Sunday, April 21, 2013

Elvis, Project Frankenstein and the Linux experience ...

Warning - this entry contains naked computers ...

There is no feeling quite like bringing home a brand new computer, and getting it plugged in and working for the first time.  Over the years I've noticed that "settting up a new machine" has gone from being about a day's work of driver installation and fiddling around to under an hour's effort to "set up the essentials".

And that old machine of yours?  Well that's dated and of no use to anyone now ...

Actually, hold that thought.  Unlike the 80s where we started out with home computers with 1KB memory running on tape, and finished with 1MB memory machines running on diskette, in recent years although computers are getting smaller and more powerful, it's not been anywhere near the dramatic shift in performance.  There is still life in your old dog yet.

Windows it has to be said is an amazing piece of software, and later versions have got better and better.  The reason it's so amazing is that the range of hardware it can cope (pretty well) with is vast - just about any form of PC, with different memory units, hard disks, processors, games cards etc.  I know Apple at the moment has a far superior reputation - but remember that with Apple iOS, Apple owns the hardware and the software - meaning the software has to run on much less variety of hardware.  So kudos to Windows, it does a pretty good job on an ocean of hardware, a Herculean feat in itself.

But because of this, Windows can sometimes become quite bloated, and after a couple of years of updates, your system is starting to feel like Elvis playing at Las Vegas, some of it's sparkle seems to have gone ...

This is usually the point you start shopping for something new, in the years since you bought your computer Elvis, the hardware has got faster and a little leaner, so though you're "All Shook Up", you buy yourself a new machine.

With that new computer smell firmly installed as your "Latest Flame", with your email, Facebook and internet needs addressed, is it time for Elvis to leave the building?  It may feel like it "Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog", but "Don't Be Cruel", there is indeed still life in this canine yet ...

If you have no technical skill what-so-ever, and plan on doing nothing more to this machine, consider just this ... normally when you have a computer, you use it under the watchwords of "Love Me Tender".  Your computer contains your contact details, social networking, photos - you need to take care of it.  But a spare computer ... if that goes down, does it really matter?  No, because you have a backup.

All of a sudden you have a machine which is much more about trying things out, going "I Wonder" what happens if.  Trying things out, because if you send it to a permanent blue screen of death "I was only going to throw it out eventually anyway".  Our computers at home we need to take care of, but the best experimental testing comes from trying things out.  But at home, few of us have the technical skill to keep it restored.

Feeling more adventurous?  I hoped you were ...

Beyond just using your machine as simply an experimental computer, you can look into reviving it as a Linux machine.  Linux overall is a lot more lightweight than Windows, being based on a Unix operating system (much like iOS).

Back in 2005 I bought a replacement computer in a scenario similar to the above, and found myself left with an old PC.  A developer friend of mine, Michael McConnell (author of the dubiously titled MailStripper application), suggested I use my old machine to play around with Linux.  Michael was a passionate evangelist for Linux, and provided me with the RedHat disks I needed to get started.

Post-installation, I was seriously impressed with the speed the machine worked at, although even as a Unix engineer I found the command line fiddly at times.  Since then, I haven't been without a Linux machine in the house.

Todays modern Linux is fully GUI driven, and my son uses a version of it without needing the command line (he doesn't know Unix commands ... yet).  It's developed by programmers in their spare time as a world project, and many variants are free to download.

And when it works, it works beautifully.  On Vista, when I tried to open some videos from my camera a few years ago, I got an error message that the video file was not supported.  So many hours on Google later trying to download Codecs, I finally got it working (I'd also in the meantime downloaded a lot of crap).  The same situation on Ubuntu of the time, I double clicked the video file, and it said "you do not have the codec file to run this".  But then connected to the internet, and analysed the file, suggesting the codec I would need, and asking my permission to download it - a whole other user experience yes?

My friend Violet was a passionate advocate for Ubuntu.  Until recently this was the Rolls Royce of Linux, however I've found the latest version has felt a bit slow (on my circa 2003 machine).  This variant runs on my son's netbook machine after I accidentally compressed the main drive on his XP computer and couldn't restore it (Ubuntu to the rescue), and he loves using the Unity command system - the icon bar to the left of screen,

Fedora I've had on an old machine for a while.  It's a good, solid product, but nothing to get too excited about.  It's a bit like owning a reliable, low-maintenance Shire Horse over a highly-strung racing stallion,

I've recently built a Mint machine after hearing the raves about it.  Raves which are truly justified.  It's a beautiful operating system, that feels very sleek and quick, and easy-to-use.  The "leader" in the Linux race is constantly shifting, but at the moment it looks to be Mint,


Linux machines can be used to run Samba, which is a file sharing program - meaning you can use your central machine in your home network

Get involved?

Remember, Linux is a free product, and as well as programmers, it also needs testers.  The various variants of Linux depend on people cataloging the defects they encounter, and there are wide communities out there around the product looking for contribution.

I suggest to people new to testing, download a Linux system, and get trying.  Plug into the communities, build networks, and get used to finding bugs, but also reporting them.  I suggest exactly the same to more experienced testers who want to try their hand to expand their skills.

On Ubuntu, I helped my son write his first ever bug report - yes it was a proud moment!

Goodbye Project Frankenstein

I mentioned my "Frankenstein machine" back in Welcome To The Testing Mancave.  Originally I had an old computers power supply burn out, so bought a cheap old machine from TradeMe (New Zealand's eBay) as a replacement.  What ended up happening is I "combined parts" to machine a new machine from the two - mainly by trial and error in seeing what would work, and what wouldn't.

Good hint here, but it takes aaaages.  Start from a machine that works, then change one piece of hardware at a time, booting it up each time.  That way if for instance you have two memory cards which can't stand being in the same machine, you'll work it out.

Anyway, the machine was originally designed to be for my son for his secondary school work - just enough to internet search and do word processing.  In the end I so enjoyed fiddling with it, it became my main computer, and he eventually inherited my old netbook instead.  Amongst it's many uses, I run the file sharing system called Samba on it, which means we have a central depository of films, photos, documents in the house.  Useful as even my wife's iPad can browse through the photos in here (handy as she has only the 16GB model, and she loves photos).

But mainly it's been used for writing - most of this blog and indeed the Software Minefield was written on this machine.

Unfortunately lately it's not been performing so well on Ubuntu, and lacks the fancy graphics card that would make it work optimally.  So I took the somewhat heart-wrenching decision to merge 3 of my Linux boxes down to just 2 (with better all around spec), and Frankie (as I call her) is being decommissioned.

However true to the tale of "Frankenstein", this is not the end, as parts of her are going into another machine (nicknamed Zen from Blake's 7), which is now running my version of Mint, and benefiting from Frankie's hard disk, memory and interface card, whilst giving an extra experience through the graphics card, the slightly faster processor (2.4 GHz) and increased memory from the original Zen (3GB memory all up from 1.5 GB - not bad for an 8 year old PC).

Zen - my new main computer.

But yes, Frankie has been a good friend ... but I can't wait to see what I'll learn through Zen.

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