Get the energy of the PC gaming community into the store, let people see this energy. How can the laptop design be modified to support add on hardware — super high speed optical expansion busses, wireless high speed expansion busses, novel expansion chassis ideas? Sifteo cubes are kind of cool, can this idea be used to provide hardware extensions to laptops? Are there other ways to “snap on” hardware to extend the laptop or tablet, using bluetooth or induction or other mechanisms? Can MSFT seed the maker community with funds or tools? Can MSFT embrace Arduino somehow, or Kickstarter? Could the PC be the hub for thousands of Arduino-based sensors and actuators and gadgets? These ideas are all admittedly poorly thought out, and I am not sure any one idea is right, or if any will work.

But I would spend a lot of money chasing after any idea that would move away from closed all-in-one hardware designs, and I would experiment with many ways to reinject open hardware dynamics back into the PC/tablet market. Ultrabook is not this — it is a fine and adequate taillight chaser, but it won’t shift competitive balance back in MSFT’s favor.

This is not the only reason for MSFT’s stagnation in the last decade, there are many other aspects to consider, but the dwindling of the open hardware ecosystem has been a loss of MSFT. For another take on Apple’s success against MSFT in the last decade, check out “Rich’s analysis”:http://www.themarketingplaybook.com/2012/02/stocks-bonds-commodities-and-apple/ — the observations about vertical vs horizontal integration ring true.

Holiday PC Builds

Time for our biennial system build exercise. We built two systems over the last two weeks. While I still use my MacBook Pro for 95% of my productivity work, the Mac game market is moribund, and there is some joy in building a machine from components. So for the fun of building, and for gaming use as well as other general use, we built out two different systems:

* Cases. Very different choices. Air cooling for both, we’ve had 3-4 liquid-cooled systems. Liquid cooling looks awesome with the right fluids and lights, but — another maintenance hassle; sometimes catastrophic failures; and they just aren’t any quieter really.
** First system is an Antec 1200. Classic full tower case, tons of drive bays, tons of fans, full complement of front panel ports. Nice clear sides, some cool interior lighting. Nice looking final system, but a little time consuming to pull together — particularly all the cable connections for fans and front panel connectors. But looks nice complete.
** Second system is built around a High Speed PC Tech Station. An open, “caseless” system, super easy and quick to assemble, and gives nice open access to all elements of the system. The finished product looks messy but that is part of the appeal. No protection from the elements either. Massively faster to assemble tho.
* Motherboards. The Antec has an ASUS P6X58D and this is a great board — USB3, SATA3, designed for overclockers. Probably should have gotten this board for both systems. The second has an ASRock X58 which is fine and a little cheaper but lacks the USB3 and SATA3 support. For the price-difference, probably should have goen with the more future-proof board. Both boards seem pretty equivalent otherwise.
* Processors. Intel i7-920 2.66Ghz quad-core on both. Not the most expensive but overclockable. On the first PC with the Antec case, we installed a higher capacity cooler for overclocking support — a noname generic cooler but something like this one that we picked up at a the local parts store.
* RAM. 6GB of Corsair Dominator Triple Channel ram (3x2GIG) on both systems. Pretty easy to install, tho absolutely no documentation on the fan, but there was really only one way to try to install it and it seemed to work.
* Power supplies. The Antec has an OCZ 1000W. This is a solid supply with tons of connectors, certainly good enough for nearly any system. But the Enermax Galaxy 1250W is super nice because of the modular cable system — you only attach the power connectors you actually need. Cuts down massively on cable clutter, particularly helpful for the caseless system. I’d go with modular supplies every time in the future.
* Hard drives. Both machines have 2 1.5TB WD Caviar drives, 7200 RPM. Nothing fancy, amazing how cheap drives have become. Considered faster drives but they contribute to noise and, based on past experience with 10K rpm drives, not clear they add that much performance.
* DVD/Blue Ray drives. Not having strong opinions on drive vendors (partly because I’ve had bad drives from every vendor in the past), we scattered out purchases around here. Both systems have the same bluray drive — an LG drive. One system then has a Samsung DVD burner, the other a Pioneer.
* Removeable media. Both systems have a 17-in-1 Sony memory card reader. Neither has a floppy, thank goodness Windows install doesn’t need that anymore.
* Video cards. OK we really wanted Radeon 5970s but these are mythical. The 5870s are near-mythical, almost like unicorns. But they are findable on ebay for near MSRP and that is the route we went. Expect to pay $500 or so. Standard ebay warnings apply — look for vendors with long selling histories, flawless reputations, US-based, etc. We had no problems. The caseless system also has a second card, a 5770, the goal is to be able to run directx games on one display while running other apps on the other card, I’m not convinced this is actually possible.
* Software. Win7 ultimate, from MS Company Store for $50. Worth renewing my alumni membership for this. Installed easily, 64bit on both. Unlike vista, this version really seems to work and driver software seems plentiful. The experience isn’t flawless — IE hung when downloading the latest ATI drivers and we had to use opera/chrome/firefox; and the homegroup network UI is ill-considered at best, the networking UI is basically awful. Inventing funky abstractions like homegroups and libraries isn’t that helpful, lipstick on a pig. I just want to see the machines and devices on my network as a first step, is that so hard?
* Other software. Opera, Chrome, Firefox, Acrobat, Steam (with COD4, L4D2), Zune, Office10Beta, FileZilla, Tunebite all installed fairly quickly.

Machines both running well and seem to be happy so far. What do we still want?

* SSD drives. Also near mythical, impossible to find. Will have to add these post holidays.
* 5970 video cards.
* A desktop power switch for the caseless system. With no case, there is no obvious power and reset button, just little switches on the motherboard. One idea is to switch to a PS2 keyboard and enable powerup from keyboard in the BIOS.

Mac vs PC anecdote

My Macbook had a motherboard failure two weeks ago. Both USB ports on left side blown, wifi chipset blown. (Blame Tekkcharge but that is another discussion). Discovered this at about 4pm on a Wednesday, went to Apple.com and scheduled a genius bar appointment at 830pm same day.

At 830 I roll into the Bellevue Square Apple store, in 30 seconds someone approaches me and logs me in for my appointment. In a few minutes I am at the desk describing my problem. The genius asked me if I had Applecare, I sheepishly admitted not. Crap, I am going to have to pay for this. Wait says the genius, perhaps your MacBook Pro has the faulty NVidia chipset, in which case it is a free warranty motherboard replacement! And indeed, my machine fails the NVidia stress test, so free motherboard for me! The genius says this will in all likelihood fix my problem — but if not, not to worry, once Apple has cracked the case and messed with the motherboard, if the system is still failing, it is now their responsibility!!! Awesomeness.

Two days later they called and said the motherboard had been replaced but one of my RAM sticks was faulty, and so they were going to replace that as well. For free.

Within a week I got the machine back. New motherboard. New RAM stick. My hard disk and software safely untouched. Total cost to me: $0. The only complication was discovering that Aperture would not run, the activation logic ties the product guid to the processor guid, and so Aperture felt it was not a licensed install. Apple.com again, scheduled a callback, in one minute an Apple rep called and we were finally able to resolve (they were going to get me a new activation once we established my proof of ownership, but I eventually found the original install media).

OK so the MacBook Pro is way more expensive than a PC but I just got hundreds of dollars of parts and service out of warranty for free. And, despite a tragic hardware error, I lost no data, and had the machine fixed locally in under a week. Basically the extra costs for the Mac represent prepaid parts, prepaid service, and retail store staffing to make the lifetime experience of owning a Mac painless.

I don’t even know how to replicate this in the PC world. BestBuy is the remaining significant retailer of PCs. And the service levels are dramatically different. You can’t get much in the way of service there, when we had a broken PC purchased through BestBuy it got shipped away for repair, and took weeks. And just the simplest store experience in BestBuy is worlds different. I was in BestBuy this morning to buy a microSD card reader. I found what I wanted easily enough and went to the checkout. There were two checkers working, each busy. 4 of us in line waiting to checkout. One checker finished with her customer, and apparently decided it was breaktime, and left her station and wandered away. 4 of us in line waiting with money in hand, just needing someone to give it to. The other checker was involved in some complicated transaction so we wait and wait. Meanwhile there are 10s of BestBuy employees walking through the store all doing super important things. I finally spot one and yell across 30 feet of floorspace “Hey, can we get some checkout help here, 4 of us are waiting?” She looks around for someone to help us and goes back to what she was doing. !!!! Finally she comes over and starts to help check us out.

If I was running a retail business, I think I would instruct my employees that job 1 is taking money from people who want to give it to us. Apparently that is not the BestBuy priority. I really can’t fathom this, what does BestBuy tell its employees to do all day??

It is not that PC hardware is necessarily terrible (some of it is but some is just fine), or that the software on it is awful (though again some of it is), but the entire experience from purchase through support over the lifetime of the PC is dramatically worse than the experience available from Apple. As a smart guy said to me recently, “PCs are now throwaway”, when they quit working, you really have no choice but to just chuck it in the trash.

Enough ranting. Glad my MacBook is back humming.