Category Archives: Technology

My System 76 laptop, cheap, rattling, smoking, all around pretty good

One year ago I bought a System 76 Gazelle laptop. It’s a pretty good machine. I’d say only for people that can tinker with their laptop though.

Here’s the order specs:

Gazelle Professional ( gazp9 ) Quantity: 1
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS 64 bit
15.6″ 1080p Full High Definition Display with Matte Surface ( 1920 x 1080 )
Intel® High Definition Graphics 4600
4th Generation Intel® Core™ i7-4810MQ Processor ( 2.8 GHz 6MB L3 Cache – 4 Cores plus Hyperthreading )
16 GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz – 2 X 8 GB
United States Keyboard Layout
500 GB Samsung 840 EVO Solid State Drive
No Secondary Hard Drive
Caddy Case without Hard Drive (Use your own drive in the optical bay)
Intel® Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 AC Wireless LAN up to 433 Mbps + Bluetooth
1 Yr. Ltd. Warranty and 1 Yr. Technical Support
Rush Assembly Service – Guaranteed shipping within 2 business days of your order ( not including day of order )

All this came to a bit more that $1500, just about the same price as it would be today. That’s a hell of a deal! Go price out a Macbook with a 4810MQ, 16GB RAM, and 500 GB SSD. Or don’t because I know that price. It’s the $2500 one. The Macbook does have a better screen, incredible touchpad, and you can add in a 2GB AMD video module for practically nothing at that level. The Apple has no Ethernet or VGA port.

So for a work laptop that won’t run better with the improved video and will be plugged in to an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor this is a no brainer. I actually prefer Ubuntu because the package management is just so much easier on Linux than anywhere else. Java development is cross platform so I’m not missing out on anything there.

Anyway, so what’s the bad side? Some screws inside were loose from the factory. The keyboard felt weak and weird. Then there was some rattling around when I would move the laptop. Opened it up and a bunch of screws fell out. Tightening them down fixed both problems! Just sad they missed that step when building the machine.

Next happened just outside the 1 year warrenty. Smoke started coming out the rear left near the power port. I took it apart! The power port has 2 tabs on the back, one connected to the port’s housing and the other directly to the plug. The solder joint from there to wire to the motherboard was bad and had broken off the tab it was supposed to connect to. But it was still good on the other tab. Oh no! The ground for all the power routed around the port’s casing, finding resistance and heating up enough to melt the plastic case some. It was pretty easy to remove screws and solder that back together. Points for maintainability. If something is going to be produced poorly enough to do this it had better be fixable.

So all in all, a pretty good laptop. Parts are easy to access and change or upgrade. Ubuntu is great. Etherenet, VGA, HDMI, USB is all there. A good laptop for a developer. It does require at least knowing someone who can operate a soldering iron.

W500 and the ATI FireGL V5700 on XP64

There is a way to get the ATI FireGL V5700 drivers onto Windows XP 64 bit on the Lenovo W500. It wasn’t easy…

Lenovo doesn’t package drivers for this chip, as far I could tell. But HP does make XP64 drivers. The problem is that they won’t install, unless you alter some files.

Find the ATI video drivers for HP’s EliteBook 8530w. Try to install them. This won’t work, complaining about system requirements.

Go to c:\SwSetup\SP44851\Driver and edit all the INI files you can find here. Change any occurrence of the string 3604103C to 212717AA (I think including in the XP64A_INF directory). Then run Setup.exe and the driver install takes.

I found that after a restart Windows reset the driver to Microsoft’s default VGA. Go to the device manager and do a rollback to the ATI driver and it sticks.

MythTV Install and Export to iPhone

My MythTV backend is now working the way I’d like it to.  I bought a HDHomerun off newegg for the 2 tuners that both handle ATSC and QAM and I like that it’s on the network.  I have an Ubuntu machine running Karmic that I wanted to put the Myth backend on.

The most awesome thing is that there is a MythTV package in apt.  So the install was simple.  Since I couldn’t remember the mysql root password (because how often do you add databases/tables?) I had to override password and set it to something I knew and clear and reinstall the MythTV database package.  With that done, setup was pretty straight forward:  finding the tuners, scanning channels, adding a account ($20 per year for listings since zap2it won’t do that for free anymore).

The next part was exporting commercialless recordings into iPhone format.  There is a package (again through apt) called mythexport that claims to do this.  It handles jobs started from the Myth frontend pretty well, but required a lot of tweaking.  Using a web browser, go to localhost/mythexport and set up some initial settings for what you’re trying to do.  Any jobs created probably fail now and you’ll have to make some changes.  First add the medibuntu repository to apt and update the codecs to regain AAC audio if you’re running Karmic (apparently not a problem before).  The command to reencode the video is in /etc/mythtv/mythexport/mythexport_settings.cfg.  It’s the long line, you can’t miss it.  So change the mp3 library to libfaac.  Try exporting something, /var/log/mythtv/mythexport.log will not show you the exact errors, but will give you the command to run to try again if it did fail (it’s the command starting with “nice”).  Copy it out and try running it yourself with different arguments until it works.

My settings are currently (the  “-ac 2 -ar 48000” was important and I had to add it):

ffmpegArgs=-y -acodec libfaac -ab 128kb -vcodec mpeg4 -b 600kb -mbd 2
-flags +4mv+aic -trellis 2 -cmp 2 -subcmp 2 -s 480x320 -aspect 16:9
-ac 2 -ar 48000

And now it works!

Also note that mythexport adds an Apache2 directory to your configuration.  I had the Apache I got from apt configured as a public facing webserver so I had to lock down those directories with .htaccess files (iTunes will ask for the password when downloading videos in the podcast/rss feed so it’s really not too limiting to do BasicAuth).

WordPress Online

EDIT 8/10/09: I’ve been told on the list that ubuntu’s wordpress package has an older version of wordpress and has not been updated recently. So for now I’ll recommend NOT yet using apt to manage your wordpress install. is back online.  And after doing some work getting a lot of different settings right, I realized that it could have been much easier.

sudo apt-get install wordpress

Yup, that’s all it takes.

My last webserver was an Xbox that ran Debian.  To set that up, I found all the source files I needed, configured and patched things, compiled and installed.  It was a familiar exercise of trying to compile only to find what’s missing, downloading more compressed tar files, and trying to compile everything again.  An afternoon or two later and I had a moderately working Apache webserver to host my personal website, projects for school, and other things that wanted to run on Linux.  And then I learned about apt, which makes life easier by doing all those things for you.  A single command and you’ve got Apache running.

I wanted to avoid that unnecessary work this time around when getting WordPress running on my new dedicated Ubuntu machine.  I was able to make good use of apt.  It found Apache2 for me and installed it.  It found PHP and MySQL and installed them too.  And then I went off configuring things.  I made a database user and databases.  I worked on the /var/www folder tree where I had put WordPress, setting permissions so that Apache could do everything it needed but nothing more.  I turned on Apache’s mod-rewrite when the usual WordPress URL formatting wouldn’t work, and then turned on an Apache permission for the site when mod-rewrite still wasn’t working.  Before calling everything complete, I wrote a script that would download WordPress’ latest.tar.gz and update the site.  And then I found that apt could have done all that and the updates would have been integrated in my usual system update process.

I had again wasted a couple afternoons configuring things that I could have just had the system do for me.  I hadn’t thought about a different way to do things at the time.  I knew how to do get the job done, so I started working the way I knew how.  Almost exactly like last time, after I was done I found that someone had provided me with a much easier way to get things started and in the future keep them up to date.  This time around, I thought I knew the tools available to me, but my knowledge was dated and the end result was the same as last.

But now I’ve got a new strategy that I learned from this exercise that I didn’t learn before.  Before doing things that I know how to do, I need to reevaluate that my known way is the best way.  Things change too quick, and nothing from a few years ago should be applied to technology today.  Sure, knowing the hard way by hand, like configuring WordPress or compiling Apache, helps in understanding what’s going on, but there’s better, popular and well-known ways to get that done.  And check apt for everything, even webapps.