First impressions of the Gemini PDA

Mar 19, 2018 / 0 comments

Gemini PDA

Last March I discovered the IndieGoGo campaign for the Gemini PDA, a plan to produce a modern PDA with a decent keyboard inspired by the Psion 5. At that point in time the estimated delivery date was November 2017, and it wasn’t clear they were going to meet their goals. As someone has owned a variety of phones with keyboards, from a Nokia 9000i to a T-Mobile G1 I’ve been disappointed about the lack of mobile devices with keyboards. The Gemini seemed like a potential option, so I backed it, paying a total of $369 including delivery. And then I waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, one year and a day after I backed the project, I received my Gemini PDA. Now, I don’t get as much use out of such a device as I would have in the past. The Gemini is definitely not a primary phone replacement. It’s not much bigger than my aging Honor 7 but there’s no external display to indicate who’s calling and it’s a bit clunky to have to open it to dial (I don’t trust Google Assistant to cope with my accent enough to have it ring random people). The 9000i did this well with an external keypad and LCD screen, but then it was a brick so it had the real estate to do such things. Anyway. I have a laptop at home, a laptop at work and I cycle between the 2. So I’m mostly either in close proximity to something portable enough to move around the building, or travelling in a way that doesn’t mean I could use one.

My first opportunity to actually use the Gemini in anger therefore came last Friday, when I attended BelFOSS. I’d normally bring a laptop to a conference, but instead I decided to just bring the Gemini (in addition to my normal phone). I have the LTE version, so I put my FreedomPop SIM into it - this did limit the amount I could do with it due to the low data cap, but for a single day was plenty for SSH, email + web use. I already have the Pro version of the excellent JuiceSSH, am a happy user of K-9 Mail and tend to use Chrome these days as well. All 3 were obviously perfectly happy on the Android 7.1.1 install.

Aside: Why am I not running Debian on the device? Planet do have an image available form their Linux Support page, but it’s running on top of the crufty 3.18 Android kernel and isn’t yet a first class citizen - it’s not clear the LTE will work outside Android easily and I’ve no hope of ARM opening up the Mali-T880 drivers. I’ve got plans to play around with improving the support, but for the moment I want to actually use the device a bit until I find sufficient time to be able to make progress.

So how did the day go? On the whole, a success. Battery life was great - I’d brought a USB battery pack expecting to need to boost the charge at some point, but I last charged it on Thursday night and at the time of writing it’s still claiming 25% battery left. LTE worked just fine; I had a 4G signal for most of the day with occasional drops down to 3G but no noticeable issues. The keyboard worked just fine; much better than my usual combo of a Nexus 7 + foldable Bluetooth keyboard. Some of the symbols aren’t where you’d expect, but that’s understandable on a scaled down keyboard. Screen resolution is great. I haven’t used the USB-C ports other than to charge and backup so far, but I like the fact there are 2 provided (even if you need a custom cable to get HDMI rather than it following the proper standard). The device feels nice and solid in your hand - the case is mostly metal plates that remove to give access to the SIM slot and (non-removable but user replaceable) battery. The hinge mechanism seems robust; I haven’t been worried about breaking it at any point since I got the device.

What about problems? I can’t deny there are a few. I ended up with a Mediatek X25 instead of an X27 - that matches what was initial promised, but there had been claims of an upgrade. Unfortunately issues at the factory meant that the initial production run got the older CPU. Later backers are support to get the upgrade. As someone who took the early risk this does leave a slightly bitter taste but I doubt I’ll actually notice any significant performance difference. The keys on the keyboard are a little lop sided in places. This seems to be just a cosmetic thing and I haven’t noticed any issues in typing. The lack of first class Debian support is disappointing, but I believe will be resolved in time (by the community if not Planet). The camera isn’t as good as my phone, but then it’s a front facing webcam style thing and it’s at least as good as my laptop at that.

Bottom line: Would I buy it again? At $369, absolutely. At the current $599? Probably not - I’m simply not on the move enough to need this on a regular basis, so I’d find it hard to justify. Maybe the 2nd gen, assuming it gets a bit more polish on the execution and proper mainline Linux support. Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1st gen is lovely and I’ve had lots of envious people admiring it, I just think it’s ended up priced a bit high for what it is. For the same money I’d be tempted by the GPD Pocket instead.

Getting Debian booting on a Lenovo Yoga 720

Feb 21, 2018 / 0 comments

I recently got a new work laptop, a 13” Yoga 720. It proved difficult to install Debian on; pressing F12 would get a boot menu allowing me to select a USB stick I have EFI GRUB on, but after GRUB loaded the kernel and the initrd it would just sit there never outputting anything else that indicated the kernel was even starting. I found instructions about Ubuntu 17.10 which helped but weren’t the complete picture. What seems to be the situation is that the kernel won’t happily boot if “Legacy Support” is not enabled - enabling this (and still booting as EFI) results in a happier experience. However in order to be able to enable legacy boot you have to switch the SATA controller from RAID to AHCI, which can cause Windows to get unhappy about its boot device going away unless you warn it first.

  • Fire up an admin shell in Windows (right click on the start menu)
  • bcdedit /set safeboot minimal
  • Reboot into the BIOS
  • Change the SATA Controller mode from RAID to AHCI (dire warnings about “All data will be erased”. It’s not true, but you’ve back up first, right?) Set “Boot Mode” to “Legacy Support”.
  • Save changes and let Windows boot to Safe Mode
  • Fire up an admin shell in Windows (right click on the start menu again)
  • bcdedit /deletevalue safeboot
  • Reboot again and Windows will load in normal mode with the AHCI drivers

Additionally I had problems getting the GRUB entry added to the BIOS; efibootmgr shows it fine but it never appears in the BIOS boot list. I ended up using Windows to add it as the primary boot option using the following (<guid> gets replaced with whatever the new “Debian” section guid is):

bcdedit /enum firmware
bcdedit /copy "{bootmgr}" /d "Debian"
bcdedit /set "{<guid>}" path \EFI\Debian\grubx64.efi
bcdedit /set "{fwbootmgr}" displayorder "{<guid>}" /addfirst

Even with that at one point the BIOS managed to “forget” about the GRUB entry and require me to re-do the final “displayorder” command.

Once you actually have the thing installed and booting it seems fine - I’m running Buster due to the fact it’s a Skylake machine with lots of bits that seem to want a newer kernel, but claimed battery life is impressive, the screen is very shiny (though sometimes a little too shiny and reflective) and the NVMe SSD seems pretty nippy as you’d expect.

collectd scripts for the Virgin Media Super Hub

Feb 6, 2018 / 0 comments

As I’ve previously stated I’m no longer using Virgin Media but when I was I had written a script to scrape statistics from the cable modem and import them into collectd. Primarily I was recording the upstream/downstream line speed and the per channel signal figures, but they could easily be extended to do more if you wanted. Useful to see when Virgin increase your line speed, or see if your line quality has deteriorated. I’ve shoved the versions I had for the Super Hub v1 and v3 in GitHub in the hope they’ll be of use to someone. Note that I posted my SuperHub 3 back to Virgin yesterday so I no longer have any hardware that needs these scripts.

Going to FOSDEM 2018

Jan 23, 2018 / 0 comments

Laura comments that she has no idea who is going to FOSDEM. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve only been once before, way back in 2005. A mixture of good excuses and disorganisation about arranging to go has meant I haven’t been back since. So a few months ago I made the decision to attend and sorted out the appropriate travel and hotel bookings and I’m pleased to say I’m attending FOSDEM 2018. I get in late Friday evening and fly out on Sunday evening, so I’ll miss the Friday beering but otherwise be around for the whole event. Hope to catch up with a bunch of people there!

How Virgin Media lost me as a supporter

Jan 9, 2018 / 0 comments

For a long time I’ve been a supporter of Virgin Media (from a broadband perspective, though their triple play TV/Phone/Broadband offering has seemed decent too). I know they have a bad reputation amongst some people, but I’ve always found their engineers to be capable, their service in general reliable, and they can manage much faster speeds than any UK ADSL/VDSL service at cheaper prices. I’ve used their services everywhere I’ve lived that they were available, starting back in 2001 when I lived in Norwich. The customer support experience with my most recent move has been so bad that I am no longer of the opinion it is a good idea to use their service.

Part of me wonders if the customer support has got worse recently, or if I’ve just been lucky. We had a problem about 6 months ago which was clearly a loss of signal on the line (the modem failed to see anything and I could clearly pinpoint when this had happened as I have collectd monitoring things). Support were insistent they could do a reset and fix things, then said my problem was the modem and I needed a new one (I was on an original v1 hub and the v3 was the current model). I was extremely dubious but they insisted. It didn’t help, and we ended up with an engineer visit - who immediately was able to say they’d been disconnecting noisy lines that should have been unused at the time my signal went down, and then proceeded to confirm my line had been unhooked at the cabinet and then when it was obvious the line was noisy and would have caused problems if hooked back up patched me into the adjacent connection next door. Great service from the engineer, but support should have been aware of work in the area and been able to figure out that might have been a problem rather than me having a 4-day outage and numerous phone calls when the “resets” didn’t fix things.

Anyway. I moved house recently, and got keys before moving out of the old place, so decided to be organised and get broadband setup before moving in - there was no existing BT or Virgin line in the new place so I knew it might take a bit longer than usual to get setup. Also it would have been useful to have a connection while getting things sorted out, so I could work while waiting in for workmen. As stated at the start I’ve been pro Virgin in the past, I had their service at the old place and there was a CableTel (the Belfast cable company NTL acquired) access hatch at the property border so it was clear it had had service in the past. So on October 31st I placed an order on their website and was able to select an installation date of November 11th (earlier dates were available but this was a Saturday and more convenient).

This all seemed fine; Virgin contacted me to let me know there was some external work that needed to be done but told me it would happen in time. This ended up scheduled for November 9th, when I happened to be present. The engineers turned up, had a look around and then told me there was an issue with access to their equipment - they needed to do a new cable pull to the house and although the ducting was all there the access hatch for the other end was blocked by some construction work happening across the road. I’d had a call about this saying they’d be granted access from November 16th, so the November 11th install date was pushed out to November 25th. Unfortunate, but understandable. The engineers also told me that what would happen is the external team would get a cable hooked up to a box on the exterior of the house ready for the internal install, and that I didn’t need to be around for that.

November 25th arrived. There was no external box, so I was dubious things were actually going to go ahead, but I figured there was a chance the external + internal teams would turn up together and get it sorted. No such luck. The guy who was supposed to do the internal setup turned up, noticed the lack of an external box and informed me he couldn’t do anything without that. As I’d expected. I waited a few days to hear from Virgin and heard nothing, so I rang them and was told the installation had moved to December 6th and the external bit would be done before that - I can’t remember the exact date quoted but I rang a couple of times before the 6th and was told it would happen that day “for sure” each time.

December 5th arrives and I get an email telling me the installation has moved to December 21st. This is after the planned move date and dangerously close to Christmas - I’m aware that in the event of any more delays I’m unlikely to get service until the New Year. Lo and behold on December 7th I’m informed my install is on hold and someone will contact me within 5 working days to give me an update.

Suffice to say I do not get called. I ring towards the end of the following week and am told they are continuing to have trouble carrying out work on the access hatch. So I email the housing company doing the work across the road, asking if Virgin have actually been in touch and when the building contractors plan to give them the access they require. I get a polite response saying Virgin have been on-site but did not ask for anything to be moved or make it clear they were trying to connect a customer. And providing an email address for the appropriate person in the construction company to arrange access.

I contact Virgin to ask about this on December 20th. There’s no update but this time I manage to get someone who actually seems to want to help, rather than just telling me it’s being done today or soon. I get email confirmation that the matter is being escalated to the Area Field Manager (I’d been told this by phone on December 16th as well but obviously nothing had happened), and provide the contact details for the construction company.

And then I wait. I’m aware things wind down over the Christmas period, so I’m not expecting an install before the New Year, but I did think I might at least get a call or email with an update. Nothing. My wife rang to finally cancel our old connection last week (it’s been handy to still have my backup host online and be able to go and do updates in the old place) and they were aware of the fact we were trying to get a new connection and that there had been issues, but had no update and then proceeded to charge a disconnection fee, even though Virgin state no disconnection if you move and continue with Virgin Media.

So last week I rang and cancelled the order. And got the usual story of difficulty with access and asked to give them 48 hours to get back to me. I said no, that the customer service so far had been appalling and to cancel anyway. Which I’m informed has now been done.

Let’s be clear on what I have issue with here. While the long delay is annoying I don’t hold Virgin entirely responsible - there is construction work going on and things slow down over Christmas (though the order was placed long enough beforehand that this really shouldn’t have impacted things). The problem is the customer service and complete lack of any indication Virgin are managing this process well internally - the fact the interior install team turned up when the exterior work hadn’t been completed is shocking! If Virgin had told me at the start (or once they’d done the first actual physical visit to the site and seen the situation) that there was going to be a delay and then been able to provide a firm date, I’d have been much more accepting. Instead, the numerous reschedules, an inability to call back and provide updates when promised and the empty assurances that exterior work will be carried out on certain dates all leave me lacking any faith in what Virgin tell me. Equally, the fact they have charged a disconnection fee when their terms state they wouldn’t is ridiculous (a complaint has been raised but at the time of writing the complaints team has, surprise, surprise, not been in contact). If they’re so poor when I’m trying to sign up as a new customer, why should I have any faith in their ability to provide decent support when I actually have their service?

It’s also useful to contrast my Virgin experience with 2 others. Firstly, EE who I used for 4G MiFi access. Worked out of the box, and when I rang to cancel (because I no longer need it) were quick and efficient about processing the cancellation and understood that I’d been pleased with the service but no longer needed it, so didn’t do a hard retention sell.

Secondly, I’ve ended up with FTTC over a BT Openreach line from a local Gamma reseller, MCL Services. I placed this order on December 8th, after Virgin had put my install on hold. At the point of order I had an install date of December 19th, but within 3 hours it was delayed until January 3rd. At this point I thought I was going to have similar issues, so decided to leave both orders open to see which managed to complete first. I double-checked with MCL on January 2nd that there’d been no updates, and they confirmed it was all still on and very unlikely to change. And, sure enough, on the morning of January 3rd a BT engineer turned up after having called to give a rough ETA. Did a look around, saw the job was bigger than expected and then, instead of fobbing me off, got the job done. Which involved needing a colleague to turn up to help, running a new cable from a pole around the corner to an adjacent property and then along the wall, and installing the master socket exactly where suited me best. In miserable weather.

What did these have in common that Virgin does not? First, communication. EE were able to sort out my cancellation easily, at a time that suited me (after 7pm, when I’d got home from work and put dinner on). MCL provided all the installation details for my FTTC after I’d ordered, and let me know about the change in date as soon as BT had informed them (it helps I can email them and actually get someone who can help, rather than having to phone and wait on hold for someone who can’t). BT turned up and discovered problems and worked out how to solve them, rather than abandoning the work - while I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Virgin’s engineers up to this point there’s something wrong if they can’t sort out access to their network in 2 months. What if I’d been an existing customer with broken service?

This is a longer post than normal, and no one probably cares, but I like to think that someone in Virgin might read it and understand where my frustrations throughout this process have come from. And perhaps improve things, though I suspect that’s expecting too much and the loss of a single customer doesn’t really mean a lot to them.

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