Odds and ends . . .

. . . though I believe on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s odds and sods. After an incredibly busy fortnight which included a lot of FOSS and non-FOSS (as in “life”) occurrences, it’s time to get back on track here.

CrunchBang in the Pew: Several years ago, Don Parris wrote a book called, “Penguin in the Pew,” which is a book aimed at churches (though it could be for any nonprofit as well) and how they can use GNU/Linux to help save money and, of course, because it’s the moral and ethical thing to do. Don and I have been in contact over the years, mostly around his book, and yesterday morning he posted on Facebook this tidbit: “My first foray into virtual machines – running a live session of CrunchBang Linux in VirtualBox. Very cool indeed!” He went on to say later in the comments about CrunchBang: “I do like it. It’s very clean and simple. Or sparse, depending on your viewpoint. But it’s certainly well done.” Of course, we went on to blame me for suggesting he use it, but that’s another story for another time.

But wait, there’s more: Today, Don writes this. “Running CrunchBang and OpenSUSE Linux in VirtualBox on a laptop running Kubuntu Linux. For my non-computing friends, let’s just say this saves me having to buy more computers – I can run my own virtual enterprise right here at home! And yes, I could (if I had $200-$300 to spare) install Windows as well.”

Linux Fest Northwest: I’m still tying up the loose ends on the CrunchBang booth at Linux Fest Northwest. Currently, the personal debate is around whether to bring a CD/DVD burning machine (a small one) up with me or to burn all the media here at home — slated for 100 or so CDs (more, maybe?) and do the “loaves and fishes” trick with the laptop should we run out. That trick, which was invented in the Fedora booth at OSCON 2009 (or maybe 2008?), where we had run out of media and had folks either give us a blank CD or a USB stick.

I have an intro to CrunchBang talk slated, though I don’t know when that will be yet. Linux Fest Northwest is in Bellingham, Washington, USA, on the last weekend in April. If anyone is in the area and wants to volunteer for the booth — free admission is included for the volunteers — e-mail me at lcafiero-at-lavabit-dot-com.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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High on the Alto 3880

[Blogger’s note: This is today’s Larry the Free Software Guy blog item, reprinted here because it talks about CrunchBang. –LC]

Those of you who know me know that I’m an old ThinkPad guy, in more ways than one. I myself am older than many of you reading this — well on my way to AARP membership status as I reach 55 this November — and the ThinkPads I use on a daily basis are themselves old, namely a T30 and an R40.

ThinkPads are painfully utilitarian, amazingly solid, and like the Model T Fords come in a wide variety of colors as long as you choose black. For these reasons, ThinkPads lend themselves to being the laptop of choice for many laptop users, mostly developers. To make them more attractive — for loss of a better word — many a ThinkPad is embellished with stickers on the cover, rivaling the best of the NASCAR field. Mine is no exception: My ThinkPad does its laps with EFF, SCALE 10X, Oregon State University Open Source Lab, Open Source for America, two Google Summer of Code, and No Starch Press stickers gracing the laptop cover.

So when ZaReason sent me an Alto 3880 to put through its paces, my first reaction was, “Wow. This is too nice to put stickers on.”

The Alto 3880’s cover is a very stylish silver and should be kept in its pristine form. A look around the laptop before opening it shows that ports are readily available on the sides — with monitor, ethernet and USB ports conveniently located on the left side instead of on the back. While many might find this a simple design, ThinkPad users would be thrilled to know that the oft-inconvenient ThinkPad reacharound to plug in USB cables or thumb drives is not necessary here. In giving it the once over before opening it, the Alto is light in one’s hands, but it still feels sturdy.

Opening the cover and pushing the on button reveals a screen with remarkable clarity contrasted on a black background and base. If you’re a regular ThinkPad user, the keyboard is different — flat keys at the same level — and takes getting used to. With heavy fingers like mine, the pounding I would normally offer the ThinkPad feels like I’m mercilessly pounding this keyboard and suggests some behavior modification. But ultimately the keyboard is tough enough to withstand it and after adjusting to the new keyboard — wider than the ThinkPad’s — it is easy to adapt to and to get accustomed to the additional real estate for your hands.

Performance wise, the Alto 3880 flies on the trio of distros I used on it, and without boring you with the minutiae, with one exception that turned out to be a software clash, the laptop performed without a hitch. With the 1366-by-768 resolution on a an remarkably clear 14-inch screen, the laptop would make a fine — no, make that an outstanding — replacement for my old ThinkPads.

I used three different distros on the Alto 3880, and each performed well, and each would make a fine choice for the person owning this laptop. The three contestants, for the sake of argument, are Linux Mint and Fedora — both which you can have preinstalled by ZaReason — and CrunchBang, which you can install on your own (until I convince ZaReason to make it a choice). However, as I understand it, if you request a different distro, ZaReason will install it. Or if you want no operating system, they’ll send it like that, too. Unlike other Linux hardware vendors, ZaReason offers a wide choice in this department.

But I digress. Here’s how the distros did:

Alto 3880 with Linux Mint: Originally, the laptop came to me with Linux Mint 12, which is the latest version of the distro with the GNOME 2.x-type desktop. The Alto 3880 did remarkably well with Linux Mint, which is growing on a lot of people (including me). Switching from MATE to GNOME to Cinnamon was a snap, and the performance was outstanding. In one instance on a busy morning where I forgot to plug in the laptop, I got just over four hours from the battery using multiple programs on Linux Mint.

Alto 3880 with Fedora 16: I’m waiting for the myth that Fedora is too “cutting edge” for the average user to go the way of the Studebaker and the hula hoop. It’s just that — a myth — and Fedora 16 runs circles around just about everything else on this machine. After installing Flash so one can — oh, I don’t know — participate in the wider Internet world, the distro and hardware handled everything I threw at it from a video and audio standpoint with aplomb.

Alto 3880 with CrunchBang Statler: The laptop has the horses, so to speak, to run the previous two desktop environments without breaking a sweat. So when faced with handling the Openbox window manager on CrunchBang, the distro soared. Also, the built-in camera worked flawlessly during a Google+ Hangout with the CrunchBang crew.

Alto 3880 strengths

Regardless of what distro is running on it, the Alto 3880 is remarkably versatile and handles a wide range of work without complaint. In fact, the only problem I had was helping my daughter solve what turned out to be a common GIMP and Banshee problem where the programs, both running simultaneously, weren’t playing nice with each other — clearly not a reflection on the hardware. The screen is very clear and handles high resolutions flawlessly, which is a benefit for those who want to do things like watch videos or do intricate graphics work (Note: My daughter Mimi will be writing her own review of this laptop as well). Across the distro board, the audio and video performance was outstanding, with the onboard speakers sounding good enough to forgo plugging in speakers in some cases (though the speakers sounded good, too, when used to watch DVDs). the laptop itself is lightweight but solid, and the design is top-notch — this is a beautiful laptop.

Needs improvement?

There is a lot to like on this laptop, but the one thing that took getting used to is the keyboard. Again, this might be just something for the personal preference folder, but the keyboard at first tends to feel a little light to the touch. Also, the mouse button, which is a single bar at the same level as the touchpad operating on a centered fulcrum (click the left side for the left mouse button, right side for the right) is hard to adjust to when coming from hardware where the buttons are raised. To be fair, it would be difficult to imagine that a ThinkPad-like keyboard would work, design wise, on a laptop like this.

A final look

I don’t have a rating system — stars, penguins, horseshoes, whatever — in place, but if I did I would rank the Alto 3880 very high; for the sake of argument, let’s say 4.5 penguins out of a perfect 5 penguins. Its combination of sleek design and high performance make this laptop one that would easily draw me away from the ranks of the ThinkPad users. The retail price for this machine is $599, which many of you might think is a little high compared to what you could get at Best Buy. But when you consider that when buying from a Linux hardware vendor, you’re not only getting a quality machine with a great OS, your purchase supports FOSS, for starters, by not putting another “sale” in Redmond’s tally. With its wide range of capabilities and performance, the Alto 3880 is a laptop I would be proud to own and, if Uncle Sam is generous with a tax return, would be glad to purchase.

Specs

Screen: 14-inch HD, 1366-by-768 Glossy LED Backlit Display
Processor: Pentium B940, 2 GHz, 2 core, 2 thread
Memory: 4GB DDR-3
Graphics card: Intel Integrated HD Graphics
Hard Drive: 250GB 5,400 RPM (NOTE: Tested with 400GB HD)
Optical Drive: Combo CD/DVD burner
Audio: Speakers above the keyboard for quality sound output
Wireless: 802.11 B/G/N WiFi included and Bluetooth
Reader: 3-in-1 card reader — SD/MMC/MS supported
Camera: 1.3 Megapixel webcam included
Ports: HDMI and VGA monitor ports; Gigabit Ethernet port; ensington lock port; Headphone and microphone jacks; three USB 2.0 ports
Operating System: Your choice from a variety of Linux distros, or no operating system
Battery: Six-cell battery, up to 5 hours
Weight: 4.5 pounds
Price: $599

Coming tomorrow: This . . . is . . . STRATA! A look at the ZaReason Strata 6880.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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A brief, albeit funny, exchange

After I dropped my daughter off yesterday for her chemistry class, I do what I normally do to kill the two hours until I pick her up again — go to the Firefly Cafe in Santa Cruz and have a cup of coffee in the biggest mug they have and catch up on work.

While at Firefly, I sat at a table across from a guy who I had not seen before, who had a laptop with a Creative Commons sticker on it. While I unpacked my Targus backpack we talked about what we were running on our laptops. Ubuntu, he said.

I reached into my backpack and as he said, “What about you?” The ThinkPad T30 that has been the mainstay of my computing experience for the last several years slipped out of my hand and, fumbling to catch it unsuccessfully, it went thunk on the floor.

Picking it up, I said, “CrunchBang.”

Hilarity ensued.

The laptop is fine, the coffee was good, and my daughter didn’t blow up anything in class. So overall it was a successful few hours.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Passing the test

In my capacity as the blogger commonly known as “Larry the Free Software Guy” (at least to those who like me; the others . . . ?), I get to test hardware from time to time to review. To be honest, I hate doing reviews because, when the last period is put into place and I push the “publish” button on WordPress, I get a barrage of “How can you like this . . .?” or “How could you not like that . . . ?” Ad nauseum.

But still, coming in the next few days to the Larry the Free Software Guy blog will be two reviews: one of ZaReason’s Alto 3880 laptop and the other a review of ZaReason’s Strata 6880. Spoiler alert: Though I had some minor issues with both of them which stem from personal preferences rather than technological shortcomings, both machines are top notch laptops well worth the price.

But I digress. What I wanted to mention here was that during the course of putting these laptops through their paces, I used Linux Mint, Fedora and, of course, CrunchBang. As far as the latter is concerned, CrunchBang soared on these laptops, and it’s quite heartening to see CrunchBang perform so well on brand new hardware (as opposed to the old hardware I’m used to using on a regular basis).

Looking at the disparity of hardware on which I use CrunchBang this particular week — the IBM ThinkPad T30 that accompanies me everywhere to these newer ZaReason laptops — it never fails to astound me that the range of hardware on which CrunchBang works is wide, and this flexibility is a testament to the great versatility that CrunchBang offers.

I will suggest to ZaReason that they include CrunchBang in their roster of distro options to be installed upon purchase. As it stands now, the options are Linux Mint, various ‘buntus, Fedora, “Tell us what you want,” or no distro installed.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Going to the show

If you’re a baseball fan, the blog’s title needs little explanation. Just in case you aren’t — and that would include most of you who aren’t on the North American continent — when a baseball player in the minor leagues “goes to the show,” it means he’s been called up to the Major Leagues.

Of course, going to the show can mean something completely different in FOSS circles, like going to the show, as in the Linux expo or gathering.

I don’t know him, but a friend of a friend in the Silicon Valley who goes by “jefro” posted a schedule of FOSS events throughout the year on his blog here. Admittedly most of them are in the U.S., and most of those in the U.S. are actually near where I live, so I’ll be going to many of them.

The schedule is posted here in order for others to get an idea of what’s out there, show-wise. If you’re near one, attend. If you’re near one and attend — and help promote CrunchBang at the event — that’s even better.

Not only was it a privilege to represent CrunchBang at the Southern California Linux Expo SCALE 10X, I had a lot of fun in the process. It’s not hard, people are curious about CrunchBang and, in many cases, the distro promotes itself on its merits.

Next on my schedule is Linux Fest Northwest, in late April in Bellingham, Washington, just north of Seattle and just south of the Canadian border. CrunchBang already has a table and I’ve submitted both a “Intro to CrunchBang” talk and there will be a CrunchBang “Birds of a Feather” gathering during the course of the show.

If you live nearby, come on up to Bellingham and help out. You get free admission as an exhibitor. Ping me if you’re interested.

Live in the Carolinas? Head to POSSCON, the Palmetto Open Source Software Conference in South Carolina next month. Indiana? Indiana Linux Fest is held in mid-April in Indianapolis. Texas? Texas Linux Fest will probably be scheduled for early to mid-May this year in Austin, and while the site has yet to be updated, I think I’ll probably make it this year.

Want to go to a show? Great! Get there because there’s a lot to see and a lot to do. Want to go to represent CrunchBang and need help? Not to worry: I am an old hand at this, so ask me. I used to organize the booths for the Fedora Project in the expos west of the Rockies for years and I know the ins and outs of how to organize these things.

CrunchBang deserves to go to the show, both in a baseball and non-baseball sense. So do you. So what’s keeping you?

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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