The September 9, 2019
A QWERTY Computer
Retirement frees a person's time to delve deeply into qwertyness. Lately, the
question for the Almanack has been: What is the minimal computer that is good
enough for general use?
First up, a Surface Pro 3. This is a 4-year-old machine with a gorgeous screen
and decent specs, so why is it selling for $270? A nephew inherited one with no
useful end-user software, so we undertook a Linux installation to see if it has
merit. The cosmetics are stunning: ultra-HD eye-grabber, 700 grams, a
faux-suede cover/keyboard that magne-magically adheres to the tablet, good
sound, all the ports, SSD, bluetooth, etc, etc. So you really want to like this
No distro offered a seamless experience, but Jake Day has a patch kit on his web
site to handle the quirks. Strike one: end users don't want to rebuild the OS
kernel to make their machines work. But being geeks, we'll play along for now.
Install git, log into github anonymously, download the kernel source, run a
The patch kit wants to work with Fedora. Which is fine, except that Fedora
releases a kernel update every week, so get to work on a sophisticated build
script, and brace yourself for a 4-hour maintenance window. Strike two; there
are maybe 10 geeks in the universe with the patience, and they're both working
for the NSA.
The patch kit adds a battery monitor, since Surface doesn't play nicely with any
distro's power management, and wifi support, since Surface has its own idea of
how to drive a Marvell chip. But the Surface camera follows no standards at
all, so even Jake has given up on driving that little brick. The battery
monitor takes a very rough guess at how much juice you have left, so you might
ust crash with 40%. And wifi might stay up if you keep it busy, but even the
latest patched version might just take a nap while you're running a download.
In other words, it works, but not very well. Strike three.
Next in line is a Raspberry Pi. The choices at present are Pi 3b+ and Pi 4.
Latest version would seem a no-brainer, but 4 is only 4 months old, and most of
the kits and add-ons haven't caught up. And there is some obscure usb-c issue
that the wizards warn may frotz your hardware, so maybe you want to wait til
they fix it. So 3b+ it is.
Considering that the Pi is sold as ikea-for-nerds, RPI (we're insiders now) is a
pleasant experience. The official and 'official' bits work exactly as they
should, right out of the box, with a little help from YouTube. (Nobody reads
the damned manuals anyway, right?) Third-party kits seem universally dodgy, and
they come with sub-literate instructions to enhance their unintelligible YouTube
videos, but they could fill a niche if you're patient.
Pi is cheap: $40 for the cpu, $60 for a screen, $15 for a case, $40 for usb and
sd chips, $15 for speakers, $20 for a charger kit, $15 for a camera, $30 for a
battery... It does add up. You have to download the 'raspbian' OS and put it
in a 32Gb partition on a micro-sd chip, then assemble the whole mess. Which is
all part of the fun, knowing that you can take it apart, put it on a tv with
hdmi, embed it in a robot, put it in a surveillance blind, the project list goes
on and on. Because it's very low wattage, you can drive it with a couple of
phone-chargers, or phone batteries. Zendure batteries do pass-through charging,
for an instant UPS. My favorite feature is the add-on scaffold: Legos, built
into the case and peripherals for easy and firm attachment.
But if it's a 'real' computer you want, well. Linux is very frugal with memory,
but the Web is not. Adobe and Chrome and Skype and streaming eat gigabytes for
a snack, and Pi 3b+ has a don't-even-think-about-it 1Gb hardwired memory limit.
For normal geeks this is adequate. My modest investment of time and treasure
produced 120G of available storage on a usb 'disk' and 96G available in the
Linux partition of the boot sd card. So, with 1G of memory and 200G of disk,
this can be a very capable machine. The 7" screen is 800x640, which is fine
for editing, even to my aging eyes. Just don't try to exchange large pdf's
with your accountant, or start a Hangout with your remote relations. This is
the Unix/KISS philosophy alive and well in the 21st Century.
My wife looked at the exposed ribbon cables and battery wires and Lego hinges
and asked if I thought TSA would let me take that bomb on a plane.
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