Category: Hardware

Pebble Is Dead – What Now?

The last we all heard of Pebble, they had funded a successful KickStarter campaign to get the new version of their smartwatches out. They had the Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, Pebble Round 2 in the pipeline. I was waiting for my Pebble Time 2 to arrive any second – the Pebble 2 had already been shipped.

Yesterday, I received not one but three updates. As Pebble put it, “due to various factors […] Pebble is no longer able to operate as an independent entity.” So they shut down operations. While Pebble gear is still available on Amazon and other sites, Pebble itself is not selling any more inventory, nor updating their products. Software is not going to be updated, either, and after a while the Pebble app is going to die, when the first OS incompatibility hits, best guess about a year from now.

What happened? Fitbit apparently agreed to buy out the developers, and not much else. Refunds are being processed: they were supposed to be done by March of 2017, but now they are saying December 16. That probably means a cash infusion from Fitbit before the deal can get fully consummated.

I cannot tell from the release what the driving force behind this decision was. Likely culprits:

  • The smartwatch segment is growing much more slowly than expected; even Apple admits it sells only about 2 million units a quarter, which completely crimped the market
  • There may have been problems developing the new models; in particular, the timing of the pledges required Pebble to get shipped units out by the end of the year. Maybe it was the impending deadline and the realization there were problems with the new devices that could not be addressed in a reasonable amount of time
  • As usual in the USA, a lawsuit may have prompted this; wearable devices have a way of causing skin rashes and similar ailments, and the Pebble is definitely not immune to that. Heck, even I developed more than one wrist rash after not taking off the watch for more than a day. This might explain why the blog article is adamant about the fact that only “certain assets” of Pebble were bought, pre-empting a lawsuit against the acquirer
  • There may have been some personal event going on, like a dissatisfied CEO or the like. 


Ubuntu on an ASUS Chromebook Flip

Ah, yes, my glamorous life of jet-setting and international travel! OK, so I barely managed to fly out to ski resorts this year, and instead of flying first class, business class, or any class at all, I had to make do with budget airlines and seats so cramped, my knees routinely touch the seat in front of me. Particularly annoying when you have a six-year-old in front of you who is bored to the point of kicking the chair during the entire trip.

The other thing that the cramped seats won’t allow is typing on a full-size computer. There is simply no room, between the seat’s angle and the tiny, half-size tray table. Which, incidentally, wouldn’t fit a tray, either. Someone should sue budget airlines on their misuse of the word, tray table!

I can’t fix airline seats, I won’t want to afford expensive tickets, so I am left with two options: (a) not type while flying, and (b) get a small computer. Of course, I can also do both and get a small computer and not use it.

I researched for a while. What I wanted was something that I would use only while traveling and not as a primary computer. That meant it had to be economical. It also had to be lightweight (obviously) and sturdy (obviously). It needed to have a decent keyboard on which I would want to type for hours, and it had to run all the software I wanted to run even when disconnected.

I ended up with one logical choice for the hardware: a 10″ tablet or Chromebook. I would buy a keyboard for the tablet and make do, or take the Chromebook as is.


DYMO LabelWriter 4XL on Ubuntu

Call me a freak: I don’t like writing on envelopes. I dislike the way it feels when you push on an envelope already stuffed and sealed, I don’t like making a mistake and having to unseal and restuff. And let’s not even talk about the days when you have to send out a bunch of mailers – thankfully that’s become less common these days.

So I got myself a Brother label printer. It’s one of those dual purpose printers you can use to label, say, an envelope, but you can also print the address on an envelope. The problem: I had to enter every single label by hand, print it, and then go on to the next one.

There was a USB connection, and there was software that allowed you to print to the label printer. But of course it ran only under Windows. I could have used Wine… Wait, no: I used Wine to make it print, but it crashed consistently, like a great many hardware-dependent software does in an emulation.

Enters Woot, that had a phenomenal sale on one of the top model label printers, the DYMO LabelWriter 4XL. Where 4XL stands for 4 (their top series of personal label printers) and XL (as in the size of labels that thing can print – which also happens to be 4″).

I had already researched enough to know that DYMO was open-source friendly-ish. There was a published CUPS driver, and software floating around. Woot is an Amazon company, so I trusted them to take the thing back if it didn’t work as promised.

Well, the printer arrived today and I am already writing an article about it. So you already know how hard it can be to get it to work: less than 30 minutes. Even less if you read this article!


Samsung UD590 4k Monitor and Kubuntu 14.04

Samsung 4k MonitorI confess I had an itch. Even in my dual monitor setup, I never seemed to have enough visual real estate. If I had the Android development UI full screen on one side and the emulator on the other, it took only a single konsole shell to fill up everything I had. Then I was left without space for instant messaging, writing, emailing, etc.

It’s common year 2014. There are 10 inch tablets with 2560×1600 resolution (Google’s Nexus 10 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″). Why shouldn’t there be a monitor with a resolution higher than that? I mean, what’s the point of having a 30 inch screen if it displays exactly as many pixels as your 10 inch tablet?

There was a deal. While early 4k TVs were freaky expensive (in the tens out thousands of dollars!), Samsung had a relative steal available for $799. Then the price went down to $699. Then one day Amazon had a sale, and it was available for $599. I took it immediately, not asking any questions.

When the monitor arrived, it was a mixed bag. The bezel is small, so there is just a ton of screen. Also, the monitor comes both with two HDMI ports and one DisplayPort. Tons of connectivity.

First the assembly. To my horror, the stand on which the monitor rests is fixed, which means that you can’t change the inclination from perfectly straight up. That’s a bit of a bummer, because the screen is so large, you’d want it to tilt a little.


SparkFun Arduino Pro Micro and Linux

Lately, I’ve been working with Arduinos. If you don’t know what that is, it’s essentially a way for anyone to build their own intelligent hardware. There is a microcontroller (essentially, a really small and underpowered CPU), infrastructure to support programming it, and a series of ports that can be connected to sensors, motors, and the like.

The Arduino has two major advantages that catapulted it into consciousness: it is open source, which makes it really easy to debug and extend; and it is exceedingly well-documented and reliable. That means that your projects will typically be hindered by your soldering and plugging skills, and not by figuring out how to work around some limitation of the IDE or software libraries.

I cannot tell you why I have been playing/working with the Arduino yet, as the project is super-secret. Suffice to say that I have enjoyed the play/work a whole lot. Things I never thought were within my reach suddenly became easy. Where I thought I’d have to get another degree in Electrical Engineering, I now simply place a few parts together and tell them to play nicely with each other.

The Arduino, despite its grand fabulousness, has the major drawback of being gigantic. It is about the size of the palm of a hand, or a tin of Altoids. Since what it does typically fits in tiny gadgets like the iPod Shuffle, it is clear that you could create a smaller version of it, if you wanted. The need has been heard and a series of smaller boards have been made by different manufacturers.

There are fanciful versions like a wearable controller. There are two right now: the LilyPad and the FLORA. There are small versions without a USB connection. There are small versions with a Mini-USB port.

The one I liked the most, though, was the SparkFun Pro Micro. It comes in 3.3V and 5V variants (link is to the 5V variant, which is also clocked twice as fast as the 3.3V) and is truly tiny. It is so tiny, I constantly lose mine. Yet, they still have all the power of an Arduino.

But… It’s been frustrating. Working from a Linux machine, I connected as usual. The instructions tell you that the boards don’t work with the standard Arduino IDE and need extra drivers. They are helpfully provided right on the product page, and are easily installed.

Right off the bat, a problem: the drivers were recognized by the older version of the software, but the new version didn’t recognize them. You can see that when you go to the Board selection menu item: in Arduino 1.0.3 (the older, stable version of the software) the boards show up. In Arduino 1.5.2 (the newer beta), they do not. That’s annoying, because support always asks you to try it with the latest software.

I wanted to try the two versions and uploaded my software to the 3.3V. Worked flawlessly. Then I tried the 5V. No problem. Then I tried updating the software. Catastrophic failure. It wouldn’t recognize either board. It would just say it wasn’t a recognized board, or the board was not connected.

I’ll spare you the next many hours I spent debugging the issue and fixing it. Basically, the programming seems not to work in Linux. It does work under Windows. Only that Windows and COM ports are finicky, and I have to reboot my Windows 7 machine once in a while, or it won’t recognize the hardware anymore.

SparkFun seems to be entirely a Windows shop, judging by the comments in the product page. Requests for help with Linux are routinely answered with a shrug, which is strange, considering how many of the comments are from people using Linux. Most of the issues seem to arise with the inability to access the interface, which is remedied easily by changing permissions or updating using sudo. Nobody seems to report my problem, which indicates that either nobody made it that far, or that I am the only idiot with the problem.

[In case you have that problem, though, and shot your Pro Micro, you will need to reflash the bootloader. That all sounds terribly scary, but it isn’t. You will need an AVR programmer for the exercise, which you can get from a lot of different places, including SparkFun. If anyone is interested in details, I’ll post another blog.]

Kubuntu 12.10 Quantal on a Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3D)

Samsung Series 9I had been following Ultrabooks for a while, but they seemed constantly overpriced. I loved the form factor, but the aesthetics and better hardware didn’t seem to justify a 100% increase in price. Especially since I am not really short on laptops.

Something about the Series 9, though, was different. It was faster, lighter, thinner, and had a better screen resolution than other Ultrabooks, and those were my requirements to a tee. It also runs Windows 8, which I hadn’t used before, and I needed a test machine.

When Amazon lowered the price from sticker ($999) to $699, I knew I was going to buy it. I did, and I can safely say this is my new favorite laptop.

In the following you’ll find a brief review and instructions or installing and running the latest Kubuntu, Quantal Quetzal, on it.


Brother HL4150 Color Laser on Linux (Kubuntu Natty)

Summary: WOW! Five Stars!!!

I’ve had mixed luck with printers under Linux in the past ten years. Some of them would not work ever, others worked just fine, and a third kind worked some or most of the time, but you could never count on them.

It used to be the case that printing on Linux depended on the standards used. Printers that internally used PostScript would work the best, GDI printers not at all, and most of the HPGL language printers would have some functionality available. Once printers went from parallel to USB, things got worse until Linux caught up.

If you want proof of the fact Linux is slowly becoming mainstream, just look at the printer manufacturers that offer Linux support on their web sites. None of them, as far as I know, supports the open source ideal of Linux, but most of the manufacturers try to at least give you some form of closed source, binary drivers.


Acer Aspire 1 (Linpus 8GB SSD)

Acer Aspire 1This is the first laptop I buy that comes with Linux preinstalled. Unfortunately, it’s a relatively unknown distribution, and I will have to replace it with Kubuntu – but otherwise it’s amazing to see thing finally moving in the direction of economic logic.

The Aspire 1 is a netbook, which by now defines a very clear category in the market – a category that is oddly much more consistent internally than other notebook segments. We have a small form factor (screens are 10" or below in diagonal, weight is typically under 3 lbs), an attention to productivity vs. gaming, and the adoption of standard operating systems (Linux or Windows XP, mostly).

I compared different netbooks on the market and made my choice based mostly on the keyboard and screen. That’s the two things that I most use in a netbook, and all additional features are merely secondary. Is one faster than the other? Who cares, if I can easily switch from OpenOffice Writer to KWrite if I want it zippier?