Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Going Back to University



A couple of weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of returning to Exeter University where I studied for my degree more years ago than seems possible.  Getting involved with the uni again has been something I've long since wanted to do in an attempt to give back something to the institution to which I owe so much having been there to get good qualifications and not least met my wife there too!  I think early on in a career it's not necessarily something I would have been particularly useful for since I was closer to the university than my working life in age, mentality and a bunch of other factors I'm sure.  However, getting a bit older makes me feel readier to provide something tangibly useful in terms of giving something back both to the university and to the current students.  I hope that having been there recently with work it's a relationship I can start to build up.

I should probably steer clear of saying exactly why we were there but there was a small team from work some of which I knew well such as @madieq and @andysc and one or two I hadn't come across before.  Our job was to work with some academic staff for a couple of days and so it was a bit of a departure from my normal work with corporate customers.  It's fantastic to see the university from the other side of the fence (i.e. not being a student) and hearing about some of the things going on there and seeing a university every bit as vibrant and ambitious as the one I left in 2000. Of course, there was the obligatory wining and dining in the evening which just went to make the experience all the more pleasurable.

I really hope to be able to talk a lot more about things we're doing with the university in the future.  Until then, I'm looking forward to going back a little more often and potentially imparting some words (of wisdom?) to some students too.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

New Thinkpad W530

It's been quite a while since I got my last laptop upgrade at work, coming up to 5 years in fact.  We have a 4 year refresh programme so I'm a little overdue but have just been given a shiny new Thinkpad W530 from Lenovo.  This seems to be our current standard issue machine for "developers" which is our way of saying "power users".  I'm part of the software development business and hence get one of these.  The up side of course is the latest and most powerful technology at a reasonably high specification, the downside is they're really quite big and heavy and the power brick - well it really is a brick.  I'll spare giving a full review of the laptop itself as there are plenty of them out there already and you'll know how to find them, however, there are one or two things I wanted to say about the machine and in particular regarding my preferred use of Linux rather than the software it comes pre-installed with.

Here's the specification highlights of the machine I've got (there is a bit of variation available with the W530):

  • Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-3720QM CPU @ 2.60GHz (5187.87 bogomips in Linux)
  • 16GB DDR3 1600MHz
  • 500GB (7200rpm) HDD
  • 15.6" 1920x1080
  • 9 Cell Battery
  • Wireless N
  • NVidia Quadro K1000M
  • Front Facing Web Cam, Mini Display Port, VGA Out, Headphone, 2x USB3, 2xUSB2.0, Smart Card Reader, Firewire,DVD Burner, GBit Ethernet
It came with firmware version 2.07 which was only 3 months old but had already been superseded by two newer versions when I got it earlier this week (there is a firmware readme available).  The newer versions fixed a couple of well known issues with screen corruption under Linux and the fan always running at full speed (and hence being noisy).  So I downloaded and applied the updated version before I did anything else.


The next thing I did was tweak a few settings in the BIOS to my liking and install Fedora 18 with the KDE desktop.  The installation went very smoothly using the Integrated graphics card on the Ivy Bridge CPU.  The W530 has Optimus built in for efficient switching between the integrated card and discrete NVidia card for a great combo of power/performance, it is however, designed for Windows and Linux support hasn't quite caught up yet although there is an open source option available - which I'm yet to try.  Post installation I installed the latest NVidia drivers available from the RPM Fusion repository (304.64) ready to switch to using the graphics subsystem in discrete only mode.  The advantage of this is greater graphical processing power and also the ability to use external display devices.  The integrated graphics card is only able to drive the laptop screen and doesn't output via the VGA port or display port.  The down side to the NVidia card is a greater power draw so reduced battery life.  Also, at the time of writing the Nouveau driver doesn't support the Quadro K1000M card so you're forced into using the proprietary driver.  This situation can only improve over time and hopefully Optimus support will grow in Linux too but I'm not holding my breath on that one given NVidia's attempt to put support into the Linux kernel was refuted by the kernel developers last year due to it not being GPL code.

Away from the graphics subsystem which was always going to be the most difficult thing under Linux on this machine, the rest of  it appears to be very well supported.  There are a few bits and pieces I haven't quite got around to trying in the couple of days since I got it but my impression is generally quite good.  Speed, as you would expect is very good although nowhere near my home machine which is a similar specification but contains an SSD instead of HDD.  Consequently, I put the speed boost I see at home down to this more or less entirely.

I've also moved away from Gnome (I don't get on with Gnome 3) and gone back to using KDE once again which I had moved away from 5 years ago when I installed my previous laptop as KDE 4 was pretty shocking at the time as well.  I've used KDE a lot more than I have Gnome in terms of years of elapsed usage but I did get on very well with Gnome 2 for the past 5 years and I'm sure I'll miss it.  That said, I can't see myself ever moving to Gnome 3 unless the developers go back on their current manifesto of treating users like idiots.  It'll be interesting to see how the Mate desktop progresses and whether XFCE picks up as well given they both have benefited from Gnome 3's unfortunate design decisions and have a much smaller community of users and developers than either Gnome or KDE.

In general then, I'm pleased with the new machine.  It's up and running to my liking in a very short period of time.  The graphics are bound to be a pain until I get used to relying on the nvidia-settings utility once again.  However, the other benefits it brings in terms of larger memory and greater processing power over my old machine are probably worth it.