New Life for Old Laptop

I’m writing this on my Thinkpad T20. Nothing unusual in that you may say and you would be right, sort of. This old machine hasn’t seen much use recently as it was showing its age. It has a P3 700 and used to run W98SE on 128meg Ram, all on a 12gig hard drive. It seemed its days of usefulness were over.

I had been considering replacing it but it doesn’t get a lot of use, mainly as a terminal for Internet use and occasional use in meetings etc. and it is in good condition. I couldn’t really justify the cost of a new machine. There is not much available under $800 to $1000 here in Australia. So what other choices did I have?

I found a dealer selling used ram, important as the new Ram was very expensive if you could find it. I had been quoted $220 from an interstate supplier. For $50 I had an extra 256m installed and tested.

The hard drive was the next to go. I was going to get 80 gig but on a dollar per gig basis 160 was much cheaper so I splashed out. My old machine now had almost as good specs as a machine selling for $1200 or more. All for an investment of under $200. All it needed was a modern OS.

I have been using Linux for a number of years on my desktop but the hassles of getting WiFi working on the laptop meant I hadn’t used it here. I have read reports of much better support now so decided it was time to give it another go.

I had a few different distros on disks laying around so I tried some. The older ones still had wireless problems and some of the newer ones had other hardware issues, the video card is a problem. The DVD drive is a bit fussy too, some disks that work fine on my desktop wouldn’t load on the laptop.

After a couple of experiments I installed Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn. WiFi worked with WPA (when I found the correct password) on my Netgear WPN511 card out of the box. But no sound and video was a problem.

With the Savage driver X refused to load. I set it to vesa and it worked but wouldn’t allow resolutions greater than 800×600 and 1024×768 is the native resolution of this screen. The screen looks terrible at the smaller resolution too, but that is probably the driver. I spent some time on Thinkwiki (a recommended site for Thinkpad users) and the Ubuntu forums trying many suggestions without success. A live CD is handy here, it allows editing of messed up files, I found it the easiest way of restoring the last working setup. Finally on the forums I found a way of editing xorg.conf that worked. Now I have 1024×768 on a good clear screen.

I wasn’t too worried about the sound as I often work with it turned off so as not to disturb others but a chance find on the forums mentioned a similar problem solved by pressing the volume keys next to the Thinkpad key. So simple I hadn’t tried it. I’m embarrassed to say it worked.

There have been other issues too. I spent some time trying work out why ACPI won’t load. Every time I rebooted I got a message that I needed to force it to load, which I had done. Then I realised it was loading. I still get the message but it seems to work. The battery life is not as good as it was previously but that will take some fine tuning. The battery icon works well as does the wireless one.

With memory of 384 meg, which is less than the recommended but more than the minimum for Feisty, I find some programs slow to load but work well once loaded. I wouldn’t try using too many programs at a time but I have had no problem so far.

This is the first time I have used Gnome. All my Linux experience has been with KDE. So far so good. Of course I could install KDE and thereby make my system Kubuntu if I want but at the moment it is fine.

The result is a usable laptop for a minimum of expense, around $A200 and an investment of several hours of my time. Would I recommend it to others? Not unless they are willing to invest the time to make it work but I am pleased with the outcome.

UPDATE. One small problem has come to light since I wrote this. As this is an old computer the bios doesn’t know about big drives. It doesn’t handle anything over 33 gig. However Linux overcomes this problem except in one area. Linux can’t do anything until it is running. Consequently the boot partition must be on the first 33 gigs. I tried adding another copy of Linux as a dual boot but as the new partition was added on the end it wouldn’t boot. Not a big problem but worth noting.

Keeping It Private

A blog is somewhere you can share your thoughts, ideas and views with the world so the idea of a private blog sounds like an oxymoron. But a blog can be much more and can have uses beyond that originally intended. A private blog may be the very tool you need for the job at hand.

First what is a private blog? A private blog is one that you control access to. It is not open to public view. It may be one only you can read or one that only selected people can read or optionally post to.

Most blogging platforms have some type of privacy controls. WordPress.com allows a totally private blog, one to which only you can have access, or one with controlled access, you select who can read and post to it. Other blogs may allow you to control access to the whole blog or just individual entries. Look for Privacy or access levels or it may be like Vox and ask “who can read this?”.

So you have a private blog, what can you do with it? The answer is almost anything but here are a few ideas.

OK the simplest one first, a personal diary. As long as you keep the password secret your innermost thoughts are safe from curious partners, siblings or house mates. Better still keep its existence secret.

A private blog can be a basic form of groupware. You have an idea for a scheme that will make you a fortune but you need some help getting it off the ground and your most trusted ally is on the other side of town, country or planet. You need somewhere you can bounce ideas around until you come up with the prefect plan. A private blog with you selecting just the two (or more) of you to have access and you are set. More colleagues can be brought on board as needed.

You travel regularly and carry your contacts, schedules and meeting notes on your laptop, pda, cellphone etc. What happens when it is stolen, lost or just stops working, do you have a backup? If you had entered all that information on a private blog you do. Just find the nearest internet café. Give your assistant access too and any updates are there when you need them. After the meetings add your reports and they are back are at the office and hopefully being acted on before you get back.

Your family is spread across different time zones but you still want to feel close. A private blog only the immediate family can access is the perfect place to share your news, photos or whatever.

What about an electronic sticky note? There are applications for your desktop but if you use a number of computers a blog can be a temporary storage to keep notes, addresses, numbers etc.

These a just few ideas you may find useful. But what could you do with a private blog? Do you use one now? and what for?

Scanning Film

I find when scanning film it pays to follow a procedure. Failure to do this often equals failure to achieve a successful scan (or archived copy). I mentioned earlier the steps I had to go through to get the scanner working so this time I will concentrate on the actual scanning process. I follow the same regime whether I am working with slides or negatives. It can be broken down into three steps – scanning, produce an archive, produce the required useful image.

Scanning

I use Vuescan to control the scanner. It has the advantage of being cross platform but I principally run it under Linux.

After selecting the shot to be scanned I select the appropriate settings in Vuescan. I have set the defaults to be close to what I need so the main settings to be made are negative or slide and type of film. Vuescan comes with presets for common film so this is easy if I can identify the film. With negatives it is printed on the film strip but with mounted slides it is not possible to tell.

I sometimes change the presets particularly if the film is faded or otherwise degraded, some of the film I am working with is more than 20 years old. Next a preview is made. Although the quality is a little less than the final scan it is a good indication of what I will get. At this point I may try some changes to the settings. Eg, I may preview different white balance settings. The area to be scanned is selected at this point too. There are options to keep the existing aspect ratio if that is important. I don’t crop too heavily at this stage especially if any perspective adjustments are going to be made later.

When I am happy with the preview I select scan. When the scanner has finished it will ask for a file name. Over time I have developed a naming procedure that works for me, it is YYYY_mmddtitle-nnnn.ext. This is year followed by an underscore then month and day, a title (or subject) follows then the image number. The image number is made up of my film catalogue number and the frame number on the film. (I use the same system with digital images but there is no film number so I just use a shot number.) I save the output of the scanner as a tiff.

Produce an Archive

As the output of the scanner has been saved I have an archive but I may do some additional work with a photo editing package. I use the Gimp for most editing. This includes fixing any perspective problem (ie. straightening sloping horizons or leaning buildings) and cleaning up any dust or scratches. A graphic tablet is an ideal tool for cleaning up images. It allows excellent control. I find it a must for detailed editing.

When I am satisfied with the results I save it, still as a tiff. I usually replace the scanned image but I sometimes rename it, usually by appending an “a”, if I consider I have altered it to the stage it is a new image, although this is rare.

Most importantly I save and backup this original scanned image.

The Final (or Useful) Image

This can be done at any time but usually I have scanned an image with the intention of using it, often as a post on my photo blog, “cewatticey”. So at this stage I make any changes to the image I think it needs and resize it and save as a jpeg if it is for use online. I will save in a different format if needed for some other use. I keep the name, just changing the extension unless the site has restrictions on file names, this applies to my photo blog. In this case I rename it to a generic name often using the title. If I have changed a colour photo to monochrome for example I will append a “m” to the filename to make it easy to identify in future.

The copy is saved with the original, if I want to post it somewhere else it saves reprocessing it. If I want to create a version for a different purpose it is created from the original.

Open Source Software – Take 2

What is Open Source Software? I gave a quick and in many ways not very accurate description in my last post of this series but for a much clearer understanding see the Free Software magazine.

I also mentioned in that post that I didn’t agree with all of his choices. One of the good things about OSS that there are usually many choices in each category. So listed below are the changes I would make to the list.

3. If only Google Calendar had a “To Do” list. It’s not open source but Google Calendar is great. For “ToDo” I use “Remember the Milk”. The suggested Sunbird is the best OSS option.

4. I haven’t used Abiword but as choice 5 is Open Office why duplicate. Open Office Writer is a good Word replacement and reported to be the most compatible with the MSOffice format.

6. My choice would be AVG which while not OSS is free, or at least a free option is available.

18. Handbrake is a Mac program.

29. GnuCash, this choice is a little strange as there doesn’t appear to be a version for Windows. I say doesn’t appear to be as the website gives instructions on how to compile under Windows and how the problems may be handled. So while some people with access to the right tools may be able to have it, GNUCash is not available for download from the official site however unofficial copies can be found. I don’t have a replacement but can say GnuCash works well under Linux.

And the one item missing from the list –

31 Nvu

http://www.nvu.com

A wysiwyg html editor, a suitable OSS for website creation whether you want to work at code level or wysiwyg level.

Have I missed anything? Let me know what you think.

Open Source Software

I have been a fan of open source software for quite a while now. For those unfamiliar with the term open source refers to the source code of the software being available for download. Most commercial software vendors jealously guard their code but the OSS community makes it freely available.

This has a great many advantages. Here are just a few –

  1. You can trust that it does what it claims. – Those with the appropriate skills have reviewed the code and seen that it does what it claims without doing anything undesirable such as adding spyware to your system.

  2. Problems are easily found and solved. They can also track down and report problems and often solutions. Many OSS developers have got bug fixes out in less time than commercial developers take to admit there is a problem.

  3. Some OSS licences allow the code to be used to develop other applications too. The spirit of co-operation for the common good is alive and well.

  4. Many OSS applications are free too.

     

    Popular OSS applications include FireFox and Open Office. The following link is a list of popular solutions and the commercial packages they replace. I would query some of his choices but would like to know of any alternatives you can suggest. i will add my list later.

    Thirty Pieces of Essential Software.

Cool Text

Would you like a a cool new logo for your site or for some other use? Then have a look at Cool Text. It is a free service that designs logos and buttons that you are free to use as you like.

There are a large range of styles and you can select the font and colours used. The final image is a jpeg file you can download and use as you want. I have experimented and made the following in a couple of minutes.

cooltext53390388.jpg

Have a look at Cool Text. Even if you don’t use the image it is a lot of fun.

Photo Editing Tools, Take 2

Recently I have been experimenting with Paint.Net. Paint.net is a free photo editing package which is a step above the basic editors that are available. It has layers and many of the options of Photoshop. It was developed as an university project and continues to be supported. If you already have .net on your computer it is a download of less than 4 meg, with .net it is 46meg. Paint.Net is only available for Windows. See getpaint.net for more info and downloads.

I found Paint.net to be a reasonable editor but not in the same class as Photoshop or the Gimp. While it handle the basic edits well some of the screens were not as user friendly as I was expecting. The auto fixes achieved a similar result as Photoshop Elements which suggests the internal routines are well written.

I have been using Photoshop Elements 4 too. I found it simple to use and effective for most uses. The photo organiser has not been used extensively but I found it more powerful than Google’s free Picasa.

So what was my final decision. While Photoshop is the industry standard there is no doubt for most people one of the free options will provide most if not all of the tools required to edit photos and create works of art. There are of course commercial options. Photoshop Elements is a useful package that uses the Photoshop engine with a simplified interface and options. It includes the most popular options but without the more powerful tools. Another popular editor is Paint Shop Pro. I have used an older version and found it very useful and it deservedly has many fans.

But none of the commercial packages have a great advantage over the free options except in one area. None of the free software mentioned above can handle camera raw. For that you need the software supplied with the camera, a specialised program such as RawStudio or you will need to spend money. Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop Pro handle a varying range of Camera Raw. If this is important to you confirm your camera is covered before you put your money down.

If you intend to work professionally there is no substitute for Photoshop but most users will never use 90% of Photoshop’s power. I use the Gimp most of my editing. Give the free software a try, after all what can you lose it won’t cost you anything.

Photo Editing Tools

I often wonder what software people are using to prepare the photos they post in their blogs. I have seen mention of a couple and so I thought I would list some of my experiences with software.

Initially I used an LE version of Photoshop that came with my scanner. I was never able to find out what made it LE but I suspect it was an earlier version sold to the scanner company at a very good price. Surprisingly there was no option to update to a full version.

I have tried various demo copies but never found anything that was a big enough improvement to part me from my money. OK I am a bit of a miser but when I spend money I want something for it.

In search for something better I have checked out a couple of free tools and must say I was impressed. They are Open Source alternatives to the commercial editors. Many people may dismiss them for this reason but many open source applications are true alternatives developed in line with user needs not corporate agendas.

First was the GIMP. An Open Source alternative to Photoshop. Despite it having most of the options available in Photoshop it was criticised for its quirky interface. This is not a problem if you haven’t used anything else but coming from Photoshop it was quite a change.

This has never bothered me but it bothered some people so much they developed GimpShop. It is a development of the Gimp with Photoshop like interface. This is one of the advantages of open source, anyone with the knowledge can modify, improve and adapt the original program. Both the Gimp and GimpShop are available for Mac and Linux as well as Windows.

The only complaint I have at the moment with the Gimp is that it does not handle Camera RAW. This is not a major problem as the RAW can be converted to TIFF by software supplied with the camera. It can then be edited with the GIMP. All digital cameras that have a Camera RAW option provide a similar facility. Unfortunately these tools often are only available for Windows and often Mac, never for Linux. Linux has inbuilt support for many digital cameras and the list is growing all the time. Check out Rawstudio to see if your digital camera’s RAW format is supported in Linux.

My advice is check them both out after all they are free so what can you lose.

Sync your Browesrs

Do you use more than 1 computer or do you use a dual boot system? If so you will have a problem accessing your bookmarks etc when you change computers. Google has an answer for you, Google Browser Sync.

It only works with Firefox but allows you to share your bookmarks, history and passwords between each system. It is a Firefox extension, one of the advantages of Firefox is the ability to customise it with extensions.

Of course if you share computers with someone else you will need to consider the security aspect. You may not want to have your passwords available on a computer someone else uses. If you are the only one using them Browser sync is incredibly handy. I use a desktop which I dual boot in WinXP and Linux and I use a laptop too. With Browser Sync it doesn’t matter which system I am using Firefox has the same bookmarks and passwords etc. It even remembers the last page I used and will return there if I wish.

One of the best Firefox extensions and it works fine in Firefox 2. Download it here.