Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Damn Small Linux on a Libretto 50CT

November 24, 2020 — Carlos Fenollosa

In about 2004 a friend from college got into his hands a series of Toshiba Libretto 50CT. They all came with Windows 95 pre installed, and we wiped them out and installed Debian with a 2.2 kernel from floppies, with much pain because of the unsupported disk drive. I remember it being so difficult that I don't even want to write about it. But it booted and was able to run Vim, Links, and connect to the internet. Enough for a network-enabled typewriter.

I got Richard Stallman to sign mine while it was running GNU/Linux, but when I bought a regular laptop I stopped using it because, well, it is too old, and its keyboard is too tiny to type comfortably with it.

The Libretto, closed

The Libretto, closed. It is a tiny machine, a wonderful piece of engineering.

Around 2012 I found it inside a box at home, working perfectly, with a battery life of a bit less than an hour—which is incredible for a 12+ year old machine— and DR-DOS installed. I can't remember why I did that, but Golden Axe was also installed, so there's a hint.

I decided to install a modern Linux and, at least, store it on a working condition to give some justice to Stallman's signature.

There are some tutorials available on the net, but none of them covered 100% of the hardware support for my machine. Most of them are also outdated, and refer to distributions that don't exist, don't have any support or are about unusable nowadays. However, I took many hints from those tutorials, and I will reference them accordingly.

Hardware

This laptop has a 75 MHz —actually, mine reports 74 MHz— with 24 MB of RAM, which is an upgrade from the original 16 MB which are usually bundled. The screen is 640x480, and if you choose a higher resolution, instead of scaling the image, it only displays the upper-leftmost 640x480 pixels, leaving the bottom and rightmost part of the area out of sight.

The mouse device is emulated as a PS/2, and physically is a "clitoris"-like pointing device. You know what I mean. Working with the X windows is a pain in the neck because the location of the mouse and buttons isn't very ergonomic, and clicking on a button makes the whole screen move on its hinges.

Next to the mouse there is a speaker which is similar in quality to those of a modern smartphone.

This device doesn't have any extension port other than a dock connector for a dock I don't have, and a 16-bit PCMCIA slot, which you will need for the network card. It doesn't have a COM port or anything like that, which is understandable, given the size of the case.

It does have an Infrared device, which is quite slow and useless, but for its time it was as good as wireless could get. The other holes correspond to the power adapter and the reset button next to the PCMCIA, big enough to be able to reset the laptop with a regular pen.

For the full specifications, please refer to the official leaflet.

The Libretto

The setup I will be using: the Libretto, and a 3Com 16-bit PCMCIA Ethernet card

Choosing a Linux distribution

I wanted to find some modern, low-demanding software, not unsupported versions of Debian or RedHat. As you might have expected by this page's title, I chose Damn Small Linux (DSL).

I was very lucky to find that my machine had been upgraded to 24 MB of RAM. Apparently, even low-end distros have difficulties booting a regular kernel with 16 MB. I didn't want to tune or recompile the kernel on a 75-MHz machine, so I had to do some tricks.

In order to decide on a distro, I tried to set some goals up:

  1. Discard modern distributions which require at least 256 MB of RAM. In fact, discard anything that doesn't work with 24 MB of RAM
  2. Try to avoid old versions of current distros (i.e. Debian Woody) because the ISOs and the packages might not be mirrored anymore and are difficult to be found.
  3. Use a distro which self-configures kernel modules on boot, because I will be installing from a Virtual Machine and the hardware will change between reboots. Recompiling the kernel is totally out of the picture.
  4. Kernel 2.4 if possible, to make both the audio and the Ethernet work
  5. As easy to configure as possible. I want to finish this in a few hours... [Narrator: he didn't]

I found myself with these contenders, Damn Small Linux, Puppy Linux and Tiny Core Linux.

DSL v4 was the chosen one for many reasons. First, the default software choice is a good compromise and finely tuned for low performing machines. The installation seemed the easiest of the three, and—very important—worked flawlessly inside VirtualBox. The documentation is very extensive and, as a slightly old distro, there are lots of manuals and forum posts with solutions to common problems.

There is also the fact that DSL is based on Knoppix, so it detected my hardware perfectly, didn't have to tweak the PCMCIA, and only had to configure the audio manually because the I/O ports were not the standard ones. This was a huge aid for me. PCMCIA Internet working out of the box is something I hadn't even imagined to have.

However, the decision also came with a few drawbacks. DSL has its own "package manager", which only works from X and can't uninstall packages.

apt-get can be enabled, but it might break packages already installed with MyDSL. Furthermore, those packages tend to disappear on a reboot for some reason. I'm still unsure on whether to use apt-get with MyDSL. We will not be using it.

The ACPI doesn't work, but I don't know whether it's the kernel or the Libretto's fault.

My biggest fear, however, is that most of the packages are old and might have security issues. However, as this will not be my main machine, and it won't run a browser with JavaScript enabled, I'm not very worried.

Why didn't I choose Tiny Core? because it didn't boot on a VirtualBox machine with 24 MB of RAM. It would have been my first choice, because it is better maintained than DSL. A real pity.

And what about Puppy? The LiveCD is great but the installation instructions were too complicated for me. I really didn't want to spend that much time configuring everything. It is maybe too modern (based on Slackware 13.37 with Kernel 3.1.10) and I doubt the Libretto could have handled its kernel.

Installation

Please note: I will assume that you have some experience with Linux, partitioning, and installing stuff from a console.

Strategy

There are two alternatives: use floppy disks or physically remove the drive and set up a VM. Years ago, I went the first path, because I had the floppy disk drive. Since I don't have it anymore, I found an awesome tutorial which suggested to physically remove the drive from the Libretto, attach it to a 2.5" IDE to USB adaptor, and install the system from another computer. Check out his pictures for details on how to remove the drive. My machine is in a bad condition (broken hinges, cracks all over the case, stuck screws) and I had to break some plastics and metal parts to access the drive.

So, we will use another Linux computer, which you probably already have, and set up a virtual machine inside VirtualBox. Then, we will remove the Libretto's physical HDD and attach it via USB to your computer, using an adapter. The DSL CD image and the new /dev/sd will be mapped inside the VM.

This way we can boot and install from a CD, instead of doing netinsts with the Debian Woody diskettes, as you will read on many other websites. It is the fastest and painless way, and if you don't have the floppy drive, it is the only way.

If you have the floppy drive and are wondering if it is worth to buy the adapter, go ahead! Walk the difficult path, install DOS, start a Linux setup from DOS, try to make the floppy disk work, then install from diskettes with a crappy kernel, fight with the PCMCIA driver until you are able to use the network, and install from the net. And, should the installation fail, start OVER AGAIN! When this happens, please send me an email so that I can pretend that I sympathize with you but actually laugh at your misery.

Talking seriously, I am just trying to warn you. I tried that, I failed, then I succeeded, and not even in my success I want even the worst of my enemies going that path. Buy it, then come back and follow these instructions.

Removing the hard drive

You already have the adapter? Great! I bought this one which worked great and allowed me to manipulate the drive from my main computer.

The 2.5inch IDE to USB adapter

This is the adapter in its box. It comes with an enclosure that I didn't use to avoid overheating, and a handy screwdriver.

The 2.5inch IDE to USB adapter, close up

A close up of the IDE adapter. Don't buy a SATA one by mistake!

Using the drive in VirtualBox

As stated before, we will use VirtualBox to make DSL think it is running on a real machine, and that the—now USB— hard drive is the main drive of the VM. Turns out that using a physical disk from /dev on VirtualBox isn't easy to find, but the actual command is simmple.

Please make sure that your Linux has detected the USB drive as /dev/sdb before proceeding or you might lose data on the wrong disk! If in case, use Disk Utility or check dmesg.

VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename disk.vmdk -rawdisk /dev/sdb
                                                                       ^^^^^^^^  <-- check this

The command above will create a file named disk.vmdk, which is a short plaintext file which references to /dev/sdb. You can now add it to your VM using the normal VirtualBox Appliance Manager

Partitioning

Use your main Linux box to partition the hard drive. Disk Utility works well, but I used cfdisk.

The tutorial then notes that the last 32MB of the disk space are used for the Libretto's hardware Hibernate feature. I followed his partition table suggestions completely. Just in case his page is down, do this:

  • /dev/hda1 738.0 MB, ext2 (ext3 is slower, but more secure), mounted as /
  • /dev/hda2 40.3 MB, swap
  • A remaining free space of 37.2 MB. Don't worry if the figure is slightly higher or lower due to rounding.

Installing DSL

Now go ahead, and download the ISO image. I used the Release Candidate 4.11.rc1 and it didn't give me any problems

Set up a new VM with 24 MB of RAM, use the ISO as the CD drive, and the disk.vmdk as the hard drive. Then boot.

If everything goes well, you will be shown the desktop. Now, in order to install, I have adapted the official instructions

sudo -s
swapoff -a
mkswap /dev/hda2 ## Considering that you followed the partition scheme in the tutorial
swapon /dev/hda2
dsl-hdinstall

Follow the setup assistant from there. I chose Grub instead of LILO for the bootloader, and it worked. The network also works out of the box, so I didn't need to apply any modifications in /etc/default/pcmcia as stated in David's tutorial.

Now disconnect the USB adapter, remove the disk, put it back in the Libretto, and boot. You should be prompted with either the console login or a X desktop, depending on your setup.

Network

I have a PCMCIA 16-bit 5V 3Com Ethernet adapter and just recently acquired a wireless Orinoco Gold card, 16b 5V too, one of the few known to work with this Libretto model, albeit only in WEP-mode.

This Libretto only accepts Type II PCMCIA, so it is very difficult to find a Linux 2.4 compatible, WPA-capable wifi card. Please let me know if you managed to get WPA wifi working!

Here are some pictures, as a reference.

The 3Com card

The 3Com card, front

The 3Com card

The 3Com card, back. Note the "PC card" icon with the technical specs.

The Knoppix core of DSL detected my Ethernet card, configured it with DHCP, and it talked instantly to my home router. Woohoo, it's on the Internet! I actually didn't need to do anything, compared to the hell I suffered with the Debian setup some years ago.

Wireless

The Orinoco card

The Orinoco card

Again, thanks to the Knoppix core, the Libretto automatically detected the PCMCIA card, loaded the orinoco kernel module, and the card was ready to use.

First, prepare your wireless router to work with WEP. It is highly discouraged to do so, because it is a big security hole. Fortunately I had a spare router that I can use only for the Libretto and will turn it off after playing with it.

My recommended setup for the router is:

  • Hide the ESSID
  • Filter by MAC address
  • Use 802.11b with auto channel
  • Use a 128-bit ASCII WEP key

I tuned /opt/eth0.sh to run the iwconfig commands. Add this just below the #!/bin/bash line:

iwconfig eth0 essid ESSID_NAME
iwconfig eth0 key open s:WEPKEY
iwconfig eth0 mode managed
sleep 1

If you WEP key is hex and not ASCII, omit the s: part before it.

Wait for a few seconds, and when iwconfig reports a correct Access Point, you're on the internet. Congratulations!

Since the 50CT has very low specs, Firefox starts swapping like crazy. The best commandline browser is links2 and I recommend dillo if you run X.

Look ma, no cables!

Look ma, no cables!

Sound

This other tutorial points out some tricks to use all of the Libretto's capabilities. I didn't try most of them, but since I couldn't play any music, I went ahead and probed the opl3sa2 driver. At first, it didn't work, because the I/O parameters on my card weren't the same than on that page.

The BIOS of the Libretto

This is my main BIOS configuration

The BIOS of the Libretto, audio section

A detail of the audio section. From top to bottom, the values correspond to the following module parameters

  • mss_io
  • not used
  • not used
  • irq
  • dma
  • dma2
  • io
  • mpu_io

This means that we will load the module with the following parameters. Remember to check your BIOS and use the correct ones, or modprobe will fail

modprobe opl3sa2 io=0x370 mss_io=0x530 mpu_io=0x330 irq=7 dma=1 dma2=0

Note: to access the Libretto BIOS, reboot or reset it, and press <ESC> during or just after the memory check

Finally, the Pentium 75 CPU is able to play most mp3 files, but you will need to compile your own mpg123. DSL comes with mpg321, but the audio isn't fluid and for some reason only mpg123 is able to decode mp3 in realtime. Running it from a console instead of an X session also helps, though the main bottleneck is the CPU, not the RAM

ACPI/APM/Battery

I only managed to get APM working. Playing with the Grub boot options there is no way to enable ACPI.

This blog post has some pointers on how to install the Toshiba experimental ACPI driver, but as I didn't want to recompile the kernel, I couldn't use it. If you feel strong enough, use the same Virtual Machine that you used for the DSL install and recompile it there, with the power of a current computer.

The toshiba kernel module loads correctly (/proc/toshiba), but not toshiba_acpi (/dev/toshiba). Not a big deal for me, but if you managed to get it working without recompiling the Knoppix kernel, please let me know.

The Libretto does some power management by hardware (screen blanking, hibernation), and this is enough for me. However, to get the system to actually power off after a shutdown, edit the /boot/grub/menu.lst and change the parameter noapm to apm=on apm=power-off

torsmo, DSL's dashboard, usually manages to get my battery status, but I didn't investigate further.

Performance tricks

Here are some generic tips on how to save some RAM and CPU cycles

  • Enable DMA - For some reason, DSL disables DMA by default. To enable it, edit the Grub config file /boot/grub/menu.lst and change the boot parameter nodma for dma. You will then see a boot message saying that DMA has been enabled for /dev/hda
  • Disable ttys - Edit /etc/inittab and disable all consoles but one. Instead, run a GNU screen session to get terminal multiplexing.
  • No X - Disable the automatic X session that is launched on login. You might need to edit the .bashrc or the .bash_profile files. Comment out the startx command.
  • GNU tools - With those bytes we saved, use the DSL menu option "Upgrade to GNU tools" to replace the very basic BusyBox shell with the regular GNU tools.
  • Fix the date - Use MyDSL to install ntpdate and run it when coming back from hibernation, since the date will probably be incorrect: ntpdate ntp.apple.com

Currently my setup takes the following resources:

  • Used memory with X running: 10 MB
  • Used memory without X running: 3 MB
  • Used disk space: 290 MB

Not bad, right? 3 MB of RAM on boot and a full functioning X taking only 7 MB more. That leaves a whooping 14 MB for applications!

As the pointing device is not that great, I usually run a single tty with a screen session for terminal multiplexing, and do most of my work on the terminal. X is only needed for viewing PDFs or images, and that's a perfectly suitable task for that computer.

Final words

I find it amazing that a laptop from early 2001 can still hold about an hour of battery, its drive is still spinning, and that it overall works. DSL gave it a new life, and though it is tedious to use a cable or WEP to connect to the internet, it is a functioning UNIX system, with audio and a decent mobile typewriter. Yes, the keyboard is small and uncomfortable, but this thing fits in any bag. Why, by 1990s standards, it would "fit in your pocket"!

There is plenty of information out there on installing Linux on a Libretto, but at the time of writing this article, most of articles are about 7-10 years old. I hope that it can be useful for somebody who, like me, found this machine at the bottom of a drawer and might want to play with it a little, install a current Linux and maybe give it to your kids or use it as a second laptop.

I wouldn't use it as a server, since it has little memory to run a server daemon, the disk and fan are noisy, and keeping it on 24/7 would burn the machine. If you want a cheap server, go for an old Mac Mini and install the latest Debian there. The Libretto is a ultra portable laptop and, if yours still holds some battery charge, is a nice toy to write stuff on or browse the simple internet.

DSL is highly customizable, and there is plenty of documentation out there. The default software is great, and searching the net you will find current software which is suitable for low memory devices. You will find yourself with a machine capable of reading and writing emails, displaying images, playing music, and more.

The only sites it can't browse are those which use Flash or are heavy on JavaScript. Well, the modern web, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter... but if you try to use the mobile versions you might get a nice surprise. You can try to use the Firefox version bundled in DSL but I wouldn't recommend that, it's too slow.

Feel free to contact me if there is any mistake on the tutorial or if you have some contribution, for example, a command to make it run with WPA, or if you managed to make the ACPI work.

The Libretto running X

The Libretto running an X session

Originally published on Github in 2013

Tags: retro, hardware, unix

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You may be using Mastodon wrong

October 18, 2020 — Carlos Fenollosa

I'm sure you have already heard about Mastodon, typically marketed as a Twitter alternative.

I will try to convince you that the word alternative doesn't mean here what you think it means, and why you may be using Mastodon wrong if you find it boring.

An alternative community

You should not expect to "migrate from Twitter to Mastodon."

Forget about the privacy angle for now. Mastodon is an alternative community, where people behave differently.

It's your chance to make new internet friends.

There may be some people for whom Mastodon is a safe haven. Yes, some users really do migrate there to avoid censorship or bullying but, for most of us, that will not be the case.

Let's put it this way: Mastodon is to Twitter what Linux is to Windows.

Linux is libre software. But that's not why most people use it. Linux users mostly want to get their work done, and Linux is an excellent platform. There is no Microsoft Word, no Adobe Photoshop, no Starcraft. If you need to use these tools, honestly, you'd better stick with Windows. You can use emulation, in the same way that there are utilities to post to Twitter from Mastodon, but that would miss the point.

The bottom line is, you can perform the same tasks, but the process will be different. You can post toots on Mastodon, upload gifs, send DMs... but it's not Twitter, and that is fine.

The Local Timeline is Mastodon's greatest invention

The problem most people have with Mastodon is that they "get bored" with it quickly. I've seen it a lot, and it means one thing: the person created their account on the wrong server.

"But," they say, "isn't Mastodon federated? Can't I chat with everybody, regardless of their server?" Yes, of course. But discoverability works differently on Mastodon.

Twitter has only two discoverability layers: your network and the whole world. Either a small group of contacts, or everybody in the whole world. That's crazy.

They try very hard to show you tweets from outside your network so you can discover new people. And, at the same time, they show your tweets to third parties, so you can get new followers. This is the way that they try to keep you engaged once your network is more or less stable and starts getting stale.

Mastodon, instead, has an extra layer between your network and the whole world: messages from people on your server. This is called the local timeline.

The local timeline is the key to enjoying Mastodon.

How long it's been since you made a new internet friend?

If you're of a certain age you may remember BBSs, Usenet, the IRC, or early internet forums. Do you recall how exciting it was to log into the unknown and realize that there were people all around the world who shared your interests?

It was an amazing feeling which got lost on the modern internet. Now you have a chance to relive it.

The local timeline dynamics are very different. There is a lot of respectful interactions among total strangers, because there is this feeling of community, of being in a neighborhood. Twitter is just the opposite, strangers shouting at each other.

Furthermore, since the local timeline is more or less limited in the amount of users, you have the chance to recognize usernames, and being recognized. You start interacting with strangers, mentioning them, sending them links they may like. You discover new websites, rabbit holes, new approaches to your hobbies.

I've made quite a few new internet friends on my Mastodon server, and I don't mean followers or contacts. I'm talking about human beings who I have never met in person but feel close to.

People are humble and respectful. And, for less nice users, admins enforce codes of conduct and, on extreme cases, users may get kicked off a server. But they are not being banned by a faceless corporation due to mass reports, everybody is given a chance.

How to choose the right server

The problem with "generalist" Mastodon servers like mastodon.social is that users have just too diverse interests and backgrounds. Therefore, there is no community feeling. For some people, that may be exactly what they're looking for. But, for most of us, there is more value on the smaller servers.

So, how can you choose the right server? Fortunately, you can do a bit of research. There is an official directory of Mastodon servers categorized by interests and regions.

Since you're reading my blog, start by taking a look at these:

And the regionals

There are many more. Simply search online for "mastodon server MY_FAVORITE_HOBBY." And believe me, servers between 500 and 5,000 people are the best.

Final tips

Before clicking on "sign up", always browse the local timeline, the about page, and the most active users list. You will get a pretty good idea of the kind of people who chat there. Once you feel right at home you can continue your adventure and start following users from other servers.

Mastodon has an option to only display toots in specific languages. It can be very useful to avoid being flooded by toots that you just have no chance of understanding or even getting what they're about.

You can also filter your notifications by types: replies, mentions, favorites, reposts, and more. This makes catching up much more manageable than on Twitter.

Finally, Mastodon has a built-in "Content Warning" feature. It allows you to hide text behind a short explanation, in case you want to talk about sensible topics or just about spoiling a recent movie.

Good luck with your search, and see you on the Fediverse! I'm at @cfenollosa@mastodon.sdf.org

Tags: internet

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Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it

June 01, 2020 — Carlos Fenollosa

The 2013 Macbook Air is the best computer I have ever owned. My wish has always been that Apple did nothing more than update the CPU and the screen, touching nothing else. I was afraid the day of upgrading my laptop would come.

But it came.

My Air was working flawlessly, if only unbearably slow when under load. Let me dig a bit deeper into this problem, because this is not just the result of using old hardware.

When video conferencing or under high stress like running multiple VMs the system would miss key presses or mouse clicks. I'm not saying that the system was laggy, which it was, and it is expected. Rather, that I would type the word "macbook" and the system would register "mok", for example. Or I would start a dragging event, the MouseUp never registered but the MouseMove continued working, so I ended up flailing an icon around the screen or moving a window to some unexpected place.

This is mostly macOS's fault. I own a contemporary x230 with similar specs running Linux and it doesn't suffer from this issue. Look, I was a computer user in the 90s and I perfectly understand that an old computer will be slow to the point of freezing, but losing random input events is a serious bug on a modern multitasking system.

Point #1: My old computer became unusable due to macOS, not hardware, issues.

******

As I mentioned, I had been holding on my purchase due to the terrible product lineup that Apple held from 2016 to 2019. Then Apple atoned, and things changed with the 2019 16". Since I prefer smaller footprints, I decided that I would buy the 13" they updated next.

So here I am, with my 2020 Macbook Pro, i5, 16 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD. But I can't bring myself to love it like I loved my 2013 Air.

Let me explain why. Maybe I can bring in a fresh perspective.

Most reviewers evaluate the 2020 lineup with the 2016-2019 versions in mind. But I'm just some random person, not a reviewer. I have not had the chance to even touch any Mac since 2015. I am not conditioned towards a positive judgement just because the previous generation was so much worse.

Of course the new ones are better. But the true test is to compare them to the best laptops ever made: 2013-2015 Airs and Pros.

Point #2: this computer is not a net win from a 2013 Air.

Let me explain the reasons why.

The webcam

You will see the webcam reviewed as an afterthought in most pieces. I will cover it first. I feel like Apple is mocking us by including the worst possible webcam on the most expensive laptop.

Traditionally, this has been a non-issue for most people. However, due to covid-19 and working from home, this topic has become more prominent.

In my case, even before the pandemic I used to do 2-3 video conferences every day. Nowadays I spend the day in front of my webcam.

What infuriates me is that the camera quality in the 2013 Air is noticeably better. Why couldn't they use at least the same part, if not a modern one?

See for yourself. It really feels like a ripoff. Apple laughing at us.

A terrible quality picture from the macbook pro webcam
The 2020 macbook pro webcam looks horrible, and believe me, it is not only due to Yours Truly's face.

A reasonable quality picture from the 2013 Air
A reasonable quality picture from the 2013 Air

For reference, this is the front facing camera of the 2016 iPhone SE
For reference, this is the front facing camera of the 2016 iPhone SE, same angle and lighting conditions.

For reference, a picture taken with my 2006 Nokia 5200
As a second reference, a picture taken with the 640x480 VGA camera of my 2006 Nokia 5200. Which of the above looks the most like this?

I would have paid extra money to have a better webcam on my macbook.

The trackpad

The mechanism and tracking is excellent, but the trackpad itself is too large and the palm rejection algoritm is not good enough.

Point #3: The large trackpad single-handedly ruins using the experience of working on this laptop for me.

I am constantly moving the cursor accidentally. This situation is very annoying, especially for a touch typist as my fingers are always on hjkl and my thumb on the spacebar. This makes my thumb knuckle constantly brush the trackpad and activate it.

I really, really need to fix this, because I have found myself unconsciously raising my palms and placing them at a different angle. This may lead to RSI, which I have suffered from in the past.

This is a problem that Apple created on their own. Having an imperfect palm rejection algorithm is not an issue unless you irrationally enlarge the trackpad so much that it extends to the area where the palm of touch typists typically rests.


Is it worth it to antagonize touch typists in order to be able to move the cursor from this tiny corner?

I would accept this tradeoff if the trackpad was Pencil-compatible and we could use it as some sort of handwriting tablet. That would actually be great!

Another very annoying side effect of it being so large is that, when your laptop is in your lap, sometimes your clothes accidentally brush the trackpad. The software then registers spurious movements or prevents some gestures from happening because it thinks there is a finger there.

In summary, it's too big for no reason, which turns it into an annoyance for no benefit. This trackpad offers a bad user experience, not only that, it also ruins the keyboard—read below.

I would have paid extra money to have a smaller trackpad on my macbook.

The keyboard

The 2015 keyboard was very good, and this one is better. The keyswitch mechanism is fantastic, the layout is perfect, and this is probably the best keyboard on a laptop.

Personally, I did not mind the Escape key shenanigans because I remapped it to dual Ctrl/Escape years ago, which I recommend you do too.

Touch ID is nice, even though I'm proficient at typing my password, so it was not such a big deal for me. Face ID would have been much more convenient, I envy Windows Hello users.

Unfortunately, the large trackpad torpedoes the typing experience. Writing on this Macbook Pro is worse than on my 2013 Air.

I will keep searching for a tool which disables trackpad input within X miliseconds of a key press or disables some areas of the trackpad. I have not had any luck with neither Karabiner nor BetterTouchTool.

The Touchbar

After having read mostly negative feedback about it, I was determined to drill myself to like it, you know, just to be a bit contrarian.

"I will use tools to customize it so much that it will be awesome as a per-application custom function layer!"

Unfortunately, the critics are right. It's an anti-feature. I gave it an honest try, I swear. It is just bad, though it could have been better with a bit more effort.

I understand why it's there. Regular users probably find it useful and cute. It's ironically, a feature present in pro laptops meant for non-pro users: slow typists and people who don't know the regular keyboard shortcuts.

That being said, I would not mind it, probably would even like it, if it weren't for three major drawbacks:

First and foremost, it is distracting to the point that the first thing I did was to search how to completely turn it off.

This is because, by default, it offers typing suggestions. Yes, while you are typing and trying to concentrate, there is something in your field of vision constantly flashing words that you didn't mean to type and derailing your train of thought.

Easy to fix, but it makes me wonder what were Apple product managers thinking.

Secondly, it is placed in such a way that resting your fingers on top of the keyboard trigger accidental key presses.

I can and will retrain my hand placement habits. After all, this touchbar-keyboard-trackpad combo is forcing many people to learn to place their hands in unnatural positions to accommodate these poorly designed peripherals.

However, Apple could have mitigated this by implementing a pressure sensor to make it more difficult to generate involuntary key presses. It would be enough to distinguish a brush from a tap.

Finally, and this is also ironic because it's in contradiction with the previous point, due to lack of feedback, sometimes you're not sure whether you successfully pressed a touchbar key. And, in my experience, there is an unjustifiable large number of times where you have to press them twice, or press very deliberately to activate that key you want.

There are some redeeming features, though.

As stated above, I am determined to make it bearable, and even slightly useful for me, by heavily modifying it. I suggest you go to System Preferences > Keyboard and use the "Expanded Control Strip".

Then, customize the touchbar buttons, remove keys you don't use, and add others. Consider paying for BetterTouchTool for even more customization options.

Then, on the same window, go to the Shortcuts tab, and select Function keys on the left. This allows you to use function keys by default in some apps, which is useful for Terminal and other pro apps like Pycharm.

(Get the third irony? To make the touchbar, a pro feature, useful for pro apps, the best setup is to make it behave like normal function keys)

Finally, if you're registering accidental key presses, just leave an empty space in the touchbar to let your fingers rest safely until you re-train your hands to rest somewhere else. This is ridiculous, but hey, better than getting your brightness suddenly dimming to zero accidentaly.

Leave an empty space in the touchbar
Leave an empty space in the touchbar on the area where you are used to rest your fingers.

I would have paid extra money to not have a touchbar on my macbook.

The ports

Another much-debated feature where I resigned myself to just accept this new era of USB-C.

I did some research online and bought the "best" USB-C hub, along with new dongles. I don't mind dongles, because I was already using some with my Air. It's not like I swim in money, but there is no need to blow this out of proportion.

Well, I won't point any fingers to any review site, but that "best" hub is going back to Amazon as I write these lines. Some of my peripherals disconnect randomly, plus I get an "electric arc" noise when I disconnect the hub cable. I don't know how that is even possible.

The USB-C situation is terrible. Newly bought peripherals still come with USB-A cables. Regarding hubs, it took me a few years to find a reliable USB3 hub for my 2013 Air. I will keep trying, wish me luck.

About Magsafe, even though I really liked it, I don't miss it as much as I expected. I do miss the charging light, though. No reason not to have it integrated in the official cable, like the XPS does.

Some people say that charging via USB-C is actually better due to standardization of all devices, but I don't know what periperals these people use. My iPhone and Airpods charge via Lightning, my Apple Watch charges via a puck, and other minor peripherals like cameras and external batteries all charge via micro-USB. Now I have to carry the same amount of cables as before, I just swapped the Magsafe cable and charger for the USB-C cable and charger.

Another poorly thought decision is the headphone jack. It is on the wrong side. Most of the population is right-handed, so there usually is a notebook, mouse, or other stuff to the right of the laptop. The headphones cable then gets in the way. The port should have been on the left, and close to the user, not far away from them, to gain a few extra centimeters to the cable.

By the way, not including the extension cord is unacceptable. This cord is not only a convenience, but it increases safety, because it's the only way to have earth grounding for the laptop. Without it, rubbing your fingers on the surface of the computer generates this weird vibration due to current. I have always recommended Mac users that they use their chargers with the extension cable even if they don't need the extra length.

I would have paid extra money to purchase an Apple-guaranteed proper USB-C hub. Alternatively, I would have paid extra money for this machine to have a couple of USB-A ports so I can keep using my trusty old hub.

I would not have paid extra money to have the extension cord, because it should have come included with this 2,200€ laptop. I am at a loss for words. Enough of paying extra money for things that Apple broke on purpose.

Battery life

8-9 hours with all apps closed except Safari. Browsing lightly, with an occasional video, and brightness at the literal minimum. This brightness level is only realistic if it's night time. In a normally lit environment you need to set the brightness level at around 50%.

It's not that great. My Air, when it was new, easily got 12 hours of light browsing. Of course, it was not running Catalina, but come on.

When I push the laptop a bit more, with a few Docker containers, Pycharm running, Google Chrome with some Docs opened, and brightness near the maximum, I get around 4 hours. In comparison, that figure is reasonable.

Overall, it's not bad, but I expected more.

While we wait for a Low Power Mode on the mac, do yourself a favor and install Turbo Boost Switcher Pro.

The screen

Coming from having never used a Retina screen on a computer, this Macbook Pro impressed me.

Since I don't edit photos or videos professionally, I can only appreciate it for its very crisp text. The rest of features are lost on me, but this does not devalue my opinion of the screen.

The 500-nit brightness is not noticeable on a real test with my 2013 Air. For some reason, both screens seem equally bright when used in direct daylight.

This new Retina technology comes with a few drawbacks, though.

First, it's impossible to get a terminal screen without anti-aliasing. My favorite font, IBM VGA8, is unreadable when anti aliased, which is a real shame, because I've been using it since the 90s, and I prefer non-anti-aliased fonts on terminals.

Additionally, many pictures on websites appear blurry because they are not "retina-optimized". The same happens with some old applications which display crappy icons or improperly proportioned layouts. This is not Apple's fault, but it affects the user experience.

Finally, the bezels are not tiny like those in the XPS 13, but they are acceptable. I don't mind them.

To summarize, I really like this screen, but like everything else in this machine, it is not a net gain. You win some, you lose some.

Performance

This is the reason why I had to switch from my old laptop, and the 2020 MBP delivers.

It allows me to perform tasks that were very painful in my old computer. Everything is approximately three times faster than it was before, which really is a wow experience, like upgrading your computer in the 90s.

Not much to add. This is a modern computer and, as such, it is fast.

Build quality

Legendary, as usual.

To nitpick on a minor issue, I'd like Apple to make the palm rest area edges a bit less sharp. After typing for some time I get pressure marks on my wrists. They are not painful, but definitely discomforting.

Likewise, when typing on my lap, especially when wearing sports shorts in summer like I'm doing right now, the chassis leaves marks on my legs near the hinge area. Could have been reduced by blunting the edges too.

One Thousand Papercuts

In terms of software, Apple also needs to get its stuff together.

Catalina is meh. Not terrible, but with just too many annoyances.

  • Mail keeps opening by itself while I'm doing video conferences and sharing my screen. I have to remind myself to close Mail before any video conference, because if I don't, other people will read my inbox. It's ridiculous that this bug has not been fixed yet. Do you remember when Apple mocked Microsoft because random alert windows would steal your focus while you were typing? This is 100x worse.
  • My profile picture appears squished on the login screen, and there is no way to fix it. The proportions are correctly displayed on the iCloud settings window.
  • Sometimes, after resuming from sleep, the laptop doesn't detect its own keyboard. I can assure you, the keyboard was there indeed, and note how the dock is still the default one. This happened to me minutes after setting up the computer for the first time, before I had any chance to install software or change any settings.
  • I get constant alerts to re-enter my password for some internet account, but my password is correct. Apple's services need to differentiate a timeout from a rejected password, or maybe retry a couple times before prompting.
  • Critical software I used doesn't run anymore and I have to look for alternatives. This includes Safari 13 breaking extensions that were important for me. Again, I was prepared for this, but it's worth mentioning.

Praise worthy

Here are a few things that Apple did really well and don't fit into any other category.

  • Photos.app has "solved" the photos problem. It is that great. As a person who has 50k photos in their library, going back to pictures of their great grandparents: Thank you, Apple!
  • Continuity features have been adding up, and the experience is now outstanding. The same goes for iCloud. If you have an iPhone and a Mac, things are magical.
  • Fan and thermal configuration is very well crafted on this laptop. It runs totally silent, and when the fans kick off, the system cools down very quickly and goes back to silent again.
  • The speakers are crisp and they have very nice bass. They don't sound like a tin can like most laptops, including the 2013 Air, do.

Conclusion

This computer is bittersweet.

I'm happy that I can finally perform tasks which were severely limited on my previous laptop. But this has nothing to do with the design of the product, it is just due to the fact that the internals are more modern.

Maybe loving your work tools is a privilege that only computer nerds have. Do taxi drivers love their cars? Do baristas love their coffee machines? Do gardeners love their leaf blowers? Do surgeons love their scalpels?

Yes, I have always loved my computer. Why wouldn't I? We developers spend at least eight hours a day touching and looking at our silicon partners. We earn our daily bread thanks to them. This is why we chose our computers carefully with these considerations in mind, why we are so scrupulous when evaluating them.

This is why it's so disappointing that this essential tool comes with so many tradeoffs.

Even though this review was exhaustive, don't get me wrong, most annoyances are minor except for the one deal-breaker: the typing experience. I have written this review with the laptop keyboard and it's been a continuous annoyance. Look, another irony. Apple suffered so much to fix their keyboard, yet it's still ruined by a comically large trackpad. The forest for the trees.

Point #4: For the first time since using Macs, I do not love this machine.

Going back to what "Pro" means

Apple engineers, do you know who is the target audience for these machines?

This laptop has been designed for casual users, not pro users. Regular users enjoy large trackpads and Touch Bars because they spend their day scrolling through Twitter and typing short sentences.

Do you know who doesn't, because it gets in the way of them typing their essays, source code, or inputting their Photoshop keyboard shortcuts? Pro users.

In 2016 I wrote:

However, in the last three to five years, everybody seemed to buy a Mac, even friends of mine who swore they would never do it. They finally caved in, not because of my advice, but because their non-nerd friends recommend MBPs. And that makes sense. In a 2011 market saturated by ultraportables, Windows 8, and laptops which break every couple years, Macs were a great investment. You can even resell them after five years for 50% of their price, essentially renting them for half price.

So what happened? Right now, not only Pros are using the Macbook Pro. They're not a professional tool anymore, they're a consumer product. Apple collects usage analytics for their machines and, I suppose, makes informed decisions, like removing less used ports or not increasing storage on iPhones for a long time.

What if Apple is being fed overwhelmingly non-Pro user data for their Pro machines and, as a consequence, their decisions don't serve Pro users anymore, but rather the general public?

The final irony: Apple uses "Pro" in their product marketing as a synonymous for "the more expensive tier", and they are believing their own lies. Their success with consumer products is fogging their understanding of what a real Pro needs.

We don't need a touchbar that we have to disable for Pro apps.

We don't need a large trackpad that gets in the way of typing.

We need more diverse ports to connect peripherals that don't work well with adapters.

We need a better webcam to increase productivity and enhance communication with our team.

We need that you include the effin extension cable so that there is no current on the chassis.

We need you to not splash our inbox contents in front of guests while sharing our screens.

We need a method to extend the battery as long as possible while we are on the road—hoping that comes back some day.

Point #5: Apple needs to continue course-correcting their design priorities for power users

Being optimistic for the future

I have made peace with the fact that, unlike my previous computer, this one will not last me for 7 years. This was a very important factor in my purchase decision. I know this mac is just bridging a gap between the best lineup in Apple's history (2015) and what will come in the future. It was bought out of necessity, not out of desire.

14" laptop? ARM CPUs? We will be awaiting new hardware eagerly, hoping that Apple keeps rolling back some anti-features like they did with the butterfly keyboard. Maybe the Touchbar and massive trackpad will be next. And surely the laggy and unresponsive OS will have been fixed by then.

What about the alternatives?

Before we conclude I want to anticipate a question that will be in some people's mind. Why didn't you buy another laptop?

Well, prior to my purchase I spent two months trying to use a Linux setup full-time. It was close, but not 100% successful. Critical software for my job had no real alternatives, or those were too inconvenient.

Regarding Windows, I had eyes on the XPS 13 and the X1 Carbon which are extremely similar to this macbook in most regards. I spent some time checking if Windows 10 had improved since the last time I used it and it turns out it hasn't. I just hate Windows so much it is irrational. Surely some people prefer it and feel the same way about the Mac. To each their own.

Point #6: Despite its flaws, macOS is the OS that best balances convenience with productive work. When combined with an iPhone it makes for an unbeatable user experience.

I decided that purchasing this new Mac was the least undesirable option, and I still stand by that decision. I will actively try to fix the broken trackpad, which will increase my customer satisfaction from a 6 —tolerate— to an 8 or 9 —like, even enjoy—.

But that will still be far away from the perfect, loving 10/10 experience I had with the 2013 Air.

Tags: apple, hardware

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No more Google Analytics

May 22, 2020 — Carlos Fenollosa

I have removed the GA tracking code from this website. cfenollosa.com does not use any tracking technique, neither with cookies, nor js, nor image pixels.

Even though this was one of the first sites to actually implement a consent-based GA tracking, the current situation with the cookie banners is terrible.

We are back to the flash era where every site had a "home page" and you needed to perform some extra clicks to view the actual content. Now those extra clicks are spent in disabling all the tracking code.

I hate the current situation so much that I just couldn't be a part of it any more. So, no banner, no cookies, no js, nothing. Any little traffic I get I'll analyze with a log parser like webalizer. I wasn't checking it anyways.

Tags: internet, web, security

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Evolution of my link roundups

May 10, 2020 — Carlos Fenollosa

As you may have noticed, I'm a fan of link compilation digests.

However, compiling them was quite the work for me. I always found interesting links during the week, then had to reserve an hour in the weekend to prepare the blogpost, which sometimes I did not had.

Furthermore, this format was flooding my blog with link roundups, which is not very user friendly for somebody who stumbles upon my front page.

I needed something better in two ways. First, the link publication has to be on the spot. Adding them to a list, then editing a post was not cutting it. Second, the links need to be their own section, independent from the rest of blog posts.

Fortunately, one of my link sources had the solution in front of me. The idea behind it is very simple and I got inspired by waxy's implementation. A box with links in the front page, and a special page only with links.

So this weekend project has been a very nice 1-line patch to bashblog, a bit of messing with postfix to parse links received to a special inbox, and some glue on top of it. I'm happy with the result!

The links index page is very crude right now. There is no CSS, and no feed available, but that will come soon. Meanwhile, feel free to bookmark it and visit it sometime!

Tags: roundup, bashblog

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