Monday, March 24, 2008

XO Laptop

My XO laptop arrived in the mail recently and it is quite an amazing little machine. Conclusion up front: I'm extremely satisfied with it and in some ways this laptop computer is better than ones that sell for ten times the price.

You might recall from a previous post that I had downloaded the XO's operating system and taken it for a test drive in an emulator. Now I have the real thing in front of me, and it's safe to say that it is even better. After all, some of the most innovative features of this computer are in the hardware. My favorite feature is the screen. It is viewable in direct sunlight which makes it usable outdoors. Second up would be the wireless networking. The graphical network selector is fun to use and the connection tends to be more reliable than any of the other computers I've used with my home wireless router. The battery life is also impressive, easily five hours on a charge of its small battery. It even has a built-in camera and microphone.

It runs all of the software I need too. I used the instructions I wrote up when I installed firefox on the emulated operating system. Everything went smoothly and I was browsing the web using firefox in a few minutes (The XO laptop comes with a perfectly good web browser, but I wanted to use my favorite plugins and have more control over downloads).

I'm quite taken with the little machine. I've been using it as my primary computer at home, using it for all of the tasks I normally do (mostly browsing the web and programming). There are a couple of things that I would change if I had the chance. The first is the keyboard. It is an interesting design, made of a flexible rubber-like substance, and it works much better than other flexible keyboard that I've tried, but it took a while to get used to the shift key (I have to press in the corner of the key). The other difficulty is presented by the slower processor, but it doesn't get in my way most of the time. The only time I notice any slowness is when playing flash videos (like on YouTube). Perhaps part of the problem is flash for Linux, but I'm not sure. In any case, I don't really mind as I don't watch that much video, and if I want to, I have other computers that I can use.

It will probably come as no surprise that I wrote this post using the little green computer. I'm saddened by the end of the "give one get one" program, as I think there is still the opportunity for more people to donate and receive their own XO. If anyone is interested, it might be possible to order a batch of one hundred or more through the "give many" program.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Andy and I started work on a simple little open source project for tracking tasks; it's called busylist. We wanted to experiment with Ajax, Python, and web service APIs, so we whipped up a basic system in a few hours. There is still quite a bit of work to be done, but it has been a great learning experience so far. An extremely alpha test version is available in subversion along with some instructions on the project's wiki pages. If you're interested, feel free to check it out (pun intended) and contribute if you like. It is an open source project after all.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

(Portable) Ubuntu for Programmers

I've been trying over the past several weeks to find the best fit for Linux on a USB pen drive so that I can boot into my own operating system and get to my files no matter which computer I'm using. As you might notice from my other posts, I tend to spend quite a bit of my computer time in programming and browsing the Web, so the things I'm most interested in are a web browser (Firefox), support for wireless cards in several computers, and a variety of command line programming tools (gcc, python, vim, etc.). It should be possible to take one of the standard Linux distributions and install it on a USB drive (provided the drive is large enough), but I wanted to use a one gigabyte drive that I had, and with my simple needs I should really be able to get all of the necessities in under one gig. Along the way I've tried Puppy Linux, Slax, Feather Linux, DSL, and others, but I decided in the end to roll my own solution based on Ubuntu.

I'm a big fan of Ubuntu, but the standard desktop install is far too large for installation on a one gig drive. For a while I was using the live CD booting from a pen drive with a partition for my files. I used the instructions I found on Pen Drive Linux to set up the pen drive with the image from the live CD (only 750 megabytes). The only problem with this set-up was that all of my files were in a seperate partition and my home directory was wiped out each time. Since many Linux programs store settings in your home directory, this turned out to be a bit incovenient. I tried a few different options, but finally decided to go with a stripped down Ubunutu foundation and add the things I wanted.

I began with Ubuntu Server 7.10 and installed it on my USB drive using some of the recommendations in the installation instructions for low memory systems. During the installation process I selected guided partioning and I did not choose to install any of the software configurations in the "software to install" menu. After installing, I rebooted and added the following packages using sudo apt-get install:
lynx (optional)
screen (optional)
gcc (optional)
If you are using a laptop, you will likely want to install the following modules:
With the above installed you can check the battery's charge, remaining time, etc. by running acpi on the command line. For the graphical desktop window manager, I chose iceWM. I installed it by adding:
In the past I've worked quite a bit with Fluxbox as a window manager, but it seems like iceWM is easier to configure, especially under Ubuntu. The liQuid theme looks quite nice.

This set up boots into a text only command line mode because it is based on Ubuntu Server, to enter graphics mode, you simply run startx. I connected to my wireless network using wpa_supplicant and running iwconfig.

One of the benefits of working on a lightweight system on a flash drive is the bootup speed. In twenty seconds the computer boots from a cold start, connects to my wireless network, and enters the graphical desktop. I'm quite happy with my little portable operating system, and you probably won't be suprised to hear that I wrote this post using it.