Linux Ubuntu

Linux users take note: Google knows marketing

While critics and advocates of so-called “desktop Linux” waste their time imagining a world in which some consumer-targeted Linux distro manages to fix all its bugs and then self-proclaimed computer illiterates everywhere download and burn .iso files and then set their BIOSes to boot from CD and install and configure Linux themselves, Google moves forward with Linux doing what Apple has always done: market! Strengths? Highlight those. Perceived weaknesses? Market those as strengths. Actual weaknesses? What actual weaknesses?

Seriously, instead of saying “Anything Windows can do, Linux can do” (some BS statement I’ve seen repeated on numerous Linux forums over the years) or “Linux will be a Windows replacement when it can do X” (another popular BS statement), just be honest about what Linux can do well and then play that up. For years, Linux distros had “app stores” called package managers. Because they didn’t have savvy marketing departments, somehow those package managers became a deficiency (“if only I could double-click a setup.exe as I did in Windows”) instead of a strength (get all your software in one place automatically updated and easily searchable). Apple knew how to take that concept and make it sexy. Voila! The App Store. Google followed up with the Android Market.

Likewise, for years, Linux distros have offered relatively safe computing for web, email, word processing, light photo editing, and music organization. Did that get played up as a strength? No. Linux advocates and critics instead decided to focus on what Linux didn’t offer (mainly Windows-only applications and drivers for some third-party hardware peripherals). What does Google do? Remind people (YouTube watchers, anyway) that they use “the internet” (web browser, really) for 90% of their computing anyway. Why not focus on the web browser instead of niche applications (the features in Photoshop that only professionals use, since the rest are in GIMP; high-end commercial video games, since people who use their computers 90% of the time on the web will either not play video games or play them on a console; iTunes, because you’re going to buy an Android phone and not an iPhone anyway, target audience of this YouTube video)? Why not play up the strengths of Linux?

Linux fanatics and haters, I give you… proper marketing:

It should also be mentioned that Google isn’t stupid. It knows that people generally buy devices, not operating systems. Who wants to install an OS herself and have to go through figuring out drivers and other such nonsense? That’s the OEM’s job. If you’re like the vast majority of consumers, you don’t buy an iPhone and install Linux on it. You buy an Android phone. You don’t buy a Windows netbook (or, worse yet, buy a badly configured obscure Linux distro preinstalled—Xandros and Linpus, I mean you!) and install Linux on it. You buy a Chrome OS netbook.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Where is this dreamland in which Windows “just works”?

First of all, I have to say it is not my intention to bash Windows. I am not a Windows hater. I actually like Windows. I use it at work every weekday, and I have found ways to have a generally pleasant experience with it. I like Mac OS X better than Windows, though, and I like Ubuntu Linux better than Mac OS X. I actually am quite a firm believer in using the operating system that works best for you and that all the major platforms have pros and cons.

What I can’t stand is Windows power users having a bad experience trying to migrate to Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution) and then proclaiming “This is why Windows will always dominate the desktop” or “This is why Linux isn’t ready for the masses.” This in these contexts meaning that they had some problem using a peripheral or getting their wireless to work or whatever. I don’t get it. Really. I don’t understand where the logic in this proclamation is. Such a conclusion comes from several flawed assumptions:

  1. Windows always works.
  2. People choose Windows because it always works.
  3. If Linux always worked, the masses would suddenly flock to Linux.
  4. The problem I had with Linux is a problem everyone would have in Linux.

The truth is that if you work in tech support (I don’t officially, but I have unofficially in my last two jobs), you know that there are problems (many problems) on both Windows and Mac OS X. Windows has been the dominant platform at both my current and previous workplaces, and every single day there are Windows problems abounding—cryptic error messages, printer driver conflicts, wireless drivers preventing laptops from going into standby, blue screens of death, rogue viruses, and frozen applications. Believe me, our official tech support guy doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He is busy.

Oddly enough, when people have these constant Windows problems, they don’t decide Windows “isn’t ready for the masses.” They just stick with it. Maybe they’ll say “I hate computers.” Maybe some smug Mac user (who also has problems of a different sort but somehow turns a blind eye to them) will say “I hate PCs” (and by PC they mean Windows PC). Oh, but the second a Windows power user tries Linux and encounters one or two problems, suddenly Windows is this always-working utopia. “I’d never have this problem in Windows.” Sure, buddy. Let me tell you about problems.

Last week, a friend of mine wanted to create a playlist of songs to put on her iPhone for a party she was throwing. Here are the problems she encountered:

  • The iPhone wouldn’t update because it couldn’t connect to the iTunes server
  • After it appeared to start the update, iTunes estimated the update download to take 54 minutes.
  • When the download failed after a half hour, she gave up on getting updated firmware on her iPhone altogether.
  • After installing the Amazon MP3 Installer, the download of the purchased MP3 failed midway through and would not complete or offer a useful error message after clicking retry.
  • The iTunes store worked better for purchasing music but cost more ($1.29 per song instead of $.99 per song)—not really a technical problem but still annoying.
  • She couldn’t sync the songs in her playlist to the iPhone, since the iPhone had been authorized on too many computers already, so she had to call Apple to get them to deauthorize her other computers so she could authorize her current computer.

So that’s “just working”? These are not the only problems she’s had on a Windows computer, and she’s had multiple computers. More importantly, she could not solve all these problems on her own, but she needed me to walk her through almost every step of the way. Is this pretty typical? Yes, actually. As I said before, I’m not even the real tech support guy at work, but people still ask me for help with their Windows problems every single day of the week. It could be Microsoft Word inserting some stupid line that can’t be erased or deleted. It could be Firefox not accepting cookies for website even when you’ve enabled them in Tools > Options. It could be the printer icon not allowing you to delete an errored out print job.

If there were really an operating system that offered you a flawless experience that didn’t require you to be your own tech support or for you to find outside tech support, then a lot of people would be out of jobs. Help desks everywhere would be laying off employees by the tens of thousands.

So does Linux have problems? Sure. It has a lot of problems. But those problems are not the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) reason most people use Windows. Windows’ dominance has mainly to do with inertia, marketing, brand-name recognition, and a near-monopoly on preinstallations. Why should I have to state this obvious fact? Because again and again Windows power users perpetuate this nonsense—because they have spent years or even decades perfecting the art of making Windows a bearable experience—that there are no problems in Windows and that any problem in Linux must be the reason Linux for desktops/laptops/netbooks isn’t more popular than it is.

Further Reading
Linux-for-the-masses narratives
Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

Linux Ubuntu

The GUI v. CLI Debate

I’ve been helping with online tech support for Ubuntu for over four years now, and every now and then the discussion comes up about whether it’s “better” to use terminal command instructions or to use point-and-click instructions when offering help.

Inevitably, some die-hard CLI (command-line interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is “more powerful” and that every Linux user should learn to use the terminal, and then some die-hard GUI (graphical user interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is intimidating and that if Linux wants more users, it has to develop more graphical interfaces for things; and then you get the hardcore Linux users who claim they don’t care if Linux gets more users or not, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

The truth is that neither CLI nor GUI is always “better” than the other. There are appropriate situations for both CLI and GUI on a support forum. I hope everyone can agree that all common tasks should be able to be done in the CLI and through the GUI. Choice is ultimately what’s most important, so that those who prefer the CLI can use the CLI, and those who prefer the GUI can use the GUI.

But if I am offering help to new users, do I give GUI instructions or CLI instructions? It depends on what kind of support I’m giving.

When is GUI support appropriate?
If a new user wants to know how to do a basic task that she will probably repeat (or, if not the exact task, then at least something similar) in the future, then I will usually give point-and-click instructions to encourage that user to explore the GUI for that kind of task. For example, if a new user asks “How do I install Audacity?” then I am not going to say “Just use sudo apt-get install audacity.” Instead, I’ll tell her to use Applications > Ubuntu Software Center or Applications > Add/Remove, or just link her to this tutorial on how to install software. There are several reasons I do this:

  • Even though the apt-get command makes perfect sense to me, it is just cryptic gobbledygook to a new user, and it will not help her to install other software in the future unless I bother to explain how the command works; and, more importantly, even if she understands how apt-get works, she’ll still need to know the name of the package she wants to install in order to use the command most efficiently.
  • A lot of new Linux users (myself included, when I first started) have an irrational fear of the terminal, even if you tell them to copy and paste the command with a mouse (no typing necessary). Eventually, as they become more comfortable with the new environment that Gnome or KDE (or Xfce or whatever other user interface they’re exploring) has to offer, they are more likely to be amenable to learning terminal commands and even liking them.
  • Among Windows power users (the most likely group to migrate to an almost-unheard-of operating system that requires download, installation, and configuration from the user and not the OEM), there is already a reputation Linux distros have of being too terminal-dependent. It’s great to advertise to new users just how many things can be done by pointing and clicking, and that will make their transition to Linux that much easier.

Ah, some veteran forum members would protest, but what if I don’t want to bother making screenshots or typing out long point-and-click instructions that can be summed up in a single command? To that, I say if you’re too lazy to offer appropriate help, don’t offer help at all. Someone else will help. Or, better yet, find a good screenshot-laden tutorial and link to the tutorial instead (that’s actually how I started up my Psychocats Ubuntu tutorials site—I got tired of constantly retyping the same support posts over and over again, so I just made one place I could keep linking new users to).

I would say something similar to those who use Fluxbox or Enlightenment and want to primarily help those who use Gnome or KDE. If you aren’t familiar with the graphical environment the user you’re trying to help is using, don’t offer help in that instance. Save your help for when the CLI is appropriate.

When is CLI support appropriate?
The GUI may be fine for common tasks (installing software, launching applications, managing files and folders), but what if someone runs into a problem? What if what she’s doing is not a common task but a one-time setup or configuration? There’s no way if a new user says “When I try to launch Firefox, it just disappears” that I’m going to offer a point-and-click solution. Problems are best diagnosed with the CLI, and terminal commands (even for GUI applications) are more likely to yield helpful error messages. Likewise, if her wireless card isn’t recognized properly or fixed by System > Administration > Hardware Drivers, it isn’t a crime to walk her through manually editing configuration files to fix the wireless problem, because once it’s fixed, she should never have to do that again.

If you do offer CLI solutions to problems, though, as much as possible try to explain what these commands mean or do. You don’t have to copy and paste in a whole man page (in fact, that probably won’t be helpful at all—I’ve been using Linux for years and have yet to find a man page I actually understand). Just keep in mind that to many new users, terminal commands are like a foreign language they can’t even say hello or thank you in.

CLI and GUI aren’t going away any time soon. One is a hammer. One is a screwdriver. No one tool will suit everyone best at all times. Use what’s appropriate. Appreciate that what you like or prefer may not be what someone else likes or prefers.

Linux Ubuntu

Psychocats will be updated for Karmic… please be patient

The new release of Ubuntu 9.10 (codenamed Karmic Koala) came out today. It’ll take me a couple of weeks to get my tutorials site updated. I appreciate the patience of Ubuntu users who like and use my site. Thanks!

Linux Ubuntu

My response to Rory Cellan-Jones

Rory Cellan-Jones recently spent 24 hours with Ubuntu:

I installed a few applications – including Skype, and a social networking application called Gwibber.

But when I tried to install a free open-source audio editing program, Audacity, it appeared more complex to get hold of an Ubuntu version than the one I’ve used on a Mac.

So it was simpler than this on Mac?

What was tripping you up? Not knowing a sound recording and editing program would be in the Sound & Video category? Or not realizing how silly it is to have to open a web browser to install a program? Do you find the iTunes App Store difficult to use? Because that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

I very much look forward to reading your next article, “24 hours learning to ride a bicycle.” The wheels must just not be worth the effort.

Further Reading
Know why software installation is difficult on Linux? It’s a secret. I can’t tell you.

Apple and Mac OS X Linux

Apple App Store like MPAA?

After reading Apple’s FCC Response Infuriates Google Voice App Developer, I’m getting deja vu. Kirby Dick, you listening? (This Film Is Not Yet Rated).

I guess with films people can at least view your movie without having to jailbreak their iPhones—though good luck trying to recup your production costs with an NC-17 or unrated movie…

If I were a phone app developer, I’d just go with Android. Even if Google rejects your app, people can still install it without having to root their phones.


Installing a rooted version of Android is easier than I thought it’d be

When a commenter suggested I “root” Android on my MyTouch 3G phone, I was hesitant to go ahead with it, because it sounded as if it might be complicated and result in a bricked phone. Then I saw this story in Google News: Five Great Reasons to Root Your Android Phone

More importantly, I came across the YouTube video How to root a T-Mobile myTouch 3G or G1 in 6 minutes and flash Cyanogen rom with Donut crumbs and the article Android Hacking For The Masses. Seeing how easy the process was made me more comfortable going ahead with it.

Before you begin

  1. Even though this process is often called “rooting,” you aren’t actually gaining root access to an existing Android installation. You are replacing an unrooted old Android installation with a rooted new Android installation.
  2. This means everything on your phone will be erased, so make proper backups. For me, that meant taking notes on my email settings, compiling a list of applications I had installed, and (just to be extra safe, though it didn’t end up being necessary) jotting down all the T-Mobile account information in the phone.
  3. I considered this process easy, but ease is relative. What may be easy for someone else I may consider difficult. What may be easy for me may be difficult for you. Read the aforementioned links and, most importantly, watch the YouTube video in full (do not fast-forward, no matter how boring parts of it are) to see if that’s the kind of process that will seem easy for you.
  4. Everything you read about this process will have heavy disclaimers of the “It may brick your phone. Don’t hold us responsible for what happens” variety. I think you should take those disclaimers to heart (if you don’t follow the directions well, you may very well render your phone useless). At the same time, it is a simple procedure. If you are careful with the steps, the likelihood of bricking your phone is pretty low.

Step 1: Back up important stuff

  • If you have contacts, make sure they’re synced to your GMail account or backed up somewhere else. Same deal with your calendar.
  • If you have pictures, back them up to your hard drive or to your Picasa web album. These should not be erased during the process, since they live on your Micro SD card and not the phone itself. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to back them up just to be safe.
  • If you aren’t familiar with configuring email accounts, go into each email account and copy to a piece of paper or an electronic text document all the information you’d need to replicate the set-ups there.
  • Make a comprehensive list of all the Android Market applications you have installed so you can reinstall them after the rooting process.

Step 2: Download the appropriate files
You need two files. One allows you to backup existing Android roms and image new ones on to your phone. The other is the rom itself (the rooted Android to replace the unrooted Android that came with your phone).

  1. The rom I used was the Cyanogen mod version 4.0.1 (stable). You can find it here as a .zip file. Download that (through your computer and not your phone) to your Micro SD card.
  2. Then download (through your computer and not your phone) the Recovery Flasher application from one of these locations:

    Put that on your phone’s Micro SD card as well.

  3. Then in your application settings on the phone, allow non-Market applications to be installed. (Settings > Applications > Unknown sources > Check the box.)

  4. Use a file browser application (I like OI File Manager) to navigate to the Recovery Flasher .apk file on your Micro SD card and install it.
  5. After it’s installed, run it. First, click Back up recovery image and then click Flash Cyanogen Recovery 1.4
  6. Turn off your phone.

Step 3: Flash the rom

  1. Hold down the Home button while you press the Power button to turn the phone back on. This will boot your phone into recovery mode, and you’ll see several menu options.

  2. Select nandroid v2.2 backup
  3. Once that’s completed, select wipe data/factory reset. This will erase everything on your phone!
  4. Click on apply and select the .zip file you downloaded earlier.
  5. Finally, select reboot system now (it may take slightly longer than a normal reboot.)

That’s it! You’re done! You now have a rooted Android installed.
If you used the version I used, you should now have multi-touch on your web browser (that pinching and parting to zoom in and out on web pages), five parts to your desktop instead of three, the ability to install and use a wifi tethering application, and a lot of other little improvements taken from the next build of Android.

I can’t offer support for this. I just know what worked for me. This is supposed to work on the G1 as well (also known as the HTC Dream), but I did it only on the MyTouch 3G (also known as the HTC Magic).

One of the links I listed before said it makes Android faster and that there is a better keyboard. I never found Android to be slow to begin with, but the new rooted version doesn’t seem to be any faster. I also have not been able to enable the “better” keyboard (had no problems with the original keyboard—still, always up for trying something new if it’s easy).

If you are a Linux user (or a Windows/Mac user with a GParted live CD), you can optionally create an Ext3 or Ext4 partition on your Micro SD card. Then reboot your phone and it should automatically move your installed applications to the SD card and install new applications there as well. This will allow you to install a lot more applications by saving the space used on the phone itself.


MyTouch 3G, Round Two

Second impressions
I’ve had a few more days to use this phone, and I’ve found out a few more things:

  1. Initially, it seemed the volume for the rings was too soft. Then I realized there was a plastic (dust-repellent?) cover over the camera and speaker that needed to be removed. I removed it, and it’s much louder now. A bit confused as to why the speaker is on the back of the phone, though.
  2. If you hold down the Home key, a list of recently opened applications will appear.
  3. There doesn’t appear to be a way in the browser to force links to open in the same window. I don’t really like having to wait for a new window to open for externally launched links or for links coded by websites to open in a new window. The default browser doesn’t have tabs—only windows.
  4. There is a little light next to the hearing part of the phone that indicates if the battery is low, if the battery is charging, or if the battery is full. Also, if you are charging the phone and it locks, when you press the menu key, it’ll tell you what percentage the battery is charged. The battery charges very quickly. I didn’t do an actual timing on it, but it seemed to take only about ten minutes to charge from about 50%.
  5. The Android Market reviews are totally useless. Basically if you want to know if an app is worth your time or not, you have to install it yourself and try it out. (I’ll probably do a separate post on Android apps I think are actually worth installing.)
  6. Even though you can make shortcuts on the desktop to your favorite applications, the applications tab itself is not customizable. It’d be neat to be able to rearrange the apps so that the most frequently used are at the top (less scrolling needed).

Thanks to the folks who commented on my MyTouch first impressions post. I’ve have some responses for a lot of the comments:

Mounting/unmounting the SD card

You don’t actually need to manually mount the SD card on the phone once you unmount it. They way you’re saying it gives the impression it’s really complicated (and it’s not). Click once on the phone to mount. Once you’re done, do it again to unmount. The phone should mount the SD automatically.

This is what happens with your T-Mobile MyTouch? That’s not what happens with mine. After I plug it into my computer, it will not automatically mount until I manually unmount it through the phone. And once I eject it from my computer, I have to again manually remount it through the phone in order for the phone to acknowledge the SD card data as accessible.


i have a G1 and there are modded releases of firmware you can install on your phone, at least for the g1. It gives you root access, tethering so you can hook up your wireless devices to use your 3g internet off your phone, and allows for multitouch zoom in the browser (no map though due to a locked down api). just be careful you don’t brick your phone. Do a search for jesusfreke.

I’m probably the only Linux user who isn’t into modding, and I have absolutely no interest in doing anything that may brick my phone. Thanks, though.


Most if not all blackberry’s have flash in the browser. They are not alone in this ability.

I didn’t know that. Since I don’t see any Blackberries with Android, I don’t really regret my purchase.

Default applications

I would add to the gripe-list that you cannot remove some of the apps that came with the phone (ie. Amazon MP3). These things are minor to me, however.

That’s a minor gripe I have now, too, after a few more days of using it. I can understand apps that are essential to the functioning of the phone (the Android operating system, the settings manager), but Amazon MP3? Really?

Flash again

The main reason that flash is largely unsupported is that nobody seems to have an ARM based version of flash on any OS platform right at the moment, save Nokia with their N770/N8×0 web tablets- and it’s pretty old in what it supports (Flash 7…)

Thanks for the explanation. It’s not a really big deal. I don’t even like Flash. It’s just that a lot of websites these days do use Flash heavily.

Turning off keyboard

To get rid of the onscreen keyboard you need merely press the ‘back’ key once.

That’s a great tip. I’m now using that instead of holding down the Menu key. Thanks.

iPhone v. other phones

In my opinion the iPod touch/iPhone unlock is superior to the method on MyTouch simply because the screen for iPod or iPhones are only sensitive to human touch (along with a few other things, but, its a very limited field).

In theory, yes, but in practice I haven’t really experienced any accidentally double-pressings of the Menu key in the past few days. Only time will tell if it’s a real issue or not.

Any touch screen phones are usually bad knock offs of the iPhone.

Fully agree.

This is simply because of cheapness of the cell phone business. The touch screens are never multi touch screens. Most of the touch screens need recalibration after a week or two of use, which is awful because I have a DS which never requires calibration.

I don’t know what recalibration is, but doesn’t the Palm Pre have multi-touch? I don’t have it on my MyTouch phone, but I don’t really miss it. Pinching photos and webpages is definitely one of those “Isn’t this cool?” but not very useful features of the iPhone. I’ve actually found the Android default web browser to be pretty good at fitting webpages to the width of the screen so that zooming in and out isn’t that necessary. And if you double-click the rolly ball, you get a little zoom box you can quickly move up and down the page to a particular section. Not elegant. Very practical, though.

The software on the MyTouch sounds like it definitely needs improvement. USB mount by phone software? Yuck.

In some ways, that’s a good thing. If my main gripes with the phone were hardware-related, there wouldn’t be much I could do besides get a new phone. With Donut and Eclair (the newer versions of Android) around the corner, maybe some of the usability problems in Android will be addressed in future updates.

One more thing: If you wanted an iPhone, why not virtualize Windows XP, install iTunes, and make a USB filter for your iPhone? It’s the way I do it with my iPod Touch. I put my iTunes music library in a shared folder between host and client so Banshee can play anything I purchased and so the VM hdd size does not balloon. Genius? :)

Maybe you didn’t read carefully, but I don’t want Windows. That means no virtualized XP for functionality. No dual-booted XP. No XP. No Vista. No Windows 7. Until iTunes is native in Linux, I’m not going to use a product that relies on iTunes to work.


Not many people seem to care on how easy to unlock an iPhone is. Easy as in “insecure”. To me, swipping a finger left to right and having access to the data stored in a device like this is simply unacceptable (although I think there’s an option to use a numeric pad, too).

Actually, the swiping for the iPhone is not for security. It’s just to prevent you from accidentally dialing a number while it’s in your pocket. You can set up an unlocking pin if you would like. Really, though, I think if your iPhone is stolen, it’s stolen, and a clever thief can get to your data anyway (and is probably mainly after the hardware and not your personal info). I’m a fan of the “Don’t let your phone get stolen” philosophy and not the “Leave my phone around and hope no one takes it since I have a password to guard it” approach.

Smart phones v. dumb phones

So from someone who doesn’t own a smart phone, and isn’t likely to get one for his birthday, what is it about one of any make that makes ownership so great? Is it the fascination of a new toy, being able to impress your friends, or is there something that they do which makes your life significantly better? I would find the answers to those questions really helpful in any future reviews.

Well, first of all, I’ve had a dumb phone for many years. A dumb cell phone can certainly suit all your needs. In fact, some people might even argue you don’t need a cell phone at all… or a phone. With technology it’s usually more about convenience and fun than it is about need. Do I need a car? Actually, I’m fine without it. I take public transportation, and every now and then I rent a car through ZipCar. Do I need a TV? There were about four years I didn’t watch any TV, and I got along in life just fine for those years. Now I watch TV a lot and enjoy many quality (and not-so-quality) shows.

It’s really the same with a smart phone. You don’t need anything the phone has to offer, but sometimes it’s nice. Here are a few things that my wife and I have found handy with her iPhone (and which I will probably find handy with my new MyTouch):

  • Sometimes when you’re out (away from your computer), something will come up in conversation that you’re just curious to look up. It’s not life or death, but if you wait until you get home to look it up, you probably will have forgotten about it completely by then. “Oh, yeah. What movie was that guy in?” “What’s an aprium? Is that like a pluot?”
  • If you’re in a rental car (which those of us who are not car owners sometimes are in), the GPS and turn-by-turn directions you can get on your phone come in handy, especially if you’re driving to some place you’ve never been before.
  • Likewise, if you’re in an unfamiliar area and really want to find a gas station or a place to eat (and read reviews of the restaurant), a smart phone comes in handy.
  • If you’re out at a bus stop, you can check online to see how long you have to wait for the next bus to come.
  • When you’re on vacation, you often bring a camera with you. But when you’re just out on your own or with your friends at some non-event, you don’t always have a camera on you. A smart phone is handy for taken impromptu low-res photos to capture a moment.
  • Visual voicemail is way better than calling up a voicemail service and going through menus to skip, repeat, delete, or save messages.
  • If you’re traveling and don’t want to lug your laptop around or have to find an internet cafe, a smart phone can be handy for checking your email.

There are probably other neat things. Again, nothing pressing or necessary. Just convenience and fun—like most gadgets.


T-Mobile MyTouch 3G First Impressions

Before upgrading from a “dumb phone” to a “smart phone,” I did a lot of online research. I read reviews. I watched YouTube videos. Unfortunately, most online reviews are kind of useless. They’ll say things like “There’s a nifty little switch over here. And you can press this button. That does this. This also does that.” I’m hoping my first-impressions review will be a lot more useful, and I will follow up with a more extensive review after I’ve had a few weeks to really get to know this phone.

Background (narcissistic babble—feel free to skip)
For the past few years, I’ve always had a “dumb” cell phone. It makes calls. It receives calls. It allows me to check voicemail. That’s about it. I’d never understood the need for Blackberries or other “smart” phones. I saw people in expensive business suits using those phones and figured I’d never have use for such a thing.

Then the iPhone happened.

Both my wife and I were very impressed with Steve Jobs’ demonstration of the iPhone. I saw it as revolutionary, even though it had its faults. My wife, a big Apple fan, still waited until at least the the second-generation iPhone came out to get one. Once she got it, though, both of us were impressed.

The whole time she’s been using the iPhone, I’ve been enviously looking on, wanting a smartphone of my own. Unfortunately, since I am a Linux user, and hell will freeze over before Apple makes a Linux port of iTunes, an iPhone is out of the question. And, no, I am not going to dual-boot with Windows to run iTunes. No, I am not going to try to jailbreak the iPhone and then have some update break everything so I can no longer sync with Ubuntu. I want something that just works.

Windows Mobile was out of the question. No more Windows for me, thanks. I got a little bit excited about the Palm Pre, but two things held me back from it. 1) all the reviews said the battery life is terrible and 2) it uses the WebOS, which doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere, unlike Google’s Android, which is far more likely to be installed on more and more phones as the years go by (making its Android Market—the equivalent of the iTunes App Store—increasingly robust).

Like my wife, I don’t like to buy first-generation products. So the T-Mobile G1 was out. But then the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G arrived. Google Android. Second-generation. Linux-friendly (Linux-based, actually). And with my wife complaining about dropped calls with AT&T (American iPhone users have to sign up with AT&T to use a non-jailbroken iPhone), I was ready to give T-Mobile a chance. So I took the plunge. After one day of use, here are my first impressions.

What I don’t like

  • If you’re filling out something, instead of automatically focusing on the text box to fill in, the interface waits for you to manually click on the text box in order to bring up the on-screen keyboard.
  • A few dialogues will give you the option to click Done when you’re done with the on-screen keyboard, but most will have only a Return key to go to the next line. So in order to get the keyboard to go away, you have to hold down the Menu key (a plastic key, not a touchscreen key).
  • Even though there is an onscreen touch keyboard, there are eight hard plastic keys as well. Once you get used to them, they’re fine, but at first they’re a bit confusing, especially what the difference between Menu and Home is. I’ve found the Menu key to be invaluable, no matter what application I’m in. If I’m ever lost, I can press the Menu key and something useful will come up. The search key is completely useless. I have done quite a bit of fiddling in the last day, and I have never used the search key.
  • There is an option to turn off “background data” to save battery life, which is great. Unfortunately, you have to enable it in order to browse the Android Market for new applications. Not awful, but a little annoying. So to browse the Market, I have to turn on Background Data, browse, and then turn Background Data off again.
  • I don’t know why T-Mobile or Google didn’t just include this app as part of the default OS, but there is an app to give you visual voicemail (so you can click to listen to or delete messages instead of going through the menus of a call-in system). Unfortunately, in order to use it, you cannot be connected to a wireless network (unencrypted, WEP, WPA, WPA2). You have to be connected to the regular T-Mobile network only.
  • You have to have a Google email account or sign up for one before you can use the phone. I had one already (which I don’t really use). Still, that’s a ridiculous requirement.
  • There are a lot of times when you’re confronted with a screen and no immediately obvious way to proceed (no submit or enter button, no next or finish button). At first I just got kind of confused and hit the Back plastic key. Eventually, I learned to press Menu to get a contextual menu up, which usually had a useful option. A bit counterintuitive.
  • There’s an automatic playlist (what Apple calls a “smart playlist”) in the music section called “Recently Added.” There does not appear to be a way to add other smart playlists, though (recently played, most frequently played, etc.). You can create new playlists manually, but that’s also not obvious (you have to do a long click on the first song you want in the playlist and then select to add it to a playlist and then select to create a new playlist).
  • There is no official Facebook app, so if you want to do mobile uploads, you have to use third-party upload-to-Facebook apps (which are kind of annoying and don’t always work) or email the photos or videos to the secret upload-to-Facebook email associated with your account.
  • It isn’t obvious how to connect the MyTouch to your computer in order to drag and drop files. I plugged in the USB cord, and it didn’t show up as a removable drive. I checked the output of dmesg | tail in the terminal, and it definitely showed up as being plugged in, but it didn’t show up in sudo fdisk -l even. Eventually, I figured out that you have to go to notifications in the MyTouch and manually dismount (from the MyTouch) the SD card so that it will automatically mount (to your computer). Then after you unmount it from your computer, you also have to manually remount it to the MyTouch.
  • Like the iPhone, the MyTouch will switch from portrait to landscape mode if you rotate the phone, but the animation is not smooth at all. First the screen gets a little blurry, and then it jerkily rotates over. It happens quickly… just not smoothly.

Mixed bag

  • The touchscreen isn’t as sensitive as the iPhone touchscreen. In some ways, this is a good thing. For example, no matter how slim your hands are, the tip of your finger will always be bigger than the onscreen keyboard keys. So when I try to type on the iPhone, I often end up pressing the wrong key (and the autocorrection never works). With the MyTouch, I pretty much never make a typing mistake. On the other hand, I’m not always typing. Sometimes a simple swipe to scroll up or down in a list or on a page will just not register, and I’ll have to swipe again a little harder to get the scroll to actually work.
  • Some reviews I read complained that you can’t just plug a standard headphone into the MyTouch. I can see how that might be annoying, but the MyTouch does come with a USB adapter with a little microphone and play/pause button built into it (and headphones that are half-way decent).
  • There’s no Flash in the web browser. This is makes certain websites non-functional, but the iPhone doesn’t have this either. In fact, I don’t think any smartphone has it. Isn’t this an Adobe issue?

What I like

  • The voice recognition for voice searches is really good. Sure, you can’t mumble. You do have to enunciate. But you don’t have to train it to recognize your voice, and if you do enunciate, usually Android guesses right on what you want to search for. If I’m in a public place, I may feel a bit self-conscious doing voice searches. If I have to do one, though, it’s nice to know that it works, and it’s much quicker than typing using an onscreen keyboard.
  • You can easily delete or move desktop shortcuts by holding them down and dragging them around or to the trash. You can also easily add desktop shortcuts by holding down an empty space and creating a link to an application or even to a browser bookmark.
  • Any song on your phone can easily be made into a ringtone. Just do a long hold on the song, and a context menu will pop up with that option.
  • Apps can be easily installed and removed from your phone.
  • Once you do figure out the whole mounting/unmounting thing, the MyTouch Micro SD card just shows up as removable storage, even in Linux, and you can just drag and drop pictures or music to various folders, and the MyTouch will immediately recognize those once the card is remounted.
  • I like the way the phone unlocks (press the menu key twice) better than the way the iPhone unlocks (press the hard button and then draw a horizontal line with your finger).
  • Web searches seem pretty fast. And Opera Mini is available for free in the Android Market. I’m going to keep both the default browser and Opera around. With Opera, I have it configured not to load images, so when I do text-only searches, it’ll load even faster. With the default browser, I can see websites that do require images.
  • The back button (as a plastic key) is very handy, and it really will bring you back to whatever screen you were last on, regardless of whether you are going from one webpage to the last webpage or from one screen to another screen.
  • I knew ahead of time that Android 1.5 did not support multi-touch (the “pinch” that the iPhone has for photos and webpages to zoom in and zoom out). I thought that missing feature would annoy me, but I haven’t found a lot of situations in which zooming seems necessary. I won’t complain if the 2.0 update includes multi-touch, though.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with it (granted, after only one day). Most of the reviews made it sound as if it’s nothing special (not an iPhone killer, not that much better than the G1). With all the pros and cons I’ve laid out, though, it is still fun and easy to use. It has some counterintuitive or annoying elements, sure. Nevertheless, even after only one day, I’m getting used to those or finding workarounds for them. If American Linux users are looking for a good smartphone that works with Linux, definitely consider the MyTouch 3G.

hp mini Linux

Debian stable(?) on the HP Mini

It’s been a while since I’ve distro-hopped. When I first starting using Linux back in spring 2005, I used Mepis, then Ubuntu. Then I tried about 15 or so other Linux distros and finally settled on Ubuntu again. I’ve been using Ubuntu ever since.

Recently, though, I’ve been getting that itch again, so I’ve tried installing various distros on the 4 GB SD card in my HP Mini.

Arch Linux gets a lot of hype on the Ubuntu Forums, so I thought I’d give that a shot. It isn’t as intimidating as some people make it sound. Yes, the installer doesn’t look pretty, and you have to do some stuff at the command-line, but the defaults in the configuration files are pretty good for most situations. Unfortunately, there was some weird error message when I tried to reboot. When I did some Google searches on the error message, I was told to add various parameters to the kernel line of the Grub entry, but nothing worked. So, Arch didn’t work on the SD card.

Then I tried Simply Mepis. I have to say I was quite surprised that after four years, Mepis is pretty much the same way it was back when I used it in 2005. It even still uses KDE 3 instead of some version of KDE 4. The existence of a wireless setup tool is handy, but it’s a little confusing to actually use. Eventually I did get it working with my Broadcom 4312 card. Unfortunately, once I installed all the pending updates, not only did the wireless card no longer work but all the suspend options disappeared from the power management applet. Nice try, Mepis.

Then I thought I’d give PCLinuxOS a try again. Wouldn’t even boot. I got some kind of BusyBox error message after “burning” it to USB with UNetBootIn and rebooting. Maybe another time, PCLinuxOS.

What about plain old Debian stable (nicknamed Lenny)? Well, when I tried to use the regular .iso through a UNetBootIn’ed USB, I got some error message about the CD-ROM not being detected. I did some considerable searching on this error message, and only a couple of “solutions” showed up in the search results (something about switching to another console and manually mounting the USB drive at /cdrom or /dev/cdroms/cdrom0), but nothing worked. So I went with a minimal net install of Debian, which took forever to install (I’d say something like four hours)—kind of reminded me of a Windows XP installation.

In the middle of trying to configure things, Debian randomly froze up on me. Control-Alt-Delete didn’t work. Control-Alt-Backspace didn’t work. Nothing worked to get out of the freeze. I had to force a shutdown. Once I got it up and running again, I followed the instructions at the Debian wiki for getting Broadcom 4312 working, and it did work… but when I logged in again, it didn’t remember to connect to my preferred network. I had to manually connect and re-enter my password, even though it was listed as a network in the Network Manager connections, and the password was listed in the Gnome Keyring stored passwords.

I experienced random CPU spikes every few minutes and did not always have USB devices automount.

The worst part, though, is that the Debian installer didn’t ask me where to install Grub. It just asked me if I wanted Grub installed, and it overwrote the Ubuntu Grub boot loader, so I couldn’t boot into Ubuntu, and I had to use a Ubuntu live USB to restore Ubuntu’s Grub to the MBR.

And, I also had to UNetBootIn the Ubuntu .iso at work (using Windows), because UNetBootIn won’t install for Debian Lenny, and the old-fashioned method of simply copying the files over and renaming a couple of files left me with a BusyBox error. And I couldn’t just add Ubuntu manually to the Debian Grub menu, because Debian Lenny cannot mount an Ext4 partition, so I wouldn’t have even known what to put in the Grub entry.

So, yeah, I may play around with Debian some more, just because it took so much just to get it installed, but I think I’ll probably be sticking with Ubuntu for another four years. Ubuntu isn’t perfect, but it also doesn’t give me headaches, even when I tried installing it to the SD card instead of the main drive.