Thursday, 27 March 2008

My new laptop - Acer Aspire 4315 Review

I needed a simple, cheap laptop that I could take to university so that I could work on stuff there and not have to hope and pray that there'll be enough working computers for me when I get to university.

The Requirements
The requirements for my laptop weren't great. All it had to do was have WiFi (802.11 b/g) and be powerful enough to run a simple development web server (LAMP). The other requirement and the most important one was that it had to be cheap. After looking on the Laptop section of PriceSpy I came upon the Acer 4315 going for $699NZD (plus a $99 cash back offer from Acer) which was the same price as the Asus EEE (after the cash back). The laptop came preloaded with Ubuntu 7.10, which was great for me, since I probably would have installed it anyway. So it was a tough decision, whether to go for extreme portability and just a really cool little gadget or to go for a rather standard (if a little old laptop).

I made up my mind when Dick Smith had a computer sale and discounted their laptops by 10% lowering the before cashback price of the Acer to $630NZD. So one Saturday I went down to the store and brought it home.

You get what you paid for
For $630 you don't get a laptop bag or any other extras. Just the laptop and the power cord. Although the salesman offered a upgrade package including more ram, a bag and something else (usb mouse??) for $99 which i declined. Other than the laptop and the power cord there was also the warranty booklet from Acer, a pamphlet on how to put in the battery and turn on the laptop and two instructional bits of paper.

Two bits of paper
The first piece of paper starts off by thanking you on purchasing the computer loaded with Ubuntu, followed by a blurb about linux and Ubuntu in general that sounds like it came from the Ubuntu marketing department.

Near the bottm of the page a section titled "Some system limitations" informs the users that the E key, Wireless key, modem and microphone are all disabled "due to limitations of Linux". (The E key I'm guessing launches some kind of Acer software package that came with the laptop and the wireless key enables/disables the wireless card). It would have been more accurate of Acer to say that the E key is disabled because their developers put out software only designed to run on Windows. The wireless key does work, but in an interesting way. When connected and you push the wireless button it will disable the wireless card, but in such a way that the network manager app doesn't know that the device has been shut down, so the interface is still active and it tries to connect, but ends up failing. Pressing the wireless button again and telling the network manager to connect to the network again seems to work for me. The microphone doesn't work at all. The modem I haven't tried, but I don't really need an analog modem with my laptop anyway.

The other side of the first bit of paper tells you how to set up an account once the computer is turned on. It basically consists of selecting your language, time zone, keyboard layout and your name, username and password. It also tells you how to create a regular user account once you log in.

The second bit of paper tells you how to connect to a wireless network on one side and on the other it gives a detailed list of how to install the automatix dvd and playback codecs.

About the Ubuntu installation
  • The laptop came with Ubuntu Gutsy 7.10 32-bit installed
  • The main partition is ext2, not the usual ext3. Leading to a faster system, albeit a less secure one for your data. (ext2 does not have journaling)
  • The swap partition is not encased in a linux extended partition but is directly mapped onto the hard drive and has a size of ~4GB
  • The computer name is set to ASUS
  • The Atheros wireless driver is enabled from first boot

The Cashback
In order to get the cash back offer it turns out you have to go to acer's website and register which model you bought, where and when. Registering was easy, but on the website the folks at Acer try to get you to abandon your cash back offer and instead use the money to buy their extended warranty, with the website claiming that the average laptop service costs $328. I just skipped this part and asked for the money. It turns out that in order to get your cashback you have to send in the barcode from the box the laptop came in, along with your receipt to an address in Australia, within 30 days or no deal. Not to mention the fact that if you don't register on the website within 14 days of your purchase you can also forget it. But the best part is in their terms when they say to allow up to 8 weeks after they receive the request to receive the cash. Seems like a bit of a double standard to me, them giving you only 4 weeks to send your barcode and receipt in, but allowing themselves up to 8 weeks to send you your money. So it seems it'll be sometime in June when I get my money back, a nice little birthday present for me :)

Issues I have with the laptop
  • microphone doesn't work
  • suspend doesn't work
  • specialised buttons on side don't work (wireless button works but not fully)
  • screen flickers when plugging/unnplugging the power cord
  • to disable the touchpad while writing you have to press the 'function' button and one of the F keys.
  • the latch at the front makes it sometimes tricky to open the laptop, requiring you to use your nail. But I do like having a latch.
All in all, I'm quite pleased with my first laptop. I wanted something basic for a bargain price and I found it. The lack of a microphone is a shame, but I can't remember the last time I used a microphone anyway and the lack of suspend was to be expected. I have yet to install the webserver software so it'll be interesting to see how well it runs. I'm also liking the rough plastic finish on the outside of the laptop, it gives it quite a solid look. The mousepad also feels quite good, compared to some other laptops I've had a go with. Another good point is the fast boot time, which feels even faster than my desktop computer. This is most likely due to the decision to use the 32-bit version of Ubuntu and to use the ext2 file system as opposed to the slower ext3.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Ebooks online

For christmas this year i got a Sony Reader. To make full use of this I am trying to compile a list of the best sites on the internet to download ebooks for free.

Project Gutenberg - Offers an archive of classical (and therefore copyright expired books)

A list of online archives
- A list much like this one, detailing where to get free ebooks on the internet.
- Torrent book tracker. Mostly copyrighted material.

Planet eBook - Another site like Project Gutenberg, offering free downloads of classic, copyright expired works. - A site that's a mix of material. Lots of places to go to find resources.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Bookmark overload

I just updated my links section of the blog. As you can see it is now huge. The story behind this is that I'm trying to clear out my bookmarks in firefox and I thought the best way to do so would be to post the links on my website and then have a post for each site (or several sites) explaining what the site is about and if it's any good. So hopefully more to come later.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

So there's only web development...

So, after talking to a friend of mine he came up with a statement that I believe sums up the New Zealand IT industry pretty well. "Its all web development". The industry here contains a few large companies, which hire some CS/SE graduates, but the vast majority will find themselves after university working on some aspect of developing essentially web pages.

For someone who doesn't particularly enjoy web development, this is a rather bitter pill to swallow, learning that if you want to work in any other aspect of IT, you should probably move to Australia/UK/America.

What's even more disappointing is that during my 5 and a half years at university, there was hardly any emphasis placed on web development. I think in total there were 2 courses that dealt with any kind of web development. This leaves a large gap in my education, as people that are hiring are looking for experience with CSS, Javascript, AJAX, technologies which the university does not teach at all, and PHP/ASP.NET, MySQL/MSSQL which the university does a poor job of teaching. In fact looking at the curriculum the only thing that the Computer Science degree seems to prepare you for is more Computer Science.

So anyway... It's no use bitching about the past now. If I'm doomed to become a web developer then I might as well become the best fucking web developer this side of the equator. But this is going to involve a lot of learning. The type of learning I dread and generally avoid. Learning by yourself, in your own spare time. Having to force yourself to read another chapter after coming home from work tired and worn out from your shitty job. The really hard kind of learning... fuck.

But I do in fact have a plan. And having a plan keeps me from having a total nervous breakdown, something which I've been really close to this last month.

My plan essentially involves learning everything about web technology, from the ground up, from setting up a LAMP server to AJAX. This is an ambitious goal for me, one which might take over a year or more to complete as I don't know how much time I will be able to commit to my "2nd education". But I do know roughly what it will involve.

Step 1: Wiring up my house. That is to say put in ethernet cables connecting the bedrooms of the house, the living room and the garage. This will allow me to put my de facto webserver (old HP pentium 4 my girlfriend was going to throw out) into the garage and to have it running full time. This computer is a mixture of web server and storage server (after adding a 320GB HDD) and will serve files to the internet and to the different devices around the house (in the future I could have a separate machine as a file server and a webserver) This should also give me experience on how to set up a network for a SOHO (Small Office Home Office).

Step 2: Domain Name. Opening an account with a dynamic dns provider and setting up a domain name. Probably going to use as it seems to be quite popular.

Step 3: Learning about webservers, file servers, ssh servers, nfs servers, ftp servers, proxies etc... Because I want my web/storage server to be universally accessible it needs to be able to serve files across a wide range of protocols. For each of the types of server I need to
  1. Install the software
  2. Configure the software i.e. get it to do what I want securely
Luckily I have found a resource that deals with these issues and a lot more. The resource being The website is well written, easy to read and up to date. It's also free.

[NOTE: I should mention now that I intend to use only OSS software as a part of this education, for reasons which I will probably write about later]

Step 4: Install software for the management of my server. This includes things like Webmin, MySQL Administrator, PHPMyAdmin and perhaps some software to configure Apache (is there a decent GUI frontend for Apache or does it come down to editing config files?)

Step 5: Installing existing CMSs' and understanding how they work. Looking at software such as Joomla!, Drupal, Wordpress, Blogger (is the blogger source code available?), Silverstripe (Go NZ!) etc... and looking at how they are made, paying particular attention to how they handle extensibility (add-ons, extensions) and theming. However for the basic ideas on how to create a CMS I'll probably start with It should be interesting to see how much difference in the designs of these CMSs' there is and the benefits/disadvantages of each approach.

Step 6: Learn Cascading Style Sheets. I have a real love/hate relationship with CSS. That is to say I f***ing hate CSS. As far as I'm concerned, CSS is a great idea (separation of content and presentation), implemented in a totally illogical, counter-intuitive, overly complex way. But to be fair, that's what I thought of a lot of programming languages I learned until I "got" them. So maybe sometime in the future I will really love CSS, but I wouldn't bet money on it. I'm probably gonna go with the tutorials from W3Schools or failing that get a book from the university library on CSS.

Step 7: Learn Javascript. Again, I feel like I'm 10 years behind the learning curve with this one, but thanks to university (and my own lack of interest in web development) this is another area which I have hardly any experience with. With this one I'm gonna follow the W3Schools tutorials and if needed get a book from the uni library.

Step 8: Learn XHTML. Another one from W3Schools. Basically need to learn along with Javascript to be able to understand AJAX in step 9.

Step 9: Learn AJAX. Start with W3Schools tutorial on AJAX, then can move on to other examples on the internet. There's so many on the web that the biggest problem learning is going to be information overload. A book might be useful as well.

So then the question arises as to what to do with all of this new web development knowledge and the server sitting in my garage. The thing to do I guess would be to make a website to showcase my talents which could be a point of reference for people seeking examples of my skills/knowledge.

Also the idea of creating a photo gallery CMS based on the work I did with LaPhotographie is an idea I've had for a while. Such a system would, of course be open source and perhaps some day take off and become more than a pet project.

And the possibility of turning the setup in my garage into a web hosting company is there as well.

So there you go, that's my plan. It helps me to keep busy and ignore the fact that I'll probably end up doing web development for a long, long time.