My desktop machine, which I (used to) run 24/7, is powered by an Intel i5 CPU and has several harddisks. The power supply is rated for 300W — obviously the machine is mostly idle, but there is a constant power draw, even when idling. I was wondering if I could do something about that, and perhaps downsize. After all, all I’m doing on that machine is a bit of browsing and writing, nothing that requires the power of an i5.
And then I noticed several articles pointing out that the latest model of the Raspberry Pi, the 4B model, which comes with up to 8GB of RAM, should be powerful enough for those kinds of computing needs. It has very modest power needs, so I was intrigued and did some further research.
It turns out that there are quite a few cases for the Pi 4B to turn it into a desktop machine, but not all of those were readily available — chip shortages and the global logistics tangle means that there is little supply. But I found a Dutch webshop that carried the Argon ONE M.2 case, which suits my needs. It’s a neat aerodynamic design with some cool features. Foremost is the support for M2 SSD drives: you can just plug those into a special adapter board that converts the M2 interface to USB3, and a ‘dongle’ hooks it up to the Pi. It’s also convenient that a little extra board converts the Pi 4’s mini HDMI sockets into full-size HDMI ports — saves me from having to buy new cables to hook it up to my monitors. The only drawback is that the micro SD card slot is not accessible within the case, so if you want to swap that out, you need to completely open up the case to do so. But since you want to boot off the SSD, that’s not too much of a problem, since you’ll be using the Pi without any SD card!
The extra power draw of the SSD does mean that you need a larger power supply than the Pi normally needs. Based on this guide I bought a 3.5A power supply to power the whole thing. I had to order from three separate webshops, because none had all the things I needed in stock, but all three packages came in on the same day, so that wasn’t too bad!

It took me a while to set it up, because I kept trying to do something that turned out to not work. In the end, I used this guide from Ubuntu to put Ubuntu on the machine (because it’s what I use on all my machines, so I’m used to its particular quirks). Everything went smoothly, but I just could not get the system on the SD card (which you set up at first run) transferred to the SSD so that the Pi could boot into an Ubuntu instance that had already been set up. I followed a few different guides, but it just didn’t work out.
So I just followed the whole guide (I had already done everything up to and including ‘USB Boot’), and just downloaded the Pi Imager onto the SD card and imaged the Ubuntu Pi image onto the SSD. Then remove the SD card, and boot into the now pristine Ubuntu install on the SSD. Yes, you have to set up everything twice, but it’s not that bad — certainly faster than spending two evenings on procedures that turned out to not work!

The machine is kind of underpowered: if you visit heavy websites, it takes a while for the page to load, and multitasking is not that fast. But writing this post is fine: it’s just me typing into a web form, after all — and that’s not a heavy draw on computing power. I now have a full desktop machine (with two screens!) running on under 17W — that’s pretty good. The case itself gets toasty, as it acts as a heatsink, but it’s not that bad.
One drawback that I have discovered is that some applications are not available for the architecture of the Pi — PCs and laptops use the amd64 architecture, but the Pi uses an ARM chip. That’s not a big problem if the source of the application is available — then you’d just recompile it for the ARM platform. But if that package is provided on a closed-source basis, then you’re out of luck if there is no package for ARM available. For me, the big one in that category is the Discord desktop app — usually I use Discord through a browser tab, but when I’m playing an RPG over Discord, then I want push-to-talk available — and you need the desktop app for that. So for RPG sessions I see myself turning on the ‘old’ desktop for the foreseeable future…

Little laptop

Most of the stuff I do on a computer can be done in Firefox: mail, twitter, discord, etc. But my machine is in our office (it’s a proper dual-screen desktop setup), so I spend a lot of time there. I do have a laptop that I could use on the couch, but it’s a second-hand one, and the touchpad doesn’t work, and sometimes the power button doesn’t work either and you have to put it on its docking station just to turn it on.
Far from ideal, and what it comes down to is that I don’t use the laptop that much. But I do would like to do light browsing stuff on the couch. I also have a 7″ tablet, and while that’s fine, it’s not ideal for actually typing a reply.
In the early days, I owned an Asus eee laptop, a 10″ thing that was too slow and ran too hot to be truly convenient. But with the modern more efficient processors and SSDs, smaller laptops are once again viable alternatives for larger systems.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the market for those. Most of those are Chromebooks, running a special Linux distro from Google that basically ties you into their ecosystem. The hardware is cool, but the OS not so much — but of course you can install Ubuntu on Chromebooks…
Then I saw the Lenovo Yogabook 300e: a laptop with a screen just under 12″ with touchscreen (with a pen included). The screen can even be folded onto the base of the laptop, and one review I read mentioned a free M2 slot for an extra SSD. And it’s certainly reasonably priced… So I got one.

They come with Windows 10 S installed on the 32GB SSD, but after booting once to check that it worked, mine is already running Ubuntu. 🙂
I tend not to not use the trackpad (I can touch the screen after all), and the keyboard is a nice chicklet keyboard, which I actually prefer. I don’t see any obvious expansion slots, so I think I’d have to open up the whole bottom of the machine to get to the reported M2 slot, but there’s still 60% space left on the 32GB internal SSD, so it seems like I could do without after all. And there’s a slot for the micro-SD card, so if I want to access/store a lot of media, I can always use that.
Folding the screen is a bit weird, because the keyboard is exposed if you use it like that. And it’s not convenient to hold the thing like that, because you’re constantly pressing keys. There is a function key to block the keyboard, but still I don’t think I will use it a lot like that.

I’m pretty pleased with it! Small enough to take with you, but also with a keyboard so it’s convenient to type mails or replies.

CPU upgrade

I had an AMD A8 in my desktop, one of the AMD APUs which have a CPU and a nifty graphics card built in the same package. Our media computer is an A10, and that is good enough to play quite some games on. Good price-quality ratio, so why not?
However, AMD has decided to stop developing their closed-source Linux drivers (I run Ubuntu on my desktop), and switch their attention to the open-source drivers. I’m all for that: given the choice, I’d rather have good working open-source drivers. But unfortunately, the open source drivers are not at the level that the closed-source drivers are…
This meant that I got all sorts of problems. I had to boot into an older kernel to prevent endless reboot loops, and that gave all sorts of other problems too. Then one day after an update, I got standard VGA resolution, and that was the straw. I decided to switch to an Intel processor — they have a graphics card built in too, but it’s much more anemic than AMD’s. That’s not a problem for me: I’m not playing graphics-intensive games on my desktop anyway.
I did some research. Obviously switching to a CPU from a different manufacturer means a different CPU socket and thus a new motherboard. For my budget, I could get a newer i3 or a slightly older i5. I haven’t really kept up to date with CPUs, so I didn’t really know which would be the best option. In the end, I decided to go for the i5, because that would allow me to transplant my existing RAM from the A8 motherboard to the new, i5 one.

I ordered the stuff, put it together, put it in my desktop and booted. Beforehand I had made an offline backup of my home directory, expecting to have to re-install the whole system. But Ubuntu detected the hardware change, directed me to the BIOS (where I went to set up the system), and then when I tried to boot again — it all just worked, no re-install necessary.

So now things like VirtualBox work, so I can run virtual machines on my desktop too — I have some Windows-only software that I would otherwise need to use klik‘s laptop for. Now that’s not needed anymore. And things have been running very smoothly. I am very pleased.

Accidental wipe

Recently, my system has become unstable. I have an AMD A8 APU and run Ubuntu — it has served me well for years. But after switching to 16.10, a kernel update puts the system in an endless reboot loop so I have to switch back to an earlier kernel. And then an update prevented Ubuntu from recognising the integrated videocard (which is probably also the source of the instability) and I got bumped to basic VGA resolutions.
I got sick of it, so I downloaded the install disc for 16.10, booted up the installation procedure and asked to repair the installation. That didn’t work — still problems. So I made a copy of my home directory on my second harddrive, started the installation procedure and instructed to wipe the existing install and re-install. There was a message that you’d lose everything — but I didn’t care, because I had made a copy of my homedir on the second harddisc, right?

Turns out that “wipe” also means “wipe every disc that’s part of the installation, regardless of whether there are installation files on there or not”. Which means my backup got wiped as well. It’s intensely stupid, but that should teach me to make offline backups.

And I still have problems (though the video aspect seems to be solved, but I still get kernel updates that send the system in a reboot loop). I am seriously considering moving towards an Intel chip to get rid of these problems.

Since my last post, not much post-worthy happened. We’ve been working on the reception album for luna_puella and J.’s wedding — obviously we’re not posting pics of that until after the event! And now we’re busy with doing the same for colleague J.’s wedding, which is in two weeks. (I might post pics of that in a friends-locked entry, because none of my LJ-friends is going to be there.)

Other than that, I’ve had random crashes on my desktop, which is pretty frustrating. At first I thought I had installed some dodgy package which destabilised the whole Ubuntu install, but even trying to re-install from USB-stick gave immediate problems. I’ve run memtest86 twice now, and that crapped out on me too — so my current hypothesis is that it’s the memory module that has succumbed to bit-rot. (Even blowing the dust out of the case didn’t help!)
So I’ll try to pop into a computer store today to get a new memory module — by now, my desktop is considered old, and the memory hardly costs anything anymore. I hope that will fix it…

Nerdgasm

Linux.fm is an online radio station that transmits the Linux source code.

Not in binary form, but the source-code! They run it through an open source text-to-speech synthesizer and transmit the resulting sound file. So if you’re quick on the keyboard, you can type along with the radio!

Spotify for Linux!

I’ve been running Spotify under Wine on Calcifer, and that works pretty well. But a native Linux client is better, of course. Seems like the Spotify folks have decided to start crackin’. The ‘preview’ (which is, as far as I can determine, fully functional) can be found here. They’ve even made a Debian/Ubuntu package repository, so the client will (theoretically) update itself too.

Keep on rocking, Spotify!

PDFbook

One of the coolest features of OpenOffice.org Writer is the so-called ‘Brochure’ printing option. That will put two pages on each side of a sheet of paper, in the correct order to make a signature: if you make a stack of the sheets and fold them in half, you have a ‘booklet’ that is fit for brochure binding. However, that printing option makes only a single signature — so it works for documents upto 20 pages. That’s five sheets, and that’s about the maximum size of signatures with 80 grams printing paper. And most documents are distributed as PDF anyway…
So, suppose you have a PDF (either something you created yourself from your own document, or for instance an RPG you bought from RPGNow or a PDF with all the MERP modules you torrented from somewhere) and you want to create a book from it — what do you do?

Why, you just run this script!

Flash on Ubuntu is a well-known problem area. Yes, Adobe does have a Flash-plugin for Linux, but I (and many others) have still been experiencing a lot of problems with Flash on our favourite OS. I have been getting random Firefox crashes ever since I installed a fresh copy of 10.04 on Calcifer after the harddisk crash. And with the update to Firefox 3.6.6 that was installed today, every Flash instance crashed — this time not taking the browser with it, but not working either.

FLASH-AID is a Firefox add-on that fixed it for me. No more crashes, just working Flash. Good stuff!