Alt-tab

It’s true that you don’t miss things until they’re gone. Take alt-tab, the standard window switching mechanism, for example.

Apple-tab is the OS X equivalent. This is fair enough since the apple key is in the same position as ctrl is on non-Mac keyboards. It’s the same idea – and, in fact, placement – as the old Amiga key. On a side note, perhaps in future we could all adopt an “OS key” for operating system-specific operations.

Anyway, apple-tab is no alt-tab. It switches between a seemingly random mix of open, closed and what-I-thought-I-closed-two-days-ago applications. Right now, for instance, apple-tab lets me switch between Quicktime, Finder, Preview and iTerm. Except that, when I select any of the first three, no window actually appears. Only iTerm jumps to the front. The others’ menu is activated but no other visible sign.

Is it because I’m using Virtual Desktops? Are the other applications “hidden”? I’ve no idea. OS X has no concept of virtual desktops so it’s a reasonable theory. If so, it’s still pretty unforgiveable to lack virtual desktops.

Also, note that apple-tab is an application switcher. If you spend your day in web applications (i.e. 50 Firefox windows) then you’re going to need to practise your mouse skills to switch windows.

The taskbar thing at the bottom of the desktop is no help, either – a big long list of applications with a little overlaid arrow signifying that the application is currently running. Same story when I click on the icon, however.

(I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who’s been using OS X for about a month and hasn’t read any documentation on OS X and, to be perfectly honest, isn’t planning to and honestly thinks that needing a manual for something as basic as window-switching is a bad sign.)

MacBook Pro

New job, new setup.

Google provides the option of either a Mac or Thinkpad laptop for all its engineers. Well, although I adore the T41, I wasn’t so enamoured with the T60. Anecdotal reports of weird hardware problems tallied with my own experiences – in short, they just don’t make Thinkpads like they used to. Having heard so many wonderful things about OS X, I reasoned it was time to try something new.

The MacBook Pro is a wonderful thing to behold. Silver and thin, it sports a widescreen display and boots in seconds. The trip-proof magnetic power connector is genius. First impressions are second to none.

However, the problems quickly became apparent:

  • The touchpad is the worst I’ve ever seen. I can’t figure out how to adjust the acceleration and so small movements go unregistered while larger movements fly off into the great beyond. It’s not a case of getting used to touchpads…I’ve been using these things for years and this is the first one that grates.
  • There is no right mouse button.
  • Crucially for me, there is no trackpoint. The trackpoint is absolutely impenetrable for several months, even years. Eventually, however, you subconsciously discard the trackpad and rely on the trackpoint. It’s ergonimically better and far more efficient. You simply cannot go back to RSI-inducing touchpads.
  • Everybody and their dog seems to adore two-finger scrolling but I can’t warm to it all, probably because of the aforementioned fundamental response issue. I miss the “hot zone”-style scrolling of Windows and Linux.
  • Battery life is nothing special, seemingly averaging about 3 and a half hours.
  • Cursor keys are just plain weird. They’re microscopically thin and first experiences with vim and console-based newsreaders are bad: you need alt to make them behave as cursor keys.
  • Ditto for the escape keys, function keys and, crucially, enter key.
  • Caps lock is inexplicably huge.
  • The feel of the keyboard is…average (to say the least).
  • There’s only two USB ports and the right hand-side port is right where you would put your (essential, unfortunately) external mouse.
  • Alt-tab is broken: it switches between applications, not windows. In this age where many of us live in Firefox, this is unacceptable.
  • There is no virtual desktop support built-in. The user interface has all these wonderful 3D concepts built in but makes almost no use of it, as far as I can see.

Well, because of the first three points I have to use an external mouse. In that case, what’s the point of having a laptop? The keyboard problems effectively rule out doing any development on this machine (or remotely, via this machine, i.e. from home). All the other points just make the whole Mac experience a bit of a chore. I love the wireless network support and magic power connector but otherwise I’m extremely underwhelmed. I’d just like to do some work now.

All is forgiven, Thinkpad – if it had the build quality of the T4x series then the T60 would be perfect. As it is, it remains the laptop for me.

Wine on Thinkpad T60p under Ubuntu Edgy

Another oddity with the Thinkpad, related this time to the fglrx graphics driver.

In order for Wine to run successfully I need to add this line to the options section of my device in /etc/X11/xorg.conf:

Option "UseFastTLS" "2"

Very annoying and it just confirms what utter s$%^ the fglrx driver is.

This tip comes from the “Problems with fglrx” page on Thinkwiki: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Problems_with_fglrx

With this done, however, I can now run Autostitch, DVD Shrink and Lotus Notes just perfectly. Incidentally, I use the Wine packages from WineHQ:

deb http://wine.budgetdedicated.com/apt edgy main

iPod on Thinkpad T60

A strange one; my iPod gives read/write errors when I connect it via one of the USB ports on the right-hand side of my T60. However, if I use the lone USB port on the left-hand side…no problem.

More on this here:

http://taint.org/2006/12/13/191554a.html

http://kerneltrap.org/node/3844

There’s no consensus on whether this is a software (i.e. kernel) or hardware problem, but I’m tending towards the latter as modprobe -r ehci_usb made no difference.

On the other hand, with the iPod connected to the lone USB port I transferred its full contents onto an external USB disk (connected, interestingly enough – albeit inevitably – to one of the other ports, which the iPod doesn’t like) without any issues.

In praise of…the Thinkpad T41

It’s survived falls, thumps and bangs. It’s been on for over two and a half years with barely a break. Its disk has been wiped and re-partitioned with every passing OS fad. It’s got built-in WiFi, Bluetooth and its own flash light. It’s survived three trips to America. You can spill drinks all over the keyboard without worrying and the hard-drive has its own air bag.

The battery may have worn down to 45 minutes, but the machine is indestructible: you cannot hurt a Thinkpad. Or so I thought…

The T4x series was the last to be designed solely by IBM, i.e. before they sold the business to Lenovo. When I got mine (2004), no other i386 laptop came close and a Thinkpad was forever top of magazines’ A-lists: expensive, but sturdy and reliable with huge battery life. Not that the quality has diminished much since the sale, but the competition seems to have caught up in many respects and so, in some ways, the T4x is the last “real”, great Thinkpad series…at least in my mind.

However, yesterday morning it froze solid and wouldn’t turn back on again. The power light was active along with the CPU fan but without a hint of other activity. Uh oh.

IMG_1819.JPG

I stripped the machine down but it soon became apparent that this was pretty serious. A Google search reveals a known problem with the T4x series whereby the ATI graphics chip detaches slightly from the motherboard (“system board”). IBM/Lenovo seem to treat this as a design flaw and may even replace the motherboard if you’re out of warranty (normal cost about $600), but for some the severity is intermittent and it’s even been reported fixed by the wedging of some paper between the chip and keyboard, thereby jamming the chip back into place.

There is a very interesting thread on this problem here: http://forum.thinkpads.com/viewtopic.php?t=33952&start=0&postdays=0&postorder=asc&highlight=

I tried applying pressure to the chip and powering up (reasoning that if it worked then some paper would be supply a permanent fix) but to no avail. I had all but given up when a friend suggested “bending” the machine: seemingly, his friend must constantly need do this with his T4x.

The logic behind this is that holding the machine with one hand (i.e. on the left, nearest the PCMCIA slots or on the right, over the hard-drive) puts undue strain on the motherboard; it should cope with this, but older T4x motherboards (i.e. about three years) don’t like it. Many people with the graphics chip problem like holding the machine like this, myself included. By bending the machine (open the screen and then bend where the keyboard is) in the opposite direction to normal, you may just pop the ATI chip back into place.

Lo and behold…some bend-age is all it needs. I think I’m on borrowed time, though.