Alternative Power – Grow your own Deisel

I’m always interested when some new form of wind or solar power comes out – and this caught my eye recently.

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Peter Scargill’s Favourite Freeware and the Firefox Fix

I don’t normally go out of my way to review software or point people do it but there are a couple of programs that are just SO useful – I thought I’d let you in on them.

The first is UNLOCKER – it has no interface and you may think it’s a waste of time – but I love it.  How often have you been messing around with EXPLORE, deleting stuff when all of a sudden you get “cannot delete file” – or “another program is using this file” or similar- and you end up having to reboot just to get rid of the file?  No more – this program solves the problem without any fuss.

Slightly more visible is FASTSTONE image viewer. This is a simple image viewer on the surface of it – it’s fast, WAY better than that daft Microsoft viewer and under the hood does a LOT more. I’ve always been an admirer of IRFANVIEW and for years stuck with that for viewing images – until I came across Faststone. The difference? Right-clicking the image not only gives you a load of info on the image – but there’s an edit option which allows you to simple change the contrast, resize etc VERY easily. This then is my viewer of choice.

Am I using CHROME? No. at this point (September 2008) I don’t even think it’s in the same league as Firefox 3. The add-ons available for Firefox in my opinion put it in a league of it’s own. HAVING SAID THAT… the only problem I’ve had up to now with Firefox is loadup speed. It can take ages – but now there’s a fix… I just downloaded FIREFOX PRELOADER from Sourceforge and it has sorted the problem!

Linux Hogwash

I’ve written on the subject of Linux on several occasions and every time I get the anti-Microsoft squad pretending this is still the McCarthy era and issuing death threats. I’ve been quiet on the subject for a while and thought it was about time I came back into the fight.

Why now? Well, I like to try the latest offerings in open source software from time to time just to keep my hand in -only a fool makes his or her mind up about software once and for all as the field is changing by the day. The question is – is Linux up to the job yet? Except that it’s no longer a simple question. The REAL question is – WHAT is Linux good for?

Linux for the Desktop/Laptop?

The current buzzword in the industry appears to be UBUNTU and so I grabbed the latest ISO file for the workstation version from their website.

As it happens I’ve a spare laptop that I was considering re-loading with Windows and thought as there was no rush that I’d give Ubuntu a try. After blowing a CD I took the plunge, put the CD into the laptop – and pressed reset.

Ubuntu has a fabulous feature in that you can try it off the CD WITHOUT ruining your current Windows installation – so I tried that and although it ran like a dog – it worked – so I took the plunge and rebooted.

About an hour later, with no manual tweaking, certainly no IT expertise required and only a few button pushes when asked to update, I had a working Ubuntu laptop. Hats off to these guys, the wireless (and wired) networking worked, the screen resolution immediately adopted the native resolution of the screen itself – and the sound worked – right out of the box.

One of my favourite communications tools is SKYPE and so I went off looking for an installation package for this – the one I found recommended no longer exists so I went straight to the SKYPE website – and sure enough – support for Ubuntu. Well, yes and no.

On the Windows platform, we’re currently sitting at version 3.8 or so for Skype with advanced support for hi-resolution cameras – which I use – some of the guys have the new Logitech ball camera which handles reasonable resolution and Skype supports that… erm, but apparently not the Linux version. In fact, the Ubuntu Skype combination DOES support cameras – just not mine – the Creative Live Motion. Either Google is lying or a working driver is just not out there.

Of course you could say “try something else” – but the fact is that Skype is the world’s most popular voip application and so you can’t say to everyone “I’ve a new computer, will you please all change your voip app” – it’s not going to happen. I did try logging onto a spare account on the Ubuntu machine and then calling it from my computer – with camera on – and I have to say it handled the incoming video brilliantly, though it is noticeable that SKYPE on my main machine does NOT show the account on the Ubuntu machine as being active and no amount of tweaking would make that happen.

I use Exchange mail and I wondered how well that would work. Well, it doesn’t. The mail package EVOLUTION that comes with Ubuntu may well work with pop3 accounts but it seemed only marginally happy with an unsecured Exchange 2003 server and point blank refused to talk to a secure Exchange 2007 server.

No problem I thought – I’ll use the excellent webmail that comes with Exchange. Well, NO, because Microsoft recently pulled a flanker on this – with their new Exchange 2007 server they ONLY support full operation with Internet Explorer – and so excellent though it is, the latest Firefox 3 that comes with Ubuntu (or Windows for that matter) will NOT, no matter what you do, give you any more than a crude subset of Exchange facilities – also, the preview window doesn’t appear and any thoughts of getting into your corporate public folders – well, just forget it.

The point of this is – it was ALMOST THERE. I was seriously considering trying a trip to Spain WITHOUT my rather large Microsoft-based laptop – an experiment, if you like, to see if I could conduct a few weeks of serious work and play without relying on Microsoft… and I have to report “not yet”. Granted the Exchange issues are caused by Microsoft – but the camera – when I plugged the camera into the Ubuntu installation – absolutely nothing happened.

There is no doubt that things are changing – there was a time when this sort of “out of the box functionality” was unheard of in Linux – at least now you can get a working solution without being a geek… but it’s all relative – I’m used to plugging in a camera and it working – I’m used to my Exchange mail (and I’ve never come across anything better or even close). My camera was expensive and I’m not ditching that so where does that leave me?

I’ll struggle with this for just a little longer…. there’s no way Ubuntu has the panache of Vista (or even compares – lets not get carried away, neither does it cost anything) but up to now one thing that does come to my attention is that this laptop running Ubuntu is quite fast by comparison to how it used to run under Windows (it only has 512 meg of RAM). It may be that if nothing else here’s a means of giving old laptops a new lease of life?

Linux for the Palmtop?

This is a very different kettle of fish. Having recently purchased a Nokia N800 – there is a version of Linux that runs on the N800 and this is superb. The cost of the unit is way below any “equivalent” with Windows attached – not that there is yet a real equivalent of the N800/N810 machines. Coupled with a Nokia phone (see later item about Orange broadband) and a pocket GPS the N800 running Linux becomes all things to all people – camera (though not a good one), movie player, music player, Skype phone, web browser, map application- the ONLY thing once again that it does not do is Exchange mail – and when someone cracks THAT, they’ll get my money in a heartbeat. The N800, fully updated with the latest (free) software is a cracking device and I have to say if someone asked me to spend another £100 to get a Windows Mobile version – I’d have to question whether it was worth the move.

Update August 2008: As far as I can tell, development for the N800 has all but died. No sign of any SKYPE VIDEO and updates of other software are few and far between. New laptops from Asus and others feature Linux with Skype – but again, no sign of video. It appears for now at least that if you want the latest tools – you still have to stick with Windows.

Update September 2008:

Although I still think the N800 is the bees-knees, development really does seem to have come to a halt, presumeably because of the large numbers of small, cheap laptops coming onto the market. My N800 is therefore on Ebay – I’m not one for simply using tools – I like to constantly improve them.  With that in mind I went looking at PC World at their range of small laptops – their pricing for once is not that bad. The new ASUS and similar units present a whole new way to look at laptops as they’re very small and easy to carry around, though not pocket-sized (one of the advantages of the N800).  But it’s a minefield – firstly in hardware, there are a number of them which use FLASH memory only – and others (slightly heavier) with hard drives ranging from 20gig to 80gig. Then there are the software variations – some run Linux, others run Windows XP.  So – are they any good? 

I checked the Linux options and although they all have cameras I suspect they have the same issue for SKYPE as the N800 – Skype don’t seem that interested in getting video running on Linux – as for video – well, there’s no way the fellows at PC World would be able to confirm whether or not for example VLC would run on the Linux units whereas it’s a done deal that it’ll work on Linux.  The machines started at around £200 but in the middle I noticed one that not only sported an 80gig hard drive but also ran XP.  There was a model further up which also had Bluetooth but I figured a bluetooth dongle costs pennies so didn’t factor that in.  

I took the plunge and bought the ASUS Eee PC – in Black (white looks great but wait till they keyboard gets dirty). On getting it home the FIRST thing I did was to stick AVG on it and a couple of other useful tools – including Vistamizer – it doesn’t to anything useful other than change XP to look like Vista – and why not. In minimal installation there is no slow-down. I’m avoiding putting the flul OFFICE package on it as no doubt it’ll slow things down – and it does come with STAR office anyway, but I’m going to have to take the plunge and fit Outlook as I just can’t manage without it.

So, the battle of Linux versus Windows once again I find that XP wins the day for me.