Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hard disk upgrade

One of my computers needed an larger hard disk. It had WinXP installed and I did not want to reinstall it (and the many other applications that it had installed). But on the other hand I wanted to have a larger C: drive.

I have used Symantec Ghost in the past and it does the job quite nicely. However I wanted to do this using free software, as I was not sure if the Ghost version I got was NTFS compatible and I did not want to buy a new one.

Googling a bit will lead me to HDClone 3.1 of which there is a free version. This program clones your old harddisk content to the new one, keeping the partitioning scheme intact. You can create a bootable CD-ROM with the software so you can use it with systems without a floppy disk (alternatively you can boot from a floppy disk too). The program does a great job with a nice graphical interface.

Once I was done with the cloning I used another shareware program called Boot it. It's main goal is to act as a boot manager, enabling you to have up to 200 primary partitions, but it can also resize different partition types, NTFS among them. The software allows you to create a boot floppy (or CD-ROM) to start the software from. It has a nice graphical interface that shows your current partitions and allows you to resize them. It took my old windows partition and it sucessfully enlarged it to fit the whole disk size.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Getting 3D to work

Until recently, I have been happy without decent 3D performance on my computer graphics card. But the Linux version of Google Earth spiced my curiosity. This and the fact that my old ATI Rage 128 Ultra refused to work properly with the "ati" driver that Ubuntu Dapper installed by default.

I then learned that I could install an accelerated driver from ATI but I was not lucky enough to have it working flawlessly: The system was freezing quite easily, forcing me to hardware reset it. So I recover an old card my kids had discarded, that was in fact more powerful than the ATI one. It is an NVIDIA MX440 GeForce 4 with 64MB RAM.

Again, I needed to install the special Nvidia driver for it, but now it is working. Do not think it was easy: I actually needed to perform some dark magic to get it working. The problem this time was not with the 3D not working but with Firefox. Everything was working fine till I started Firefox, then the mouse still could move but the rest of the system was not working, not even the network. Fortunately, one piece of advice on the Ubuntu wiki helped me to get all working fine. Just in case you want to know, I've added this options to the Device section of my xorg.conf file:

Option "NvAGP" "0"
Option "RenderAccel" "Off"
Option "IgnoreDisplayDevices" "DFP,TV"
Option "NoRenderExtension" "Off"
Option "AllowGLXWithComposite" "Off"

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Aging computers

I've kept my children happy with their old computers for several years, with some graphic card upgrades every now and then. But after reading this article in Tom's Hardware site I decided it was the moment to give a try to the new Dual core Intel processors.

I've to admit that I've been a happy AMD customer since the 386-40Mhz. Most of the time AMD delivered good performance cheaper than Intel. The exception to this rule had been several laptops non based on AMD processors (G4, PIII & Pentium-M) and one eventual Celeron so I could make some use of an ASUS Pundit box.

So, I got ready for the challenge and decided I was going to buy a new motherboard, new memory and an 2.6Ghz 805D processor. I wanted to buy a 1GB 667Mhz DDR2 RAM to have room for some overclocking but unfortunately it was not available at the shop. I wanted a motherboard with a basic 3D card (Asrock775-TWIN-HDTV) but unfortunately was not available so I bought another mobo that had at least an AGP slot so I could use one of graphics cards I had around. I wanted an IDE hard drive, but they are now using SATA disks mostly, I had to wait for that too. I was not luckier with the processor as they start selling the 820D (2.8Ghz) so I'm not sure when I'll have all the gear to build my test system. I can't wait!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Fighting with Ubuntu 6.06

After some success on my laptop and using the released version, I have decided to install Ubuntu 6.06 on my main computer at the office that has been happily running SuSE Linux 10.0. I guess it is against my own advice (and common sense) to install a new software when the old one was giving you a good service, but I can't help it, I enjoy trying out new software versions (maybe I'll have to start a branch for "Installers Anonymous").

There is always a catch: My hard drive does not have space available and I really would like to keep SuSE Linux just in case. After all I have lots of stuff installed and working, like VMware or CrossOver Office and I do not know whether all these will run trouble-free on Dapper Drake (DD is the name of Ubuntu's 6.06) or not. I know from experience that VMware use to be quite picky about kernel versions.

So I needed some free space on my hard drive before I could install Ubuntu. Catch 2: I could not resize my Linux partition from SuSE Linux 10.0 as it is a mounted partition when running the system. You cannot resize a partition while it is mounted (or should I say you should not do it). Catch 3: My Knoppix 3.8 does not handle reiser filesystem resizing. So I cannot use the nice QTParted that comes with this version of Knoppix (I am almost sure this was fixed in later versions but unfortunately I did not have a copy of the latest version at hand nor the time to download and burn a CD with it). So I had to backtrack to "resize_reiser" which reduces an existing filesystem so you can later resize your partition (by the scary process of deleting it and recreating a smaller one using fdisk). Please note that a mistake here may be big trouble if your filesystem is larger than the partition space you allocate for it (be careful and double check your numbers).

I was lucky and I get 30 GB of space freed for my new OS. So I grabbed Ubuntu's LiveCD and I followed through the install process choosing a manual partitioning and creating a new partition on the room I had created previously. It all worked as expected and now I have one Ubuntu and one SuSE entries (sorry, no windows here) on my GRUB boot menu.

Once I booted Ubuntu I was told several software and security updates were available and I choose them. Catch 4: Selecting a screensaver locked the system to a hardware reset. Not a good start. But, again, the reason was poor support of my graphics card 3D functions on the "ati" driver (I know there is a better driver choice but that was the default I got from the install).

I have used the same /home partition I was using with SuSE so all my data and configuration is there (almost). I was using KDE with SuSE and now I am using Gnome with Ubuntu so some othe desktop icons are not working as they are calling the wrong binaries (it's time to tidy up the desktop a bit).

While I am pleased with the tools I have got installed; I realize I need to install some extra applications. For that, I have found very useful the information on this guide. I have installed the following software for the moment:
  • Texmacs scientific document editor.
  • Lyx (a latex front-end) text editor.
  • Gnuplot (I use it a lot for simulation graphs).
  • gstreamer0.10-fluendo-mp3 (guess what it is for :^)
  • flash-nonfree firefox plugin (so I can browse your youtube videos)
  • inkscape (a great SVG graphics editor)
Oops, I have also installed the weather/temperature applet on the top panel and it shows a storm sing and I have to bike home ... I better hurry up.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Google Earth for Linux!!!

I've just tested the Google Earth beta for Linux with not very good results. First the install, you get a single .bin file that contains all what you need (or almost, read on). To install it you execute the downloaded file as a shell script. It will unpack the installation files and you get a nice window informing you about the install process. It does not take long.

My first attempt was on SuSE Linux 10.0 and when trying to run the software I get a complain that I did not have Bitstream Vera font installed (the message contained a link for me to install it too). I wonder why they have not included that font (if required) in the first place in the installation file. Next the program starts but it just ends up blocking the system to a hardware reset. This time I cannot put all the blame on Google's camp as my ATI Riva 128 graphics card might be the cause of the system freezing. The 3D support on the driver is enabled and Yast2 tells you 3D support is "experimental". Every now and then I arrive to my office to find the computer blocked to hardware reset and it always happens when I am away (and cool 3D shapes are being rendered on the screen by the screensaver software). So I guess I have a 3D graphics driver issue.

Next attempt was with an old computer (P3-500Mhz) running Xubuntu. Install was ok but this system is slow and lacks of any 3D capability on its VGA. Google Earth works but at a painfully slow pace, so it is useless on this system.

My conclusion for the moment is that you should only try it out if you know the Linux 3D support for your graphics card is working ok.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

USB booting and more

I've always been curious about booting from USB devices. With most motherboards, the use of an external USB CD or DVD-ROM seems to be a no brainer.

As USB flash memories now offer up to several gigabytes of storage, it seems they might serve for many pursposes.

The guys behind Damn Small Linux think that it is a good idea to have a simple GNU/Linux setup that can boot from a credit card size CD-ROM or from a USB flash memory with only 50Megabytes!! I needed to try this out. I had most success using the USB-ZIP configuration on most of the BIOS on the systems I tried this out. I even have found a new life for that old 64MB USB 1.1 pendrive I bought several years ago. The system that includes a graphical environment, wordprocessor, Firefox browser, pdf reader, spreadsheet, xmms, vnc viewer, and a long list of other useful applications.

All that was quite an achivement, and the developers want to keep the system size small. One of the drawbacks is DSL is based on a 2.4 kernel, but they claim lots of device drivers are being backported.

Besides achieving to boot a system from a USB pendrive, I had a goal in my mind: Some of the systems I have developed over time are based on 1U rack PCs lacking of a CD-ROM or floppy drive. The system setup till now was based on plugging in a USB-based CD-ROM to load Knoppix Linux and then to run a script that will download the system's disk image over a network connection. It was fast and easy. However, with high capacity pendrives and the possibility of booting from the pendrive I thought that I could forget about the old system.

What I have working now is a 2GB pendrive holding DSL boot plus the compressed image of the system I want to install. The new routine for installing these 1U computers is:
  1. plug-in the pendrive
  2. power on the computer.
The computer will power itself down once the install is complete. The whole process takes less than seven minutes. I really think it is a very good way to install any OS on a batch of identical computers. (The problem with just writing down the OS to a batch of hard drives is that this does not allow you to test the hardware the disks will be installed on).

I recomend you to have a look at this setup system for any similar need. I guess that if your storage needs exceed existing pendrive's capacity you may use a USB-powered hard drive to achive the same result.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

UPV wireless network access with Ubuntu

I'm getting the hang of the different flavors of the Ubuntu thing. I tried Kubuntu while Dapper was in beta and now I've just installed Xubuntu (xfce4-based version of Ubuntu) which is specially crafted for "old" computers (low resources). The LiveCD allows you the same install as with the two more powerful siblings.

I ran out of network sockets but I had a spare USB wireless device so I used it with this computer. The fact that the computer is old means it is only USB 1.1 so I won't be able to handle the maximum speed over the network, which is not a problem at the moment. The easiest way to access our campus WLAN infrastructure is by using a VPN tunnel over the open wireless link. There is nice webpage telling you how to do it, even if you use Linux, but I always like to try something new. Today I did it: I installed pptpconfig and I got it working at the moment. Defaults are ok but the "All to tunnel" option on the Miscellaneous data of the connection that has to be checked. You put your user credentials in and you are connected in a moment to UPVNET (the name of the network and the SSID).

Good luck if you decide to try any of the Ubuntu's flavors!

Monday, June 05, 2006

NSA wiretapping

I saw the link on Bruce Schneier's blog and and I found it quite funny (if you forget about the sad part, of course)

Click on the image to start playing it