The Advisory Boar

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Nokia 7210 as a GPRS modem under Linux

I needed a GPRS-capable phone to use as a modem with our Lenovo S10 on a trip out of town, and after some research, Hassath and I bought the Nokia 7210 Supernova, which does GPRS and Bluetooth well enough (and has a host of features that we didn't care about). Here's a very brief report.

Our S10 runs Ubuntu 9.10, which detected a new "mobile broadband" connection when I plugged in the phone using the (absurdly short) included USB cable. To my surprise, it let me select my country and provider (Vodafone), and I was online in a few seconds with no fuss. Disappointed at the lack of an opportunity for heroic action, I tried Bluetooth next. Following some advice on the Ubuntu forum, I installed blueman, and… that just worked, too. I could detect the phone, pair with it, browse its filesystem; and if I activated dialup access, I could use the same mobile broadband connection as above. All of this took barely more than a minute.

While travelling, I noticed that the connection via Bluetooth sometimes had trouble with flaky GSM connectivity. If the phone lost coverage, the connection would die, and both devices would need to be rebooted to make them talk to each other again. But that happened only when we were on a train, hopping between towers. Other than that, things worked very well (at least, if I tried not to think about the INR5/MB usage charges).

One little quirk: when I activate dialup access in blueman, it pops up a window that says "The device Nokia 7210 Supernova does not appear to support GSM/CDMA. This connection will not work". But it does.

Nikon Trailblazer Binoculars

I'm often asked about my binoculars, a pair of Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42s. (They are most often mistaken for the Monarch 8x42, but are a lower-end model.) Here's what I usually tell people about them.

A quick summary of the specifications: the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 is a waterproof, fogproof roof-prism model that measures 154x131mm, weighs 670g, and offers a generous 19.7mm of eye relief. The minimum focusing distance is 5m, and the field of view at a distance of 1km is 122m. It has dark green rubber "armour", twist-up plastic eyecups, a focusing wheel in the centre, and dioptre correction for the right eye.

I bought a pair in April 2008 after my earlier binoculars suffered irreparable damage in a fall. I chose them because they were (much!) smaller and lighter than my old pair, had better optics (BaK4 prisms instead of BK7) and better eye-relief; and they seemed the best value all round within my budget (<US$150).

After a year and a half of use, I am very happy with them. I adore the long eye relief (I wear spectacles) and large exit pupil. The focusing wheel is accurate and responsive. The build quality is excellent. The fog-proofing actually works as advertised. I didn't mind the extra size and weight of my old binoculars while I was using them, but I would find it hard to give up on this pair now (especially when I am hiking in the mountains). I do sometimes wish, however, that they could be mounted on a tripod, but the construction offers no convenient place for a threaded socket.

I can't comment on the Trailblazer's optical quality as compared to higher-end models, such as Nikon's Monarch series. I have only stolen glances through other people's Leica, Swarovski, and Monarch binoculars, not used any of them long enough to appreciate a difference. The optics are, however, noticeably better than any of the other binoculars I have used extensively (notably a Konica-Minolta 8–20x50 and Bushnell 8x40).

I have not noticed any obtrusive distortion or chromatic aberration. The 5m minimum focus distance occasionally annoys me, but I wouldn't want to trade the much longer eye relief for the close-focus capabilities of the Monarch 8x42 (despite its lighter weight… but much heavier price).

In summary: I would recommend the Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42 without hesitation.

Availability

I think the Trailblazer ATB series is a USA-specific one. The official Nikon dealer in India denied that such a model existed when I asked in mid-2008, and I can find it described only on the Nikon USA web site. Online stores based in the USA, such as Eagle Optics, Optics4Birding, and OpticsPlanet offer the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 for ~US$130–150. The recently-introduced Sporter EX 8x42 model looks identical and has the same specifications, and it seems to be available at least in Europe (albeit at a much higher price).

Ubuntu 9.10 on the Lenovo Ideapad S10

I installed Ubuntu 9.10 from scratch on our Lenovo Ideapad S10 (which was running 8.10 earlier) some days ago, and I also had the opportunity to install it on a friend's new S10-2. There's very little to report in either case. The installation itself was perfectly ordinary.

When I booted up the first time, the Broadcom BCM4312 wireless interface didn't work. I knew it used wl.o under 8.10, but that file was nowhere to be found. A bit of research (which I really should have done before I reinstalled) showed that I needed to install the dkms and bcmwl-kernel-source packages, and the wireless interface worked fine thereafter. I was lucky to have no other hardware problems.

That apart, my first impressions are all positive. 9.10 really does boot up faster (35s vs. 55s for 8.10). The interface is also noticeably more responsive, but too many things have changed for me to try to isolate a cause. Everything seems to work nicely, without any need for tweaking. Suspend and resume continue to work correctly.

Upgrading also fixed the few niggling hardware-related problems we had. Tapping and scrolling with the touchpad works much better, and the audio problems are gone, including the excessive feedback (which I thought was due to a faulty microphone). Recording through the internal microphone works fine, and the built-in speakers are no longer inaudible. I don't know yet what effect (if any) the upgrade has had on battery life.

I'm very happy so far.

Nokia 1202

Rounded shape brings the friendly and human feel for comfort and fits to the hand

Thus spake Nokia India's specifications for the Nokia 1202, a model I found by going to a shop and saying Don't you have anything cheaper? a few times. Listed at €25, it turns out to be the cheapest Nokia handset ever manufactured (and I got it for €19).

The phone is thin, light, and not ugly. It has a small (but very clear) monochrome screen and a large "dust-proof" keypad (a grooved rubber mat covering the keys) with a four-way arrow key and four control keys besides. Its minimal feature set is exactly what I was looking for. It does phone calls and SMS messages and has an alarm clock, but precious little else. No camera, no radio, no Java.

Nokia claims that the battery provides 9 hours talk time and lasts 636 hours (26 days!) on standby. I am deeply suspicious of such claims, but the phone has used only a quarter of its first full charge under slightly heavier than normal use over the past couple of days. That's already enough to make me happy, even if the published figures are an exaggeration.

The audio quality is adequate, but there's a strange "concert hall" (think cavernous space) effect at my end. It's distracting, but I can live with it, especially since it isn't audible to whoever I'm speaking to. The text messaging is done just right, including delivery reports that—for the first time ever—don't annoy me (no beep and no additions to the inbox, but the delivery is recorded under "Sent items"). I do wish T9 recognised names in the contact list, but I don't know of any phone that does that.

I've always been perplexed by the minor inconsistencies in the features of different Nokia handsets. My old 6610i couldn't "Insert smiley" (unlike many of its contemporaries). The 1202 can do that, but it can't be made to display both date and time on the main screen (which the 6610i could do). Some models allow you to select menu items by number, but not the 1202. Some models have a plain old "ring ring" tone, but not the 1202. Fortunately, this phone does have sensible shortcuts: left goes to the SMS composer, down to the contact list, right to the calendar; and the top-right key leads to a programmable "Go to" menu.

Tapping the "up" key twice reveals one special feature: it turns on the tiny LED flashlight. I couldn't have cared less about that when I bought the phone, but it's a surprisingly usable little light, and I caught myself using it already to hunt for my car keys. Another surprise: built-in Sudoku.

The calendar is the one place where the smaller screen is a noticeable disadvantage—there's space only for two weeks of dates, and not being able to see the full month at a glance makes it much less useful. I wish they'd packed in a smaller font instead of the bizarre "Panchangam" feature (a Hindu astrological calendar).

I like my new phone very much—but how could I not, given the Subtle texture on back, which brings a fresh feeling to end user?

Second thoughts about the Simvalley PICO RX-80

After a few weeks of using the phone, I'm less thrilled than I was at first.

To begin with, the battery life is nowhere near the claimed 90 minutes of talk time and 100 hours of standby (which would have worked well for me, since I don't make many calls). A full battery lasts almost 48 hours with minimal use (messages only), but using the phone, even if it's mostly for messages, always drains the battery in less than a day. The display flickers occasionally, which may or may not be related.

The audio quality sounds fine to me, except that what I hear is mostly complaints about excessive feedback (i.e., callers hear their own voice after a delay). I don't know why it happens, but it's unpleasant.

When sending messages (which I do more often than making phone calls), it's annoying to always have to switch from the default German input mode, and the lack of a sensible English dictionary also rankles. In practice, I'm forced to type in "triple-click" mode most of the time. The keyboard, though very nice to use, is a trifle too noisy for my taste (enough to make people nearby look up).

Aside: the phone does seem faster at sending messages than any other I've used, but I can't imagine why or how that might be, and I'm not certain that it isn't an interface effect. It's also nice that you can cancel the sending—if you can hit the red button quickly enough.

One bug that does nothing more than amuse me: if you select "unlock" when the keypad is locked, it says «Press '#' \nkey» (i.e., the two literal characters \n, not a linefeed).

All told, the problems outweigh the advantages of having an extremely small phone. I'll try to get my old Nokia's screen replaced, and keep the RX-80 as a backup.

My beloved Chenbro PC-611 cabinet

The heat and dust in Delhi are extremely unkind to computer hardware, and the fifteen years that I've spent here have been punctuated by the failure of many generations of components. My current computer has been in operation for five years, thanks to a double-converting UPS that protects it from flaky mains power, but each passing summer exacts its toll in random breakage and frayed nerves.

But I realised the other day, while removing dust-balls that had choked up my CPU fan, that one component in particular deserves my gratitude for never once having gotten on my nerves since I bought it five years ago: my Chenbro PC-611 tower cabinet.

I had forgotten the model number, and had to look through ancient email to find it, but I remember that it was recommended by a friend, and that I had trouble finding one in Nehru Place. With its power supply, it cost me more than five times as much as the generic cabinet I had been about to buy, but I have never once regretted the decision.

My exposure to high-end cabinets has been limited to this one, so I have no real basis for an evaluation, but it is so much better than any other cabinet I've seen that the comparison seems unfair. Every single time I have had to open up another computer in the last five years, I've missed mine. I like the way drives get mounted on rails, the precise and solid construction without rattling, the rounded metal edges, spacious layout, "tool-free" disassembly—and it's not even hideously ugly, as are most of the cabinets I see these days!

Best of all, other than the dust, it shows no signs of age. I expect it will outlive every other component in my computer.

Update: In fairness, I should mention that one of the two chassis fans began to stutter a few years in, and the power switch has become a little unresponsive because of accumulated dust… but there's no getting away from dust in the end.

Simvalley PICO RX-80 mobile phone

My long-suffering Nokia 6610i fell on its head a few days ago, and its screen died. My friend Arnt told me about the tiny Simvalley PICO RX-80 mobile phone, and was kind enough to send me one a few days later when I told him—sadly—that it wasn't available here.

There's surprisingly little information about this phone on the web. A bunch of blog posts copied almost verbatim from this one (they all have the same three or four photographs, and claim the phone has dimensions of "50x800x10mm"!), and this German video. Here are my brief but non-boilerplate initial impressions of the RX-80.

First, its real dimensions are 50x80x10mm, which makes it absurdly tiny. I put it on my credit card, and I could see the edges of the card under the phone. At 44g, its weight is also imperceptible in my hand. Despite that, it has a surprisingly high-quality screen and a lovely keyboard. The audio quality seems perfectly acceptable. The battery is supposed to provide 90 minutes of talk-time and 100 hours of standby operation. (I haven't tested this yet, but the stated times would suit me fine.)

I was concerned about what features the phone did or did not have, but I needn't have worried. It has everything I need (which isn't very much): a clock, a call log, a competent phone book (but it can't store multiple numbers per contact, which would have been nice), and an alarm (in fact, three separate alarms, which can be one-shot or weekly); and I can tell it to ring just once, softly. It has nine built-in ring-tones and three kinds of SMS alerts, all of which I hate. (I want plain old "ring ring" and "beep", which fewer and fewer phone seem to have these days.)

As someone who sends a lot of SMS messages, however, I'm just a little disappointed. Although I switched the language from the default German to English, the SMS composer starts up in "Ger" input mode, and I always have to click # a few times to switch to English. The word completion is not very usable either. It lets you scroll through a list of completions (which is neat), but there's no way to add words to the dictionary, and if the dictionary doesn't contain a word you want, it's not possible to retain whatever you've already typed and keep going. So I'll end up using the basic "abc" input mode a lot, which is a pity.

A minor glitch: when I first switched on the phone and made a call, I couldn't hear anything; nor was I audible to the person I called, and the phone didn't ring when she called back, either. I was worried for a moment, but switching to the "outdoor" profile and then back to the "standard" one fixed the problem.

Another thing: the phone's front is entirely shiny, which means I spend a lot of time obsessively cleaning fingerprints from it with my T-shirt.

That makes barely two things I've found to complain about, which means I get to feel very lucky all over again.

I love my tiny new phone. Thanks, Arnt!

Update: After a few weeks, I'm having second thoughts about the phone due to poor battery life, excessive audio feedback, and a few other minor annoyances.

OpenWRT and DD-WRT on the Linksys WAP54G 3.1

We bought a Linksys WAP54G "Wireless-G Access Point" in August 2008.

This flat blue-and-grey device is a basic 802.11b/g access point with a single Ethernet port and little besides: two adjustable rear antennae and a front panel with some blinking lights. A sticker below the panel says "Model No: WAP54G ver 3.1", and it shipped with firmware version 3.05, dated 2005-12-28. It has a 200MHz Broadcom BCM5352 CPU, 4MB of Flash memory, and 8MB of RAM.

This page is about my experience with installing, using, hating, breaking, bricking, reviving, and reconfiguring this device.

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Mountain Hardwear Light Wedge 3

In February 2008, Hassath and I got a Mountain Hardwear Light Wedge 3 tent. This is a review written after half a dozen trips, and just over a year of use. (This is the only tent I have owned, though not the only one I've used or pitched.)

The quick summary: I love this sturdy, roomy, lightweight, inexpensive tent.

Many thanks to Rai for ordering and bringing us the tent; and for his subsequent creative accounting that turned it into the best gift we've received.

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Eeebuntu on the Asus EeePC 4G

We bought an Asus EeePC 4G (701) in October 2008 as an inexpensive, temporary replacement for my beloved Lifebook, whose motherboard had died some months ago, after nearly five years of none-too-gentle use.

The machine came with a customised version of Xandros installed. It was much better than I had expected. It booted extremely fast, and gave me access to an xterm. That, and the fact that other EeePC distributions all had one problem or the other, was enough to keep me using it for some months.

The one big problem I had was with the package repositories. I followed various instructions (which I no longer remember), but a couple of hours wasn't enough to get vim installed, and I gave up. This inability to install things kept annoying me at inopportune moments.

Eventually, I decided to install an Ubuntu derivative. This page is all about my (surprisingly pleasant) experience.

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