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Category: General

The General category contains helpful reviews, tips and tricks, results of experiments, and other tidbits of information. Posts that aren’t specifically how-to guides or news articles will end up here, along with information posts that aren’t primarily opinion-based.

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

You’ve probably heard of RFC 2324, the iconic 1998 April Fool’s joke that gave the world the Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP/1.0):

Any attempt to brew coffee with a teapot should result in the error code “418 I’m a teapot”. The resulting entity body MAY be short and stout.

Some of the nerdier among us may even remember the IPv10 RFC draft, an elaborate piece of delusion or trolling still going strong after almost two years. Of course, we all know nothing helps reduce the number of competing standards like adding more competing standards [obligatory XKCD].

However, to locate true genius, we must peruse the list of April Fools’ Day RFCs and select one from April 1st, 1990. Yes, it’s none other than the one and only RFC 1149, a.k.a. IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). In perhaps the best form of proof that IP can be adapted to run over almost any physical link imaginable, RFC 1149 lays out the basics for a working IP-based network using carrier pigeons.

Really, no one can describe IPoAC better than its creator, David Waitzman:

The IP datagram is printed, on a small scroll of paper, in hexadecimal, with each octet separated by whitestuff and blackstuff. The scroll of paper is wrapped around one leg of the avian carrier. A band of duct tape is used to secure the datagram’s edges. The bandwidth is limited to the leg length.

If you haven’t read all of RFC 1149, it’s only two pages and is certainly worth the read. When you’re finished, you can read RFC 2549, David’s quality of service-enabled extension to the original IPoAC spec. I’ll leave you with this absolute gem from that follow-up RFC:

The ITU has offered . . . formal alignment with its corresponding technology, Penguins, but that won’t fly.

All jokes aside, this is a good reminder that anyone can submit their own RFC, and that you probably shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet.

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

One of the hardest and most contentious steps of building a computer is applying thermal paste. While most everything else is as simple as snapping connectors together, putting in screws, and hoping that your graphics card isn’t too big for your case, it’s hard to be sure that the cooling system of your PC is operating at maximum efficiency. Installation notwithstanding, I’ve always wondered two things about thermal paste:

  1. If reapplying old thermal paste after a few years is a good idea
  2. If third-party thermal compounds are better than the ones that come with pre-built PCs

With an old desktop sitting around my house and a few spare hours, I decided to answer both questions by setting up some tests and replacing the stock thermal paste.

Setting Up the Test

I tried to make the test as scientific as possible with the hope of getting a clear answer. The PC in question was purchased in 2012, so it’s a good example of an older machine that’s seen regular home use over the course of its life. Before starting the test, I had to clean out a vast amount of dust that had accumulated inside it over the years.

Computer: Lenovo H520s small form factor desktop
CPU: Intel Core i5-2320 at 3.00 GHz, turbo boost up to 3.30 GHz
Software: Speccy for temperature data and IntelBurnTest for load testing
Thermal Paste: Arctic Silver Céramique 2
Ambient Temperature: 19° C (66° F)

Speccy is certainly not the only piece of software that can be used to record CPU temperatures, but I’ve found it to be reasonably accurate in the past. Besides, the temperatures by themselves are not that important — I’m mainly interested in the difference in temperatures before and after replacing the thermal paste.

Baseline Tests

To establish a baseline, I tested the PC at a warm idle and then under load. To make sure the computer was sufficiently warm, I ran a few passes with MemTest86+. Memtest86+ doesn’t put much load on the CPU, but I just wanted to get the computer doing something so it didn’t have the unfair advantage of a cold start. After letting it run for a few hours, I rebooted directly into Windows and waited until the CPU was almost completely idle before recording the temperatures.

When comparing idle versus load temperatures, it’s important to keep in mind that the i5-2320 downclocks and undervolts itself when idle to save power. At idle, downclocked to 1.6 GHz on all four cores, I measured the average CPU temp as well as the general spread of temperatures per core.

Average CPU temperature at idle: 30° C
Temperature spread at idle: 28° C to 32° C

To establish a baseline at load, I ran IntelBurnTest on “high” (2048 MB of RAM) for 5 passes and recorded the maximum temperature from the final pass.

Average CPU temperature at load: 70° C
Temperature spread at load: 68° C to 71° C

It’s worth noting that this particular motherboard seems to only increase the CPU fan speed once the CPU reaches 70° C. I was surprised at how warm the chip had to get before the fan speed increased, but once it reached 70 degrees the temperatures seemed to stabilize.

Replacing the Thermal Paste

There’s a number of different techniques that can be used to apply thermal paste. Some people suggest drawing a line across the CPU, while others suggest spreading the thermal paste out before installing the heatsink. I’m not a fan of either of those approaches, since the line can easily be squeezed over the edge of the CPU and air bubbles can be introduced into the paste by spreading it. Instead, I opted to use the tried-and-true “single dot in the center of the CPU” method.

First, however, I wanted to see what the original thermal paste looked like. Here’s what I saw when I detached the stock heatsink:

It’s not bad. The paste is spread out evenly and isn’t too thick. It also wasn’t dry in the slightest, even though some Internet forums claim that old paste dries up over time.

The paste was also spread evenly on the stock aluminum heatsink, as I expected:

With my curiosity satisfied, I cleaned the CPU and heatsink with isopropyl alcohol (92% concentration, the highest I can usually find in stores). I put on slightly more thermal paste than I generally do, but Arctic Silver Céramique 2 is advertised as non-conductive in the off chance that it does get somewhere it shouldn’t.

With the new thermal paste on, I re-installed the stock heatsink and pieced the computer back together. Careful inspection down the side of the heatsink revealed that the replacement paste had just barely reached the edge of the CPU, indicating that it had fully covered the CPU lid as intended.

Results

Arctic Silver’s site claims that Céramique 2 is capable of dropping CPU temperatures by “2 to 10 degrees centigrade”. They also claim that due to the nature of the paste it takes “a minimum of 25 hours and several thermal cycles” for it to reach maximum cooling efficiency. Unfortunately, I didn’t have 25 hours to wait for the paste to fully cure, so I ran the CPU through a couple thermal cycles and called it good. Feel free to discount my results because of this, but keep in mind I have tested the break-in period before and I don’t think it makes much of a difference.

I performed the same tests as with the stock paste, so see the “Baseline” section for the methods I used. Without further ado, here’s the results I measured at idle after replacing the stock thermal paste:

Average CPU temperature at idle: 25° C
Temperature spread at idle: 24° C to 27° C

And the results at load:

Average CPU temperature at load: 70° C
Temperature spread at load: 68° C to 72° C

To my surprise, the idle temperature dropped by fully 5° C, at least according to my measurements. However, the load temperature didn’t change at all.

Five degrees at idle could be chalked up to measurement error, but I’d like to think that replacing the paste had some effect. On the other hand, I have a plausible but disappointing explanation for why the load temperatures didn’t change: the fan speed on this particular desktop is dynamic and seems to only increase when the CPU hits 70° C. Without a way to constrain the fan to a certain speed, it did its job and kept the CPU from going too far over 70° C. For what it’s worth, the points at which the fan speed increased seemed identical before and after replacing the thermal paste, indicating that the CPU wasn’t heating up much faster either way.

In short: was it worth it? Not to me, as it took several hours and a lot of effort and resources for minimal gain. It seems like, at least on this particular computer, there’s little improvement to be gained by replacing the stock thermal paste.

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

Pop quiz: do you use the cloud? Even if you don’t know it, it’s highly likely that your answer is “yes”. Cloud computing has become a ubiquitous part of modern day computer usage. However, many people don’t know that much about it.

Google defines “cloud computing” as the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer. That definition is still fairly technical, so let’s break it down.

When you edit a file locally, the file is stored and processed on your computer. This works fairly well, assuming you only have one computer and don’t need to access your file from anywhere else or share it with collaborators. However, if your computer is turned off, you can’t use the file without making a copy of it and placing it on another computer. In today’s world of smartphones and mobile devices, it’s crucial to have access to the same data from multiple locations without having to create redundant copies of files and deal with the hassle of moving them back and forth. The solution is to store the files in a separate, universal location and access those files across the Internet. This separate location takes the form of large, powerful computers run by companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, and is commonly referred to as the cloud.

A good example of the cloud in everyday life is modern email. If you use email on both your phone and your computer, and your inbox contains the same emails no matter what device you’re on, you’re most likely using the cloud. The standard configuration for Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or other email accounts is to store all your emails on your email provider’s servers and to have your devices download temporary copies of them to view. In this example, all your email is stored in the cloud.

Another commonly used cloud service is Google Drive. Google Drive is a service that allows users to upload, edit, and share documents, pictures, and videos. When you use Google Drive, all your files are stored on Google’s cloud servers and are accessible when you sign in to Google Drive with your password.

iCloud on your iPhone or iPad is also a cloud service. iCloud allows you to store photos, backups, and other settings in the cloud so that they are accessible on all your Apple devices. If you use iCloud, you’re using Apple’s cloud servers to store your data.

Other examples include Pandora, Google Play Music, Dropbox, Microsoft Office 365, YouTube, and almost any other service that involves streaming, downloading, or storing content on the Internet.

The name “cloud computing” has nothing to do with the weather, as the term stems from the abstract depiction of remote servers or the Internet in general as a large, ambiguous cloud. However, that doesn’t mean that weather has no effect on the cloud. Since the cloud relies on massive physical computers to store data, a large storm or natural disaster could physically affect these servers. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy partially flooded the server farm of a company called Datagram, Inc. Datagram’s servers ran a number of popular websites, such as Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Huffington Post, and these websites temporarily went offline as a result of the storm.

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

If you’re ready to move up from Notepad for editing code, give Brackets a try. It’s completely free and is offered by Adobe developers. It provides a minimal but useful environment and a beautiful interface, and is designed to integrate with Adobe Extract. If you’d prefer the non-Extract integrated version, you can grab that from the Brackets site as well.

brackets

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

Google’s Chromecast hit the market two years ago, and has sold well because of its promising features and its compellingly low pricing. Here’s how it works and what might make it a good purchase for you.

chromecast1

How it Works

Chromecast is essentially a tiny computer that pipes media content into an HDMI port on your TV. That’s about all it does. You can’t interact with the device’s software aside from attaching it to your WiFi network and changing the background image it displays when it’s idle. All of the device’s settings must be changed through the mobile app or from a small desktop app for your computer. It doesn’t make your TV into a separate computer; instead, it acts much more like an HDMI cable.

The primary purpose of Chromecast is to help you display your mobile device’s video or audio stream on your TV. Chromecast uses Google’s new Cast technology to function, which many apps now support. In an app that supports Google Cast, all you have to do is tap the Chromecast icon and you can cast your screen and audio output to your TV.

The cool part about casting media from your mobile device is that in a Cast-enabled app, the media stream is handed off from your device to the Chromecast entirely. That means that you can start playing a YouTube video on your tablet, tap the Chromecast icon, and then lock or turn off your tablet. In apps like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, your Chromecast will stream the requested media straight from the Internet without having to go through your mobile device. This is where Chromecast starts to sound a lot more appealing than an HDMI cable.

Chromecast also offers a feature for desktops that’s still in beta mode: the Google Cast browser extension for the Chrome browser. Using this extension, you can cast Chrome tabs or even your entire Windows or Mac desktop to your Chromecast. However, this is not the most reliable Chromecast feature, at least for now.

The utility of Chromecast also depends on the features your TV provides. Chromecast can’t draw power from the HDMI port alone, so it requires a USB power supply as well. On newer TVs with built-in USB ports, you can simply hook up your Chromecast to one of the TVs USB ports. On older TVs that only have “service” USB ports, you’ll have to use the bundled external power adapter. Also, if your TV is new enough to have HDMI ports that support the Consumer Electronics Control feature, starting a cast will cause your TV to automatically switch inputs to display what you’re playing on the Chromecast.

Why You’d Want It

If you want to enable internet streaming for an old TV, Chromecast is perfect. It’s cheap and easy to set up and works with Android and iOS tablets and phones. If you regularly use mobile devices and want some way of easily streaming music or video to your TV, Chromecast is for you. The ability to cast media while your device is locked or turned off is impressive and useful.

However, if you’re looking for some way of connecting your desktop or laptop to your TV, Chromecast may not be as useful. The Google Cast browser extension for Chrome works well on sites that are optimized for Chromecast, but otherwise casting tabs can be laggy or unreliable. The connection quality, being wireless, is easily bested by a direct HDMI connection.

Also, if you’re looking at Chromecast as a way to play DVDs or other offline media on your TV, you’ll be disappointed to hear that you can’t. Google Cast for desktop only supports casting media that can be played in the Chrome browser. You can open offline music files of certain types in Chrome, but as of now there is no way to play DVDs or CDs.

Bottom line: if you use mobile devices often and need some way to play music or video on your TV while still being able to use your tablet or phone, Chromecast is for you.

Setting it Up

Google has done a good job making Chromecast easy and fun to set up. The pictures below are of the unboxing, and the last two show Google’s simple in-box instructions on how to set up the Chromecast. Essentially, you plug your Chromecast into your TV and into the power adapter, and then download the app on your mobile device or on your computer.

chromecast2

chromecast3

chromecast4

chromecast5

chromecast6

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

I recently set up a fresh installation of Ubuntu 14.04 alongside Windows 7 on my laptop. The last release of Ubuntu that I used regularly was the previous long-term release, 12.04, and I’ve avoided the in-between releases because they didn’t run as smoothly on the older Pentium 4-based hardware I had. Also, I sold my dedicated Core 2 Duo-powered Ubuntu 12.04 laptop a number of months ago, leaving me with only Pentium 4 systems to experiment with Ubuntu on. With the release of 14.04, however, I decided to dual-boot the new flavor of Ubuntu on my previously Windows-only Core i3-based laptop. I recently finished upgrading the laptop to a 240 GB solid state drive (a worthwhile performance upgrade, if I may say) and hadn’t wanted to mess around with the drive until I had let it work in for a while. Given that 14.04 has been out for a while now and has received some updates, I figured that now was the time to install it and to find out from first hand experience what’s improved in Ubuntu since 12.04. I don’t intend for this to be a full review of Ubuntu; instead, I would like to cover some improvements in the latest LTS release and how it operates on newer hardware.

My first move in dual-booting Windows 7 and Ubuntu was to shrink my Windows partition to accommodate a new 20 GB partition for Ubuntu. I chose to create an empty partition beforehand instead of having the Ubuntu installer partition the disk, for whatever reason. This doesn’t really affect the installation process, but it did surprise me when I chose “install Ubuntu alongside Windows 7”. Instead of asking me where I wanted to put my Ubuntu installation, it automatically found and chose the empty partition. Luckily, this was where I wanted Ubuntu, but I was surprised at the lack of options the installer gave me.

I am impressed at the improvement in Ubuntu’s graphics driver support. Granted, my notebook does not have dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics – good for Ubuntu, not so great for gaming – but Ubuntu detected the on-chip graphics as Sandybridge Mobile without any additional configuration. Unity seems faster overall, and window animations are more polished. There are also a few new UI improvements, such as the added option to show window menus in the window title bar instead of in the top bar. Despite these improvements, I had to make some custom changes to get the system running just how I like it.

This is one of the great things about Linux, though. It may not work perfectly at first, but there’s plenty of ways to get it working just how you want it to. Most of the tweaks I made related to Grub and dual-booting, but I also set up a custom script to prevent the brightness from returning to 100% whenever the system rebooted, fixed an issue with Chrome not opening from the Dash, shrank the menu and title bars to 0.875 scale, and turned off the Amazon search suggestions in the Dash. That may sound like a fairly small amount of adjustments, but that was about all I had to do. Overall, Ubuntu 14.04 worked well straight out of the box and I was able to get on to using it within a day after only a few hundred megabytes of updates. Here’s looking at you, four-year-old Windows installation disc.

In the end, Ubuntu 14.04 is even smoother and more refined than 12.04 and is a perfectly good candidate for everyday use. LibreOffice 4.2, included by default, is better than ever, and if you don’t need legacy Windows software Ubuntu is the way to go.