The DSC craze

As Christmas approaches quickly, my wife and I are trying to figure out what presents to give to friends and family, and to ourselves. We figured it'd be time to bite the bullet and get ourselves a new digital camera. We own a rather old Casio 3 MP compact DSC that has served us well for a couple of years but now the case is seriously starting to fall apart. The latch of the battery housing lost its lock and now it doesn't want to keep shut and can only be held in place with some duct tape. Anyway it's a pretty old camera, slow and with very limited features, its only advantage being, well, it's compact.

Now, while we could just get a similar DSC to replace it, unfortunately we both are a bit gadget crazy. Also, my wife owns an old Minolta SLR that makes awesome pictures but could be replaced by something more fancy. It's quite battered, the case is cracked a bit so she put some black insulating tape over the crack to keep light from coming in. And now we've got to decide what we want to get.

The options are close to infinite. Should we go for a real DSLR or is a "bridge" camera with a 20x Megazoom the better choice? And since we also love travelling with our motorbikes and taking pictures on the road, wouldn't a point-and-shoot compact camera be a much better idea? This weekend I've looked at a lot of reviews and narrowed down the options to only a few, but it's still tough.

For a compact DSC, the Canon PowerShot G10 could be a good choice. But it's got a too small sensor with way to many pixels (14.7MP) and quite consequently it suffers from noise a lot. Looking at the sample pictures the reviewer took, already at ISO 200 you can see the effect of noise filtering done by the camera, taking away sharpness and details. However, there's the predecessor G9 with a slightly "smaller" sensor at 12.1MP which has better noise figures. The G9 or G10 would be the ideal travel companion on the motorbike. Still, it's not an adequate replacement for the Minolta.

We know from experience that a small SLR camera can be handled easy enough even while sitting on the motorbike, balancing the bike with one foot on the ground and the other foot on the brake pedal, even with the helmet on. You just use a wide angle lens and point the camera to the approximate direction and press the trigger. A life preview like on compact DSCs helps but is not strictly mandatory. Changing lenses to go from wide angle to zoom is out of question, however.

This is where we enter the domain of Megazoom bridge cameras. I looked at two models, the Nikon Coolpix P80 and the Canon PowerShot SX10IS. The fixed lense ranges from wide angle to extreme zoom and their sizes are similar to compact SLR cameras. But again, a small sensor and high pixel count drive up the noise figures. The SX10IS is much better than the P80 there, but its image quality is just about par to the compact PowerShot G10, this leaves the long zoom as the main advantage. But again, on a motorbike its very difficult to use a long zoom even in good light.

The Panasonic Lumix G1 is an interesting candidate. It's a so called "Micro FourThirds" camera with a big 4-by-3 sensor at 12.1MP. It's not a real DSLR, because there is no mirror box and hence no optical view finder. But leaving out the mirror box and using a electronic view finder allows to make a very compact case. Not that compact however. It's not much smaller than compact DSLRs, but it's got a twist-able live preview display which is an advantage over regular DSLRs. The image quality is stunning! Due to the big sensor the noise figures are much better than of any of the MegaZoom or 10+ MP compact cameras and the quality of the lense is much better as well. The lenses are however also the weak spot: They are exchangeable and currently there is just two options, a variable 14-45 mm and a 45-200 mm. I already stated that changing lenses on a motorbike is a no-go. But I also said that a long zoom is difficult to handle anyway and looking at our trusty Minolta, we find that it also has a vario lense with 28-70 mm focal length, which is about equivalent to the 14-45 of the G1. And we know from experience that a compact SLR works well with the bikes.

Enters another contender, the Nikon D40. This entry level DSLR has a 6.1MP Nikon DX sensor(crop factor 1.5) and is amazingly cheap to have. The noise figure of this camera is really, really good. It doesn't even feature any ISO below 200, it's just not necessary! You can expect it taking very good pictures especially under low light conditions, think sightseeing and not needing to carry a flash for photographing in churches, crypts or in fading daylight. It's also quite well established and has a wide range of lenses to chose from. It's currently sold as a kit of body and 18-55 mm plus 55-200 mm vario lenses. Cons: it's larger than the Lumix G1 and doesn't have a life view display. On the positive side there's the image quality and the wide variety of lenses, making it the perfect replacement for the old Minolta.

It's still a tough choice. On one side compact cameras can be carried wherever you go and taking out the camera to shoot is quick and easy. But then, my wife also owns a Nokia N95 with a built-in 5MP autofocus camera, we have used it on our last summer holiday trip with good results. So is there really a need for another compact DSC? MegaZoom cameras are very versatile due to the wide zoom range. However the image quality appears to suffer from the technical constraints and the long zoom is no advantage while on the motorbike. Still, in the coming days we'll also look at new model, the Canon PowerShot SX1, but it's hard to tell if the use of a CMOS sensor can do anything about the image quality. The Micro FourThird Panasonic Lumix G1 is quite a cool device. The electronic view finder is stunning, image noise figures are not so bad and the quality of the lenses is very good. But will it survive as a concept so that more lense options will be available eventually? Experts seem to be undecided. And since it's not really small, why not go all the way and buy a real DSLR like the Nikon D40?


U100 webcam driver source for Intrepid

Kubuntu just shipped an update to their Linux kernel to 2.6.27-9. It didn't help about the U100 webcam problem but at the same time disabled the driver I had hacked up earlier. To make my life easier I extracted the uvc video driver from the kernel sources into a standalone package. This way I can recompile the driver with a simple make whenever a new update comes along.

I figure it could by useful for others as well, so it's up here for download. Compiling and installing should be fairly straight forward, just unpack the sources and type make in the extracted directory. For Intrepid you'll probably need to install a number of packages with essential build tools and at least the kernel header files. There are some HowTo's about compiling kernel modules without installing the full kernel source, however I think it should be enough to just
apt-get install build-essential linux-headers

Once compiled, just install the module as follows:
# cp uvcvideo.ko /lib/modules/$(uname -r)/updates
# depmod -a
This should be all. You can now test the webcam driver with for example xawtv. If you don't succeed, it may be that the old driver module is still loaded. Remove it with rmmod, or if you're entirely lost by now, just reboot.


One week with Kubuntu 8.10

Since I bought the U100 about one week ago I have been using it in a quite regular fashion. It currently replaces the Archos 5 as the main gadget I spend time with, which was somewhat expected due to a netbook being a much more versatile companion than a portable media player. That doesn't mean I've given up on the "5". It's strong multimedia and internet capabilities (it's even got a decent email client) make it a nice leisure companion, but I cannot use it for hacking and writing blog entries, while doable, is also nothing it really excels in.

Back to the U100 and Kubuntu. I've managed to get almost every bit of built-in peripherals working by now, except for Bluetooth, which I will come to later.

The hardest part so far was getting the camera going. It's an "Asus BisonCam" with USB VID:PID 5986:0203. On first sight it looked like this camera was supported by the Kubuntu linux kernel (2.6.27) because it was instantly recognized by the standard uvcvideo driver, however it did not work at all with either Skype, VLC or even Xawtv. I found that the driver had been moved to LinuxTv so I went and grabbed the latest snapshot from the v4l tree. However, while compiling the snapshot was not much of a problem, the resulting kernel module uvcvideo.ko could not be loaded due to symbol version differences. After several (fruitless) attempts to compile a driver matching the installed kubuntu kernel I looked at the source and found that the linuxtv people were following their habit of breaking compatibility with the mainline linux kernel, making sure that their drivers only work with their very own V4L API.

While it would have been possible to solve this by installing all modules of the v4l tree into the system I didn't feel like butchering my freshly installed system. But, no reason for distress. It took about one hour of tinkering with "kompare" to merge the few relevant changes from the LinuxTv driver into the existing Kubuntu kernel (including compile time). Had Kubuntu provided kdiff3 packages (which they don't), the whole affair could have been even easier. Kompare is not a bad tool, but kdiff3 is a magnitude more versatile.

Adding the office printer was a bit of a challenge, too. There actually is a printing framework in Kubuntu, but it seems to be just a frontend to CUPS and entirely relies on a local CUPS server being running on the system. KDE 3 used to have excellent printer support, but I guess nobody bothered yet to port this code forward to KDE 4, that's a real pity.
For some reason the local CUPS didn't pick up the printers exported by the CUPS instance on our office server and so I had to add them manually with konqueror via localhost:631 and using the web interface, and even then it only worked well after manually installing the printers PPD file. I also tried with the "HPLIP Toolbox" Kubuntu supplies but that only seems to work with HP printers (as the name suggests). Our office printer is a Ricoh iR3170C.

Bluetooth is not working yet. While the hardware is supported - I can switch it on with Fn-F11 and then use hcitool to scan for peers - it does not work at all with KDE. Searching in Launchpads bug tracker I found that this is a well known problem. Apparently there was a rather hasty switch to kernel version 2.6.27 which brought in a new BlueZ version with a completely reworked D-BUS interface. The incompatibility broke KDE's bluetooth support entirely and due to some communication breakdown between Kubuntu and upstream KDE developers the issue wasn't fixed in time. I can only hope that happens soon. I used to use my mobile phone as a modem when in a train or staying at hotels without WiFi. It'd be a real pity losing this. However, the Gnome side of things doesn't look too brilliant either. I installed the gnome bluetooth applet and tried to get modem dialing working but it wasn't possible either. It just wouldn't detect my mobile phone and then it only seemed to support OBEX and some audio profiles. KNetworkManager also doesn't offer any modem support. I wonder why because it definitely works on openSUSE 10.3.

There are some stupid power management bugs, too. For example, DPMS doesn't seem to work, the display just doesn't want to shut down. Also, coming out of suspend the display brightness isn't adjusted when you're on battery power. Also, hibernation sometimes hangs and only forcing an emergency shutdown (long-press on power button) gets you back in control.

I also found that reboot and shutdown from the KDE desktop don't work. It just exits to KDM and from there the system sometimes hangs when you try to shutdown or reboot.

All in all Kubuntu 8.10 looks a bit unpolished. There are no major problems apart from the broken Bluetooth but at the same time there are a lot of small nevertheless annoying malfunctions. Not annoying enough to ditch Kubuntu yet, provided they get their distribution fixed soon enough. I'll re-evaluate when openSUSE 11.1 comes out around Christmas.


MSI U100 unboxing

So, after having made the decision there was not much point in waiting, and so I used my lunch break today to walk over to the local notebook shop. It took about half of an hour to close the deal and I was on my way back carrying a brand new MSI Wind U100, with only a short stop at a Döner shop to grab some food.

Coming back to the office my coworkers, nosy as they are, made me unbox it right on the spot. It's a nice little device. The make and finish look quite solid, but it has a certain plastic-y feel when you handle it. Maybe that comes from its weight, or rather its lack of weight. Especially with the lid open, the hinges don't appear to be very sturdy. No comparison with my trusty IBM T40p. Comparing the sizes, it's larger than the EeePC 701 but a good deal smaller than the EeePC 1000H.

The keyboard is definitely better than the one on my EeePc 701, a bit larger and with a more convenient layout. The quality is about the same as the EeePc 1000H, which I briefly checked out in the shop as well.

The touchpad is indeed a Synaptics multi-touch, and it's working quite well, just the surface is a bit too small. However its not a problem to precisely navigate the mouse pointer. The buttons are made as rocker switches, it's not going to be easy to use the "middle mouse button emulation" of X11. They are easier to press than the EeePC's buttons by far, which is a good thing.

The graphics card was a disappointment at first. I did read somewhere that the U100 comes with an Intel GMA 950 chip, but that's not the case, it is actually the usual GMA 945 that is also inside the EeePC 1000H. (Edit: I later found out that I mixed up chipset and graphics core names. So the chipset is 945, but the graphics core is indeed a 950)

The "Genuine Windows XP" that came preinstalled didn't survive very long and was replaced almost immediately with the latest Kubuntu 8.10 release. This is going to be a new experience for me, since the only linux distribution I have been using up to now was SUSE and later openSUSE.

The installation went smoothly and took about close to one hour, completing unattendedly from a USB DVD drive. The first impression was not so nice, I was greeted with a very unpolished kdm, which was apparently expecting a 4:3 display and didn't scale the background image correctly. Logging into KDE wasn't a problem, though. The KDE4 desktop looks pretty good and the 1024x600 display is just big enough.

Getting onto the network was a breeze. I just plugged an ethernet cable and the network manager immediately retrieved an IP address. Getting wireless networking was more of a challenge, the integrated Ralink was not detected. I searched around with Google and found a bug recorded on the ubuntu launchpad, the comments eventually contained the link to a debian source package of the driver. This is where Kubuntu surprised me first: Clicking the link immediately launched an installer program which downloaded, then compiled and installed the driver! Nice! 10 minutes later wireless networking was up and running on our WPA protected network.

The next surprise came when plugging an external monitor: the system detected the new monitor automatically and offered to configure it. However it was not possible to make an image appear on the external monitor with the graphical configuration program, but
xrandr --output VGA --auto
did the trick.

Suspend worked out of the box, hibernate as well, but I don't yet know how to assign special functions to the power key. Right now it's shutting down the system.

Meanwhile I'm back home and sitting on the couch, using the U100 to blog. It's going to take a bit to get familiar with the new environment. For now I'm not missing much, only there's this lack of a central system configuration tool. On SUSE, whenever I wanted to adjust the system I knew the one place to go, Yast. On Kubuntu, there doesn't seem to be an equivalent. The "System Settings" is mostly the KDE control center, but I didn't find anything yet to control the various system aspects like sound, system security, network services a.s.o.


Gadgets, more Gadgets!

Owning a number of electronic toys already, like several Archos' PMP's, a Nokia N810, and a 1st generation EeePc 701 4G I'm now considering buying something new. It's going to be a netbook, since I seriously love the EeePc, but it's just too slow, with too meager battery life, too small screen and a number of other "too" somethings.

But, ah, the choice! The EeePc 1000H is obviously desirable, but there are others like the MSI Wind U100 which has been recently updated to feature Draft-n wireless lan (Ralink chipset) and Intel GMA950, and a 160GB HDD.

There's also Lenovos' IdeaPad S10, which adds an ExpressCard slot to the mix but doesn't feature Draft-n. The design is supposedly a bit slimmer than the U100 but I guess I need to have it in my hands to decide. And of course, like all Diamondville based netbooks, you need a 6 cell battery to achieve 5 hours of autonomy, and that messes badly with the weight and any idea of beauty the devices designer ever had.

I also briefly looked at the FSC AmiloMini, which also has an ExpressCard slot but only a small HDD. All in all, the current offerings are all using the Atom N270 chipset and so they don't give each other much with regards to computing power and autonomy. However, the next generation featuring Intels' new Menlow chips will probably not come out earlier than summer 2009.

I guess I'll get either the U100 or the S10 with a big battery. That means I'll have to wait until almost end of November, which is when the S10 is supposed to be available here. I'm however not sure that I'll be able to wait that long.

Anyway, I found a number of reviews on www.laptopmag.com including a comparison between the 1000H and the U100, with the U100 winning. So I guess I'll not be waiting and just getting the U100 instead.