The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Debian 8 on the Intel NUC5PPYH


Hassath's birthday present this year was an Intel NUC5PPYH (with 8GB of Kingston DDR3L RAM and a 250GB Samsung SSD 750 Evo) to stand in at home for her ageing Thinkpad X131E.

It took some time for the machine to reach our remote mountain abode, but we have it working nicely after spending a few hours wrestling with it. Here's a quick summary of our experience (InstallingDebianOn/Intel/NUC5PPYH wasn't really useful).

Display problems

Hassath loves her old Samsung SyncMaster 172s monitor (1024x768, VGA) and resists the idea of a new wide-format monitor. Getting the NUC to work properly with this display took the most time (but none of it was the display's fault).

We connected the monitor to the NUC's VGA port and were greeted with a "Video mode not supported" error on the monitor. The debian installer's text-mode display worked fine after boot, but we couldn't see any of the UEFI setup menus. Fortunately, we were able to sidestep the problem by using an HDMI→VGA adapter that we had ordered “just in case”. Using the HDMI output resolved the display problems with the UEFI menus.

After we installed Debian (8.1 from a USB stick created from the DVD image), X wouldn't start. The intel driver didn't work, and Xorg fell back to the VESA driver, and died while trying to set the video mode. (Also, virtual terminals didn't work at all until we added an xorg.conf snippet to force the resolution to 1024x768.) It didn't work even with the DVI-D input (via another “just in case” HDMI→DVI-D cable) on my monitor.

We stumbled around for a while, but we eventually got it working. The key was to apt-get dist-upgrade against jessie-backports to install a new kernel and drivers (e.g., libdrm-intel1). We also updated the BIOS from revision 0054 to revision 0058, but I am not sure that this was necessary, or even helpful. Xorg works with the new kernel and Intel driver. We didn't bother to check if the VESA driver would also work if we forced its use.

(Aside: we had no UEFI boot-related problems at all. We didn't even need to try the legacy boot option, either for the installation from the USB stick or to boot the installed system.)

Everything else worked

The Ethernet controller is a Realtek RTL8168h, which works out of the box with the r8169 driver. Installing the firmware-realtek package got rid of an “unable to load firmware patch” message, but the adapter worked fine without it.

The wireless controller is an Intel dual band wireless-AC 3165, which required the new kernel from backports (4.8, though 4.2+ should have worked from what we read) and the firmware-iwlwifi package to be installed. It worked fine thereafter.

The audio controller is an Intel "Braswell" 2284, which works out of the box with the snd_hda_intel driver. Audio output goes simultaneously to the headphone connector on the front panel and the glowing red S/PDIF plus headphone connector on the back. We did not try S/PDIF audio (no cable, no devices) or HDMI audio (no audio port on the HDMI→VGA adapter) or recording (no mic—or at least, no mic on my desk).

The Intel Bluetooth 4.0 controller (8087:0a2a) works out of the box with the btusb driver. We were able to pair with an Android phone and a Bluetooth speaker. We were not able to play audio to the speaker, but that is probably not a problem with the NUC, because we didn't manage to get it working with any of our other machines either.

We didn't try the SDXC card slot or the infrared sensor.

Update (2017-01-18): The SDXC card slot works fine. I used it to write a Raspbian image.

Transferring domains from


A friend had a domain registered at 123-Reg that he no longer wanted. It was coming up for renewal later this month, and he offered to transfer it to me. The domain was not locked, so I asked him for an auth code, and immediately submitted a request to transfer it to Namecheap, my preferred registrar.

The transfer failed, and Namecheap sent me mail saying the domain was locked. I checked, and it was. It had also already been transferred to another sponsoring registrar (Mesh Digital, the company that owns both 123-Reg and Domainmonster). My friend contacted support to unlock the domain, but by then of course the domain had entered the sixty-day period during which it could not be transferred again. I was forced to pay the renewal fee to them, and will now have to retry the transfer after the embargo expires.

I suppose I could think of benign explanations for the above if I tried, but I'm not feeling especially charitable about it.

Debian 8 on the Lenovo Ideapad S206


I got my dad a Lenovo Yoga 300 a few days ago, and installed Debian 8 on his old Ideapad S206 before giving it to Ammu, who has been using my old (and increasingly broken) Thinkpad X120e for months now.

The Linux Laptop Wiki has a page about the Ideapad S206; the quick summary is that everything works with only a little tweaking.

Wifi worked out of the box with brcmsmac. Bluetooth worked fine after installing the firmware-atheros package. Sound input and output worked fine out of the box. The hotkeys to change the volume (and brightness, etc.) also worked. I didn't try the card reader or the webcam.

I didn't bother with the fglrx video drivers, but I had to install firmware-linux-nonfree to enable KMS (kernel mode setting) to get suspend/resume to work properly. (Hibernation worked fine anyway.)

This is a sleek and light machine, quite a step up from the earlier Ideapad models I've used. The screen is a bit shiny, but stops short of being annoying. The keypad is unfortunately very jittery—unless you are very deliberate about tapping-to-click, you'll most likely just move the pointer a bit rather than clicking. This was my father's biggest problem with the machine (and it wasn't just a matter of acceleration settings).

But it's working nicely otherwise, and I hope Ammu gets some good use out of it.

DMT DiaSharp diamond sharpening plates


A friend sent me a pair of DMT DiaSharp “bench stones”. These are steel plates surfaced with diamond particles—an alternative to old-fashioned oilstones for sharpening steel cutting edges. I have been using them for several months now, and they have lived up to their reputation as being fast, durable, and convenient. I am very happy with them.

I have the D6CX and D6EF, each of which has two continuous sharpening surfaces measuring 150mm*50mm (6"*2"). The D6CX has extra-coarse (220 grit) and coarse (325 grit) sides, while the D6EF has fine (600) and extra-fine (1200) sides.

I have used them to sharpen kitchen knives, sharpen and flatten the back of a very hard plane iron, restore the badly-damaged cutting edges of some old chisels that belonged to my grandfather, and hone some new Narex chisels and other assorted tools.

I follow more or less the same process shown in this sharpening video by Paul Sellers.

The DMT plates are fast and a pleasure to work with. Flattening large steel surfaces does take a half-hour or so of extra-coarse rubbing (mind your knuckles don't scrape the plate! I learned this the hard way), but that isn't a task I would even attempt on my old Norton oilstone. Tuning up a blunted (not damaged) edge takes a couple of minutes at most, while restoring a nicked edge might take ten.

I use the plates with a bit of water sprayed from an old bottle of glass cleaner, and wipe them down afterwards with an old shirt. They are easy to maintain (but the coarse grits must be cleaned gently, because they will happily shred cloth), and do not need to be flattened periodically the way an oilstone might. The fine surface developed a few tiny black spots on the very first use, but extensive use thereafter has not made them any larger or more numerous. (DMT is reputed to have good customer support, but they didn't respond to my question about the black spots.)

(I also have the DuoBase stand. The rubber feet do keep it from moving, and the clearance makes it easy to flip the plates over. It works fine, but I could easily do without it.)

I like sharpening things, but I am not obsessive about it. I have not tried to measure how flat the surface actually is, nor have I looked at the sharpened edges under a microscope. The plates are flat enough, and the edges sharp enough for me; and it doesn't take too long to get them that way.

DMT manufactures a great variety of these plates: larger and smaller sizes, coarser and finer grits, single- and double-sided, or with “interrupted” surfaces that reduce the buildup of swarf (abraded steel particles that must be cleaned away). I might try a single-sided 8"*3" continuous surface plate someday—it should make it a little easier to sharpen my larger knives.

Alpen Wings ED binoculars


Two years ago, I bought a pair of Alpen Wings 8x42 ED binoculars. These are one of the least expensive mid-range birding binoculars, but a big step up from my earlier Nikon Trailblazer 8x42 at three times the price.

Even so, I didn't expect them to be so much better than anything I had used before. The view is addictively bright and clear, and I use the 2.5m close-focus capabilities much more than I thought I would. The build quality is excellent, the adjustments are smooth and precise, and these binoculars feel reassuringly solid in the hand. The hard carrying case is also welcome.

On paper, the specifications are very similar to the Trailblazer: same magnification, similar field of view, waterproof and fogproof, slightly less eye relief, a bit smaller but a few grams heavier. I expected only a modest improvement in optics and better build quality, but they're in an altogether different league. Two years later, I'm still as happy and impressed with them as I was in the first five minutes.

(I also use an Alpen spotting scope, which I will review someday; suffice it to say that Alpen optics deserve their excellent reputation.)

Renault Duster AWD 2014: one-year review


Hassath and I bought a Renault Duster AWD one year ago. This is our detailed review.

We live in a remote mountain area in Uttarakhand, and regularly use the Duster on rocks, mud, dirt tracks, and bad roads, and in heavy rain and snow; but we've also driven thousands of kilometres on good highways and expressways. We don't do any "hard core" off-roading, but the jeep track down to our house can be negotiated only by 4WD vehicles. We've had the car full of luggage, and we've had it full of people. Here's what we've learned in the past year.


The Duster AWD suits our needs well, and we are happy that we bought it. I say this right at the beginning because I don't want the criticism in the rest of this review to dilute the message: this is a capable car that serves us well in demanding conditions, and we look forward to using it for many years.

Read more…

Brother HL-2250DN and Linux


My mother has been using my old Lexmark printer for many years, but it is no longer possible to find toner cartridges for it (which is such a shame, because it's a good printer). When the last cartridge became so flaky that she could no longer print her tickets, she asked me to find a new printer for her.

I thought about a cheap Samsung ML-16xx laser printer, but my recent experience with SPL led me to settle on the Brother HL-2250DN instead. This printer ticks many of my boxes: it has Ethernet support, automatic duplex printing (surprising, for a relatively inexpensive printer), and a proper output tray. The downside is that it supports only PCL6, not PostScript.

It was easy to set up the printer under Ubuntu 11.10. I chose the generic PCL6 printer driver, and everything just worked. Delightful. (Brother's web site does have some CUPS drivers for Linux, but I did not bother to try them out.)

Not surprisingly, the printed output looks fine too.

Lenovo Thinkpad X120E (and Linux)


I've been on the lookout for a Lenovo Thinkpad X120E ever since I read Engadget's glowing review in early 2011. It was not available in Nehru Place for several months, and I'd almost forgotten about it when I happened to find it on Flipkart some weeks ago. I ordered one, and have been reasonably happy with it. Here are a few observations.

The first thing I noticed was the weight. I've become so used to holding my 1.2kg Ideapad that the extra 300g of the X120E startled me. But I got used to it quickly. The six-cell battery and slightly higher resolution screen (1366x768 vs 1024x600) are both pleasant upgrades, as are the much faster processor and the extra 1Gb of RAM.

The chiclet keyboard is nice, but the spacebar refused to cooperate until I trained my thumbs to press down very deliberately. The trackpoint/touchpad combination does its best to make everyone happy, but it takes up space and the touchpad buttons on the outer edge of the chassis are very easy to press inadvertently if you use the machine on, say, a lap. Another annoyance is the lack of an LED to indicate that the machine is charging (there's only a power-on LED and a suspend LED).

The machine is listed on Flipkart as having FreeDOS installed. In fact, it ships with an empty hard disk. Ubuntu 11.10 installed easily, and all the hardware worked fine with no fuss (wireless card, audio, Bluetooth, etc.). I was prepared for some pain, but there wasn't any.

On the whole, this is a nice little machine, and I'm glad I got one.

Samsung SCX-3201G MFP and Linux


I have lived without a printer or scanner for many years, but the number of things I need to print and scan has grown to the point where going to the market each time is painful. I am a firm believer in buying printers with PostScript and network support, but our needs are modest and do not justify spending enough to get a "real" printer. So I resigned myself to paying extra in terms of dealing with CUPS.

I found two or three MFPs that suited my budget on Flipkart, but was unable to find anything about Linux support for those models. Eventually, I chose the smallest one, the Samsung SCX-3201G, based on some positive reports about the SCX-3200 series.

Fortunately, it was easy to make it work. Thanks to tweedledee's Samsung Unified Linux Driver Repository and the odd forum post, I installed the PPD file and the SPL filter under Ubuntu 11.04. Printing with CUPS and scanning with SANE both work fine now.

The printer itself works all right. You can tell it's meant for low volumes. There's no output tray—it just spits paper out from the front, and there's a non-zero risk that it'll get sucked back into the input tray below. I would have been happier with a "real" printer, but this one works well enough that I'm glad to have it anyway.

Update: I'm glad I don't need to print photographs. Libreoffice and the GIMP print fine, but output is very dark and the quality is a bit disappointing even at 1200dpi. The fault may lie with the printer, the driver, or GIMP—or a combination thereof. The GNOME image viewer causes the printer to spit out several mostly-empty pages with a few control characters. I assume some CUPS incantation is needed, but I'm happy to ignore the problem entirely. Text and line-art print fine.

Update: Sometimes, printing a PDF will also print many pages of garbage. Most of the time, printing it a second time will work fine, but some files always result in garbage. Unfortunately, I have not found any way to predict when it might happen. I blame the interaction between CUPS and Samsung's SPL filter. I have set "LogLevel debug" in cupsd.conf, and will keep an eye on the logs.

<subliminal>Life is short. Get a printer with PostScript and Ethernet.</subliminal>

No longer as Swift


I traded in my 2005 Maruti Swift VXi for a 2011 Swift ZXi a month ago. There are some things about the new car that are nicer—the rear wipers and alloy wheels are especially welcome, and the height-adjustable seat belts are a nice touch. Mostly, though, this car is just the same as the old one.

The only dramatic change is the new K-series engine, which is supposed to be lighter, and have better fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Its 1197cc capacity is slightly less than the old engine, but the peak power and torque figures (85PS@6000rpm and 113Nm@4500rpm) are quite similar. The engines perform very differently, however, as I have learned over nearly two thousand kilometres of driving in varied conditions. (It's too early to say anything about fuel efficiency, though.)

(Aside: the official Maruti Swift web site—which should have been able to give me the specifications for engines both old and new—has been given over to a stupid "hold your breath" splash page for the new Swift to be introduced later this year.)

The new engine is louder and higher-pitched (annoyingly so) with the throttle open. The power curve has been shifted to the left, resulting in noticeably more low-end torque (which makes city and hill driving easier). The disappointing corollary is that highway performance is compromised by the loss of power at the high end.

Given a good road, my old car seemed eager to go up to 140kmph, and it accelerated nicely past 100kmph even in fifth gear. The new car begins to feel reluctant at 100kmph, and needs a lot of coaxing to move up to 120kmph. I had to keep shifting down to fourth or even third gear while overtaking cars on the highway. The old car also felt perfectly stable at 120kmph, while the new one feels a tiny bit flaky beyond that speed.

I know that conditions in India are rarely such that one can drive at 120kmph for any length of time, and one can take advantage of extra low-end torque more often, but I can't help feeling a bit disappointed.

I wanted a Swift, dammit, not a semi-laden swallow!

Update 2012: The problems went away when I switched from the stock JK Vectra 185/70 tires to Yokohama A-Drive tires of the same size. The car handled better, felt so much more stable at highway speeds, and were noticeably quieter. I guess the stock tires (which were all right for the LXi) just didn't suit the slightly heavier ZXi.