Monday, 12 July 2021

Linuxiversary... One Year With LinuxMint.

Time flies when you are having fun and it certainly seems this year has been a great one for me in terms of computing. Exactly a year ago today I decided enough was enough and I left the Apple world behind after being an avid fan for over 20 years.

The build up had been coming for a few months – actually a few years previous I had ditched my iPhone for an Android handset - and the 13th July 2020 marked my first full day using Linux as my main operating system. 

I had dabbled for many years on and off, having an admiration for Linux. Early 2020 saw me switch to Linux Mint on my MacBook Air as a main OS, but that glowing fruit logo bugged me.

So I sold my beautiful slim and lightweight 11” MacBook Air and replaced with a rather large and chunky Dell Latitude E5410. Specification wise both laptops were similar – especially after upping the RAM in the Dell and swapping out the old hard drive for an SSD. My road to full time Linux and the final nail in leaving the Apple ecosystem had began.

It has been an amazing year. I have really gotten to grips with Linux. It is hard to learn a new way of doing things after 20 years but it soon felt natural. I am by no means a Linux expert, but I had enough knowledge to get me going and each day I learnt more and the last year has been fun.

It has been a fairly easy ride with only a few minor hiccups along the way which required me to learn how to overcome these - but at least it gave me even more knowledge.

In February 2021 I swapped my large Dell for a slimmer ThinkPad X201 – once again similar specs, just smaller.

I have never been happier. Linux is a great alternative. The mid 90s saw me venture into Windows which I didn't enjoy and I very quickly swapped to MacOS. I have never been a fan of Windows (to put it lightly), so there really was only one way out of the Apple world for me and that was via Linux.

I have modest needs when it comes to computing. I don't play games on my computer and only use it for web browsing, writing and  as well as picture, music and minor video editing and my 11 year old ThinkPad more than copes with my needs.

Linux is truly where I want to be and it is hard to believe I have been using it full time for a year already. Here is to many more happy years as a Linux user.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Monday, 28 June 2021

Hardware Review: Kygo B9/800 Wifi Smart Speaker with built-in Chromecast

The Kygo B9/800 wireless speaker is a portable speaker with Google Chromecast and Google Assistant built in, which means you can "OK Google" it to play something from Spotify or Youtube Music, or some other services. It is priced around the same price as a Google Nest Mini, usually about £20 from Amazon, but unlike the Nest, it also has Bluetooth and a line-in jack, and an internal battery which means the Kygo can be used when out and about without wi-fi, away from a plug socket. 

In the box, the device comes with a 2.1A 5.0V power supply with a USB socket on it, much like a phone, and a swappable 2 pin plug, that could be used in a shaver socket and what looks like a US plug, and a 3 pin plug adaptor if you are in the UK. 


The Kygo uses a supplied USB C cable to charge the internal battery. There's also a handy 3.5mm jack-to-jack lead for using the line-in.    

The Kygo is "waterproof" or actually water resistant, with a flap that covers the ports, so it could be useful in the bathroom. 


According to the little instruction book, it has an IPX7 rating, which means it can be "immersed in water for up to 1 meter for 30 minutes (3 feet)", though I have not tested it, and it can float!  

The tiny instruction booklet reminds me of the Little Book of Calm from Black Books...


On the side there are Power, Bluetooth, Mic Mute and Volume buttons. Hold the power button to turn on and it starts the setup process, just like a Google Nest or Chromecast, setup is all done using the Google Home. Similarly hold the Bluetooth button to pair that to your phone. There's also a special Kygo button, apparently for Kygo content but I have yet to try that.


Sound quality is surprisingly good, fairly decent volume for a speaker of its size, with some bass to it but only if you sit to the side of it, still comparable to the Nest Mini. You can also use Speaker Pairs to create a stereo pairing if you have two of them. In stereo they sound even better, in fact very much better.   



Overall, the Kygo is a good alternative to the Google Nest Mini, with the added advantage of being portable and having a line-in and Bluetooth, which makes it much more useful. With fairly decent volume, reasonable sound quality and water resistance, it's a good little portable speaker for the price.



Sunday, 16 May 2021

Linux Audio: ALSA & PulseAudio - My First Linux Headache

I have been using Linux full time for about 9 months and it has been both a breath of fresh air and a steep learning curve. I had a basic knowledge of Linux, enough to get me by and enough to know I wanted to use it full time.

After using Linux Mint without any major dramas, this week I hit my first stumbling block. It was enough to make me question briefly if I had made the right choice. Being an Apple user for over 20 years I knew their hardware and operating systems inside out and being a relatively newbie to Linux I am still finding my feet and occasionally feel out of my depth.

I was trying my hand at music production using Reaper – a digital audio workstation - and purchased a USB MIDI keyboard (my second actually) and struggled to get the two to work properly.

Playing the keyboard it was hit and miss if the sound came out all the time. Rapidly pressing the same note it wouldn’t always play. Like I said I bought a keyboard prior to this – an Akai LPK25 – which suffered the same problem as this Korg NanoKey2.

After a process of elimination, I realised it wasn’t my rather aged hardware or my on-board sound, nor were either keyboard at fault. The problem lies with Linux itself and the way it handles audio. After some rather heavy reading on how audio works in Linux, it came down to a problem with PulseAudio.

Linux uses ALSA – Advanced Linux Sound Architecture - as a base for audio. It is built in to the kernel, but to use it within a desktop environment you use an additional layer called PulseAudio. It is this additional layer that causes audio delays. 

Latency is a big problem with Linux audio and eliminating this can be awkward. You can use a low latency kernel – although this didn’t make any difference for me - or even a real time kernel - but that requires a specific distro.

JACK is another option, but getting JACK to work can be tricky and a bit hit and miss. I couldn’t get JACK to work with ALSA, but JACK with PulseAudio didn’t solve my skipping audio issue.

I finally got ALSA working on its own and tweaking the settings in Reaper (the Periods and RT Priority) overcame my missing note problem. 

I am not going to say it is 100% perfect, but it certainly perfectly useable. I am sure further tweaks could improve my situation and even the possibilities of killing PulseAudio temporarily to free up more resources.

This is my first real problem with Linux. It pains me to say this, but it doesn’t happen in Windows and if your audio drivers do cause this issue you can install ASIO easily to overcome it. Mac has Core Audio which doesn’t suffer from latency issues either.

You can install ASIO via Wine in Linux, but I didn’t want to go down this route as that can cause more issues to resolve.

For me ALSA is working at present and that is good enough for me. It has been a huge learning curve and quite a stressful experience, but I am all the wiser now.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Monday, 26 April 2021

ThinkPad X201... Beautiful & Tiny

About 9 months ago I switched from Apple and my ultra-thin MacBook Air to Linux and picked up an older Dell Latitude E5410. Performance was great, but the size and weight bothered me. So I decided to look for a smaller alternative.

I have always liked ThinkPads and had a few very old IBM ones in the past. After a week of looking I went for an X201, this is my first Lenovo ThinkPad I have had. Specs wise it isn’t much different to the Dell it was replacing, but it wasn’t about getting a faster machine.



The ThinkPad X201 packs in an Intel Core i5 2.4Ghz processor (second gen), a 12.1” screen, older style keyboard (not a fan of the new chiclet style) plus g/n wifi, USB 2, Ethernet and ExpressCard slot. Mine came with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, but it takes the same as my Dell so swapped and upgraded the ThinkPad to 8GB.

I had a 240GB SSD running Linux Mint 20.1 and it was simple case of taking it out of one laptop and putting it in the other without any fuss or needing to reinstall anything. This I have to thank my friend, and blog owner, Carl for, as I had no idea you could do this and would have wiped and reinstalled. Linux has a long history with ThinkPads and the current latest 64-bit Mint runs a dream on this X201.

Within half an hour of this tiny beast arriving this morning I had upgraded the RAM, swapped the SSD, gave it a good clean and fixed a slight bulge in the keyboard caused by a small piece of shield underneath not being in the right place.

This is a decade old business class machine. It isn’t going to suit everyone, but for web browsing, article writing and the small amount of music, image and video editing I do, this is perfect. The integrated GMA graphics card isn’t suitable for gaming, even basic games will struggle, but I have never used my laptops for gaming.

Despite its small size, the keyboard is full size with the exception of smaller arrow keys. Typing this article on it was fantastic with the only issue being the red TrackPoint button occasionally catching my fingers when typing – something I will get used to again.

The trackpad is quite small, but you expect that on a small laptop. I like the dual mouse option, TrackPoint with buttons and a multitouch trackpad with its own buttons.



It has a few extras such as built in webcam and a ThinkLight, which is a small light above the screen which will shine down on the keyboard.

This is a beautiful laptop. My Dell weighed a whopping 2.1kg and you really felt it sitting on your lap and really that is the only thing that bugged me about it. The ThinkPad however weighs around 1.4kg and is so much lighter and smaller.

For its age, it is in excellent condition, with just a few scratches on the sides and a small patch on the top that has peeled, but it looks like it is a rubbery surface.

I am very happy. I now have a great performing laptop that doesn’t crush my legs and is just the perfect combo. Modern computers are so locked down, which is why I prefer something older that I can upgrade the memory and drives in or can insert a card such as PCMCIA or ExpressCard in to add extra functionality.

Knowing the Dell ran Linux Mint fine I was expecting the same performance from this ThinkPad. I wasn’t wrong and if anything it runs a little smoother but I cannot work out why.

This really is perfect.


Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

How to get rid of "System Upgrade" in Discover by disabling Offline Updates in KDE Neon

KDE Neon has been my distro of choice for awhile now with no real issues but just recently I noticed that when I open Discover package manager on KDE Neon, there is now sometimes a "System Upgrade" along with other updates. And installing the "System upgrade" results in those updates being applied on shutdown and bootup, instead of straight away, thus increasing the boot and shutdown times, which I find rather annoying. It's too much like the Windows update method, which is the most irritating thing about Windows! 




Luckily, being Linux there's a way to disable it using your favourite text editor.

Edit the config file /etc/xdg/discoverrc - for example using nano -

sudo nano /etc/xdg/discoverrc

Then change UseOfflineUpdates to false like so:


And then save the file and exit, which in nano is - 

Ctrl+O  and Ctrl X

Now when opening Discover, I can see exactly what these updates are and I shall reboot when I am good and ready! 


I can kind of  see some merit in trying to avoid installing some updates while the system is in use but I'd much rather just reboot or even just logout and login to KDE since sometimes that's all that's needed. i also don;t like the way it hides what those updates are, I like to see exactly what is being installed each time without resorting to using apt all the time. Making updates act like they do in Windows is a step too far! 


Saturday, 23 January 2021

REVIEW: JBL Quantum 100 Wired Headphones

I decided to treat myself to some new headphones, I like over-ear headphones and I found these JBL Quantum 100 headphones in WH Smiths while looking for a birthday card. They were the last ones they had, as apparently people kept stealing them, they took the last ones out of their box and put them safe behind the counter. Anyway, I checked online for reviews and price comparisons and they seem to get decent reviews and are about £30 everywhere I looked. I could also have bought them from Amazon but they were there in front of me at the same price, and it's easier to take them back to a bricks and mortar shop if I need to. I was the only customer in the shop so I had plenty of time to decide and check them out to see if they looked OK before I bought them. 



The first thing that struck me about these headphones is how soft the ear pads feel and also how light they are. They are very light and comfortable to wear, even for extended periods of time. In the box next to the headphones there's a detachable mic, which I like because it's something I rarely use. Also in the box is a Quick Start Guide and Warranty. 





Sound

The Quantums have a decent sound for their price, for a budget pair of headphones, I gave them my usual headphone test of playing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of The Moon" album through them. Speak To Me/Breathe sounded great, plenty of bass oomph to them without being too much. 



There's a little twist wheel volume control and mic on/off switch on the left hand side and the detachable microphone but it's only useful if you are using it with a device that can use the 3.5mm socket with 3 contacts (left, right and mic). 



Issues?

My only real niggle with these headphones so far is the lead only just reaches my computer from my chair, so leaning back just a few inches ends up yanking them out.  Not too keen on the angled plug either, it's not right angle, and not straight, seems designed more for mobile phone use rather than PC/gaming use. A 3.5mm socket to jack lead can extend the lead so that alleviates that issue. Also it would better for PC use if it had a seperate 3.5mm jack for the  microphone. And of course I would need a 3.5mm extension lead with the 3 pins too. They also seem to be a little too quiet when used with my phone and my desktop PC. I have the volume set to 100% on my phone and they're at an acceptable volume. On my desktop I have the volume control in Linux boosting the volume to over 100% to get an acceptable volume. It's probably not helped by me being a bit deaf but still I prefer a little head room on the volume front.   



Conclusion

Overall, I am quite pleased with these JBL Quantum 100s, they have decent sound quality for the money, and they're comfortable, fitting over my ears nicely, with soft pads on them. The slightly too short cable is my only real criticism of these headphones, clearly aimed at mobile phone usage than desktop usage, oh and they could be a bit louder too.  Hopefully they will last a while, I'll just have to see how durable these are, and I'll update this post again once I have had them awhile.  




Friday, 15 January 2021

MacOS Catalina running in QEMU on Linux

This is macOS Catalina running in QEMU on top of KDE Neon Linux. I used an easy to follow how-to at Computing For Geeks that uses the macOS-Simple-KVM project on Github. 


By default, the script sets the display resolution at a single resolution, currently 1280x720, and I haven't yet to tinker with it, It is also possible to enable PCI Express pass-through for GPUs but I am not sure how well that will work either since I am using Nvidia GT710 graphics on this machine. It's my main desktop, a HP Z400 workstation with 12GB RAM and Intel W3520 Xeon CPU, the only machine I have capable of running the macOS VM. 

MacOS seems to think it's a Late 2009 iMac 27" Core 2 Duo, since two cores are allocated to it by default. RAM and cores allocated can be changed by editing the script. I have increased the amount of RAM to 3GB. I seem to have an issue with Step 4 of the guide, adding the VM to Virt-Manager. It won't let me add the right disk image in storage so I have to start the VM from ~/macOS-Simple-KVM$ ./basic.sh every time. And Bridged Networking is a bit fiddly, so right now it can connect to the net, but not my local network. I have not thought of a particular use for this VM yet, but I am sure it might come in handy if I need a macOS-only app at some point.