Losing an old friend

My trusty, indomitable Thinkpad T40 is showing telltale signs of domitability. I will feel its loss like the loss of an arm I’m using to cling to a mountain. Unfortunately, my Thinkpad crashes about once a day – hangs rigidly from a carefully-tied noose, requiring a hard reboot. I could send it off again to Lenovo, but it felt like a hasty hemispherectomy with a blunt knife the last time I needed to do that.

In pondering the purchase of my next outboard brain, I’m torn between the Lenovo X300 and the MacBook Air. If I refrain from superfluous eating or personal grooming, I think I can stretch my budget to $2200, which has to include warranty, spare power cable, external DVD drive etc. [Right now, the Lenovo X300 only exists in a flash drive model for $3000, but let’s assume that if I pray and masturbate hard enough, they’ll introduce a cheaper model with a standard hard disk].

Let’s start with the MacBook Air pros. It’s more beautiful than a prone supermodel, and almost as slim and weightless. Mac OS X probably works more reliably than anything else on the market, and with Parallels/Boot Camp, I should be pretty much covered for most eventualities. Keynote – nuff said. I don’t need a DVD drive more than once every few months, and I can live reluctantly with the ports it offers, plus some dongles.

On the con side, I don’t want to reward Steve Jobs’ deviously effective strategy of locking Apple consumers into an all-Apple world. I hate barriers to exit in consumer products. I think open solutions foster greater innovation in the long run. And I resent proprietary software like I resent being told what (not) to do.

There’s little to argue in favor of the Thinkpad specifically. I like its distinctiveness, its nipple mouse, and the fact that it has two mouse buttons and pageup/down keys.

Furthermore, I really like linux – I like that things are free in every sense. I love Debian-based package management – being able to automatically install and update everything with a single command or click is so weirdly, futuristically better than the Mac or Windows approach of downloading each application manually, each of which has its own update software – so much better that non-linux users literally don’t seem to believe what they’re missing. Finally, I love KDE. I like the fact that I have keyboard shortcuts for everything – I wear it like I wear my 5-year old walking boots that have moulded perfectly to my feet. I especially like focus-follows-mouse and being able to effortlessly move and resize windows by holding down Alt. These alone are very nearly enough to tie me to linux indefinitely.

But linux lets me down. My wireless is better than before, but it’s still a little drunk and a little deaf. I lose minutes a day to niggles and imperfections (e.g. USB, sleep and projectors). I’ve never quite had 3D video stuff working, so I have to jump through fiery hoops to run my experiment presentation software (PyEPL). YouTube and video are pretty hit and miss. And, even after using Open Office for 2 years, I still don’t like it as much as Microsoft Office.

So I’m left trading off my preference for linux’s user interface, package management and freeness against beautiful hardware and reliability. Perhaps I’m getting old and impatient, but the reliability is really the kicker here.

Testing the legs of the Sansa Express

My Sansa Express arrived yesterday.

Sansa express

We plugged it into Adrian’s Windows XP laptop, dragged some
files across, and went to eject it. No eject button on the
disk drive. Didn’t show up on the ‘safely remove device’
list. Huh. So we yanked it out, it played happily and all
appeared to be well.

When I got home, I plugged it into my Ubuntu laptop. A
Konqueror window opened up, I dragged some files across, and
went to eject it. Again, there was no ‘safely remove’ option in the
‘/media/usbdisk’ context menu, so I figured it was the same
deal. I yanked it out, but now it refused to light up, it wouldn’t turn
on, and when I popped it back in it didn’t mount. The thing was
dead.

I’ve played this game before with my old iRiver. So I downloaded the Sansa Express manual, looking for info on how to reformat or reset it. The hard reset instructions said to hold the ‘Select’ button while pressing ‘Volume up’ simultaneously. I
tried that a bunch of times, but still no dice. I started to sweat a little at that point, but ended up pressing lots of pairs of buttons simultaneously, and one of them seemed to do the trick. It might have been ‘menu’ + ‘volume up’.

After resetting, I retried things on my Ubuntu laptop, and this time put the computer to sleep to force a safe removal. I later found that manually entering ‘eject /media/usbdisk’ works too, though sometimes takes a while.

It looks like the Sansa Express tries to use MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) if you’re running XP/Vista, and falls back to UMS/MSC (i.e. just a normal USB hard disk) in OSX/Linux. The latter mode requires a safe removal.

Things that are still crap about linux

This should be taken with a pinch of salt because I’m still running RedHat 8, though some things don’t appear much better for the Enterprise version

package manager – I hate downloading new software, because of dependency hell

X11 – I hate trying to SSH into my lab workstation from anywhere, because I invariably get weird authentication weirdnesses

why doesn’t it have a nice task manager like windows?

have they sorted out wireless yet?

what about a media player for .wmv files etc?

there should only be one copy/paste clipboard

why isn’t konqueror designed to behave exactly like Windows Explorer?

Update (April 2007): Ubuntu’s solved most of these issues, but there are still niggles.