Dell 15″ Inspiron 3000 Ubuntu review

I recently bought a Dell 15″ Inspiron 3000 laptop with Ubuntu. It’s pretty good!

Since Dell’s not tremendously good at disclosing exact model numbers, this review is about the Inspiron 3552, from December 2015. Well, it’s hardly a review, just my impressions. In no particular order therefore:

  • The build it’s constructed from a matte black plastic with a stippled surface. The unit is lightish at just over 2kg, and slim maybe 16mm closed. It doesn’t feel too sturdy, indeed the screen is very flexible and the base does have some give if twisted. I’ve already dropped it a couple of times and its survived OK.
  • Ports On the left hand side there’s power, HDMI, USB and an SD-Card reader. There’s also a vent. On the right hand side, there are two USB ports a headphone socket and a Kensington lock point. First unhappy surprise – no ethernet port!
  • Charger and power The charger is wee, about 20x40x120mm and light, around 150g. The mains lead is separate and uses a cloverleaf plug. On the laptop end there’s a jack that mates with a port on the back left-hand side of the laptop. The protrudes perpendicularly about 30mm and has a crap strain-relief spring. I expect this will be the first thing to break.Charging is quick – around 2h to full. I’m currently getting about 5h of active life from a full charge, with the screen at a low brightness setting.

    The BIOS has a setting for different charge profiles. I’ve selected “mostly on mains” to reflect my use, but it’s not clear if it will have any impact that will have on battery life or longevity.

  • Screen A generic 15.6″ panel, 1378×768 in resolution. Nothing special. Bright enough to read in (winter) sunlight, though the viewing angle isn’t great. Happily, though, it is matte and isn’t touch!
  • Keyboard and touchpad The keyboard’s of the now ubiquitous chiclet / Scrabble-piece design. Not much travel, but fine to touch type on. The touchpad is ok. It’s just left-of-centre so might be inconvenient if you are a left handed mouser.If you upgrade the OS, you’ll need a tweak to make the touchpad work – see below.
  • Wifi is a cheap RTL8723BE chipset thing. In use I’ve found it slow to connect to my home network, and flakey after a resume from sleep. It’s on a NGFF expansion card, so I might whip it out and replace it with something less bargain-basementApparently it’s also got a Bluetooth 4.0 radio but I haven’t even bother trying that because 15 years of Bluetooth disasters have taught me something.

    Bad news for you tin-foil hat types, there’s no physical wifi-off switch.

  • Sound and camera There are two speakers on the front underside of the unit (there’s a bevelled edge, so they don’t face down). They are a bit tinny. Likewise the camera and mic are nothing special but perfectly serviceable for Skype.
  • CPU is the new Braswell Celeron M3050 dual core processor. This is a derivative of the Nehalem core (SSE4 but neither AVX nor hyperthreading) on the latest 14nm process. The basic clock is 1.6GHz but ”’cpupower”’ shows it anywhere between 500MHz at idle and at the full boost of 2.25GHz under load.
    It’s fast enough. There’s a vent on the side and an internal fan, but I almost never hear it on, only under prolonged heavy load.
  • Memory It comes with a single 4GB DDR3L-1600 SODIMM. Both Crucial and the Dell website claim that 4GB is the maximum supported, though the processor does support 8GB. I’ll likely try an upgrade soon as 4’s a bit too miserly.
  • Hard disk the basic 500GB SATA disk is as slow as you might imagine. I immediately replaced it with a Crucial 500GB MX200 SSD. The swap is very simple to do – there’s a removable panel on the underside of the unit which covers the memory and hard disk.

  • OS It comes with Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. There’s some Dell branding when the thing boots for the first time, but thereafter it seems to be stock. The default browser is Chromium.

    I swapped the hard disk for the SSD from my old laptop, and so have been using the newer Ubuntu 15.10. Everything works fine, with the exception of the touchpad which required the addition of the kernel command-line option i8042.nophp .

    To add this, append it to the definition for GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT in the file /etc/default/grub, run the command update-grub, then reboot.

    Other than that, the only OS-related niggles are iffy Wifi, which I put down to the generally parlous state of the RTL driver, and the occasional failure to restart after a soft reboot.

  • Price Ooh, I almost forgot the best bit: it’s only 200 quid! for that price, I’d forgive many more faults than it actually has.

Update: Official specs notwithstanding, I’ve successfully upgraded the memory to 8GB using a Crucial CT102464BF160B DIMM and BIOS 4.0.3 (may work with an earlier version).

Cubot S208 Android phone review

Just bought one of these to replace a slightly knackered Huawei Ascend Y300.

The Huawei isn’t a bad bargin-bucket handset, but it’s a bit underpowered – there’s not enough memory to run the BBC Radio app and web browse at the same time; the UI is often a bit laggy and there’s just not enough built-in storage. Probably the most annoying aspect is that it’s single SIM – this is seriously annoying as, until the EU knocks the right heads together, I have to maintain two seperate numbers.

Looking around for a new one, I found the Cubot s208 (warning: comedy Engrish). Never heard of them, but it’s as cheap as chips so I thought I’d take a punt. Here’s what I found.

  • Appearance
    • Comes with a cheap plastic, leather-patterned cover that has a window exposing the top 40% of the screen. Makes the phone look like an old iPod. Sticks on to the phone with an adhesive strip, so not removable once fitted. Folds back, so can act as a(n unstable) stand.
    • Volume buttons are on the left, and obscured by the cover. Power button on the right; it’s bit small
    • Micro USB on the bottom, headphone jack on the top.
    • It’s thin and light! About 8mm thick, and about 120g. Thinner and lighter than the old Huawei (about the same width too, but longer).
  • Screen
    • 5″, pretty bright, good viewing angle, just about readable in bright sunlight
    • Enabling automatic brightness makes the screen flicker a bit during a brightness change – the fade isn’t terribly smooth.
    • The automatic brightness function leaves the screen too bright in low-light conditions.
    • No oleophobic coating – it gets gunky with grease very quickly
    • Screen auto-rotation won’t rotate the screen 180 degrees, only +/-90. If rotation is turned off when the display is in landscape orientation, it will return to portrait.
    • The resolution is modest by contemporary standards: 920×540. Half the pixel density of somethign like the HTC One. However, the contrast is high and the definition very sharp. I’ve no problem reading Kindle books from it.
  • Operating System
    • Android 4.2.2, with — thankfully — hardly any vendor customisation.
    • Truly awful power-on jingle that plays at ear-splitting volume. No checking this phone during intervals. (This can be trned off by enabling “quick boot” in the settings).
    • The three Android soft buttons have a reversed order relative to every other handset I’d owned. guess I’ll get used to that.
    • There was an over-the-air update ready for it: Kernel 3.4.5, CUBOT_4041C_V12
  • Dual SIM
    • SIMs are fitted internally, behind the battery. No tools beyond a finger nail are required
    • Takes one mini-SIM (normal-sized SIM to you-and-me) and a micro-SIM. I’d previously cut down my SIMs to micro-sized with one of these:

      It came with some inserts to restore the cut-down SIM to full size.

    • The UI always shows the status of the two SIMs, can keep putting up a warning if any slots are empty.
    • There seems to be very good control over the SIMs – you can allocate the default SIM for voice calls, video calls (what?) and data; enable roaming per-SIM; and disable a SIM entirely.
    • Contacts can be associated with a SIM, and calls out directed automatically.
  • Speaker
    • Mono speaker, bottom of handset. The stick-on cover has an aperture to leave it exposed.
    • It’s loud, but a bit tinny. At maximum volume it’s fine for speach, but often gets raspy and distorted for music

What about the rest of the Cubot range? As with every other manufacturer, the model numbers give no clue about relative ages and specifications. I found this video that summarizes the relative merits (presumably) the most recent ones. The chap agrees that the s208 wins. Clever man.

Update Dec 2014 Having owned this thing for three months, I’m less enamoured of it. Here’s what’s gone wrong:

  • Duff SIM holder. The lower SIM card holder broke. The handset now only sees the micro-SIM not the larger mini-SIM. This is damn annoying, as it’s one of the main features that attracted me to it. Might be that I was using an adapter slightly too wide, which stressed a contact, not that that makes it any less frustrating.
  • Crap KeyboardThe default keyboard is really very annoying, persistently failing to interpret my fat thumbs. Despite installing the Google keyboard from the Store, it doesn’t seem possible to force its use – I always get the built-in one.

Update April 2015The battery has progressively lost its ability to hold charge, barely lasting a couple of hours now. Replacements don’t seem to be obtainable from Amazon. I’m now the owner of an HTC One m8.

Fringe 2014 Review

Very pleased to have been able to make a trip up to Edinburgh for the Fringe this year, even though it was a two day flying visit.

I hadn’t been organised enough to get a hold of the Guide until the day before, so book was the (usual) excited flurry of planning and picking.

As always, who knows what great things I missed, and there were certainly many things I’d have loved to see that just didn’t make the cut. The only known unknown that I was disappointed not to get tickets for was Theatre Ad Infinitum’s “Light”, having been greatly moved by their 2011 work .

That said, here’s what we did see:

  • Narin Oz: Addicted To Love (C South Gardens) Picked on a whim to fill an early morning gap. Short 20 minute piece for an audience of four performed in the back of a car, the venue for an impromptu meeting of “Love Addicts Anonymous”. Very light-weight, some funny moments, some embarrassing ones – no room for a fourth wall here. Good ice-breaker for the day.
  • Dido and Aeneas, About Turn Theatre (The Space UK @ Venue 45) Despite being one of my favourite operatic pieces I’ve never attended a performance, I was delighted to see it in the programme.
    The performance space was very intimate, staged in the round, and I had the good fortune to bag seats directly beside the musicians. The singing was – for the most part – very good, with the soprano’s Lament bringing a tear to the eye. The acting was rather hit-and-miss, with quite a lot of gurning from the chorus.
    The choice to set the piece within a 40s military milieu worked reasonably well stylistically, though more attention should have been paid to make-up, which lacked the subtlety required in such a close environment.
    Having Dido shoot Aeneas worked in dramatic terms, I thought. I’m sure the thought of a romantic suicide after abandonment by one’s true love went down a storm with the hormonal girls at Josiah Priest’s school, but a modern audience is probably a bit more inclined to think Dido should pull herself together. The final gunshot rather spoilt the last lingering moments and should probably have been left to the imagination.

  • Woyzeck! , Time Zone Theatre (C Nova)
    Dropped this in, after having seen Punchdrunk’s The Drowning Man in ’12 which is heavily influenced by this play. One man show in an intimate setting, confidently performed; the actor captured the characters very well. The arrangement of the play brought out the absurdity well, and in parts reminded me of The Good Soldier Svejk.

  • Return To The Voice, Song of the Goat Theatre (St Giles) What a treat – my favourite Polish company back with a predominantly choral piece sung in Scots. Performed with great physical expression in St Giles Cathedral, an ideal acoustic environment for the rich polyphony and oft-accompanying deep drone.
    Very pleased that my friend, who was seeing them for the first time, was as overwhelmed as I was in 2005 at their Chronicles in the Barbican Pit.
  • The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, Ridiculusmus (The Dissection Room at Summerhall)
  • Mental illness explored through the clever staging device of splitting performance and audience with a partition though which sounds and ideas intrude and interact: on one side brothers are bemused by their mother’s deterioration, on the other one of the bothers is counselled by his own therapist. Suffused with Ridiculusus’ typically mordant wit.
    I enjoyed the mental exercise of piecing together the story. Structurally it was disappointing, with the second half being a very close repeat of the first. Also, getting the audience to swap side halfway was a messy technical mistake.

  • Mark Ravenhill: Product (Rainy Hall in the Assembly Hall) Ravenhill’s 2005 monologue satire on the movie industry, a meta-play in which the action happens within the action, as the protagonist frantically pitches an increasingly absurd script. Well observed and pretty funny. Commanding performance from the wonderful Oliva Poulet (Shivered, Southwark Playhouse 2012). I do like Ravenhill, but I think I like Poulet more.

  • Horizontal Collaboration, David Leddy (Traverse 2) If there as a lead balloon (geddit?), this was it, especially after hoofing all the way across town in a downpour to get to it.
    Picked this after being intrigued by the synopsis, and having a vague recollection that I’d liked something else by Leddy (my mistake, I hadn’t). This was verbatim theatre of a particularly dry variety compounded by the use of the third person and the matter-of-fact delivery- the four actors in the role of lawyers blindly reading courtroom transcripts of a warcrime.
    Would work just fine as a radio play, but poor theatre. Plus points – I got to read along in Spanish, and one of the actors looked like Olivia Coleman.
  • La Loba, Lenka Vagnerová & Company (Zoo Southside) This was superb, probably the highlight for me. A brooding, raw, and occasionally wry contemporary dance piece, in turns feral and tender. Based on a Czech folk tale of a crone with a bag of bones from which she can conjure life. Superb physical and vocal performances from the two dancers. Exactly the sort of thing that I love.

    The company also had a second show at the Fringe, Riders, which I’m sorry to have missed, if for no other reason than that the music is so haunting.

  • Sirens, Ontroerend Goed (Main Hall, Summerhall)
    Finishing with a challenge. Ontroerend Goed are always confrontational and aim to put the audience under the microscope and watch it squirm.
    This starts powerfully: the actors – all women – assemble as a choir, displaying comedic tics that wrong-foot the audience, leaving it unprepared an assault of excruciating atonal screeching – sirens indeed. What followed was an uncompromisingly frank and slyly humourous exploration of sex, fantasy, mysogyny and jealousy. The deadpan delivery of a litany of awful ‘woman’ jokes was almost painful to endure, not least because some guy in our audience really did seem to be finding them funny. It’s a very powerful, provocative piece. I should have liked to discuss it with some of the women in the audience to get their perspective, but we had to dash for the train (Summerhall is possibly my new favourite venue, but it’s a damn long way from Waverley).
    In general I do like their work, but in this piece (and also their earlier The Audience) once the point’s been made and shock has worn off it can all verge on feeling a bit too earnest.

Final note – as was not entirely unexpected, the Android App still doesn’t do its job very well, so the paper guide remained our vade medum. At least it was useful during showers. Maybe next year…

Visual Studio Annoyances

This thing could not be more irritating to use.

  • Fatal Error C1902: Program database manager mismatch; please check your installation

    Something to do with debugging. Ignore the lies and rubbish written about mspdb80.dll, just ensure that you are not compiling with “/Zi”. Change Properties -> Configuration Properties -> C/C++ -> General -> Debug Information Format to “C7 compatible”.

  • OpenMP with Visual Studio 2010 Express

    So, although the CL compiler that ships with VS2010 Express supports OpenMP, this feature’s disabled because some files are missing. Specifically:

    • omp.h Although not redistributable, it can be found on github
    • vcomp100.dllInstall the VS 2010 Redistributables
    • vcomp.lib Can be made from the vcomp100.dll. Do:
      dumpbin.exe /exports vcomp100.dll > vcomp

      From vcomp, extract the symbol names, and stick them in another file, along with a simple header, viz:


      Finally make the import library.

      lib.exe /def:vcomp /out:vcomp.lib

      Then copy that into Visual Studio’s VC/lib directory

  • But wait! There’s more. Microsoft’s shipped vcomp.lib also includes a magic symbol. Somewhere in your source, you’ll need to add
    extern "C" void _You_must_link_with_Microsoft_OpenMP_library( void ) {}

Fettling Ubuntu

Ubuntu’s probably the least-worst option for Linux client machines (this week, at least), but it still takes a bit of hammering to get it into shape. The web is full of idiotic half-solutions to these problems. So, in no particular order, here are my idiotic half-solutions to the things that tweak my blood pressure:

  • Disable product search Oh my, this is an annoying thing. As of Ubuntu 13.ish it seems there’s no single package culpable. The easiest way to shut it up it is to prevent it being able to contact the remote search service by adding to /etc/hosts:
  • Focus follows mouse: as any fule knoe, this is the way it’s meant to be. The magic incantation for this is:
  • gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.wm.preferences focus-mode 'mouse';
    gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.wm.preferences auto-raise  false
  • Triple-tap for emulated mouse third-button: Why yes, I do want to run xfig.  Put the below in ~/.bashrc
  • synclient TapButton3=2
  • Two-finger scrolling the right way: this is now the ‘Natural scrolling’ option in settings -> mouse & touchpad
  • Install Microsoft Office: Because friends don’t let friends use the lamentable OpenOrifice. Wine alone is a bit too fiddly, so use the PlayOnLinux wrapper to install Office from your legitimate installation medium.
  • apt-get install PlayOnLinux
  • Disable gnome-terminal confirm-on-quit gnome-terminal pops up a nagging “are you sure?” dialog every time a tab is closed. Change this with: (What’s the difference between gsettings and gconftool-2? Don’t know, don’t care. )
  • gconftool-2 --set -t bool /apps/gnome-terminal/global/confirm_window_close false