Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

No notebook is perfect, but the reMarkable comes really close

November 21, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

The reMarkable is a premium e-ink notebook. Imagine a Kindle, but you can write on it.

It has become my daily notebook. I take all my meeting notes on it, dump my ideas and designs, and carry it with me everywhere. As a bonus, it also has replaced my Kindle and my relationship with ebooks and "read it later" in general.

I have been using a reMarkable for six months. It is a great product, but the 500€ price point is probably double than most people would be willing to pay for.

This article aims to answer one single question: should you buy one, and pay more than an iPad, which has more features?

The price tag and the 30-day return window

The reMarkable store gives you 30 days to return it if you're not satisfied. Were it not for this option, I would have never bought one.

During my first weeks of use I couldn't stop considering returning it. To organize my thoughts I created a note on the reMarkable where I dumped my raw impressions.

On top, with big letters: "Should I return it?". Below that, random thoughts. "I enjoy it. Magical things happen when you write on it". "557€". "Pen feeling is ok very good". "Don't think of the money". "Disappointed with the OCR". "Good for reading but not great"

When approaching the end of the return period I asked myself, "if this product cost 200€, would I return it?". Definitely not. "Do I enjoy my interactions with the reMarkable, even if it's not perfect?". Definitely yes.

So I opened my thoughts note, and at the bottom, with fancy calligraphy, I wrote: "I'll keep it!"

Six months later, and with the price tag long forgotten, I'm glad I did.

The reMarkable as a notebook

👍🏼 On the plus side:

The writing experience is excellent. This is indeed the most critical aspect of the product. The reMarkable is a fantastic notebook.

It does really seem like you are using pen and paper. There is almost no lag when writing, the text is crisp, and the texture of the screen is even better than those of a Wacom.

Perfect size. Big enough to write long lines and diagrams and have plenty of space, yet a bit smaller than an A4 which makes it fit everywhere.

The pen tips last long enough. I had the feeling that I would need to replace them too often, but that's not the case. My first tip has lasted for 6 months of daily use.

The filesystem and document management is simple and works well. Syncing cloud stuff is a difficult task and I was somewhat afraid that it would be unreliable. It works well and any time that the sync failed I've been able to retry and make it work.

In general, the reMarkable software does not do a lot, but what it does, it does well.

You can use it as a whiteboard with your computer. I had a Wacom but the reMarkable retired it. It can "project" your current page to the reMarkable app on your computer. You cannot use the pen as an input device directly, but this compromise works well when you are doing e.g. a video conference and want to draw something and share it with colleagues.

It is distraction free. If you buy an iPad you get more features, but you will be tempted with distractions when you are working. An iPad replaces a computer. The reMarkable replaces a notebook.

It really does make you more creative. The fact that you can easily erase and move elements on the page and work with layers allows you for a more creative thought process. You are not constrained by a permanent pen on paper or having to erase and rewrite with a pencil. I am regularly sketching new ideas and designs much quicker and easier than with a regular notebook, a blackboard or a computer.

You can bring it to interactions where using an iPad would be rude. Because it is so clearly a notebook and not a computer you can use it in places where it would be rude to pull out a phone, iPad or a laptop.

As an example, I recommended the reMarkable to a friend of mine who is a psychologist, and they use it when talking to patients. I bring it to very important meetings where having a "computer" on the table could suggest a lack of attention or respect to the other party.

Writing on the reMarkable. Note the quick response to the pen and the audio of the writing experience.

👎🏼 However, the reMarkable as a notebook has one big drawback and some minor aspects to improve.

The OCR is useless. This is the most disappointing aspect of the reMarkable. Yes, it has OCR and it is of acceptable quality, but it doesn't work the way it should.

On the reMarkable, OCR needs to be invoked manually and the output text is then sent by email as a plain txt file. If you were hoping for it to work like ocrmypdf you will be disappointed.

To be useful, OCR ought to happen automatically, and should keep the converted text linked to the page graffitti as a reference. If that is too complex, at least add the recognized text as metadata so that the handwritten notes can be searched.

One of my main time sinks is to tidy up my handwritten meeting minutes into a computer document. I was hoping that my reMarkable would solve that and I only had to edit the OCR errors, but that was not the case. I still have to manually type my notes to a document afterwards.

Not having searchable notes was almost a deal-breaker for me, and I still have hope that this behavior will be implemented in the future as an update.

The eraser tool could be much improved. You can either select an area to delete or drag the pen and delete areas below it, but you cannot delete strikes.

Syncing should be more proactive. To sync your changes, you need to (1) close the current document, (2) wait for the reMarkable to connect to wifi, (3) wait for the sync to finish.

This means that the opened document you are working on will not sync unless you close it. I understand this is done to save battery, but I feel like the reMarkable should still wake up the radio and sync the current document every 15 minutes or so.

The accessories are expensive. You must use a pen with the reMarkable. It should be included in the base package, and the only reason it isn't is to reduce the price tag on the homepage. That feels a bit dishonest. The comparison with the iPad doesn't hold, because the iPad is not a notebook. Therefore, the base price of the reMarkable is $450.

The pen with the eraser is unreasonably priced and nobody should buy it since the eraser is no good anyways.

Regarding the cover, it is more necessary than on other tablets, because you can't risk damaging or even slightly scratching the soft screen. The sleeve is $70 and the book-like cover is $120.

This sets the real price of a reMarkable between $520 and $670.

The reMarkable as an ebook reader

The reMarkable is a fine ebook reader which supports both pdf and epub files. It has no backlight, but I don't find that an issue as I don't read in bed.

Transferring and organizing files is super easy and much more convenient than on a Kindle or iPad. The desktop or mobile app allows you to send any document to the cloud, which will quickly sync to the reMarkable.

I have made a habit of exporting interesting articles or even long emails to pdf and sending them to the reMarkable. It is my "read it later". After many years of struggling with a good solution for this use case, I am very happy with the result.

The size is definitely on the larger side if you are used to smaller Kindles, but it has its benefits, especially when reading PDF files.

If you are familiar with dedicated ebook readers, you will miss a dictionary, bookmarks and annotations. You can highlight parts of the text, but there is no index of annotations anywhere. This makes it unsuitable for some types of editing and annotated reading.

Finally, in case somebody from reMarkable reads this, please fix your gesture to turn pages. I find myself needing to do the gesture up to four or five times until it works. This is a bit annoying when writing, but very prominent when reading ebooks. I would appreciate a setting or a mode where you can turn pages just by tapping on the margins, like other ebook readers.

Other thoughts

The battery life is excellent. You do not need to worry about it. It lasts between one and two weeks. Remember to use the sleep button for a better battery experience.

You have root access. The reMarkable is a proud Linux computer and you can SSH into it. You can install third party software. However, that software is not very polished, and sometimes even experimental, so I ended up using the official apps. Just be aware that if you're felling brave you can install other notebook apps and ebook readers, some games, new templates, and even make the pen a real input device for your computer.

They are moving towards a subscription model. After reading about it, in my opinion, you don't need the subscription. Google Drive and Dropbox integration are not necessary because the provided cloud service works well. The handwriting conversion is moot as explained above. Screen share is nice to have but it's one of those use-once-or-twice-every-year things. If you choose to pay for the subscription you get a discount on the device, so both options are good.

The option to connect an external keyboard would be killer. Of course, the main use case is to write with a pen. However, given that this is a distraction-free device, the option to behave essentially like the screen of a typewriter would be much appreciated by writers and minimalists.

The magnetic snap of the pen is very addictive

Should I buy it?

The reMarkable is a brilliant device that will replace your paper notebook and, unless you are an advanced user of ebook devices, your ebook reader. It is the ideal companion to a laptop.

Having a reMarkable at hand makes you more creative and you will want to carry it everywhere. The experience of writing on the reMarkable is far superior to pen and paper and even iPad-like tablets. It provides a distraction-free environment with a much better handwriting experience.

It is very easy to upload and download data from it and you will find yourself sending longer articles to the reMarkable to read later. However, it will not solve the problem of typing up handwritten notes on a clean computer document.

The price tag is very high, but there is a 30-day return guarantee, and you will really enjoy using this device. Go ahead. Just try it for yourself.

Disclosure: If you purchase a reMarkable through the links on this article you will take advantage of a $40 referral coupon, which means that you will basically get the pen for free.

Tags: hardware, life

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The M1 Macbook Air, one year later

November 04, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

This article is part of a series:

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop
  3. Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side
  4. This article

Ah, the life of a regular user. All the cool youtubers are rushing to publish their reviews of the new and shiny Macbooks Pro, and here I am with my review of the year-old M1 Macbook Air.

(If you want to watch some great MBP reviews, I recommend the ones from Lisa and Dave)

Since I'm not a reviewer, I'm going to do something unusual and probably more interesting.

I am going to compare the 2020 Air with the 2013 Air as it was released.

2020 vs 2013

The TL;DR is that the 2020 is a 9.5/10 but the 2013 was a 10/10. I was in love with that machine since day one until the day I retired it.

Of course, any nitpicks I will mention don't really matter and they are outshined by the fact that it's a fantastic machine and there is no other consumer laptop that comes close.

Let's start with the things where the 2020 is better than the 2013:

  • Mind blowing battery life under normal and low use. You can easily get 14-16 hours when web browsing, writing or streaming. The 2013 used to get 10-12 with low use, and 5-7 with regular use, but this is incredible.
  • Great battery life under moderate load, about 7-10 hours. The 2013 suffered when the CPU was stressed and dropped to 3-4 hours.
  • The Retina screen is really nothing out of the ordinary nowadays, but it shines when compared to the TN panel that the 2013 had.
  • The speakers are incredible for a laptop this size. The 2013's were not bad for the time, but these are much better.

Now, some aspects where both machines are equivalent:

  • The SSD is quite fast, applications launch quickly, the system is very responsive
  • The webcam is acceptable
  • The keyboard and trackpad are both great
  • The version of macOS included on release was a bit buggy but it improved with the following release
  • The 2020's form factor is nice and compact, and the 2013's also was when compared to contemporary laptops

And finally, a few issues which are unique of the 2020:

  • The battery is degrading at the speed of light. After only 56 cycles the health is at 85%. My usage pattern is similar to the one I had with the 2013, and it took four years before I had to replace it.
  • Speaking of which, it has a non-user-serviceable battery or SSD. I had to swap both on my 2013 and I dread the moment this laptop completely dies because of SSD degradation.
  • The port selection sucks and it took me 4 tries to get a good USB/Thunderbolt dock
  • Speaking of which, the headphone jack is on the wrong side
  • External monitor EDID management is buggy and many LCDs look blurry. The 2013 had no issues with this.
  • External USB drives behave erratically. Sometimes they mount and unmount instantly, other times they take multiple minutes to mount/unmount
  • Emulation of Windows systems is in a bad state. I have multiple Virtualbox images which replicate older computers I used when I was a kid, for nostalgia reasons, and they stopped working.

Overall, some of these items are related to the Apple Silicon, others are related to the form factor, and others to software. It doesn't matter. The experience is perfect but not flawless.

I am, however, very hopeful for the future, so I don't really mind.

What about Pro users?

From my analysis of the 2016 Macbooks Pro:

[Apple] Ask your own engineers which kind of machine they'd like to develop on. Keep making gorgeous Starbucks ornaments if you wish, but clearly split the product lines and the marketing message so all consumers feel included.

The 2020 Macbook Air is clearly a consumer laptop, and the 2021 Macbooks Pro are undoubtably a Pro laptop. We are back to the famous four-product matrix.

That is probably the most important aspect of the Great Contrition that Apple is going through, and not many Apple pundits have talked about it.

The fact that consumers can buy a great laptop for 1000€ is fantastic. But even better is that Pro users now have the option to spend a lot of money on a machine which is leaps, not steps, ahead of the consumer one.

Speaking of price:

Many iOS apps are developed outside the US and the current price point for your machines is too high for the rest of the world. I know we pay for taxes, but even when accounting for that, a bag of chips, an apartment, or a bike doesn't cost the same in Manhattan than in Barcelona

Non-US salaries make it a bit difficult to justify the expenditure on a 2021 Pro laptop, but anybody can develop iOS apps on a sub-1500€ Apple computer.

Finally, a laptop I can recommend

I can safely recommend the 2020 Air to any non-technical person who asks me which laptop they should get. More importantly, I am now confident that the next 10 years of Apple hardware will not disappoint me. I will not need to keep fumbling with Linux laptops unless for fun.

Furthermore, for price-sensitive Pro users, the Air is still probably the best bang for your buck.

Honestly, I really don't know if I consider myself a "Pro" anymore. I am a power user but I definitely don't need superfast CPUs, tons of RAM, pixel-perfect screens or eardrum-breaking speakers.

But boy, am I glad that users who need those finally can have them. This one is for you, congratulations!

 

The story ends here. Did you read all previous chapters?

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop
  3. Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side
  4. This article

Tags: apple, hardware

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Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side

April 02, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

This article is part of a series:

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop
  3. This article
  4. The M1 Macbook Air, one year later

Due to very bad decisions by Apple's product marketing teams, Mac hardware and software had been in steady decline since 2016.

Therefore, there has been a trickle of articles on the Geekosphere about people switching from Macs to Linux or Windows.

This is the contrarian view. Don't do it.

The TL;DR is right there in the title: migrating to Linux is fine, but don't expect a better experience than the Mac.

My experience with the Dell XPS 13" Developer Edition was positive in general, including a self-hosted Cloud setup, but not good enough to convince me to stay with it.

We will cover:

  1. A comparison of generic productivity software: email, calendar, image manipulation, etc.
  2. Available power tools to customize your keyboard, trackpad, and more.
  3. A quick jab at decades-old issues which still haven't been solved.
  4. Misc stuff that Linux does better than the Mac.
~~~~~

I feel like I need to clarify that this is an article aimed at Mac users who are considering a migration to Linux in hope of a more polished system. As usual, personal experiences and requirements are subjective. I know that Ubuntu ≠ Gnome ≠ Linux. I also know that I'm not entitled to anything, everybody is welcome to send patches. Just let me say that if you try to cherry-pick any single issue, you're missing the forest for the trees.

~~~~~

Linux productivity software is fine, but there are rough edges for the power user

The typical disclaimer when recommending Linux to a Mac/Windows user is that some proprietary software may not be available, like MS Office, Photoshop, games, etc.

Nobody says, "the main problem you will find with Linux is that email and calendar clients fall apart when you scratch under the surface."

It is truly ironic because I ran MS Office with Wine and it worked well but I was unhappy with my email workflow.

Yes, the apps I missed the most from the Mac were Mail.app, Calendar.app, and Preview.app.

I am an extreme power user, to the point that many of the keys on my keyboard don't do what the keycap says. I want my apps to let me do easy things fast while allowing me to do complex tasks with a bit of extra work.

I send and receive maybe 100 emails per day. Most of them are HTML, with attachments, video conference invitations, and such. I don't live in a vacuum. I can't ask my clients to send me plaintext email only. I need to send long emails with pictures, I want my zoom invites to appear automatically in my calendar.

For some reason Mail.app gets a lot of criticism, but it does almost everything well. It has conversation view, search is fast and helpful, multiple accounts are combined seamlessly including autodetection of the "From" field based on the recipient, and smart folders (search folders) are updated when you need them.

On Linux, the only email client with a native "conversation view" is Geary, which is in early development and still very buggy. Evolution is fine and well-integrated with the rest of the desktop apps, but the lack of conversation view was a deal-breaker for me. Thunderbird is an excellent email client, but conversation view is provided by a plugin that is also buggy. Other options like Claws, Sylpheed, Kmail, and terminal clients are more limited in terms of features and don't work for me.

I ended up using Thunderbird, but I felt like I was doing my email with handcuffs. Suffice to say, I had both Thunderbird and Gmail open and used either one depending on the task I needed to complete.

The situation of calendar and contacts clients is similar, with the same contenders. I also ended up using Thunderbird along with Google Calendar.

About PDF and basic image management, anybody who has used Preview.app will realize that it's much more than just a viewer. There is simply no replacement on Linux. You'll need to open either the Gimp or Xournal for any basic editing. I am an advanced Gimp user, but for most operations, Preview.app is faster and more convenient.

Desktop notifications are something we don't think a lot about, but a bad system can be very annoying. Gnome has a system-wide framework, which is not well thought in terms of dealing with the actual notifications.

Most apps have their own notifications system which runs in parallel, especially Thunderbird and Evolution. You end up with different types of notifications on different parts of the screen, and a non-consistent UI to deal with them.

Finally, on the Mac, you can find an ecosystem of alternative paid PIM apps, like Spark, Fantastical, Things, and others. There is no equivalent ecosystem on Linux, probably because they would be difficult to monetize.

Power tools are more limited and more difficult to use

The previous section could be summarized as "Linux PIM software is fine in general, but gets in the way of power users."

That is counterintuitive, right? Linux is a much nerdier OS than the Mac and everything is customizable.

But when you jump from theory to practice, at some point you just want a tool to help you set up your config, without the need to edit your trackpad driver source file.

Any advanced Mac user knows about Karabiner, BetterTouchTool, Choosy, Alfred, Automator, and more.

With Linux, you can achieve almost the same feature set, but it is harder and more limited.

For example. To customize your keyboard, you will need a combination of xdotool, xbindkeys, xcape, xmodmap and setxkbmap to capture some event and then run a shell script. There is a Gnome Shell plugin that allows you to tweak your keyboard, but it's nowhere near Karabiner.

If you want to achieve some specific action you need to read four or five manpages, search online, and figure out how you are going to put the pieces together. That made me appreciate Karabiner and BTT much more.

Furthermore, I couldn't find a real alternative to BTT to customize trackpad multi-touch gestures. I tried a few approaches with libinput-gestures but none worked.

In the end, I was able to replicate most of my macOS power tools setup via input hooks and shell scripts, but it took much longer than it should have. I found it surprising that, given the number of nerds using Linux every day, there are no specific tools equivalent to those mentioned above.

"I Can't believe we're still protesting this crap"

Please allow me to make a bit of fun of issues that existed back in 1999 when I started using Linux and still exist today.

  • Screen tearing with the intel driver. Come on. This was solved on xorg and now with Wayland it's back. I fiddled multiple times with the settings but couldn't fix it. Even with OpenBSD it was easier to fix. The default settings should be better. I don't care if the video driver will use an extra buffer or whatever.
  • Resolving new hosts is slow, with a delay of about 2-3 seconds. I tried to disable IPv6 and other tricks from Stackoverflow threads, but none solved the issue completely. Again, an issue with the default settings. macOS does some DNS magic or something and the network feels much faster.
  • Resuming after suspend seems to work at first. As soon as you start to trust it and not save your work before closing the lid, it betrays you and you lose your work. Later, you upgrade the kernel and it works all the time for weeks until you upgrade the kernel again and it goes back to working 80% of the time. What a mess.

We've come a long way with Linux on the desktop but I think it's funny that some things never change.

Linux also hides some gems

I want to end this review on a positive note.

During those six months, I also took notes on apps and workflows that are still better on Linux.

  • Tracker/search is better and faster than Spotlight. It's a shame that not all apps take advantage of it, especially Thunderbird.
  • Firefox is amazing. On the Mac, Safari is a better choice, but I was very happy using Firefox full-time on Linux. I am going to miss some great plugins, like Multi-account containers, Instagram-guest, Reddit Enhancement Suite, and of course NoScript and uBlock Origin
  • Nautilus is better than the Finder. It's not even close.
  • The Gnome Shell Extension Gallery has many hidden gems, like Nothing to say which mutes the microphone system-wide with a shortcut, the Emoji selector, Caffeine to keep your computer awake, a Clipboard manager, and Unite to tweak basic UI settings. I am now using macOS equivalents to those, and I discovered their existence thanks to the Linux counterparts.
  • Insync for Linux is better than the official Google Drive File Stream for the Mac. In fact, I am now using the Mac version of Insync.
  • Gimp and Inkscape are excellent apps, and it's a pity that the macOS ports are mediocre. I'd rather use them than Pixelmator/Affinity Designer. Hopefully, someday either GTK or these apps will get decent macOS versions.
  • apt-get was a revolution when it was released in 1998 and it is still the best way to manage software today. brew is a mediocre replacement.
  • I paid for Crossover which allowed me to use MS Office and other Windows apps I needed. Kudos to the Wine developers for almost 30 years of continuous effort.
  • Xournal is an obscure app that allows you to annotate PDF documents as well as draw with a Wacom tablet. I used it constantly as a whiteboard for online presentations. The macOS port is very buggy, unfortunately, so I use OneNote which is not that good.

Hopefully, the success of paid tools like Insync or Crossover can encourage the developer ecosystem to continue developing quality apps, even if they are non-free, or supported by donations.

What's next?

Watching the ARM Macs keynote

On November 10th Apple showed us the future of the Mac and released again laptops worth buying. So I bought the 2020 M1 Macbook Air. You will read a review of it soon.

The hardware is much better than the Dell's and, I guess, every other PC laptop. The software ecosystem is a big improvement over my Linux setup, and Big Sur course corrects the absolute mess that Catalina was. With every passing year, the iCloud offering keeps getting better, especially if you have other Apple devices.

I am somewhat sad that I couldn't join the Linux Resistance. After all, I've been an annoying proselytizer heavy free software advocate in the past, and I still am, though I nowadays admit there are many nuances.

The experience of using Linux as a daily driver has been very positive for me, but I do need my productivity. I can work much faster with macOS and iCloud than I was with Linux and my self-hosted cloud setup.

If there ever was a period where the Mac experience was worse than Linux, it is now over. The Mac ecosystem wins again. Don't switch to Linux expecting it to have fewer papercuts than the Mac. It's quite the opposite.

There is definitely grass on the other side of the fence, but it is not greener.

 

Continue reading...

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop
  3. This article
  4. The M1 Macbook Air, one year later

Tags: apple, linux

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Whatever Clubhouse is, they are onto something

February 21, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

I've been following Clubhouse for a few weeks. As a podcaster, it piqued my interest. So it's like podcasts, but live?

The official slogan is drop-in audio chat. But that's not good. It only makes sense once you've used the app, and it doesn't describe the whole thing.

For me, the perfect definition is: it's Twitch for audio. But then, you need to know what Twitch is.

Yesterday I received an invitation and finally got to try it first hand. And I think that Clubhouse is onto something.

Radio vs Podcasts

Everybody knows radio. Even during this Internet revolution, it still has survived. Why? Because it's convenient. You tune in to some station and listen to music or people talking. It requires zero effort.

Radio has two problems: the fact that it's live, and the selection of topics.

Nowadays it's easy to download aired shows, so if you really like some program but you missed it when it was live, just go to their website and download the mp3 file.

However, the selection of topics still is an issue. Due to the fact that a station is a business, and that its model is airing ads, it requires volume. Therefore most radio stations produce mainstram content.

With the coming of the internet, a few nerds started using a new technology called Podcasts. You could record any audio content with a 1€ microphone and publish it on the internet.

Even though podcasts are naturally asynchronous, many shows air live too. Some listeners can listen to the stream, but most of them just download the audio file later.

Publicly searchable podcast directories aggregate both amateur and professional audios. Thanks to that, we have reached this point where anybody in the world has access to an ocean of audio content about any topic, either mainstream or niche.

Enter Clubhouse

What Twitch did to Youtube, Clubhouse has done to podcasts. For the sake of this explanation, let's ignore that podcasts are an open ecosystem and Youtube is proprietary.

Youtube is a video discovery platform. It has some tools to livestream, but it's not their main focus. Twitch has a much better product (and ToS) for livestreamers and their audience.

Want to watch somebody playing Minecraft? Open Twitch, search for Minecraft, and boom! hundreds of streams right there. Join one, chat with the community, and if you're lucky the streamer may shout out to you.

You can't do that with podcasts.

First of all, there can be some interactivity by combining an Icecast stream with an IRC channel, but it is not a good system.

Second, live podcasts are not aggregated anywhere. It is just impossible to search for "strategies to control your stress during covid-19" and find live shows.

So, if only as a directory of live audio content, Clubhouse has future.

But it is not only that. The product is very well thought and lets the audience participate, with audio.

A naive approach would have been to include a text chat on top of the audio stream. That would replicate the current solution on an integrated app. Okay, not bad.

However, the Clubhouse team spent some time thinking about the use case for audio streaming, which is not the same as for video streaming, nor public chat rooms.

Most of us listen to audio while we are doing other tasks and most of the times our hands are busy. This is why people jokingly call it the Airpods social network. You can participate while being away from a phone or computer.

In Clubhouse, you can tap a button to "raise your hand", and the moderators may "unmute" you. Then you can talk to the rest of the audience. Of course, not all show formats allow for that, but the option is there.

Being able to talk to your idols or even talk to the community of fans is very powerful. My first experience with Clubhouse was moving. I was listening to a concert and after the show all the listeners gathered up to talk about their experience and to have a chat with the band. Everybody agreed that with Clubhouse you can feel that there's people at the other end. Not only the speakers, but also the audience.

You don't get that with podcasts, even with live ones with a chat room.

A new category

Clubhouse has definitely invented a new category which combines the best of radio and the best of podcasts.

The product implements a selection of novel features which, when brought together, create an exciting and very addictive experience:

  • Directory of live audio streams ("rooms") about any imaginable topic
  • You can quickly drop in any room, listen for a few minutes, and jump to another one
  • The audience can participate via audio, which creates a great sense of community
  • Basic tools to follow people and interests, and get notified when they live stream
  • Of course, streamers may record the audio and publish it afterwards, so it's trivial to use Clubhouse in combination with the current podcasting ecosystem.

If you're in the podcasting community you should try to find an invitation. It is the real deal.

Tags: internet, podcasting

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How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop

February 11, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

This article is part of a series:

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. This article
  3. Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side
  4. The M1 Macbook Air, one year later

Returning the Macbook Pro

In the previous installment of this series I explained how I had been disenchanted with recent Macs.

The fact is that shortly after writing that review I returned the 2020 Macbook Pro.

I tried to love it, honest to God, but it was mediocre.

Let me share with you the list of issues I found while using it for two weeks:

  • USB2 keyboard and mouse randomly disconnecting. I tried 3 different USB/Thunderbolt adapters, including Apple's, to no avail.
  • Abnormal rattling sound when fans start spinning, as if they were not properly seated.
  • Not detecting the internal keyboard sometimes after resuming sleep.
  • Only 5 hours of battery life when streaming video with the screen off, connected to a TV.
  • Battery drained from 70% to 15% after sleeping overnight.
  • The touchbar. I spent time trying to make it useful with BetterTouchTool. Then I discovered that the keypresses don't register correctly most of the times, and I had to tap twice or three times, which defeats the purpose of having a dedicated shortcut.
  • Trackpad registers too many spurious taps and the cursor jumps around the screen while typing.
  • Airpods Pro have ~400ms of audio lag when watching videos. Solved with a reboot but it appears again after a few minutes.
2020 MBP does not detect its internal keyboard

The fact that it had issues with the internal keyboard and the USB subsystem made me think that the unit may have a faulty logic board. I discovered later, through a Reddit thread, that the USB2 issue was not specific to my unit, but it didn't matter much.

I was feeling really ripped off with a machine I had spent 2.000€ on and which, speed aside, was worse than my 2013 Air in every way I cared.

In the end, my gut told my brain, "Stop rationalizing it, this laptop makes you unhappy", and I came to terms with it.

Now what?

I had been dreading this moment since 2016, when I realized that Apple didn't care about my demographic anymore.

Migrating platforms is a big hassle, so after I made the decision to return the Macbook Pro, I thought carefully what the next steps would be.

In order to transition from the Mac to Linux I had to prepare a plan for for new hardware, new software, and a new cloud ecosystem.

At that point there were strong rumors about ARM Macs. I thought I'd use Linux for an indeterminate amount of time, until Apple hopefully released a good Mac again. Which may have been "never", though I was optimistic.

I have used Linux extensively in my life, since 1999, but mostly as a developer. Nowadays my requirements are more "mainstream" and I need apps like Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader to do my job. This is an important point to make. This computer is my main work tool, and it needs to accommodate my own needs as well as my job's. I spent some time making sure that I could run all the software I needed. As a last resort, there is always the option of using a VM.

As a final step, I had to move all the iCloud stuff out of there, because it is not interoperable with standard clients. I decided I would self-host it and see how difficult it is to leave the walled garden.

Therefore, I needed to fulfil the following requirements:

  1. Good laptop hardware with Linux support
  2. Ability to run work-related software
  3. Self-hosted (or almost) cloud services

1. Choosing a new laptop: The 2018 Dell XPS 13"

Before buying—and potentially returning—a new machine I drove to the office and grabbed two old laptops to see if they would fit: a Thinkpad 420 and a 2018 Dell XPS 13".

I decided to test drive the five of them: the 2020 MBP, my 2013 MBA, the Thinkpad, the Dell, and my tinkering laptop, a Thinkpad x230 with OpenBSD.

Benchmarking laptops

I then spent a couple days trying to make some sense of the situation. You can see them running a group video chat and some benchmarks.

Fortunately, a clear winner emerged: the 2018 Dell XPS with Ubuntu-Dell installed.

How good is the 2018 XPS? Excellent. 9.5/10 would recommend. I got in love with that machine. Very good hardware, with just a few minor issues.

Pros:

  • Good screen quality
  • Small bezels. It makes a difference and I still miss them today.
  • Light, nice in my lap. The Macbook Pros have air vents that "cut" into your legs when you're wearing shorts.
  • All I/O worked fine. I used the official Dell Thunderbolt Dock.
  • Excellent keyboard. I liked the pgup/pgdn keys on the arrow cluster and welcomed back the function keys.
  • Good battery life (6h of streaming video) even though the laptop had been used daily for almost 3 years.

Cons:

  • The speakers are of laughable quality. Not just bad, but why-would-Dell-do-that bad. Extremely quiet and terrible quality.
  • The webcam is on a bad location. Not really a big deal, but I'm glad they fixed it in recent revisions.
  • The trackpad is kinda like the 2013 Air's, but a bit worse.
  • Coil whine. I tried to be positive and used it as an "activity indicator" like in the old days of spinning hard drives, but I'd rather not have it.

That really is it. The Dell XPS is probably the best go-to PC laptop. Excellent set of compromises, good price, good support. If you want to use Linux on a laptop, you can't go wrong with the XPS.

2. Doing my job with Linux

I knew beforehand that hardware support was not going to be an issue. Linux drivers in general are pretty good nowadays, and that XPS specifically was designed to work well with Linux, that is why we bought it for the office.

On first boot everything works. Ubuntu is pretty good. Gnome 3 tries to be like a Mac, which I liked, and the basic software is fine for most of the people.

I then installed my work software. Most of it is either standard (email, calendar...) or multi-platform via Electron or webapps. For Windows-specific software I purchased a license of Crossover and also installed a Windows 10 VM on Virtualbox. It was not super convenient and sometimes things crashed with Crossover, but I could manage.

Overall, the desktop environment and base apps are not as polished as macOS, which I will discuss later, but it worked.

I am happy to realize that I can continue recommending Linux to "regular people" who want a computer that just works, doesn't get viruses, and is very low maintenance.

3. My self-hosted cloud setup

This is a topic that is on everybody's mind right now. We went from the original, decentralized internet, to a network centralized in a few vendors like Facebook, Google, Cloudflare and Amazon, and I think that is a bad idea.

The walled garden is comfortable, but what happens when you want to make the switch? How easy it really is to migrate your online infrastructure to another vendor?

Well, I was going to discover that soon. I like the iCloud ecosystem, and in general am fine with Apple's privacy policies, but I just couldn't continue using it. Apart from email, all other services (pictures, calendars, files, notes, etc.) cannot be used in Linux, and the browser client is extremely bad.

I am a geek, and have been a sysadmin since college, so I took it as a personal challenge to create my own personal cloud infrastructure.

First I tried Nextcloud. It mostly works and I recommend it in general, but the server components are too heavy and the file syncing is slow and unreliable.

I decided to self-host every individual piece of the puzzle:

  • My mail has been managed by postfix/dovecot for a few years now. I don't recommend anybody self-hosting email due to deliverability issues, but I'm that stubborn.
  • I set up radicale for contacts, calendars and tasks. It had issues connecting to some clients due to, I believe, SSL negotiation. If I had to set it up again I'd try another alternative.
  • All my files got synced over my laptops and the server thanks to Syncthing. I can't stress enough how great of a software is Syncthing. Really, if you're looking for an alternative to Dropbox, try it out. It will amaze you.
  • Syncthing does not expose files publicly, so I span up the Apache Webdav server to share files.
  • Joplin is a good alternative to take rich text notes and sync them over the internet. The clients are not very polished, but it works.
  • For passwords I've been using Lastpass for some time.
  • I kept using iCloud for pictures, because it's the best solution if you have an iPhone. It is fine because I don't need to work with pictures on my daily workflow.

It took some time of researching and deploying all the pieces, and I'm quite happy with the result. It feels really great to manage your online infrastructure, even though it requires technical knowledge and regular maintenance to keep everything up to date.

So how did it all work out?

Well, I have been repeating this term all over the article: it works. I could do my job, and it was a very gratifying learning experience. Overall, I do encourage geeks to spin up their own cloud infra and work with Linux or BSD boxes. I do have some self-hosted cloud services and I also keep a laptop with OpenBSD which I use regularly.

It is possible to get out of the walled garden. Of course, it's not within reach of the general public yet, even though Nextcloud is very close, and some third party vendors are starting to offer an integrated cloud experience outside the world of the Big Cloud.

But I'm writing this in the past tense because I went back to the Mac. Unfortunately, after six months of using this setup full-time I started noticing very rough edges, which I will explain on the next article.

Stay tuned!

 

Continue reading...

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. This article
  3. Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side
  4. The M1 Macbook Air, one year later

Tags: apple, linux, hardware

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