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A Week in Limbo, Epilogue: An outstanding machine

December 27, 2011 11 comments

Before I start, there is only one thing glaringly wrong with the ZaReason Limbo 5440: having to give back the review model to ZaReason in Berkeley (it’s on its way back to you, Earl).

SCALE 10XThe ZaReason Limbo 5440 is, in three words, an outstanding machine; a simply outstanding machine that can easily handle any work load ranging from that of the average household user who’s just surfing the Web to the constant tinkering and tweaking by the most restless Linux user (to the latter, I plead guilty). Ruggedly built and with a clean design, the desktop fits in nearly any location in the home — it spent a day or two in the “lab” (a.k.a, “The Jungle Room,” where all our computers live in the house and where I do my best work) but spent the rest of the week in the living room in an unobtrusive manner.

But enough of the interior decor talk: The attention to design, both internally and externally, is completely as functional as it is stylish. But perhaps its best physical feature — expandability — makes this model an exceptional one for those who may have an overwhelming desire to add the latest and greatest hardware features to an already exceptional desktop. (A side note: In conversation with ZaReason CTO Earl Malmrose, I was given a green light to add software and hardware to my liking. But I passed on the latter — why spoil a good thing?)

As far as performance goes, everything I threw at the desktop during the course of the week, the Limbo 5440 handled without breaking a proverbial sweat. The only time I could get any of the processors to peak at 100 percent was running folding@home on a regular basis: Using the system monitor, CPU1 (which I would assume is processor 0 in the quad-core scheme of things) ran at 100 percent while using folding@home while any of the other CPUs displayed on the program barely passed 20 percent at any time during program use. The rest of the time, even running multiple programs, I got the sense that reading the graphs on the system monitor, the lines were gentle smiles laughing at me at my attempts in vain to make the desktop work hard.

The price tag for the Limbo 5440 as tested — $969, which is up from the base price of $499 thanks to a variety of upgrades (specs are below) — might seem a little steep to some. But ZaReason’s advantage, one that clearly benefits the consumer, is the issue of value, and how the value of this outstanding machine eclipses the issue of cost. Yes, you could by a cheap box from an OEM that has Windows presinstalled, but then there are a plethora of issues around that — buying a cheaper box at a big box allows Redmond to chalk up another user and the hardware in some of the cheaper desktops are — how can I put this tactfully? — not up to par.

So buying hardware from a company dedicated to Linux has its advantages. To his credit and that of the company, Earl Malmrose and the engineering staff at ZaReason sends out 100 percent high-quality Linux-supported hardware.

Quality and value are ZaReason hallmarks,and the Limbo 5440 lives up to them. This desktop would be a keeper, if I didn’t have to give this review desktop back, and given the opportunity to purchase this machine in the (near) future, I would easily jump on the opportunity to do so.

Now to find a spare $969 . . . .

Specs as tested (the standard Limbo 5440 specs can be found here):

2nd Generation Intel Core i5 3.3 GHz
Fedora 16 GNOME with shell extensions (changed to Fedora 16 KDE at mid-week)
8 GB DDR3-1600 RAM
3 500GB Hard Drives, 7,200 RPM, RAID-5 array
One year warranty

Size of case: 7″ x 14.6″ x 13.8″ / 17.8 x 37.1 x 35.1 cm
Internal Slots: 2x PCI, 1x PCI-Express x16
Rear Ports: 4x USB 2.0 Ports; 1x PS/2 Ports (for that old keyboard/mouse); 1x VGA Port; 1x 10/100 Ethernet Port; Audio I/O Jacks
Front Ports: 2x USB Ports; Headphone Jack; Mic Jack

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16
A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE
A Week in Limbo, Day 4: On second thought . . .
A Week in Limbo, Days 5 and 6: Get with the program
A Week in Limbo, Epilogue: An oustanding machine

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo, Days 5 and 6: Get with the program

December 26, 2011 2 comments

Forgive me, folks: Blame the holidays for the delay. What normally would have been a simple and easy week leading up to Christmas — the end of the week leading up to Sunday, actually — became somewhat complicated, as only the end of the week leading up to Christmas can. And we’ll leave it at that, except with an apology to anyone who was at the edge of their seat waiting for this next installment (thanks, Mom), which should have immediately followed Day 4 on, well, the actual Day 5.

SCALE 10XDuring those opportunities over the last few days when I wasn’t doubling and tripling up on my work shift thanks to vacations and when I was not taking care of holiday business at home — you know, I move that next year no one buy any gifts until after New Year’s Day — I remained transfixed behind the monitor connected to the ZaReason Limbo 5440 while putting it through its paces. Before I outline what I used, I should mention that I worked on my SCALE 10X presentation as well as the SCALE 10X UpSCALE talk that I will be doing with darling daughter Mimi (hint: It involves music and lab coats — and that’s all I’m going to say about that). So the primarly lineup involved GIMP, LibreOffice Impress and Audacity.

[As an aside on the latter, author Carla Schroder and I conspired to give Mimi a great Christmas gift: a signed copy of "The Book of Audacity." Thank you, Carla!]

In short (which will become “in long” in later pargraphs), all three programs ran flawlessly and quickly on the desktop box that, had I enough money, would stay in the household. There’s nothing yet that I’ve thrown at this hardware that it hasn’t handled without breaking a sweat, and to be honest, after a few days I’ve truly given up on trying to trip it up.

Meanwhile, LibreOffice’s suite of software ran with aplomb — with as much aplomb as an inanimate object can run, for the nit-pickers out there — on this hardware. Switching back and forth from the LibreOffice Draw to LibreOffice Impress to LibreOffice Writer was a breeze, and the benefit of having a larger monitor to move windows around was a treat (how I made all those presentations on a laptop is a mystery).

Audacity? I’m the quintessential newb at it, though the far more Audacity-adept (does that make her Audacious?) Mimi zoomed her way around it quickly and can show the old man a thing or two. Audacity 1.3.13 beta ran and sounded perfect, though I think there could be a lot less bass in this presentation — an easy fix.

Finally, processing photos on GIMP was also a snap. Before I start, let me stike a Tebow-like pose and pray to all diety that will listen to my begging for the the single-window GIMP (2.7, I think) to come soon. Amen. With the multiple windows, using GIMP 2.6 was also a breeze and with the larger screen on the desktop monitor, multitasking was a lot easier than the same exercise — performed by yours truly for years on this old ThinkPad T30 — has been.

Note to self: Do more stuff on the desktops you have.

Before we go off to the next installment which wraps up this series, I should say that for the entire week, I have never had a negative “aha!” moment, nor have I uttered a brow-furrowing “hmmm” over the ZaReason Limbo 5440’s performance. Some software hiccups which were clearly the result of PEBCAK errors ocurred, but these were few and far between (of course) and were not a reflection on the machine’s abilities or performance. But we’ll leave the rest of that for the next installment, coming to you tomorrow.

Tomorrow wraps up the series with A Week in Limbo, Epilogue: The final review

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16
A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE
A Week in Limbo, Day 4: On second thought . . .
A Week in Limbo, Days 5 and 6: Get with the program

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo, Day 4: On second thought . . .

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The proverbial laundry list of things I want to do while I have this ZaReason Limbo 5440 is somewhat long, but alas, my time is limited. Originally I had planned to run a couple of other distros on the machine before returning it, but I’m currently hung up doing other things.

SCALE 10XFor example, I got hung up on the RAID-5 array, for starters. Not ever having more than one hard drive in one machine at one time left me with a significant amount of curiosity about how this works: Google, research, tweak. Neat stuff. Then there’s audio/video items since, now that I have four processors instead of the one I’m usually stuck with, I now can probably do a lot of really neat things.

More googling, more research, more tweaking. Check the clock. I have a little more time: Google, research, and tweak some more.

[Holiday shopping? Oh, right. I knew I was forgetting something.]

So rather than leave Fedora and go off to other distros, we’re going to stick around in the Red Hat neighborhood, running programs and reporting back for the next three days. We have audio coming up, and some interesting discoveries to report.

But for now, it’s time for holiday shopping (doesn’t everyone start on the 22nd?).

Tomorrow we’ll have A Week in Limbo, Day 5: Can you hear me now?

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16
A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE
A Week in Limbo, Day 4: On second thought . . .

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE

December 21, 2011 2 comments

There’s a trick to getting the best of both worlds on Fedora — and I would imagine this works with any other distro under the same circumstances — and this is how you do it. You download the latest release as the “Desktop” version (again, that’s GNOME, as we outlined yesterday) and then download the KDE desktop with all the trimmings.

SCALE 10XThen you choose your desktop from the switchdesktop from the command line and off you go. This way, you have all the GNOME and KDE bits needed to run each dessktop environment and, while it may be a bit tedious and may be time- and disk-consuming, it is quite handy when testing software to go back and forth between desktops to see how they perform.

Or maybe there’s a 12-step program for such behavior. Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, using Fedora 16 KDE on the ZaReason Limbo 5440 reflects much of the experience of using Fedora 16 “Desktop” (GNOME) as outlined in yesterday’s blog item. Downloads are quick, response times even quicker. The Fedora 16 KDE spin comes with the KDE 4.7 version of the desktop — speaking as solely a post-KDE 4 user, I’ve always been impressed with the changes KDE makes under the hood. On the exterior things may not change much, but behind the curtain there are a lot of commendable things going on. Plus, the fact that KDE is not racing off to become a tablet desktop is a huge plus.

But I digress.

To make a long story short, the Limbo 5440 with Fedora 16 KDE is a remarkable pairing. I’m not that well-versed in the K Desktop Environment history, but my observation over the years has been that KDE has tried to be all things to all Linux users. As a result, there are a lot of KDE-based programs that come along with the desktop environment. That’s a good thing, and programs like Amarok and K3b are a testament to this.

Tomorrow we’ll have A Week in Limbo, Day 4: Off the reservation

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16
A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16

December 20, 2011 1 comment

As the ZaReason Limbo 5440 runs folding@home in the background, allow me to continue with the series and talk about the operating system currently running it.

Before I start, though, it should be noted that one of the things — one of several things, actually — that sets ZaReason apart from its competition is that they offer a variety of distros on their hardware. Other Linux hardware providers will give you any distro you want, as long as it’s Ubuntu. ZaReason has your back on the distro front, though, offering the *buntu family as well as Debian, Fedora, and Linux Mint (not to mention “no operating system,” if that’s you’re pleasure).

SCALE 10XSo it comes as no surprise that when ZaReason sent me the Limbo 5440 to put through its paces, they knew of my reputation as a Fedora guy. Since this reputation precedes me (for better or worse), I was given the latest Fedora 16 “Desktop” — for those of you scoring at home, “Desktop” in Fedora parlance means GNOME 3, the default desktop for Fedora (why they just don’t call it “Fedora 16 GNOME” is one of those mysteries, like how gravity works or like the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Fedora 16, code name Verne, is the latest and greatest of Fedora’s semi-annual releases. Native to Fedora releases since Fedora 15 is the somewhat controversial GNOME 3 desktop environment which, of course, is currently running on this machine.

Now, those of you outside my family who regularly read this blog know that I’ve had some — how can I put this tactfully? — problems with GNOME 3, most notably not being able to run it on my hardware. GNOME’s fallback mode made for an inadequate “consolation prize” too, so I switched to Xfce with Fedora 16 on a laptop I regularly use. So this is the first chance I’ve had to actually put GNOME 3 to the test.

If you’ll pass the salt, I’ll just eat some crow here before I continue. Now that I’ve used it, I was wrong about GNOME 3 being a spawn of the Prince of Darkness. With the GNOME Shell Extensions under the GNOME 3.2 desktop, the desktop environment hums along and works a lot like the GNOME 2.x that I missed dearly in the last Fedora release. In fact, for those of you who, like me, did not like what GNOME 3 had to offer, this setup — with the extensions — brings together the best of both worlds: The improvements (yes, there are many) of GNOME 3 with the functionality that we’re used to in GNOME 2.6. The desktop’s tweakability, which many felt was lacking in the later GNOME,

Note to developers: Four desktops. How hard is it to make that a default, as it’s been in days past?

This is not to say I’m going back to GNOME — on the laptop, I’m going to keep Xfce because I have to — but GNOME 3 with the GNOME Shell Extensions is much better than the pitchfork- and torch-bearing naysayers lead on, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s a pretty remarkable desktop environment. Also, in comparison to the default desktop environment on Ubuntu — I dare not speak its name, lest I fly into a homicidal rage — GNOME 3 is head and shoulders above it and, by comparison, is heavenly.

Meanwhile, back at the hardware, putting Fedora 16 — installations, updates, etc. — through its paces on the ZaReason hardware went without a hitch. GIMP flies on the hardware, as does much of the LibreOffice suite — two things I used specifically today because my SCALE presentation needed tweaking. One comment that I hope will echo throughout this series with the use of other distros on this machine (you knew that was coming) is that the Limbo 5440 will handle all that’s thrown at it with agility, ease and grace. I can’t say that for some of the other hardware I’ve owned, and at the risk of being redundant, it’s a breath of fresh air to have a machine that does what I ask without breaking a sweat.

Coming tomorrow: A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Shifting gears

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood

December 19, 2011 1 comment

Memory fails me at the moment (age is cruel) and I’m too much on a roll in the throes of testing to Google it, but it was either Peter Parker’s uncle — or Voltaire — who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The ZaReason Limbo 5440 give a user great power, and with it comes a certain degree of responsibility. Speaking of which, one of the responsible things you can do is take control of your computing — I know I’m preaching to the choir here, so to speak, but in the off chance a new Linux user is reading, that’s what it’s all about.

In that regard, one of the things that ZaReason does, to its credit, when sending out new machines is to point out in packaged documentation where to get help — a useful page for anyone, from the new Windows refugee to the experienced Linux user. “We build these systems so they just work,” it says, (and I would add, with great understatement), and it urges folks who encounter a problem to a.) try to figure it out — “The more you play with your system, the more you know about it,” tweaking it until it’s yours, and then b.) figure out how you want to solve any problems that arise — message board, online support, e-mail, phone, etc. It’s also has a list of places where you can find help in these ways.

But I digress.

SCALE 10XNow, a confession: I haven’t had new hardware since I plunked down $2,500 a couple of decades ago as one of the first purchasers of the Apple IIc — excuse me, the Apple //c — and a daisy-wheel printer. While the laughter dies down, let me confess too that all of my Linux boxes and laptops have been hand-me-downs and castaways, computers brought back to life (and even passed on by me to others) thanks to the modern miracle of Linux, GNU/Linux, *BSD and other stars in the FOSS constellation.

Also, I’ve never had a computer with more than one processor, let alone more than one internal hard drive. Having three drives is daunting, but the situation is enviable. What’s also enviable is a computer that boots in less than 30 seconds. So this is what up-to-date computing is like: The i5 Intel processors (processors, plural) hum along without a hitch, and the ZaReason Limbo 5440 becomes Nirvana for the user.

Kid, meet candy store.

The multiple drives piqued my interest and I went a little deeper as I went under the hood. I wanted to learn more about how three drives can be juggled or used in harmony. I did some homework and asked ZaReason CTO Earl Malmrose and he explained further: The drives are currently installed as a RAID-5 array which, for those of you who are not up on it (and that included me until about an hour ago), you could remove any one of the drives without losing a byte of data. The RAID-5 array is a high-end feature that separates the ZaReason Limbo 5440 from the competition. “Forgive me for showing off,” Malmrose concluded.

You are clearly forgiven, Earl.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how Fedora 16 Desktop version — that’s GNOME 3 for those of you keeping score at home (though, truth be told, why they can’t just call it Fedora 16 GNOME is a mystery) — runs on this machine. Spoiler alert: Now that I’ve had a chance to use something other than GNOME’s “fallback mode,” I might just say a nice thing or two about GNOME. Might.

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo: Day 0

December 18, 2011 9 comments

When ZaReason CEO Cathy Malmrose asked me recently who I thought would make good reviewers of the Berkeley-based company’s hardware, I gave her a list of names of those I thought would give the hardware a good going-over. Selfishly, one of the names listed was mine, offered mostly in the finger-crossed hope that I’d be chosen to test the hardware and write about it here.

A few weeks after our conversation — specifically, on Friday — our friendly neighborhood UPS guy delivered a ZaReason Limbo 5440 desktop unit for me to put through its paces.

SCALE 10XI’m grateful that they chose me, and the ZaReason folks know me too well: On the Limbo 5440 they had installed Fedora 16 (awww, thanks guys!)– ZaReason provides their products with a choice of distros, with the latest version of Fedora, Debian, Linux Mint or Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Mythbuntu/Edubuntu/Ubuntu Studio available, along with a “no operating system” option — so they know what I wanted off the bat.

This particular mid tower, a low-cost box starting at $499 which is built for expansion, was delivered with a plethora of upgrades: a Dual Core Intel i5-2500M (at a screaming 3.3GHz), 8 GB of RAM (DDR 3-1600) and three — count ‘em, three — 500 GB drives turning a cool 7,200 RPM each. This particular model, with the additions, goes for $945.

So here’s the deal: With this box in my possession for a week, I will use it until Christmas Day (as an aside, my daughter Mimi — the Ubuntu user in the family — will also use it and give her impressions as well) and write an item every day entitled, wait for it, “A Week in Limbo,” Days 0 through 6, with the epilogue at the end serving as the wrap-up review of the hardware.

I’ve added a few programs that I would normally use during the course of my usual digital — LibreOffice, GIMP and XChat, for starters (more to follow, obviously) — and during the course of the week I’m also going to use other distros on the Limbo to see how it works.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some of the nuts-and-bolts features of the desktop, as well as some impressions of the Limbo 5440. Watch this space.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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