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Third Mac mini

So, after four and a half years of solid service from my second Mac mini (a 2.53Ghz Core 2 Duo polycarbonate), which followed three and a half years of solid service from my first Mac mini (a 1.5Ghz Core Solo polycarbonate), I now have a third. It’s an aluminium unibody Intel Core i7 (2.7Ghz) and I’ve pimped it out with 16Gb of RAM and a 512Gb SSD, which will make it perform as fast as it will ever go. It’s quite a departure from its predecessor in terms of speed and usability.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 22.24.02

I was going to splash out on a new iMac, but something stopped me at the last minute (most likely the imagined image of the credit card bill arriving) and then the opportunity to acquire this Mac mini presented itself, so I’ve saved myself a fair whack of cash. I’m still running it on the two 1600×1200 20″ monitors I bought ten years ago, which, because I spent rather a lot of money on them in 2004, simply refuse to die because they’re very good quality. The purchase of an iMac would have made these old faithfuls unnecessary redundant. The only real feature I’ve sacrificed in not buying the iMac is an up-to-date graphics card, which would have been nice, but an extravagant indulgence given how often I actually play demanding games.

This Mac mini should last me at least until the end of 2016 at which point I will consider my options again. I expect the monitors will probably last until then too, at which point they’ll be even more old fashioned but even harder to retire due to my irrational loyalty to their continued enduring service.

In other news I now have a Windows PC on my desk at work. This is the only statement I’m willing to make about it.

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Where is my iPhone Mini?

I’ve been an iPhone user and fan ever since the original iPhone came out and I’ve used one for the past four and a half years. I had the original iPhone, the 3G, the 3GS and then I skipped a couple of models and now have an iPhone 5. I’ve smashed the screen, obviously, by dropping a dumbbell onto it, but it seems unfashionable to have an iPhone with an intact screen these days and the dumbbell thing* gives me man points.

Smashed screen aside, the iPhone 5 is a very capable smartphone. However, I’m at the point with it where I believe it is in fact too capable I’m struggling to justify ownership of it. I find that I actually use very little of what it has to offer. I use the phone, obviously, text messages, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Maps, Camera, iPod occasionally*, National Rail enquiries and a handful of other apps on an occasional basis. Although my old 3GS was slow, there was none of this that it couldn’t do and there is nothing I use my iPhone 5 for now that I didn’t use to use my 3GS for (with the exception of the camera, I didn’t used to use that on the 3GS because it was properly awful). I use mobile apps on my iPad much, much more than I do on my smartphone; my iPad is where I need the mobile computing power and features.

My point is that I’m paying for (£45 per month on a lease) and carrying around this massive overpowered pocket computer with me everywhere I go, with its fragile screen, poor battery life and a relatively high chance that I’ll get mugged for it one day, when I barely use its capabilities. When Apple launched the iPad Mini earlier this year I had very high hopes that they would follow suit with a smaller iPhone, the iPhone Mini, or whatever; a device which isn’t as powerful as a full-blown iPhone but is smaller, has a better battery life and can do the basics like make phone calls, text messages, basic social media apps, iPod, a reasonable (if not overly fancy) camera, etc.

My hope was that they would base it on the iPod Nano:

ipod-nano

This device has a small colour multitouch screen with an iOS-like interface which is clearly capable of handling a form of application selection. I cannot imagine how it would be hard to include the necessary electronics for a mobile phone and wifi into a package this size, even if it had to be slightly thicker perhaps than a plain iPod Nano (in the same way that the iPod Touch is thinner than the iPhone). It would have been perfect for me, so I got quite excited when I saw the rumours about the iPhone 5C – perhaps the “C” stands for “compact”?

But no.

The iPhone 5C is nothing more than a re-packaged iPhone 5, except they’re making it out plastic, which will arguably be more robust, but is actually a decision that has mainly been made for cost-reduction purposes. Despite this, the 5C is by no means a bargain, offering a saving of just £80 over the even more powerful and even more expensive flagship iPhone 5S, which they have introduced to replace the iPhone 5. The top of the range 64Gb model costs more than an eye-watering £700.

They’ve missed a beat here. I’m not normally underwhelmed by Apple launches (although I am by no means a frothing fanboy before, during or after them), but this one may as well have never happened.

* I have, incidentally, eliminated the possibility of future dumbbell related screen smashes with the purchase of an iPod Shuffle for use in the gym. It’s not possible to smash the screen on this because it does not have one.

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Airplay with Raspberry Pi

I bought a Raspberry Pi this week. For those who don’t know this is a tiny ARM-based computer, the size of a credit card, which is supplied as a board without case, power supply or mass storage, for £30 (delivered). It’s been in the media and is being described as a universally affordable spiritual successor to the popular 1980s BBC Micro, as it has been designed with the purpose of teaching school kids how to program computers in mind.

It ships with 256Mb of RAM, an SD card slot, two USB ports, an ethernet port and an HDMI port. It’s powered via micro-USB and so will work with any micro-USB cable (and therefore many phone chargers). You then have to add a SD card for mass storage, onto which the operating system is installed. You then also need to connect it to an HDMI display and plug in a USB keyboard. You can easily spend as much as the original purchase price again on accessories, but that still doesn’t make it expensive.

Raspberry Pi running RISC OS 5

The primary intention of its manufacturers is for it to run a special Linux distribution called Raspbian, which is based on Debian, but it is by no means limited to this. In theory it can run anything that’s compiled for the ARM architecture, although in practise this is different. Already a group is working on a port of Android, an obvious choice, since this operating system is designed for ARM-based smartphones and tablets. Someone has even made a RISC OS 5 distribution available (RISC OS 5 is the older fork of RISC OS which was open-sourced, RISC OS 6 remains a commercial product and is not available in the same way). This gave me a few hours of delightful nostalgia as I lived and breathed RISC OS for 5 years back in the early 1990s. I’m hoping I’m going to be able to use it to recover some of my old files and convert them to PDF.

But this isn’t the real reason why I’ve bought my Raspberry Pi. Nor have I bought it, as many will, just to dick about with it. Unlike some others I don’t have any grand delusions that it will replace either my desktop computer or my home server, because it’s frankly not up to either task. Its low cost and the fact that you can run it off a USB port means that it’s actually rather slow, but that’s fine, it’s not designed as nor was it ever meant to be a fast computer. But it is small, cheap and perfect for what I want to use it for.

Alternative Airplay device

Airplay is the system through which Apple devices can play music through remote speakers connected to devices on the local network. These can be Apple TVs or an Airport Express. The Apple TV represents great value at £99, but the Airport Express is less so at £80, which is an increase on the previous price since they brought out the new model. Most people already have a wireless network and so £80 just to connect your stereo to your network is a little steep if you don’t need the wireless features of an Airport Express.

Here’s how the budget stacks up: Raspberry Pi is £29.95 delivered from Farnell. On top of that you’ll need an SD card (£3.38 delivered from Play.com), a case (various options on eBay, I found one for £4.23 delivered), and if you don’t have a spare already then a micro-USB charge (£2.40 delivered from Play.com). This all comes to £40.00 delivered, exactly half the cost of an Airport Express.

You will also need an audio cable and an ethernet cable but I’m not including these in the budget since neither is not included with an Airport Express. What I would point out, however, is that the Raspberry Pi solution is not a wireless solution without the addition of a USB wireless dongle, themselves no more than a fiver from eBay.

Instructions

  1. Install Raspbian. You can do this using one of the pre-built images if you want, but if you’re capable I recommend that you install it using the network installer so you can control what goes on and it uses as little space as possible (you will however find this method much slower). You’ll need at least a 2Gb SD card for either method. I tried to shoehorn an install on a 1Gb card by removing the swap partition, but it didn’t boot. You need only the default options if using the network installer, no extras required.
  2. I recommend that you update the firmware and the operating system (using aptitude) at this point. There have been some recent improvements to the firmware which bring performance increases and better wireless support.
  3. Log in as root and run the following commands:

aptitude update
aptitude upgrade
aptitude install sudo ntp build-essential pkg-config alsa-utils git libao-dev libssl-dev libcrypt-openssl-rsa-perl libio-socket-inet6-perl libwww-perl avahi-utils wireless-tools wpasupplicant unzip wget
mkdir /root/build
cd /root/build
git clone https://github.com/albertz/shairport.git shairport
cd shairport
make
make install
cp shairport.init.sample /etc/init.d/shairport
cd /etc/init.d
chmod a+x shairport
update-rc.d shairport defaults

  1. Add these lines to /etc/rc.local. The second line forces the audio through the 3.5mm jack rather than the HDMI port. If for some reason you require the latter then omit the second line.
modprobe snd_bcm2835
amixer cset numid=3 1
  1. Change this line in /etc/init.d/shairport, starting DAEMON_ARGS, so that it reads the following (you can change “Raspberry-Pi” to a string of your choice):
DAEMON_ARGS="-w $PIDFILE -a Raspberry-Pi"

Reboot, and you should now see a new entry in your Airplay menu on your device. At this point my SD card was using 783Mb on its root partition. I’ve made an image of this with a view to making it available for download, but even compressed it came out at 658Mb and I pay for my bandwidth by the Gb, so I won’t be uploading it, not when the instructions are so easy.

I would note that if you are geeky enough to achieve this then think twice before building them for your friends in order to save them a few quid. If you build and supply it you will have to support it, and you won’t have the option of sending them to the Apple Store should it go wrong. I speak as a reluctant Apple help desk for many of my friends and family; certainly I will not be making any of these little rods for my own back for anyone who can’t do it themselves :)

Portable wireless boombox

Despite this little triumph I actually don’t require an Airplay device at the moment. I have two already and no requirement for a third, so while this is useful it’s not especially useful for me as a home device at this time. What I want to do is take this project further and build a portable wireless boombox.

This would be a self-contained system which doesn’t depend on anything other than a 12 volt power source (so, car battery, boat, caravan, solar panels, mains adaptor or a collection of D-cell batteries). It would provide its own wireless network to which users can connect their Airplay devices and then use wirelessly. It would contain a small power amplifier and a pair of speakers. I’ve found a power amplifier that even has a USB port from which I can power the Raspberry Pi, saving me having to worry about a step-down from 12 volts to 5 volts.

Not intended for connection to an existing wireless infrastructure this would mean that it could be used anywhere, as long as there’s a 12 volt power source. Great for camping, barbecues, boats, festivals or simply down at the bottom of the garden. I’ve identified the parts that I will need (and indeed ordered most of them), but my biggest challenge still remains and that is what sort of box to build to house them and how to manufacture it. I’ve a feeling that my prototype won’t be particularly pretty, if entirely functional.

I’ll keep you posted on this project as I make progress.

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New life for old Mac mini

Mac Mini (original case)

18 months ago I replaced my aged 2006 Mac Mini with an up to date model, which is still my main desktop computer today. The old Mac Mini was relegated to being a quasi-media centre, but of course because it was actually a desktop computer it really wasn’t a very good media centre, but due to its age nor was it a very good desktop computer, hence why I replaced it.

I never used it as a media centre beyond the odd occasion and it’s spent the last 18 months mostly consuming enough power to sleep and collecting dust. Until this evening, that is. I’m moving again soon (which I’ll cover in full in a different post) and I’m trying to take as little as possible with me. I was using an old Dell PC as a local Linux development server, which isn’t anything special but did the job nicely. There were three problems with it, however, specifically that it’s as ugly as hell, chews through electricity because it was manufactured at a time when computer manufacturers thought it grew on trees, and it belongs to my housemate.

I don’t really want to take it with me when I move because of all of those reasons, although I’m sure the last one could be eliminated with £30 or so. Then I remembered that I had this entirely idle old Mac Mini tucked away on a corner of my network doing nothing. I wondered if it would accept an installation of Ubuntu Server, given that it’s an Intel-based Mac (the original Intel Core Solo model, no less). Sure enough, it turns out that it can, and it works a treet.

My old Mac Mini has a 60Gb hard disk and 1.25Gb of RAM. It’s not going to break any records with its single-core 1.5Ghz processor, but for running a local Apache2 server it’s nothing less than what I need. The only caveat is that it won’t boot on its own into Linux straight from the hard disk, I have to keep an CD with rEFIt on it in the CD drive for it to do that; it’s certainly not the end of the world.

From a cold-boot to getting a login prompt with all services started it uses just 85Mb of RAM and with all the software I need on it and my Git repositories in place it’s using just 2.5Gb of it’s hard disk. All this on a 65 watt power supply. In addition to this, and despite the fact that it’s very different internally to my new Mac Mini, the two look identical from the outside and so look pretty good stacked on top of each other.

So don’t throw out your old Mac Mini, give it a proper job to see out its old age! The only thing I can’t do with this which I was thinking about doing with the Dell PC was putting an x100P card in it. I’ll live.

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Mac gaming spree

I’ve recently been surrendering large amounts of my spare weekend time to playing computer games after a hiatus of several years. Back when I had a PC I used to play computer games quite a lot, but since switching to Mac it has, until recently, been more difficult to do so, in part due to inadequate graphics hardware but mostly due to the fact that traditionally there simply wasn’t that many decent games available for Mac OS X.

I have two computers, a Mac Mini with a 2.53Ghz Core 2 Duo processor and a 256Mb Nvidia Geforce 9400 graphics controller and a Macbook Pro with a 2.8Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, which actually has two graphics controllers. It has a the same controller as the Mac Mini for “normal” operations and then it has an extra 512Mb Nvidia Geforce 9600 GT controller which you then switch on (requiring a logout instead of a reboot) when you want some serious graphics grunt. The reason why it doesn’t just have the super-duper one is that it absolutely hobbles the otherwise excellent battery life, so you only enable it when you really need it.

I’ve mainly been playing Half Life 2, which is available for the mac along with a plethora of other games via the Steam platform. Half Life 2 really puts my Macbook to the test, but it fares very well as I’m able to play the game at full screen resolution with nearly all the graphics settings turned up to maximum (meaning that it renders very pretty scenes) and still get a consistent frames per second (FPS) rate of between 30 and 60, which is good enough for me. The computer gets jolly hot whilst it’s doing this but appears to be designed to deal with it.

The other thing I’ve been playing is an old favourite from the turn of the century, Quake III Arena, the source code for which is now freely available and can be easily compiled on Mac OS X. All you need are the PAK files from the original game disc (as the content in these files are still under copyright). This game runs at a consistent, unwavering 90 FPS even on my Mac Mini’s relatively humble graphics controller with all the graphics settings turned up to maximum. It’s by no means a clever game, but it’s an awful lot of fun if you just want to blow off some steam in an unapologising shoot-em-up.

I’d really love to get Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas working too. There is a way, apparently, but it’s flaky, difficult to play on a laptop and I can’t play that game and enjoy it without all the mods cheats that I used to use, none of which will work on a Mac even if the game does. It’d be fabulous if other games publishers in addition to Aspyr used something like Steam to distribute their games to multiple platforms. It’s clearly a system that’s working very well and I think that publishers need to take the Mac platform more seriously as it gets more and more popular, especially amongst younger people who are their principle market.

If I had more time I would probably play games a lot more as they’re a great (and relatively) cheap way to escape and blow off some steam. That said I wouldn’t want to spend every spare minute playing them, I know what happens to people who do that.

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MIDI connection between digital piano and Macbook Pro

Carrie always was fond of the piano stool.

Right, I’ve torn my hair out over this for long enough now and so I’m pleading for help. I must be missing something very basic and elementary, but I cannot for the life of me find what it is.

First some back-story, which you will need to know if you don’t follow me on Twitter. I have recently inherited my late mother’s Technics digital piano (model PX9), as my Dad is moving house and there is no room for it at his new place. I’ve had my eye on it for some years now and my current home does have room for it, so he brought it up last week for me. Given that I cannot actually play the piano, I wish to connect it to my laptop using its MIDI ports.

My reasons for this are simple: All I want to do is:

  1. Download music from the Internet as MIDI files.
  2. Connect my laptop (Macbook Pro, Mac OS X 10.6.6) to the piano using a USB MIDI interface.
  3. Play the MIDI files on the digital piano from the laptop.

So far, I have achieved the first two goals, but I am having serious trouble with the third. Please note that I do not wish to compose music, create MIDI files or use the digital piano as a MIDI keyboard, all I want to do is have the laptop play the piano.

I have tried using the following software to achieve this:

  • iTunes – will play MIDI files, but not via MIDI, only using the computer’s speakers.
  • GarageBand – will play MIDI files on the laptop and will use the piano as a MIDI keyboard. I see MIDI signals being recognised, but it will not use the piano as a MIDI output and I cannot find any settings or options to that effect. Various Google searches suggest that GarageBand does not support MIDI output, despite supporting MIDI input.
  • Reason – this baffled the hell out of me, I couldn’t even load my MIDI file into it, much less find any MIDI output options.
  • Logic Express 9 – again, this is a complicated piece of professional software and I still could not find any MIDI output options. This surprised me given that this is supposed to be Apple’s professional composition software (in contrast to GarageBand which is aimed at amateurs), so I may well have missed them somewhere.

My question to those who know about this sort of thing is simple: How do I achieve what I want to do? What software do I need and which settings do I need to set? Surely it cannot be that difficult? I would imagine that it would be a case of having an option somewhere that changes the output audio device from the local sound card to a MIDI device. I know it’s possible because, back in the day, I had a similar interface for my Acorn Archimedes, and I distinctly remember achieving this with some considerable ease using basic bundled software.

I have confirmed that my USB MIDI interface is working correctly and that it is connected to the digital piano correctly. I think the fact that GarageBand recognises input signals from the piano confirms this. I would welcome help and advice from anyone who can help me.

Incidentally I think it’s amazing that an up to date laptop is able to connect and talk to a 24 year old piece of equipment using nothing more than a smart cable that cost £2.50 from Amazon.

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New MacBook Pro

Finally, after nearly four years, I have a new laptop, a 15″ MacBook Pro, with all the trimmings. It’s not brand new, I bought it from a friend who, perversely, wanted a smaller laptop after owning this one for six months. I wasn’t going to complain though, as it’s two grand’s worth of kit with two and a half years’ worth of AppleCare left for just over half its original cost.

It’s the 15″ 2.8 Ghz Intel Core Duo model (the fastest processor currently available in a MacBook Pro) with 4Gb of RAM, a 500 Gb hard drive and the second separate NVIDIA graphics controller with the separate 512Mb VRAM, although I don’t see myself using that too much since it absolutely hobbles the battery life and I’m not a big games player. It’s nice to know that it’s there should I need to though.

I’m very pleased with it, it’s a nice bit of kit that’ll last me a fair few years. If a base model original Macbook can last me three and a half years then I should get a fair amount of mileage out of this one before needing to replace it.

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New Computer

For the first time in a number of years now I have purchased a new computer. The last computer I purchased for myself (i.e. wasn’t a work computer) was my Macbook in 2006, itself now on its last legs and due for a replacement. My new computer is a new (face-lifted) Mac Mini, which replaces my old Mac Mini, which is also of 2006 vintage. The new computer has a dual-core 2.53 Ghz processor, 4Gb of RAM and a 320Gb hard disk. This is in stark contrast to my old one, which has a single core 1.5Ghz processor, 1.25Gb of RAM and a 60Gb hard disk, and as a result had become remarkably difficult to use over the past year ever since it became my main desktop machine. It’s now been turned back into a media centre, which it seems to be much happier doing. The new one is unbelievably fast. Its only bottleneck is the graphics controller which shares the main memory, but it’s not as if I’m going to use it for any hard-core gaming anyway (the most hard-core it’s going to get is Homeworld 2 and Spore).

One of the main advances of the face-lifted Mac Mini over the old design is the fact that it supports dual-monitors. Up until the release of this model last year if you wanted dual-monitors on a desktop machine you either had to get a Mac Pro or connect a second monitor to an iMac, both expensive options if you’ve already got your own monitors from a previous machine, so it was a dream come true when they added two monitor ports to the Mac Mini because it’s such a cost-effective option.

So yes, I’m very happy with it. Next is my Macbook as mentioned before, which gets replaced with a 13″ Macbook Pro later in the year, or whenever my Macbook gives up, whichever comes sooner.

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