03 December, 2016

Slightly less poor brother and a distant relative

It's been eight years

First, I must mention that much like this article states, I take a long time to write articles for the blog. This one took a particularly long time before I was happy with it.

In a previous post, I described a purchase I'd recently gained. At that time, I compared it to the fx-82MS and Canon 804P. I won't be reiterating that here, as I've said what I needed to in that post. Instead, I'd like to describe another recent purchase, the fx-9750GII. It's a small upgrade from the G+, having more memory (about 62,800 bytes) and a slightly reworked OS and menu screen. It additionally features nearly 2,900 functions. Those weren't the main reason I bought the calculator though. They're nice, but I can do something with this calculator I couldn't do with the G+. I can connect it to the computer with just a USB cable and some Casio software. This means I can create programs inside the Casio interface on the computer without pecking my way through keys on the calculator keyboard. That speeds things up dramatically for me.

USB support has become ubiquitous among more powerful calculators such as the HP stable (HP-39Gii/40GS/50G and others) and Texas Instruments (TI-84 Plus, TI-89 Titanium), and the same is also true for the Casio fx-9750GII and equivalents. That allows me to connect it to my computer without any weird expensive bits of kit such as the FA-122, which was an after-market purchase of another US $37.95 or thereabouts. I originally saw this cable cost far more, so I never purchased it. In addition, the FA122's a serial connection, useless for most modern computers without serial ports. USB capability makes things far easier because most computers have USB ports these days. Of course you require software on the PC side to exchange data with the calculator, but that's downloadable from Casio. The only remaining issue is that the ports are usually USB 1.1 speed, not USB 3. Even considering that, transfer speeds are still considerably faster than the original 9,600 baud connection through the FA-122. I also can't say if the drivers will play nice with Windows 10, the new kid on the block.

Time to try it out

As you can imagine, I've been having a bit of a play. I've basically duplicated the Grocery program I was using on the G+, and it seems to work well enough. All the features that were in the previous calculator are here, though they've been slightly tweaked. I noticed that screen writes happen quite a bit faster, this could be due to the fact the calculator uses a SuperH SH-4a instead of the SH-3. The fx-9750GII and fx-9860GII each come in two versions, the earlier one (SH3) and the later version (SH4a) providing some improvements from the Casio Prizm range. However, prepare to be disappointed if you want all the features of a fx-9860GII in your fx-9750GII, because they're not here. There's no backlight, though this is not much of a loss for me as none of my other calculators have one either. There's no "pretty-print" feature with fraction bars, superscripted exponents and other things. Results are represented in decimal form instead of "Math" mode. For fraction marks, you have what fx-82MS uses, and carets (^) for exponents. You also can't use compiled applications (known as add-ins), there is no spreadsheet, and no eActivity functionality. These issues aren't going to kill this calculator, but these are some of the reasons why Casio released this calculator for less cost than its big brother.

One other feature I found missing from my calculator is the inability to back up the existing flash image to a file. If you want to upgrade the flash—and you can—you'll have to be prepared to lose what's there already. In earlier BIOS versions (not 2.04.xxxx) I could have backed up the flash image using fxRemote, but it seems that Casio have now removed that ability, and the same issue also applies to the latest fx-9860GII's BIOS code. Casio no longer officially provide BIOS updates for the 9750GII, so if you decide you want to update the BIOS, you'll end up taking a chance. It's possible to upgrade the BIOS, though the 9750GII doesn't have any updates beyond 2.04. Some people that have attempted upgrading have ended up bricking their calculators, making the calculator almost useless in the process. I did stumble across the original version I had of the firmware for the fx9750GII, so I at least have a backup.

However...

I decided I'd take a bit of a gamble and try to upgrade the BIOS so it runs a fx-9860GII's flash update. The instructions are relatively simple, all that's needed is the most recent version of a flash image for a fx-9860GII, a USB cable—preferably the one that comes with the calculator—and the fxRemote program. As there are actually two files I could have used, I had to get the version for the SH4a, and not the SH3. I found the relevant files, fired up fxRemote and nervously watched as figures scrolled up the screen. Finally the job was done, and I had extra functionality in my calculator after an initial hiccup. I now reckon this Casio stacks up better than it originally did against the HP-50G even though the HP still has the edge, and for a much cheaper price than I would have ordinarily paid even considering I bought the calculator second-hand.

I also reverted to the fx-9750GII's image, partly to see if it could be done—it worked perfectly okay. So I can go back and forth between versions, but I'll stick with the fx-9860GII's image, as it gets me more functionality.

Grocery Program

The fx-9750GII has also allowed me to improve the grocery program I was working on. It might seem counterintuitive to write a program to handle what most of us take for granted, using our four-bangers (nickname for simple four-function calculators) with memory. However, this program has a little more beef to it, as I can break down the total grocery bill into five broad categories. I can also show how much tax I'll be paying when I pay over my cash. That rate is alterable, of course. About the only thing I've had to worry about has been differences between the newer and the older calculators related to new keywords not present on the original G+. Thankfully those have been minor, and have mainly been because of how the FA-124 program tokenises and copies programs between the calculator and the computer.

I also added crude support for five temporary values (usually used for price-per-kg figures to be used later) also displayed on the same screen. As a result, the screen now looks a little different than I first described back in the original article. Due to the ease with which I can transfer programs, I can also upload the program to hosting sites, so my simple grocery program is now up on Casiopeia.net. I go into more detail in this article.

Concluding remarks

I think I did really well for the money I paid. I got a calculator that compared favourably against the previous generation. I gained the ability to download programs to the calculator and back up the calculator's data files to the computer, and I paid no more than I did for the previous calculator. A gamble paid off when I was successfully able to get the calculator to behave like its big brother the fx-9860GII, although I've yet to find out if there are any disadvantages aside from the missing light. There may be some unseen results I don't know about yet. Lastly, I have a reliable backup for when my previous calculator eventually dies, although I'm not expecting it to for quite some time.

I'm happy.

I did find one strange thing though—I went to register the calculator at the official Casio website, but I struck a problem. Where it wanted me to enter in serial numbers, and even told me where to find them, there's no serial numbers to be found on the back of this calculator. That's not very useful for me. I don't know whether this version of the calculator was ever released with serial numbers, but at least the one I have, has no numbers.

Casio Emulation

A standalone binary was provided to emulate the fx-9860G-SD, but you won't be able to upgrade it to the current SH-3 based BIOS, the emulator simply won't support that. The emulator doesn't import add-ins, making it only usable for BASIC files (*.g1m). Additionally, you've got to source the emulator. If you want an emulator that covers the later model, you'll need to purchase it directly from Casio.

Extra storage

The fx-9860GII SD adds a SD card socket to the many things the calculator already supports. You can use the SD card to store files and add-ons, though to use them in the calculator you still have to copy them to the calculator memory, as the calculator won't execute programs directly from the SD card. Thankfully the calculator isn't limited to 2GB like the HP-50G, support for cards up to 32GB is now present in the most recent BIOS images.

“But wait, there's more...”

Old line. I just had to use it. Anyhow, I also bought a Hewlett-Packard HP-50G a little while ago for a significant discount off the retail price. I haven't evaluated this calculator properly, because it's a complex beast for someone still used to Casio calculators. It does everything the fx-9860GII does, and far more. It's been compared favourably with a TI-89 Titanium, whereas the fx-9860GII is compared more against the TI-84+. Engineers have loved HP products for generations, and while the 50G doesn't share all the strengths of the HP-48GX and relatives, it brings strengths of its own to the HP collection.

  • For starters, it's faster due to the ARM CPU. It's clocked at 75MHz, but can be clocked higher for a resulting increase in battery consumption.
  • The screen is easier to read even though it's still greyscale, and the resolution has been slightly increased (131x80). It's certainly not colour, but it's not bad.
  • Like other modern calculators, it includes the ability to use USB to install applications.
  • It has a SD slot for increased storage space. I made sure I bought a 2GB card specifically for the calculator.
  • It can communicate with older generation HP calculators and peripherals over infrared, and even retains a serial connector.
  • It's the most powerful calculator in the HP stable except for the Prime as of 2015.
  • It uses 4 standard AAA batteries, instead of the 3 batteries that previous HP calculators used. This allows the calculator to last longer on a set of batteries.
  • Libraries previously provided externally now come standard with the calculator.
  • There's collectively 512k of memory available for calculations, helping out in large calculations.
  • Sound! Yes, this calculator has a speaker. Don't ask for MP3, but you will get tones.
  • It claims 2,300 functions, but if you wish to create other things, you can happily synthesise more out of the existing ones, or simply write your own using UserRPL/SysRPL.
  • The functions provided in RPL amount to a stack-based programming language with a lot of strengths, if you can get your head around RPL and working with a stack. It's been compared somewhat to FORTH, and is definitely not like BASIC though many keywords can be recognised from other programming languages.

That's just a sampling of the features this calculator has.

What about RPN?

Yes, the HP-50G still has RPN (in the form of RPL), and indeed relies on it for the CAS mode. However, HP included an Algebraic mode for those people who just can't stand to be without it, and for whom RPN makes about as much sense as a fish riding a bicycle. However, this isn't the most intuitive mode to use, and it's a reasonable assumption that to use this calculator well, you'll need to learn RPL.

Thankfully, the calculator provides menus to navigate the available commands, and provides a complete catalogue of functions. The available manuals also describe these commands if you need to look up how to use them. You may also need to learn UserRPL or SysRPL to create functions or programs that aren't already part of the 2,300 functions of the calculator. A lot of that information is in the Advanced User Reference, or AUR. An introduction to most of the common commands is in the User Manual, and the User Guide expands upon some of that information.

The manuals—regrettably for HP—aren't up to the quality of the manuals provided with the HP-48GX family, or even the HP-49. However, it will bring you up to speed if you're good at reading. There are forums where HP owners/collectors gather to discuss various models and programs running on them, and are considerably busier than the English casiopeia forums where Casio owners can gather.

Because the main core of the calculator executes on a Saturn code emulator this opens the calculator up to reusing code from earlier platforms, as much of it will also work on the HP-50G perhaps with slight modification. People can also code applications in the native ARM instruction set if they need the full speed of the CPU. However, we're still comparing apples to ocelots when saying one's better than the other. If you can live with waiting a second or two for your results, then running the code on the Saturn emulation won't make much of an effect and will save you from having to recode. But if you need speed, running code natively on the ARM platform may well reap rewards especially if your problem is a good fit for the ARM platform. You will have to source a GCC toolkit for HP's ARM CPU.

HP-50G storage and file access

Of course, there's the small issue of getting stuff onto and off the calculator from the computer. Thankfully, the HP makes this relatively easy, but it's easier if you happen to have a SD card reader installed in your computer, that way you can simply put files onto the SD card, remove the card from the computer, and insert it into the HP-50G. The file browser on the HP-50G can then be used to source the file you need off the SD card. I've installed several useful applications this way. There's just one wrinkle with the HP-50G's filer, while it can access subdirectories and files within them, you can't create subdirectories from within the HP-50G and have to resort to using the computer instead. Under Linux, copying files to and from the SD card works much like a FAT floppy disk, don't forget to umount the SD card before putting it back into the HP-50G. One other limitation with the HP-50G is the lack of support for SD cards larger than 2Gb. If you don't have either a SD card reader or a SD card, then you're stuck with using a USB cable and HP's Connection Kit software. Accessing HP-50G files from Linux can be done using ckermit (the equivalent of the HP Connection Kit), as long as you've got the HP-50G connected to the computer through the USB cable. Don't forget to start the Kermit server on the calculator when accessing it with Linux, not the Xmodem server that the HP Connect software will ask you to use.

One other thing I discovered with applications on the SD card is that I can execute programs from the SD card, but they will get copied into the main memory first, and removed from the main memory when the program finishes.

HP-50G emulation

Like the Casio fx-9860 calculator, there's also a Windows emulator for the HP-50G. It can be found if you look really hard for it. The BIOS version string shows "HP50-C Revision 2.16", instead of the 2.15 revision currently available in real HP-50G calculators. It does have one puzzling omission—there's no support for libraries beyond the three supplied in the BIOS image. Other Windows-based emulators supporting the Saturn emulation utilise the EMU48 emulator made by Christoph Gie├čelink, which often doesn't allow you to emulate native ARM binaries. I'm not sure what the latest version of this is.

Linux is also lucky enough to have a HP-49G+/50G emulator called x49gp, which does support the native ARM instruction set. It also supports the installation and execution of further libraries. However, the one lack of x49gp is that it won't connect to existing HP-50G calculators connected to the computer through the USB cable. The only way to get files into and out of the x49gp image is to use a simulated SD card, which is a file you can mount using the loopback device. Just don't have the filesystem mounted while x49gp is accessing it.

Conclusions

I don't see me buying any further calculators unless the fx9750s and the HP-50G all die, and I'm happy with what I bought. There's no doubt that I'm never going to use them to their full capability, but then these days, who does? I am relatively happy with what I'm using the fx9750GII for, and I love the feel of the keys on the HP-50G. It sounds crazy, but they remind me of the very first HP-34C I had, more than 20 years ago. I'm probably never going to buy the HP Prime, as the only real advantage I would have gained would have been the speed of graphing, which I never used anyhow. And I don't need colour for anything else I've been using the calculator for.

And now, I can finally post this article, vaguely piqued to know I haven't covered everything possible, and somewhat annoyed it's taken this long to post it. But, for what it's worth, I'm done.

07 November, 2016

The life of a Flight Simulator pilot

Come fly with me

A few months ago, I bought Flight Simulator X on Steam. They were having a sale, so they were selling it quite a bit cheaper than normal. I got some extras to go along with it, and later on I bought some other planes. It was at that stage that I realised that if people get into flight simulation seriously, they’re up for some serious costs. Normally, when you buy a game, DLC is minimal, and you usually don’t have to pay exorbitant amounts for it. In the flight simulator world, good planes often cost, though there are some rare exceptions. Scenery usually costs. Special additional features mostly cost. A recent look at just the FSX add-ons for Steam came to a grand total of over NZD$3,000 for 137 items at the time. That’s a whole lot of extra cost.

And anyone else aside from Steam?

That doesn’t take account of the many vendors that sell you everything from a C172 Skyhawk trainer to an Airbus A321 and anything else you might want. In short, if you want a specific well-known plane, odds are that someone makes one available for sale. Then there’s the outlay on additional physical hardware to make the flight simulator feel more realistic. This can be something as simple as a joystick, or something as complicated as a collection of instruments, yoke, throttle and rudder pedals. You could literally spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a proper job of just simulating a 737 cockpit, let alone all of the other planes in FSX’s stable. This cost isn’t anywhere near the millions a proper full-motion simulator would cost, but it’s still a significant amount of wedge in anyone’s money.

How does free sound?

If you wanted to reduce the cost, there are planes, software accessories and scenery that are available for free. Most of the free planes aren’t up to the same high quality of standard as their commercial counterparts, obviously. The scenery also has some of the same issues of reliability and fidelity, with the free scenery mostly not having as high a resolution. It’s enough to get by, but often the really good stuff you can only get for a cost, and sometimes that cost is significant.

The version of FSX available from Steam has a couple of wrinkles to it, as Dovetail Games recently gained a licence to redistribute FSX, but only with certain changes. For example, there still isn’t a 64-bit version, and the SDK that used to be supplied with FSX Gold (or FSX Deluxe) is no longer part of the package. Nor did Dovetail get the chance to fix absolutely everything that should have been fixed. If you need the SDK for making more planes, airports and scenery, then you’ll need to go looking for a boxed copy of FSX, and that’s getting harder to find, especially an unopened box with unused codes. However, the Dovetail version has some fixes to it that allow it to run better than FSX Gold on modern machines, even if you’re missing the SDK which you honestly don’t need just to fly a plane. Windows 10 notwithstanding, it’s a nice enough program when you have the machine resources to throw at it, but as it’s still a 32-bit program, it still runs into memory allocation limits fairly rapidly. The data files can be huge too. My loaded-up FSX takes up 70Gb on a drive, though this includes a large number of extra AI aircraft that I added for better multi-player model matching, and some commercial offerings of bigger aircraft such as the Airbus 318-321 family.

32-bit – say what?

Yes, in this age where most software is now 64-bit and safe as houses, FSX is only available in 32-bit. This wouldn’t ordinarily matter, except that FSX isn’t very good at marshalling that 3.5GB of memory. Addons can rapidly use up all of that and want more besides, resulting in the dreaded VAS error. VAS is the short name for the Virtual Address Space that FSX uses. It’s also the only amount of memory that FSX has access to as a whole, as it’s not spread among multiple processes that each have their own address space. Even 3.5Gb would be enough normally, if modern coding methods were used to hopefully reduce the amount of memory required. However, emulating planes well takes a lot of memory, especially when you consider the terrain they’re flying through. And some of that terrain can run into several gigabytes when installed on drive. Depending on how far out you want your viewpoint to reach, will be how much scenery gets loaded in. So if you have a fancy plane, like the Airbus A321, and you have fancy OrbX scenery especially for an airport, you could run out of memory just by sitting at the airport. Needless to say, this isn’t a good thing, as you can’t fly. So people have come up with strategies for managing the amount of space left in the VAS. This includes reducing the draw distance, reducing the complexity of rendered scenery, removing most or all of the buildings, and in some extreme cases, removing AI aircraft.

What about those AI aircraft?

To make sure you’re not flying through empty skies, FSX has the ability to populate the airport and skies around you with other planes. These planes look great from the outside but only if you’re a bit of a distance away from them. The closer you get, the more you realise that actually, the resolution on the skin is not very good. This is done to reduce resources in the already stretched VAS. If you wish to fly most of the purely-AI aircraft, you probably can’t as they’re not fitted with a working cockpit, and there’s only just enough of the aircraft systems running to make sure it’s going in the right direction, the propellers are spinning (or not) and the lights are flashing. Thankfully there are enough real aircraft for you to fly, as FSX Gold was delivered with over 25 unique flyable aircraft that are also AI, with an additional three purely AI aircraft. FSX standard has three more planes as AI only, making the Gold pack a much better bet for user-flyable craft. As I said earlier, other aircraft are well and truly available for those stepping outside the default FSX models.

How’s the Multiplayer?

Yes, in multiple forms. FSX Steam Edition uses Steam to connect with other players, a replacement of the older networking code that FSX Gold had. If you connect up with VATSIM or IVAO, you can run their clients alongside your FSX to allow you to connect to worldwide networks of pilots and controllers, though the chances of striking a controller at every airport you want is minimal. If you choose your times carefully, you can get a controller when they have logged on for a set period of time—often after work or during their weekend. If you want a controller at 3am local time, you’re unlikely to get one. The voice quality on the simulated VHF radio varies from almost unreadable in some cases with VATSIM’s client to a very clear Teamspeak-based vocal stream if you use the client for IVAO. It’s probably not a good idea to run both clients simultaneously, as you’ll possibly have to talk to two controllers for the same airport at once, which is not a healthy mix. Other clients are available too, but VATSIM and IVAO are the most well-known.

How about controlling?

If you’ve ever felt like directing pilots through airspace just like real-world controllers do, then you’ll need some other software that doesn’t come with FSX. For VATSIM, you’ll need a client called Euroscope, and a lot of training. For IVAO, you’ll also need their controller client and a lot of training before you’re let loose upon the public at large. Don’t expect to pick up FSX one week and be controlling on VATSIM the next week. It won’t happen; even if you have real world experience as a controller, this will only speed up the process somewhat. You have to have a good head for procedures, and a very good spatial awareness of planes in your vicinity. A clear understanding of the issues pilots face is also an added bonus, and most controllers have usually had some flight time under their belts before they take on the controller’s role.

Other flight simulators

If you wish to address some of the shortcomings that FSX has, you can use other flight simulators. The best known alternatives are Prepar3d and X-Plane. Prepar3d offers a high degree of compatibility with FSX, meaning that models usable in FSX are also often usable in P3D as well, with a few exceptions. To the best of my knowledge, it’s also a 32-bit program, but it runs a bit better and uses memory in a different way. If you just have to have a 64-bit flight simulator, then X-Plane bears looking at. It doesn’t offer the same compatibility with FSX that P3D does, but for that 64-bit you gain the ability to do quite a bit more, as the amount of memory is no longer limited by a 32-bit address. It also offers a far different emulation of the flight model for planes, making their behaviour match the real-world characteristics to a far higher fidelity. Additional planes are also available for X-Plane, though costs may differ from FSX equivalents.

And finally, FlightGear is free, and also boasts the additional moniker of Open Source. It appears to be nowhere near as mature, especially for the number of planes and airports available, as these are usually community-provided by people who’ve donated some of their time to making these planes work at least somewhat, even if they might not have the same polish as commercial offerings for FSX. One of the nice touches—if you have the drive space for it—is the freely available terrain database that mostly covers the whole world. There aren’t a whole lot of airports that have their buildings, if you’re unlucky, you’ll only get the runways. At this time, only 145 airports are fully developed enough in FlightGear to at least have taxi signs or buildings, the rest are undeveloped until someone gets them created to a high enough standard.

Final conclusions

Flying on a computer has been possible for quite some time. As the years have progressed, flights have become better looking and better feeling, but we’re still stuck with the fact that you have to look through one or more screens to see what you need to. In addition, if you wish to have enough bells and whistles to reflect a higher fidelity of flight experience, it’s going to cost more than your initial FSX purchase, and in some cases, significantly more. In saying that though, it’s a great way to suck up some time, and if you decide you’re going to go the multiplayer route, you’ll meet up with other want-to-be-pilots and controllers. Of course, you’ll run into some pillocks, but that seems to be the case for any online community. So, when’s your next flight?

14 October, 2015

A graphics tablet upgrade

Once upon a time...

A very long time ago, I bought a second-hand Genius tablet, a NewSketch 1212HRIII. It was a fantastic size at 12 inches square. There was plenty of room to write large if I so needed. The resolution wasn't particularly detailed, though it was okay for the time. While it worked fine, it needed a serial connection. Also, there's no pressure sensitivity with a tablet that old. Well, the computer I was using for the tablet died, so I had to either find a replacement powersupply for the computer (assuming the motherboard hasn't died), find another computer that has a serial port, or find a new tablet to replace the 1212HRIII. In addition, there was the added problem of finding a driver that would actually work, as the driver for the 1212 barely worked with XP.

So, I bought a new tablet. I browsed a local online computer supply store, and picked a likely candidate to suit my budget. I also compared some of the reviews I could find, what few there were. In the end, I chose the Genius MousePen i608X. The reviews I saw on the site all said 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, 2,560 LPI and some software that was free for a month but would cost you several hundred dollars if you wished to use it after the initial month. Well, I got a little surprise when the tablet arrived.

Huh? It got an upgrade?

This tablet is also called the i608X, but supports 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity. It has 5,120 LPI and a stated resolution of 0.25 mm. It has no trial software on the CDROM (so, no Corel Paint), though it does come with a freeware paint application in addition to the drivers and manual. I took the suggestion of the various reviewers and headed off to the Geniusnet.com website to download their later drivers, as I wasn't sure what age the drivers on the CDROM were. You may have to google for "geniusnet.com i608X download" like I did. I installed those, rebooted, plugged the tablet in, and watched Vista while it churned a bit discovering new devices. Woo hoo! I now have a new 6" x 8" tablet.

Thankfully, because this tablet is smaller, it fits on my desk much better than the 1212. It's also USB, so it works with anything that's got USB ports and the right drivers. About the only problem I'm likely to strike is battery life in the pen, as it's not batteryless. I think I can live with that, I have plenty of rechargeable batteries. And because of the pressure sensitivity, I've learned a few new tricks with drawing that I didn't know before. Frankly I'm no artist, so learning how to use this properly is going to be quite some process, but I didn't seriously need the extra "features" that most more expensive tablets have, such as tilt, or even Eraser. It'd be nice, but at least for me, tilt would only get in the way. While an erase function would be nice, I can usually select the eraser from the palette in GIMP anyhow.

Ah yes, the pressure support

It's there, somewhat. Some programs support it properly, some others are a bit flakey with it. For example, Krita (a KDE drawing app) supports pressure input fine from the tablet, but the application I use most (GIMP) doesn't always register that I'm inputting from the tablet, and ignores it, at least with the default kernel module. Under Windows, pressure sensitivity at least works in the GIMP, but under Linux I'm not as lucky, even though I'm using the same version of GIMP in each case. I've noticed that Paint.NET doesn't support pressure sensitivity whatsoever, at least in the last version I have. I can't upgrade it any further as the author now wants a minimum of Windows 7 for the application.

So, does this require a DKMS module to support things properly?

In a word, probably. I upgraded to Ubuntu 15.04 just so I could get proper pressure sensitivity in GIMP. I got partial support, but not everything was working right under the normal Linux kernel. So, I headed off to github, and grabbed the digimend tablet support deb. I installed that, removed the original hid-kye module, unplugged and plugged the tablet back in and restarted Xorg. After that, everything appears to work properly, and the best news? I even got the tablets mouse to work. Pressure support now works well with GIMP, at least under Linux.

So will we see any new cool pictures?


Because I'm so new to computer art, and to art in general, I don't know most of the techniques to use. I think I have quite a long process ahead of me. I think I'll like this. Incidentally, this picture was drawn with my original tablet.

Would you recommend this tablet?

Hey, what is this, twenty questions? Um, right. First off, this tablet is most certainly a budget tablet. It's not a tablet for people who have lots of experience with tilt, pressure and different brushes under commercial graphics programs. It's not a tablet I'd recommend to a professional artist, unless you're really needing to pinch your pennies. It's a small tablet (though not absolutely 4"x5" tiny, thankfully) for people who are starting to learn about computer art. It doesn't take a lot of room on the desk. It's under a hundred dollars, at least in our currency. It doesn't have an eraser, but it does come with two spare hard nibs, a nib extractor and a CDROM with some drivers, the manual and Paint.NET. If you buy this tablet, do yourself a favour and grab the drivers from the manufacturer's website (in my case, geniusnet.com) if you're using this tablet under Windows. If you're using this under a Debian-based Linux, head to Digimend's site for some updated drivers until the Linux kernel support catches up with this revision of the tablet.

I think I got lucky, as this particular tablet supports twice the number of pressure levels than its predecessor, and slices, dic... wait, that's the knife set. It also seems to have a higher resolution. It remains to be seen how long the nibs last, or how long each AAA (or LR3) battery lasts in the stylus and the mouse. I'm hoping I can buy more nibs another time.

There's no fancy Wacom-like dials. The stylus needs a battery, so that changes its weight as a result. It's a bit heavier than a good quality Parker pen as a result. The nib doesn't appear to have any "give" or provide any obvious feedback, so learning just how hard to press for a certain effect is an exercise in training and experimentation. Most artists would probably be well aware of this anyhow. The mouse is of dubious value unless your desk really is running out of real estate. I wouldn't try to game with the mouse for example, I already bought a Logitech m950t for gaming. You could possibly save yourself one battery and use your existing mouse on the tablet as a mousepad, but that gets complicated when trying to share space with the stylus.

Hey, you missed out the hotkeys

Ahhhh yes. I did too. Surrounding the working area of the tablet are a number of gray squares, and the ones in the top line are tied to common application functions. The ones down each side are blank and can be assigned to anything supported by the application, at least under Windows. However, you can elect to use the entire tablet area, and forgo the hotkeys.

Wait, what about Linux?

Gee, you really are quick today, aren't you. I haven't figured out how to get the "keyboard" working on the tablet, as the Linux driver simply uses the whole tablet as the working area, which includes the areas set aside from the working area normally under Windows. You can of course reduce the working area in xorg settings, but this doesn't then open the excluded area up for further input as hotkeys. If you're after the normal shortcuts available under Windows, I don't know how to do it under Linux. Those appear to work well enough under Windows, but the various buttons can only be set to whatever the application supports. If you want a custom key or program to trigger, I think you're out of luck. Consider it one of the slight penalties for choosing a budget tablet.

Now I've got the "right" drivers, input from the tablet is smooth, especially in Krita. Krita has an advantage over GIMP in that the size of the brush indicates just how hard you're pressing, a smaller circle for light pressure, and a larger circle for heavier pressure. The GIMP merely shows the selected brush size. As for other programs that support pressure input, I've only tried Pencil2D, which worked quite well.

Naturally, the more work I put into learning the basics of drawing with a tablet, the better I'll get. Anything's got to be better than the cartoon I made.

23 September, 2014

A review of a five-year old mouse, and a new keyboard

I bought more tech

I noted my venerable ten year old Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse (2.0) scroll wheel was getting a bit erratic, actually it had been somewhat erratic almost from day one, but I was just putting up with it until it started dying. About four months ago, I noted one of the buttons wasn't working properly any more, and needed me to lean on it a bit harder. I switched it over with one of the unused buttons left in the mouse, and continued on. While I did, I started my search for a decent replacement mouse.

My primary requirements for a good mouse

Wireless. An absolute must.
I got sick of cables getting caught up just as I was frantically trying—and failing—to hit a creeper. So wireless is a must. I have less of an issue actually hitting the monster a little late due to wireless lag than I do missing the monster altogether due to losing the mouse out of my hand because the cable caught up on the underside of the desk keyboard tray.
A scroll wheel that tilts.
Not mandatory, but it would be a nice thing to have. The MS mouse had it, but started being erratic not long after I started using it.
More than three buttons.
Most good mice seem to have more than just the clickable scrollwheel, left and right buttons these days, though the Razer Naga goes a bit overboard.
Cheaper than $100 NZ.
A bit harder to match, especially if you want a gaming mouse. Not quite so hard if you want just a good mouse that doesn't have another $100 stuck on merely for the brand.
Replaceable batteries
I get used to rechargeable batteries, and though they're fiddly, I can deal with popping one out and a new one in.
Left handed.
This requirement is a LOT more tricky, considering the previous requirements.

I recently bought the Logitech m950t otherwise known as the Performance MX. So far, it meets every requirement but the last one. I'm seeing what it feels like in the left hand before I get too frustrated. It comes with one of those absolutely tiny USB stub receivers that Logitech seem to be coming out with now. The process for installation is literally: extract from box, plug it in, download the Setpoint software from the Logitech website, install that software and run it. I note that there's an equivalent program (Solaar) for Linux, and though it's not as fully-featured, you can do just about anything you like with the mouse with other Linux utilities anyhow. In fact, often it's easier to configure this mouse under Linux than Windows.

What came in the box.

First, I must state what I thought I'd get, as I'd watched a review of the m950, the predecessor to the m950t. In that review, the box included a CDROM for drivers and software. It also included a shielded extension USB cable, in case our computers were under a table (mine is) and needed the detector a little closer to the actual mouse. It included a cable to connect the mouse directly to the computer, which has the side effect of also charging the included battery. It also appeared to include a power supply so you could charge your little rodent overnight. In comparison, I got no CDROM. This isn't an issue as the software's downloadable from Logitech. I also got no power supply - after all, you don't usually need to charge overnight. I did get the normal direct-connection USB power-only cable, the tiny receiver, a small pouch of documentation and the mouse itself, which included a 2050 mA GP ReCyko+ battery from Gold Peak Group. I swapped this out straight away for one of my 2500 mA Varta batteries. The rest? Empty space. And plenty of look-how-wonderful-this-is marketing.

A left-hander's experience of the Performance MX

You might ask why I changed over. I'm normally right-handed, but organisation of two people onto one big table meant I needed to switch the mouse over to the other side of the keyboard as there's far more room there to move a mouse around. I also had to switch over all the games I could so I could use the cursor keys instead of the accursed WASD movement scheme most modern games seem to have settled on. WASD and Dvorak keyboard layouts simply just don't go together anyhow.

The mouse does fit the right hand really well, especially for those of you with slightly larger hands. As you'd expect, it doesn't really fit in the left hand, but that may be to my advantage, as I'll be less likely to accidentally activate any of the other buttons. So far the knuckle of my ring finger has a tendency to activate the zoom button, but otherwise it's not too bad.

The buttons and scroll wheel.

There's the standard left and right buttons, the scrollwheel which can also act as a middle button, and a hardware button behind the scroll wheel to choose between a wheel that clicks as it rotates, and one that rotates freely without clicking. A freewheeling scrollwheel is one feature that some users rave over, and other users see as utterly pointless because they end up overshooting what it was they wanted to land on. I'll have to try it both ways. Personally, I hate clicky wheels. The MS mouse didn't click, which I loved. I'm finding at the moment that the clicky wheel gives a little more precision when scrolling, but there's a break while I switch between the two methods. If I know most people, they'll want to stick to one or the other method. And the mouse wheel does tilt. Logitech says that if you tilt it harder, horizontal scrolling speeds up.

On the left hand side of the body just above where the right thumb would sit, there's a small cluster that control zoom, page back and page forward. These would mainly be useful for web browsers to flick back and forth in their page history, and changing the size of text. Clicking the zoom button then rolling the scroll wheel up or down zooms the text of the application you're working with, but only for applications that support that. For example, Setpoint provides the same zoom-in function to the Windows desktop, but not to my current editor (vim). I presume that a similar function would be useful in a graphics program, whether still pictures, video or music. You do have to install the Setpoint software for this though, which is a separate download.

The final button of importance is the app-switch button, out of the way on the left flange of the mouse. I reconfigured this to become a DPI toggle, as the OS already provides an application switcher.

The responsiveness

As soon as I plugged it into the computer and moved it around on the table, movement was very smooth, and quick. This is probably due to the large pads on the base of the mouse to assist movement. Finally, a mouse with decent pads. I might even have to wind the sensitivity back down, as I'm now finding it too quick. In game (Minecraft) it seems to work very well, and would probably work well in other games too. I settled on a final DPI setting of about 1000dpi for normal movement, and 500 dpi for more precise movement. That bit at least, I do like.

The price.

I got lucky. I found this mouse for NZ$89.99 at a website I use regularly and took advantage of the discount. At Noel Leemings the mouse is currently $129.99 which would have put it outside my budget. I'm happy with the price. I had to accept that there was no way I could get a wireless Razer for that price, and the Logitech gaming mice were also too expensive and weren't generally ambidextrous.

Laser and wireless for gaming. Really?

Some people dislike the laser sensor, claiming it's inaccurate when compared with optical sensors in the mouse. I don't know, as I don't play games to the extent that competitive gamers do. For me anyhow, my computer has enough trouble just keeping up with displaying stuff to the screen, so I don't notice how the mouse contributes to movement or action lag. My reactions aren't sufficiently fast to notice any lag from the wireless connection instead of having it wired. As for the Darkfield sensor, I don't notice much difference between my old Microsoft mouse and the new sensor. If anything, the difference is more than accounted for with the lovely big smooth feet the Performance MX has. If the MS mouse had these same wide feet and a repairable wheel, I'd have made more of an effort to keep it going.

Other complaints?

Many many people have complained about the buttons going bad in Logitech mice, for various reasons. Sometimes it's the leafspring inside the microswitches Logitech use, and sometimes it's wear on the plastic pressing against the white button of the microswitch. One's easier to fix than the other, but both of them involve opening up the mouse and thereby invalidating the warrantee the mouse has. Less often, people complain about the stiffness of the middle click, and the increased likelihood of triggering scroll events when they're actually trying to click instead. I've found it stiff, but still functional. Very occasionally, these models (and presumably some others too) are prone to electrostatic buildup inside the capacitors, which can cause erratic behaviour. A simple fix for this is to power the mouse off, remove the battery, then press down both the main buttons of the mouse for thirty seconds. This apparently discharges any remaining voltage in the capacitors. You can then put the battery back in and power the mouse back on. This is often the first fix to try, and won't invalidate any warrantees. It's even recommended by several Logitech representatives in the forums.

Fixing the individual switches can be done in two ways. One involves replacement of the switch with another switch of similar pinout. This requires reasonable hand-eye coordination, soldering skills and a soldering iron. The other requires very good hand-eye coordination, and disassembly of the switch itself to access the leafspring. Reassembly is no mean feat with one attempt of reassembly taking over two hours, most of that taken up by trying to refit the spring after retensioning.

Fixing ridges in the plastic pressing on the white button when the button itself is fine but the action isn't fine, either means filling in the crack perhaps with good glue, or perhaps even buying a new plastic housing.

Conclusions

My initial impression is that this mouse is very nice and well worth the price I paid as a replacement for my previous mouse. It's not a gamer's mouse but that's not why I bought it. I don't need a gamer's mouse and I'm unlikely to ever require the response speed that the G series of mice provide. The fact that I'm using it in my left hand is proving complicated but not unusable, though there's absolutely no doubt that this mouse is meant to be used in the right hand. In my right hand the page history buttons are too hard to reach with my thumb without accidentally running into the zoom button first. I'm sure I'd get used to that in time. I'd love if Logitech actually provided a left-handed variant of this mouse. It's been out for more than five years, surely there's enough demand by left-handed users to warrant the same treatment as Razer, who provide ambidextrous and even fully left-handed variants of some of their models.

Because I have large hands I used previous mice using a claw-grip. Most mice aren't big enough to fit my hand, so my fingers have got used to being bent to reach the buttons. I have to retrain my hand, which isn't a bad thing for me. This mouse still isn't quite big enough to fit my hand, but it's far closer than previous mice that I've used.

As you can rightfully understand, I hope I don't have to fix this mouse for a good long time especially given its price. It's meant to be a premium mouse, it should have premium componentry inside, even if it's not commanding the same price as Logitech's gaming mice. Logitech's customer support is apparently stellar in a lot of cases, with many people able to receive replacement mice when theirs goes bad. Frankly, with the number of people asking for replacements I would have looked very hard at what's going wrong with the mouse, and how to prevent it in later models of the same hardware.

A new (to me) keyboard

I've just received a second-hand (but well-loved) Logitech K750 to go with my Performance MX. The keyboard seems to be in good order, but it feels quite different to type on. It remains to be seen how well I get used to it, as it's almost nothing like the DSE $14 keyboard I was using before. It's quite a solid feeling keyboard that weighs in at 760 grams (1.66 lb) with keys that remind me of laptop keyboards in travel. This is a full-size keyboard though, with all the keys you'd expect on a US keyboard. It might be only 7.5 mm thick, but it's heavier than the DSE keyboard. It's solar-powered, with a backing battery (the ML2032) that's really hard to replace, intentionally. If it goes south, you're normally meant to send this keyboard back to Logitech under their limited three year guarantee. This won't apply to me as I'm a second purchaser, not the primary one.

Pairing the keyboard up to the receiver was as simple as starting up the Unifying software, turning the keyboard off and on, waiting until Vista did its thing with installing new devices, and I was good to go. I'm now typing the article on it, and though it's a little noisier than the other keyboard, I'm not complaining much. It's most certainly a membrane keyboard, but instead of the normal dome with a key mechanism sitting on it, it appears to use a more hinge-like construction similar to laptop keyboards I've disassembled.

How well does it convert to Dvorak?

I've changed out the caps and switched them around to Dvorak layout, though I can already touch-type in Dvorak so it doesn't matter much to me. It's really nice to be able to swap caps around though. Be aware that for this job, you'll need a flat blade, such as a small screwdriver. Also, lever the bottom left and right corner of the key up gently as it clips there in two places inside the cap and hinges from the top. Pop off the caps, and don't remove the rest of the hinge, or you won't get it back together right. Arrange the keys how you need, considering your required keymap. Keycaps simply reattach by placing each key squarely on top of the hinge and pushing down straight until you hear and feel a couple of clicks. If one side lifts up, you haven't got it properly clipped down. Push down on that side until it goes click, and check it depresses and returns cleanly.

About the only other issue I'll have will be keeping the solar panels well illuminated so that the battery remains well topped up. I've raised my keyboard tray a little, that seems to boost the amount of light received. The keyboard normally comes with a micro-fibre cleaning cloth to help out with that. In addition, I'd better not spill any drinks on it, as there's no spill protection whatsoever. Anyone want my Coke?

It also remains to see how well I game on it too, given the shorter travel and the slightly different keyboard layout. It's a little more standard arrangement of movement keys, and the | is above the Enter key, not squeezed down beside the right-shift. At least it's somewhere nearby. Time to game on.

Keyboard Problems

This keyboard hasn't shown me any issues yet, as I've only had it thirty hours. However, this keyboard isn't unbreakable, and you should take the usual care not to knock keycaps off, especially if you break the scissor hinge underneath. Logitech will probably cover accidental damage that's not a result of stupidity, but may not cover the damage if you drop a coffee mug onto the keyboard.

Again, if you kept the original purchase receipt - you did keep it, right? If you did, scan it in and save it as a JPG or PNG image file. You may need this if you need to make a claim under the limited three year guarantee. If you're outside the guarantee period, then you will have to investigate other options.

Others have found that the rechargeable 3 Volt ML2032 gives up after a very short time, or within the first few months. These batteries can be replaced, but you have to replace them with another ML2032, and not a standard CR2032. If you're still within the three year guarantee period, it's simpler to check back with Logitech or your retailer who'll be able to advise what to do. If you're outside the guarantee period, have a look on line. They're not easy to find, but you can find them if you hunt hard enough. Of course, if you don't live in the U.S., then getting them to your location can be nearly as much of a problem as some postal companies have restrictions about sending batteries through the postal system.

Keyboard conclusions

So far, I've found this keyboard pleasant enough to type on, with enough feedback to let me know I've hit the key, without having to hammer it to do so. It's been compared to chiclet keyboards but each key has a subtle dish allowing your fingers to find the centre of the key for better accuracy. Touch typing on this keyboard won't win me any speed awards but I can touch type without any real issues I'm currently aware of. Typing on the other Dick Smith keyboard is certainly louder in comparison, whereas touchtyping on this keyboard is a bit quieter, perhaps similar to the Apple keyboards.

Like the mouse, I don't expect keyboard lag to be perceptible for gaming unless my battery is running low, but I won't know this for several weeks or months yet. The speed of response is certainly adequate enough for my current needs and this should be a very long lasting keyboard if I look after that battery. Would I recommend this keyboard? Currently, yes. It doesn't have the same issues for battery life that the K800 has, though it has its own issue. About the only thing missing from this is the modern trend to backlighting, but you can only do so much with one battery cell.

The cost is a bit of a dampener, even considering what you're getting for your money. I got lucky, and purchased mine second-hand for less than half the retail price, but if you want this keyboard new, be prepared to pay a bit for it. Perhaps not as much as the G-series keyboards, but perhaps more than the K800.

It has the advantage of working under all three major operating systems, though if you wish to customise what the application keys do, you'll need to check what your OS thinks each key does. Under Windows and Mac OS X, basic functionality is provided by the OS, with extended functions provided by the SetPoint and SolarApp programs. Under Linux, check the Solaar program, as you'll probably need this to check battery life.

01 July, 2014

Ode to a unique cat

Goodbye, furry friend

A picture of my cat.

Today, I mark the passing of our furry not-so-little companion. No lap cat was he, in fact he was quite distinct. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago, he started not wanting to eat, and it was today we found out the reason why. A cancer had invaded his mouth, and could not be treated. So we said goodbye to him, and started our time of no cat. Wow.