XO Update: F11 based image

This past weekend I updated to the new XO-1 firmware image following the directions at this website.  The process was simple and painless. I believe this was the first significant update since Sugar was spun off from the OLPC project, and I had long given up hope of seeing any significant updates for the XO-1.

I can’t say that this adds any dramatic features.  They do offer a Switch to GNOME option now, which may be useful sometime, but I don’t think I want to run Gimp or Gnumeric on this machine all that much.

What it does offer is a lot less hassle. First up, the machine seems to boot faster. That is nice. I prefer not to reboot though, so pardon me for not being thrilled.

Second, they now offer an “Advanced Power Management” option, that helps the battery life a good deal. Alas, it still doesn’t seem to want to happily sleep for days on end like Deb’s MacBook will, and it doesn’t even want to sleep as long as my Toshiba laptop, but still it is a lot better than no sleep mode. They now seem to have a sleep mode where the display is active, but the CPU sleeps after some time of inactivity. You can tell that it has done this because when you later hit a kit, the screen will jump and there will be about a second pause before the key stroke shows up. Way cool, but still I want it to manage power well enough to never have to power down then back up. I guess a hibernate mode is out of the question though.

Potentially an even bigger deal is that now it does a much better job of remembering my wireless settings. Before I’d have to re-choose after every reboot, and sometimes even between reboots, and I always had to re-enter the password, frequently even after it had just been sitting unused for awhile. Now, I haven’t had to re-choose the network once, and I haven’t had to re-enter the wireless password either.

Application wise, I don’t see any improvement in the web browser, the Activity (what they call a program) I use most. I do see a change in all activities where when you exit the activity you are now asked to make a journal entry. I don’t like this at all.

To be honest, I haven’t really looked at the education activities since the update since I mostly use this as a kitchen recipe machine (thus why the picture shows the XO-1 between my toaster and salt and pepper). I figure that when he is a bit older, I’ll give this to David.

Since I never actually wrote a review of this machine, allow me to insert here that the display is really great (but obviously a bit small). Also, I found that the keyboard is nearly unusable. I can use the keyboard on similarly sized 9″ netbooks (albeit more slowly than a regular keyboard), but on this membrane keyboard I end up resorting to two finger typing most of the time. Obviously this isn’t designed for me, but it does sap some of the motivation out of my hopes of actually working some on this machine (although I have still taken it around to use as a terminal).

One thing I’d really love to see in the future would be a webkit based browser. I think that it would be a much better fit for this low memory machine than the Gecko engine that is currently used. Another thing I really want is an email program. They take the view that kids don’t need email or can use webmail, but I’d like to see a decent email sugar activity. Another nice one could be a calendar and address book activity. These probably aren’t important for most places, but I think that for American Sugar users (presumably running on non-OLPC hardware) this would be handy. Better still would be social networking support for these programs as well as twitter and facebook clients. If such features were to be added, there probably should also be some system for parents to set limits on how various pieces are used.

I keep wanting to find time to setup a Sugar environment and actually work on writing some activities. A twitter client, while frivolous, may be an excellent first activity. BTW, I’m @jdboyd. I need to add a sidebar link at some point.

Intel D510MO Atom

I had a theory that the Intel D510 CPU would be good enough for several tasks, including Linux audio (Ardour, Bristol, PureData, etc), NAS device, and HTPC (home theater PC). Not at the same time though, of course.

I bought one of the Intel D510MO boards from Logic Supply. This board isn’t going to be perfect for every task, but it is certainly perfect for some of them, and it is perfect for evaluating the CPU.

By the way, I really like Logic Supply. This board is close in price from Logic Supply as it would be from Amazon or other retailers. But, unlike Amazon (and I do get a lot from them), Logic Supply will actually give some tech support if needed, and they treated me really well with a flash device I bought from them for a previous employer.

Today, with Ubuntu 10.04.1, this board just works like a dream. It boots very quickly. Typically problematic areas, like suspend and resume just work.

Since I bought super new board with a super new graphics chipset in February, getting to this point required some patience. At this point, this isn’t a black mark against the hardware, but rather a cautionary note about buying stuff that new.

I bought this in February, when Ubuntu 9.10 was the latest. That was what I put on it first, but it would only work in VESA graphics mode. It turned out that the onboard graphics required something newer. I next tried Fedora 12. Fedora 12 would work nicely from the Live CD, but it wouldn’t see that there were any partitions on the hard drive, and it wouldn’t let me repartition the hard drive. I didn’t pursue this. I would venture to think that Fedora 13 may have fixed any issues.

Ubuntu 10.04 Alpha Just Worked out of the box, including graphics support. It is hard to complain, except about the fact that I had to use a bleeding edge version rather than the stable release, and thus there were some application stability problems. The official 10.04 release fixed the unstable programs, but at the last moment reverted the graphics support, so it was back to VESA. Argh. A few weeks later updates came that re-fixed the graphics, and things have been smooth sailing ever since. That was about 3 months of having to wait for it to really work out and put up with some glitches though.

This machine is certainly fast enough for surfing type applications, as well as Office, text editing, photo editing, etc. It is probably even fine for reasonably basic SD video editing, but I’m not certain what the competent software for doing that may be under Linux. It also works very nicely for audio applications (Ardour, Bristol, Hydrogen, etc), which I am using it for. Actually, for audio tasks, it is particularly nice due to being completely silent. Match it with a SSD and a fanless PSU, and you will have a completely silent machine with no moving parts.

Going back to the original list of tasks that this board could be for, NAS will be covered in another post since I will be trying something more adventurous by putting OpenSolaris on this machine for that job.

However, when it comes to HTPC, there is an up side and a down side. It plays SD video very nicely using Mplayer or VLC, but it is not smooth in Adobe Flash. To play HD video you will likely need an add-in decoder card, and Flash won’t support that (probably never). Since one of my primary HTPC applications is Hulu Desktop, this box ends up not being a good match for HTPC applications. For people who just want to use Myth or XBMC, I believe it could be a good match.

OpenSolaris on the Intel D510MO Atom

I wanted to tryOpenSolaris on the new Atom board on a seperate disk before the machine got settled into normal use (normal use covered in this post).

First impression, the LiveCD booted and worked correctly including graphics in VESA mode and the networking. The install was simple and painless, and afterwards came right up with graphics in VESA mode and the networking working on the on board RealTek chip.

Bonnie++ on the 3-4 year old local disk said that for block operations it would be able to do about 50 MB/s on reads and 35 MB/s on writes.

My main area of testing was to create a new file system and share it via NFS to an Ubuntu 9.10 workstation. Initial results were 42MB/s reads and 3-8 MB/s writes (measured by timing copies). Not so good.

I tried tuning wsize and rsize.  It turns out that those are more or less set to something reasonable. I tried noatime. It seems that any of the stuff that turns up for “NFS tuning” in Google don’t do much for reasonably modern systems on a generic network.  They may be worth revisiting for people trying to get a bit more performance out, but I want an order of magnitude more.

I disabled ZIL (obviously I wouldn’t do that for production, but I figured it was fair to do it now and assume that a sensible flash drive would give reasonably similar performance with ZIL on in the future) and tried again, and things got better. I tried running bonnie++ remotely over NFS, and OpenSolaris lost it’s networking. No amount of ifconfig up/down or un-plumbing and plumbing the interface would bring it back, so I resorted to rebooting the system.

At that point I did some research. It looks like many people have problems with the gre driver. I found a gani driver, but I also saw many people try that then end up adding a separate network interface. I didn’t bother with the gani drive.

I didn’t think I would easily be able to add a good ethernet card since most cheap PCI ones seem to be Realtek and most good Intel or Broadcom GigE cards seem to be 64bit and I didn’t think that such a card would fit. Still, I grabbed my unused Broadcom PCI-X card, and found that they left enough room on either side of the PCI slot to fit a 64bit card. Nice.

With the broadcom card, it delivered NFS writes of 32 MB/s and reads of 45 MB/s. I feel that this is reasonable evidence to suggest that the SuperMicro D510 server board will do nicely as a ZFS storage server. That SuperMicro board comes with dual Intel GigE ports, not Realtek. And it also offers 6x SATA ports.

Version 1.03c       ------Sequential Output------ --Sequential Input- --Random-
                    -Per Chr- --Block-- -Rewrite- -Per Chr- --Block-- --Seeks--
Machine        Size K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP K/sec %CP  /sec %CP
hp-xw            8G 45167  68 44605  11 14707   7 32389  57 32344   7  65.8   0
                    ------Sequential Create------ --------Random Create--------
                    -Create-- --Read--- -Delete-- -Create-- --Read--- -Delete--
              files  /sec %CP  /sec %CP  /sec %CP  /sec %CP  /sec %CP  /sec %CP
                 16   111   0  3489  10   108   0   111   0  3999   9   110   0

For low demand home applications (or small business ones I suppose) I think it would be interesting to try Intel D510MO board with mirrored SATA disk drives, a good Intel or Broadcom GigE NIC and a pro quality USB drive, such as this: http://www.logicsupply.com/products/af4gssgh
While USB isn’t all that fast, the linked drive claims to do writes of 25 MB/s, and that means that the ZFS server is limited to 25 MB/s, that probably isn’t too bad for storing videos and photos for a lot of home users.    What would be really exciting would be if someone would make a MiniPCIe flash or SATA card (or both).  A person can dream I suppose.

Samsung BD-P1590, semi-review

This is an affordable BluRay player that also supports some streaming media. It works with Blockbuster Direct, Netflix, Youtube, and Pandora radio. As far as I can see, Netflix and YouTube are increasingly common features, but Pandora is unique to this device.

To cut to the chase, I rather like this device.  I especially like the Pandora streaming feature.  However, it seems like it could have easily been even better.

Setup

I am using this with a basic Visio 1080p LCD panel connected via HDMI.  The audio out on the LCD panel go to an external stereo amplifier and external 2.1 speakers.

Installing the unit was trivial.  Remove old upscaling DVD player, attach HDMI cable, fish the power out the back, and plug it in.  For networking, I just plugged it in, and it asked me to do a software upgrade, which was painless. I’m happy with that.

Basics

Yep, it is Hi Def. It seems reasonably fast and responsive and easy to use.

Extra Software

I love the YouTube and Pandora features. Especially the Pandora (and I believe this is the only device that supports Pandora).

However, in the extra media players is where some rough edges start to show. The first complaint I have is the requirement that I only use this with no disc in the optical drive. This seems ridiculous to me. I watch a fair amount of episodic shows on DVD, so it isn’t uncommon for me to want to leave the save disc in the machine for a month at a time, and having to remove it to use Pandora or YouTube is irritating. What really rubs me the wrong way about this is that it seems like such a pointless restriction.

The next complaint, which is less significant, is entering text into Pandora. You have to use the arrow buttons to select letters, and there is no auto-suggestion system. This isn’t something you will need to do much though.

Then, entering text in YouTube is done by having multiple letters per numeric key like texting on a cell phone (ABC on 2, etc). Plus in the YouTube player, they provide suggestions for you to pick and edit. This is much superior to the Pandora text editor. However, that leads me to another complaint, which is that they aren’t the same. Why would they include two or more different text editors? Will I find a third style if I ever try to use Netflix?

I complain about the above things because it seems that they should have easily been able to double how nice the device is by fixing the text editors and required disc removal. They really are a bit of a stain on an otherwise great experience.

Beyond that, since this device can stream media over the network, and it can play many types of arbitrary file burned to a DVD, why in the world won’t this device stream music and video from my Mac or home server? Surely it has the power and the extra program space would have trivial?

Finally, I rather wish they would have included a web browser. I realize this is less trivial to do. OTOH, this box does run Linux, and WebKit (the heart of Chrome, Safari, and the web browser on numerous phones) is supposed to be light weight. Considering the potential support headache, I can understand if this were a feature saved for a higher end unit, but they don’t offer it on any of their models as far as I can see. This is still more wishfull thinking than a legitimate criticism though.

Conclusion

Despite the complaints, I really do love this device. I wouldn’t want to replace it with any other single machine. I may be convinced to replace it with a PS3 and a 2009 Mac Mini together, but I don’t anticipate getting those anytime soon.

I do hope that a future firmware update will unify the text editors and remove the requirement to remove the discs. Samsung, I hope you are reading this.