OK, this is a bit of a diversion. My last post was about my perceived shortcomings of Windows 8, or specifically, the Metro interface.
Since then, work on my new system came to an abrupt halt. It seems that around the time I was typing my previous post, I was also having a heart-attack. This entailed a trip to ED, where the problem was identified, and entailed my having to have an emergency procedure to fit a stent to fix a blockage in one of the coronary arteries that was stopping 90% of the blood getting through to my heart. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes. In hindsight, this had been building up for some time, I can see, and while leaving me feeling better than I had felt for some time, it left me weak. I was ordered to rest up for a fortnight, and now I am now gradually getting back on my feet.
Two things have happened since my last post. One is the receipt of my Raspberry Pi.
Now, I know it’s for kids, but how could I resist a a linux-compatible ARM-based computer the size of a credit card for less than $50/£30? It runs Debian better than my Nokia n900 did, my only other gadget capable of running Debian on ARM.
Yah, it’s just another linux desktop, XFCE this time. But…
I am rarely so impressed with anything as I am the RPi. It has to be the easiest computer I have ever set up.
I would recommend any parent who wants to encourage their kid to do more with a computer than do social media stiff to get them one of these, over and above any other computer.
The steps were:
1. Get the RPi ($49)
2. Get a box to put it in ($11)
3. Get a power supply that fits a micro-USB socket
(I re-used my Nokia n900 charger, but I also have a TomTom one that will support with a USB->microUSB cable)
4. Download Raspbian (Debian-ARM for the RPi) & uncompress it.
5. Flash a 4GB SD card with the Boot & OS image.
6. Next fit it all together:
I had a spare HDMI-DVI cable to plug into a Samsung monitor
I had a Ethernet cable to plug into a hub
I had a Dell USB keyboard with built-in USB hub, to run keyboard & mouse through one of the two USB ports.
Plugged the SD card in, connected the power, and up came Debian ARM, to the RPi configuration screen.
NB. OK, I admit, one problem: booting using the USB keyboard. If I booted with it plugged in, I’d end up at a blank screen as soon as the rasp-config menu came up.
I had to boot without the keyboard, and then plug it in once at the rasp-config menu. Then, I could go through the menu, and input the localisation & keyboard mapping. On reboot, the system came up fine with the keyboard plugged in.
7. Work through all the relevant items on the raspberry configuration, including updates, and you will eventually reboot into LXDE.
8. I’m not keen on LXDE. Didn’t like it on the n900, don’t like it on the RPi. So, I ran a debian update & upgrade, installed XFCE4, synaptic update manager, X11vnc, chromium, etc., and eventually ended up rebooting into XFCE, and able to log in using a Remmina from the laptop.
So, this is what the final XFCE desktop looks like via VNC:
Eventually, I’ll set the RPi to run in headless mode, in a way that I can run the desktop remotely. What for? Well, already I’m seeing this could act as a file server, print server, although limited to external USB drives, possibly a NAS, or a music player. But, the graphics capabilities are very good (1680*1050 – full HD), so running headless seems a wee waste of the GPU. Thin client, maybe? Or as a tiny TV-server. The possibilities are limitless, and people are already working on setting these up as XBMC boxes. It will run Apache easily, and people have set them up as small LAMP servers. Very impressive little computer. Given this is a single-core 700MHz ARM cpu, it highlights the potential of these processors in something like the ARM 1GHz dual-core in the Xoom, or the quad-core 1.5GHz Samsung S3. Unfortunately, unlike the n900, to be able to run linux on these, you have to root the phone/tablet, which risks screwing up the 3/4g connection (along with warranty & RTM potential for fixes). It is a shame, because despite the potential power of these new generation of ARM devices, Android prevents using their full potential in much the same way Apple do with iOS, and same with Microsoft Windows 8.
Which neatly brings me back to my last piece about Windows 8, where I have had a slight change of heart. In fact, having read further into other people’s experience, I have begun to re-think how I feel about Unity & Gnome 3.x.
I do still think it is the ugliest interface I have yet come across, and I suspect that at some level Microsoft realise this too – hence the 60’s style psychedelic embroidery that is available with Metro. But, I now appreciate that the Windows 7 desktop is hidden under there, accessible by pressing the Windows button and “I”. The Metro interface, while acting as the input screen for tablets, is also what you used to find under the traditional Windows ‘Start’ button, and using Windows+I/C/etc you can get to change settings, access control panel functions, or go to a desktop with its own panel, where you can pin the apps you want there. It’s a bit like the way linux/unix has different screens. So, yes, quite a clever solution to running the same OS on a tablet/phone and desktop; well thought out.
This helped me see what Gnome is all about. And Gnome is ten times nicer than Windows 8, aesthetically. If only they had come up with that kind of solution, it could have saved them a lot of grief. Keep the old desktop ‘behind’ the new environment, rather than forcing people to have to use the fallback, thereby locking them out of new features they might actually appreciate. And, here’s the rub, because it takes me back to Android, and the inability to run a proper Linux desktop from Android without having to root the phone/tablet. It should be quite easily implemented so that those who want to could run a traditional desktop like XFCE from an Android device, if required, just as it should be possible to run a Gnome 2.x like desktop from within then Gnome 3.x shell (rather than using that as a fallback). What is a bit frustrating is that the potential to do this has been there in linux all along, but the opportunity was missed – and Windows have done precisely this. Shame.
And, ironically, the most ingenious use I have seen for the Raspberry is to do much the same thing. One of the drawbacks of the Raspberry is the lack of small cheap monitors. people have made use of small 3.5″ car-reversing monitors, but even a 7″ monitor costs over $100, and beyond that at 19″ you are looking at something in the region of $150, that isn’t portable. So, somebody has come up with a way of using the USB ports to connect to a tablet, and using the USB to network and VNC client-server, run Raspbian on the Pi, using the tablet as both monitor and keyboard, and touch-screen interface. Way to go, but with one snag… to achieve this, you need sudo/su access to the tablet, which means rooting the tablet, which not everybody wants to do.
So, I finish as I began, with a raspberry.