Mike Schaeffer's Blog

Articles with tag: hardware
June 19, 2007

Last October, I upgraded my Sony Ericcson T637 with a Cingular 2125 Smartphone. While the 2125 has since been discontinued, it's very closely related to the current Cingular 3125. The major differences between the two are that the 3125 has more memory and a different form factor; the 3125 is a flip phone rather, and the 2125 is 'candybar' style phone. Either phone has dramtically more capability than the t637.

When I bought the 2125, I had a couple main goals in mind for the upgrade. The first was e-mail integration with my employer's Microsoft based e-mail account. My second goal was to get mobile internet access for my laptops, meaning access to the web as well as to ssh and Windows remote desktop sessions. The 2125, priced at $100 with a subsidy and a rebate, was one of the cheapest ways to get at that set of features. It is a Windows Mobile 5.0 Smartphone, with a USB interface, 200MHz ARM9 class processor, 64MB RAM, QVGA display, and an EDGE network connection. Even at the time the specifications were not best in class, but it did provide the essentials, and the display was (is) gorgeous. By and large, the phone has done a good job of doing most of what I expected it to.

For me, the best aspect of the 2125 is its integration with Microsoft Outlook e-mail. Since my employer supports Microsoft's [Direct Push](http://www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/articles/directpush.mspx) e-mail, the phone can be easily (five minutes or less) be configured to synchronize with my corporate e-mail account. Once the connection is configured, the phone maintains an active HTTP connection to the host Exchange server. As incoming e-mails arrive, the server immediately sends them back up to the phone via this connection. Once the phone receives a message, it does what you'd expect and adds them to a list, displays a notification icon on the home screen, and optionally vibrates or makes a noise. In short, it's almost idiot-proof to setup, and works exactly like every other form of text messaging on the phone. If you don't like the idea of continually being bombarded with incoming mails (or the idea of a continually open HTTP connection bothers you) the phone can be configured either to periodically poll for new mail or wait for an manual request to synchronize. Better still, there are seperate configuration options availble for user-definable 'on-peak' and 'off-peak' times. In my case, I generally leave the phone set to automatically accept incoming mails from 7:00AM to 7:00PM, and then manually synchronize otherwise.

For me, e-mail synchronization is the single best feature of the phone. I'd even go so far as to say that the jump to having mobile e-mail access has been as important a difference to me as the jump to having a mobile phone in the first place. While telephone connectivity is both immediate and universal, most of my important work-related communications happens over e-mail. Maybe it's just my job, but I get work related mails at least twenty to thirty times more often than I get work related phone calls. Not having mobile e-mail access basically means a choice between either being tied to a computer or entirely giving up access to that flow of information. In a sense, mobile e-mail access has been for me a liberating thing, a way to stay 'in the loop' but not stuck in front of a desk. The control the phone offers over its synchronization schedule then makes it easy to get 'out of the loop', assuming you have the self-discipline to not request manual synchronization too often. In practice, this has not been much of an issue for me to date. (I do not think my wife would disagree... most of the time.)

One of the pleasant suprises of the phone's e-mail features has been their integration into the other parts of the telephone. Like others, the e-mail client makes an effort to guess at 'important' content in a message: things like URL's and e-mail addresses, but also including phone numbers. Selecting a phone number in an e-mail message gives you the option to either dial the number or add it to your contact list. All of a sudden, all of those e-mail signature blocks containing phone numbers take on a whole new use. Phone number recognition also works with text messages, which pairs nicely with the part of AT&T's directory assistance service that sends text messages containing requested directory information. The phone can also use its connection to an Exchange server to provide access to the server's global phone directory. It's not integrated into the phone's standard address book and it requires an explicit search command, but that's probably a good thing considering the size of some corporate directories.

While the e-mail integration has been really useful, the other internet capabilities have been considerably less so. It is possible to tether the phone to a laptop. It is also possible to use that connection to access the web and ssh connections. However, between the fact that AT&T charges $60/month for the right to tether the phone to a laptop and the connection you then end up with is basically EDGE, it's really not as useful as I thought it'd be. For me, the low bandwidth of EDGE wasn't the problem, but the high latency was. While EDGE is two to three times faster than dial up, it takes on the order of 200-300 milliseconds for a packet to make a round trip. For interactive use of protocols like ssh, this means it can take half a second from the time you press a key on the keyboard to the time it appears in the terminal window. The net result is that an ssh session over EDGE is worse than how I remember 300 baud connections to BBS's. While I'll admit that my memory might be a bit cloudy, I can say this with certainty: despite the lower bandwidth, 56kbps dialup is far more usable than EDGE for this kind of application. More modern services like Sprint's EVDO network do not have this problem, and are probably closer to being worth $60/month. As things are now, I've dropped the $60/month tethering surcharge and stuck with a $20/month data plan that gives me unlimited data to the phone only. While I can still tether the phone to a laptop, this gives AT&T the theoretical right to charge me a per-byte amount for data the phone sends and receives when tethered to a laptop. While they do not seem to do this in practice, I confine my mobile internet access to the phone only. Thanks to the nicer display on the 2125, this is actually a usable way to read text-only web pages and blogs, which is an improvement over the Sony t637.

One other feature worth calling out on the 2125 is the fact that the directory and call history are both integrated into dialing. As you start dialing a number, the phone builds a list in real time of all matching contacts, by number and name, both in your phone book and in your call history. As the list is built, you can use the joystick to navigate through it, select a match, and either dial it or display its details. The only glitch in the logic is that the list presents matches from the call history with a higher priority than matches from the directory. If someone in your directory calls you and you miss the call, this means that the first entry in the list of matches will be the match from the missed call, and not the match from the directory. When you select the entry to see the details, what you'll see is the time the call was missed, and not the other numbers you have for that contact. If you want to call them back on a different number from the number from which they called you, this ends up adding a few steps to find the directory entry.

While a lot of the features I mention above stem from the fact that the phone runs Windows Mobile 5.0, this is not something I've really focused on in this post. I didn't care about the OS the T637 ran, and for the most part, it's been the same for this phone too. While it's theoretically possible to find all sorts of wonderful applications and games for Windows phones, I haven't found anything I can't live without, and neither AT&T nor Handango have done a good job helping me spend my money on mobile software. AT&T seems not to sell Windows Mobile software at all, and Handango makes you download a custom catalog application to see their software offerings for the phone; This catalog application did not work properly for the one application I tried to buy. I wish this situation was better, since I would be willing to at least buy a few games for the phone, and the one game I have installed right now, a clone of Scorched Earth, is good enough that it seems likely the platform could support some great applications and games. Even without games, this phone has been a nice upgrade, and it came at a reasonable price. Compare this with something like the iPhone, and it's hard to get all that excited about spending five times more money for a phone with no e-mail integration, the same lousy EDGE network, and even less opportunities for outside software.

November 18, 2006

It's been about two months since I've installed Ubuntu Linux on my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop. The initial impression was highly positive, but two months later the reality is starting to wear a little thin. After switching to Ubuntu Linux my laptop is slower, less media-savvy, uglier, and less compatible than it was before. The thing that is sad about this is that as much as Linux has improved, it feels like it is lagging behind Windows more than it did ten years ago (the last time I used Linux full-time).

In a way, this relative lag is not too suprising; It is caused by the convergance of two sets of industry trends over the last ten years. Ten years ago, the commonplace Windows was Windows 95, based on the old 16-bit Windows 3.x kernel; In 2006 the commonplace Windows is Windows XP, based on the much more robust Windows NT kernel. Ten years ago, 3D graphics, video playback, and the Internet were only beginning to emerge in the mainstream; In 2006, these applications define the mainstream. Linux's kernel might still be better than Windows, but it's less better now than it was ten years ago, eroding its relative advantage. At the same time Linux's advantage in kernel technology has been eroded, computers are increasingly used for things that essentially require access to propriatary content and technolgy. The Microsoft windows license fee pays for things like high quality fonts, licences for MP3 and DVD CODEC's, and sophisiticated 3D hardware support. It is either difficult or impossible to replace these things in an open source model, so, to the extent they are becoming more important, Linux increasingly suffers in contrast to its closed course, license-for-fee competition.

One example of how this might directly impact people is MP3 playback. MP3 playback is built into Windows: the Windows licence fee enables Microsoft to pay the Fraunhofer institute's license fee for the MP3 patent. in contrast, MP3 playback is deliberately excluded from Ubuntu Linux because it's patented and, despite the fact that Fluendo has paid for a patent licence and written a GStreamer CODEC, the CODEC is not open source and doesn't match Ubuntu's licensing model. Thus, while it is possible to add MP3 support to Ubuntu Linux, it takes the extra step of downloading and installing a CODEC. The same is true for DVD and MPEG video, not to mention that it will be true for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (assuming the protection mechanisms on those two are ever broken, which has its own ironies).

What is key to realize about this situation is that it is as intrinsic to the open source model as it is to the closed source model. Open source software precludes payment of license fees, closed source requires it; Open source software precludes enforcement of trade secrets, closed source enables it. Neither of these models is necessarily 'wrong', but as our computational lives become more dependant on technology that requires license fees or technolgy protected by trade secrecy, open source will comparatively suffer more and more. No amount of prosletyzing on the benefits of Open source software will change either this fact or the moral right of those who invest their blood, sweat, and tears into propriatary technology to demand payment for their efforts. The best that advocates of openness can do is to act as revolutionaries by living the cause, advocating its values, and hoping that enough people follow their lead to build a critical mass.

However, like other 'revolutions', the Linux/Open source software cause isn't necessarily an easy cause to live. As I've been finding out once more, the switch to Linux is a sometimes painful struggle through mediocre software, bad asthetics, poor integration, and steep learning curves. The question I'm struggling with right now is is it even worth it? The older I get and the more external responsibilities I have, computers seem more and more like a tool for life and less and less like a way of life. The 5-10 hours a week I spent maintaining and integrating my Linux machines back in college is a much higher price to pay now than it was then. No matter how much I might like for my son to live in a world of free, open information and powerful free software, it would be very difficult to justify taking enough time away from him and my wife to make a useful contribution to the fight to make it happen. This is particulaly true if fighting the open source fight somehow comprimises my actual paying job, which is definately possible. I work for a Windows shop, and my management could give a rat's ass about the theoretical benefits of open source if it compromises my ability to serve our clients. One flubbed presentation due to a flaky Linux installation could do just that, and it would be very hard to use the benefits of Linux to explain it away to the folks to whom I sell my time. Maybe the upshot of this is that Linux is, like other revolutions, a young person's battle. However, unlike other revolutions, Linux requires direct participation to reap the benefits; If you aren't using open software, you're still at the mercy of closed software vendors. If this is really the case, and Linux really is for the 'young', then when will it ever become relevant to the broader audience of Windows and Mac OS X users? I just don't know. I will keep up the struggle for a while longer, January 2007 seems like a good time to reassess.

September 15, 2006

I ran Linux for a few years back in college ('94-'97), lapsing back to Windows for professional reasons when I started working full time. After ten years of running Windows full time, I finally got sick of its crap (excuse my French), replaced the 40GB disk on my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop with a brand new 120GB and installed Ubuntu 6.06. Two partitions: one swap and one ext3. No Windows partition, no dual boot. This happened a couple days ago, and the experience has been almost uniformly positive. To wit:

  • Suspend to memory and (more importantly) suspend to disk both worked properly the first time out of the box, no questions asked. The only 'issue' is that the fit and finish isn't quite as nice as on Windows. Windows has a nice progress bar for the suspend process and on Linux the display goes through a couple corrupt screens full of noise before getting to the desktop.
  • The widescreen 2MP display was recognized immediately. Installing the Ubuntu packages for flgrx got 3-D acceleration on my ATI Radeon X300 working with no trouble at all. All I need to do now is get a nice compositing window manager. Update: ATI's X300 driver deliberately doesn't with the Composite extension necessary to run a compositing window manager. Oh well.
  • WiFi almost worked out of the box, the exception being the Wifi activity light on the laptop's case. It never lights up, which made enabling the radio confusing but doesn't seem to have caused any other problems.
  • The base Ubuntu is pretty sparse, but it was trivial to install 2GB worth of development tools with Synapitics after the install. Synaptics works well enough that I question why bother with Fedora's 5CD install process. (Out of a historical sympathy for Redhat 6, I first tried installing Fedora Core 5 and had a hard time getting Windows XP to do a valid burn of CD 3. This is why I wound up with Ubuntu.)
  • Plugging in USB keys and drives worked out of the box the first time, even for read-only accsss of my NTFS formatted external 120GB disk.
  • A video recorded on my wife's Canon SD400 showed up with a thumbnail in Nautilus and played, with audio, with the default media player.
  • Audio worked out of the box, even the annoying startup sounds.
  • The qemu emulator and tne kqemu accelerator (hopefully, my Windows solution) both compiled and ran easily. Update: All I had to do do boot Windows XP was start qemu with an image created by saying dd if=/dev/sdb of=orig.img. Of course, Windows XP immediately started complaining about not being activated. We'll see if MS lets me reactivate it: I have a license to run XP on this machine, even if the expectation was that I'd run it on raw hardware rather than via emulation. Oh, and it's too soon to really tell about performance, but it looks usable for filling out timecards, etc.
  • I wasn't expecting it, but I've been able to open and work with several work-related Word for Windows documents using OpenOffice.

Of course there are problems, but overall this is amazing. The last time I ran Linux, it took weeks of downloading and compiling source code and extensive script customization to get things to work right. Setting up X11 to not blow up my then brand new $1,300 Sony GDM-17SE1 17 inch monitor gave me night sweats for days. Once it did work, there were half a dozen different widget sets on the screen at any time and your choices for word processing included Andrew ez, groff, and/or TeX. Linux has come a long way.

June 22, 2006

I don't know how plausible it is, but it'd be awfully nice if laptops had a way to power USB ports when the machine is off but plugged in. Perhaps this could be controlled by a switch on the side of the case that turns on USB power only.

The use case, of course, is for portable devices that can charge their batteries over a USB connection. Apple has stopped bundling anything except a USB cable with the iPod, and it's pretty easy to find USB power cords for PDA's and cell phones. With this kind of functionality in a laptop, the laptop could become a traveler's one central power adapter, eliminating the need to carry large numbers of dedicated adapters or half-baked partial solutions like the iGo. I can see paying 50-60 dollars extra for a laptop with this feature.

Another way this could be implemented would be to put 3-4 power-only USB ports on the laptop's power brick.

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