Thom Holwerda Archive

KDE Slimbook: the best way to run KDE

How do you write a review of a laptop when you’re struggling to find truly negative things to say? This is rarely an issue – every laptop is a compromise – but with the KDE Slimbook, I feel like I’ve hit this particular problem for the first time. A luxury, for sure, but it makes writing this review a lot harder than it’s supposed to be. First, let’s talk about Slimbook itself. Slimbook is a Linux OEM from Spain, founded in 2015, which sells various laptops and desktops with a variety of preinstalled Linux distributions to choose from (including options for no operating system, or Windows). A few years ago, Slimbook partnered with KDE to sell the KDE Slimbook – a Slimbook laptop with KDE Neon preinstalled, and the KDE logo engraved on the laptop’s lid. The current KDE Slimbook is – I think – the third generation, and the first to make the switch from Intel to AMD. With the help of the KDE organisation, Slimbook sent over a KDE Slimbook for me to review, and here’s my impressions. Power and quality The KDE Slimbook is the first modern AMD laptop I’ve tested and used, and it feels great to see AMD at the top again when it comes to laptops. The laptop Slimbook sent me comes in at € 1149, and packs the AMD Ryzen 7 4800H, which has 8 cores and 16 threads, running at a base clock of 2.9Ghz and a boost clock of 4.2Ghz. That’s more cores and threads than in any of my desktop PCs (save for the dual-processor POWER9 workstation I’m currently reviewing as well), which I still find kind of bonkers. Integrated onto the processor die is the Radeon RX Vega 7 GPU, with 7 compute units running at 1600Mhz. This obviously isn’t a gaming-oriented GPU, but it can run less intensive games in a pinch, and since it’s AMD, it works perfectly fine with Wayland, too. My unit was configured with a total of 16GB of RAM, in dual-channel mode (as it should be), running at 3200 MT/s. The motherboard has two RAM slots, both accessible, and can be configured with a maximum of 64GB of RAM – making this a rather future-proof laptop when it comes to memory. It won’t surprise you in 2021 that my review unit came with an NVMe SSD – a 256GB, PCIe 3.0 model from Gigabyte, good for a maximum sequential read speed of 1700 GB/s and a maximum sequential write speed of 1100 GB/s. This isn’t exactly the fastest SSD on the market, but Slimbook offers the option for faster – and more expensive – Samsung EVO SSDs as well. On top of that, the M.2 2280 slot is user-accessible, so you can always upgrade later. Slimbook sent me the 15.6″ model, which comes with a 15.6″ 1920×1080 60Hz panel. There is also a 14″ model with the same resolution and refresh rate. The panel is 100% sGRB, and is plenty bright and pleasant to look at. Sadly, Slimbook does not offer 1440p, 4K, or high-refresh rate options, which is a big downside in 2021. If it were up to me, I’d love to see at least a 1440p/144Hz option on both the 14″ and 15.6″, and I hope the next generation of the KDE Slimbook will offer this as an option. Battery life has been outstanding. The device loses little charge when sleeping, and I easily get 7-8 hours of regular use out of the battery. The keyboard deviates from the norm a little bit, in that it’s not the usual island chicklet type keyboard where the keys are surrounded by metal. Instead, the keys float in the keyboard deck, which instantly brought back memories of Apple’s aluminium PowerBook line. I prefer this type of keyboard design over the chicklet island design, and typing is a delight on the KDE Slimbook – the keys are stable, clicky, and requiring just the right amount of force. I also happen to think it looks really, really nice, and it has full-height inverted T arrow keys. Nice. The keyboard does have two minor niggles, though, and they both relate to the backlight. First, it takes 1-2 seconds for the keyboard backlight to come back on after it has faded off, and that’s a lot more annoying than you would think. The second issue has to do with the lettering on the keyboard. The backlight shines through the lettering on the keyboard, but in some places, it just does not shine through at all. I’m not sure what the underlying issue is – the placement of the individual LEDs or the lettering etching process – but it makes some keys hard to read when the backlight is on. The trackpad is excellent, feels smooth, pleasant, and responsive, and I haven’t experienced any issues. It’s of the diving board design, and I think it’s glass, but I’m not entirely sure. Even if it’s plastic – if it feels and works well, that’s not an issue to me. I am, however, deeply intrigued by that little LED in the top-left corner. I have no idea what it’s for, and I am fairly sure I’ve seen it come on at least a few times. I made it a point not to look it up to see if I could figure it out, but here we are, and I still have no clue. The KDE Slimbook comes packed with ports, which is a godsend in the modern world. On the left side, there’s a microSD slot, a headphone/microphone jack, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington lock. On the right side, there’s a USB-C port (no Thunderbolt, since this is an AMD machine), a USB 3.0 port, a full-size HDMI port, and the barrel plug power connector. That’s a solid set of ports, and I have no complaints about the selection. The one big miss here is that the machine does not support charging

Germany wants smartphone makers to offer 7 years of software updates

Apple is gearing up to roll out iOS 15 later this year. The company plans to roll it out to several of its devices, going all the way back to the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. This will make Apple the only smartphone OEM to offer seven years of software updates to its devices. That’s a remarkable feat, considering that only a couple of OEMs on the Android side promise three years of OS upgrades and four years of security updates. To bridge this gap, the EU proposed a new law earlier this year that would force all smartphone OEMs to offer up to five years of security updates for their devices and deliver reasonably priced spare parts for the same duration. Although the EU’s new right to repair laws are yet to go into effect, the German Federal Government has now announced plans to extend the support timeline by two years. A spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economics recently said (via Heise Online) that the government body plans to enforce stricter rules that would require OEMs to deliver spare parts and software updates for seven years. In addition, the Federal Government wants OEMs to publish the spare part prices and not increase them over time. That’s excellent news. With Germany being such an important part of the EU, I can only hope they will set the tone for the rest of the countries to follow. Do note, however, that it’s election season in Germany, so be on the lookout for political trial balloons.

Why can an ad break the Windows 11 desktop and taskbar?

Earlier today, Microsoft pushed a promotional message to early adopters of Windows 11. The promo intended to promote the upcoming operating system’s integration with Microsoft Teams. Instead, it caused Explorer (the Windows desktop shell) to stop responding and left users without a working Start menu and taskbar. Based on the Microsoft-provided workaround, I narrowed the problem down to a registry key that contained a serialized JSON blob. The blob contained an advertisement for Microsoft Teams. The messaging and imagery in the promotion were identical to the panel you get when you press the Windows key + C on a Windows account not already set up with Teams. It’s unclear if it’s this exact promotion, however. Microsoft broke every single Windows 11 computer through an ad. Windows users – you can choose a better way.

This unsuspecting Lightning cable packs an implant that can log everything you type

Dubbed OMG Cables, these new variants are more capable than their counterparts. According to their creator, payloads can be triggered from over one mile away. Attackers can use them to log keystrokes and change keyboard mappings. There is also a geofencing feature, a kill switch and the ability to forge the identity of specific USB devices, like those that can leverage a specific vulnerability. While it’s unlikely us random, generic people will ever be the target of tools like this, there’s no doubt in my mind they’re being used all over the world to monitor dissidents, spy on competing companies, and so on.

PC-86-DOS

A number of years ago, an 8″ disk containing Seattle Computer Products (SCP) 86-DOS 1.0 was successfully imaged. The newest files on the disk are dated April 30, 1981, making the disk the oldest complete release of what was soon to be known as PC DOS and MS-DOS, about a month older than a pre-release of PC DOS from early June 1981. While it is possible to run the 8″ disk image with 86-DOS version 1.00 under an emulator, it of course doesn’t run on a PC or any PC emulator/virtualizer. That’s a shame because most of the utilities included with SCP’s 86-DOS run under DOS just fine. In theory, it should be possible to provide a PC compatible “BIOS” component (IBMBIO.COM or IO.SYS equivalent) and run the rest of the system more or less unmodified on a PC. In practice, it can in fact be done. Behold PC-86-DOS 1.00, running from this disk image. In case you don’t know or remember, Seattle Computer Products was the company Microsoft bought the rights to DOS from, making SCP’s versions of DOS some of the oldest in existence. Getting these old versions archived and running on modern emulators is critically important for the field of computer archeology.

Apple delays rollout of controversial child safety features to make improvements

Apple, in a statement to various news outlets: Last month we announced plans for features intended to help protect children from predators who use communication tools to recruit and exploit them, and limit the spread of Child Sexual Abuse Material. Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features. Good step, but it should be scrapped entirely. Let’s hope this is not just a case of Apple waiting for the storm to blow over, to then sneak it into a random point release.

NEC’s forgotten FPUs

The story of NEC’s FPUs is interesting, but as is usually the case, something led me down this path. While looking through loads of old scrap boards I found a most curious arrangement, a board with a normal unassuming V30 processor, but right next to it was another 40-pin chip, a chip with a HUGE die lid labeled D9008D, dated similar to everything else, in the 1989-1991 range curiously copyrighted 85 86 and ’87. I pulled the chip (soldered in , of course) and it sat on my desk, for a year until I decide to open the lid on it, and what did it reveal? A die that most certainly was a floating point data path. This odd chip was an FPU, and an FPU that was directly connected to the V30 CPU. Very interesting article about a very obscure topic.

Windows Server 2022 released

Today, we are announcing the general availability of Windows Server 2022. It’s a big step forward for the operating system that is trusted by major corporations and small businesses alike to run their business and mission-critical workloads. It comes with tons of security improvements (of course), SMB compression, support for up to 48TB of memory and 2048 threads running on 64 sockets, and more.

A new path: vm86-based Venix emulator

So, I stole the bulk of my old 86sim-based Venix implementation, installed a i386 VM using bhyve on my FreeBSD/amd64 box and write a quick little test program. The test program worked, so in a fit of “why not give this a try” I ported the pcvenix.cc from 86sim to being driven from SIGSEGV in vm86 mode. Hello world quickly worked. I didn’t even know what Venix was before coming across this post, but it turns out it was a lightweight UNIX implementation for a variety of platforms.

Apple and Google must allow developers to use other payment systems, new Korean law declares

South Korea has passed a bill written to prevent major platform owners like Google and Apple from restricting app developers to built-in payment systems, The Wall Street Journal reports. The bill is now expected to be signed into law by President Moon Jae-in, whose party championed the legislation. The law comes as a blow to Google and Apple who both require in-app purchases to flow only through their systems, instead of outside payment processors, allowing the tech giants to collect a 30 percent cut. If tech companies fail to comply with the new law, they could face fines of up to 3 percent of their South Korea revenue. This is going to spread like a wildfire, and the company’s statements regarding this new law fill me with unreasonable amounts of pleasure and schadenfreude.

Linux 5.14 released with new hardware support, core scheduling, MEMFD_SECRET

Version 5.14 of the most popular operating system kernel in the world has been released. See the Linux 5.14 feature list for a comprehensive list of the changes in this new kernel version. Some of the Linux 5.14 highlights include core scheduling support, secret memory areas support with MEMFD_SECRET, continued enablement around Intel Alder Lake, Yellow Carp and Beige Goby AMD graphics support, AMD SmartShift laptop support, Raspberry Pi 400 support, and more. Linux 5.14 has the usual mix of new hardware support, improving existing features, and adding in other new kernel innovations. Coming to a distribution near you.

Windows 11 arrives on October 5, Android apps will come later

Windows 11 is no longer merely “coming this fall.” Microsoft will begin releasing the new operating system to the public on October 5, starting with newer PCs (and PCs being sold in stores) and then rolling out to other supported systems over the next nine or so months. The company also says that the Amazon-powered Android app support coming to Windows 11 won’t be ready for public consumption at launch; Microsoft will offer “a preview for Windows Insiders over the coming months.” Get your centered taskbar and 12th concurrently used Windows theme October 5.

Why are hyperlinks blue?

Elise Blanchard goes on a deep dive of ancient GUI design and early browsers to figure out why hyperlinks are blue. But now, I find myself all consumed by the question, WHY are links blue? WHO decided to make them blue? WHEN was this decision made, and HOW has this decision made such a lasting impact?  I turned to my co-workers to help me research, and we started to find the answer. Mosaic, an early browser released by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina on January 23, 1993, had blue hyperlinks. To truly understand the origin and evolution of hyperlinks though, I took a journey through technology history and interfaces to explore how links were handled before color monitors, and how interfaces and hyperlinks rapidly evolved once color became an option.

Void Linux: excellent choice for more advanced Linux users

Void is a general purpose operating system, based on the monolithic Linux kernel. Its package system allows you to quickly install, update and remove software; software is provided in binary packages or can be built directly from sources with the help of the XBPS source packages collection. Void Linux is one of my favourite distributions, but since it employs a rolling release model, I never really get the opportunity to highlight it. So, I’m picking this random day to talk about it. If you’re fairly proficient in “install and go” Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora, Manjaro, etc., and want to get a better insight into a Linux system without going overboard, Void is a great choice. It’s easy to install, easy to grasp and manage manually because it eschews systemd in favour of runit, it has an excellent community, and the package repository is far, far larger than you’d expect. Void also offers both GNU libc and musl versions. Void is a bit more hands-on than e.g. Ubuntu, but not over the top like some other distributions. Setting up a Void Linux system will teach you quite a bit about how a Linux system works, but the no-nonsense, logical layout of it all means you’re not going to be overwhelmed. It also happens to be one of the few distributions that take ppc64le seriously thanks to a dedicated community, so it’s my system of choice there. It’s not for everyone, and if you just want a no-nonsense desktop experience with minimal fuss, you’re better off with Linux Mint or Manjaro or similar systems, but if you want to get your hands a little bit dirty, you can do a lot worse than Void.

Microsoft will allow users to install Windows 11 on anything, but you won’t get updates

Just in case you thought the Windows 11 upgrade and hardware compatibility situation couldn’t get any more confusing and complicated, Microsoft decided to do a Microsoft. This morning, Microsoft revealed a change of plan to The Verge: it won’t technically abandon those millions of PCs, because you’ll be able to manually install the downloadable Windows 11 ISO on whatever you want. The company’s also extending its official CPU compatibility list to a bunch of Intel’s most expensive Xeon workstation processors and its most expensive line of Core X desktop CPUs — and, tellingly, the less powerful Intel chip it shipped in its Surface Studio 2, so it no longer has to defend the idea of abandoning a flagship product that it still continues to sell brand-new. That sounds like a nice gesture, since it will enable anyone – even those who do not technically comply with the TPM requirements – to install Windows 11, even if it has to be a fresh installation (which you should probably do with new Windows versions anyway). However, it turns out there’s a major caveat here. While yes, Microsoft will allow you to install Windows 11 on unsupported hardware, these installations might not get updates – not even security updates. First and perhaps most important, Microsoft informed us after we published this story that if your computer doesn’t meet the system requirements, it may not be entitled to get Windows Updates, even security ones. We’re asking Microsoft for clarification on that now. But secondly, it still sounds like Microsoft will be encouraging millions of people to replace their perfectly good Windows PCs. Other than yet another theme third parties aren’t going to adopt, there’s not a whole lot in Windows 11 as it is, and with all this confusion around upgrades, supported hardware, and access to updates, Windows 10 users are probably better off sticking with Windows 10 for a little while longer. Or, you know, switch to an operating system that doesn’t treat its users like garbage.

Recent and not so recent changes in OpenBSD that make life better

Known to be “functional, free and secure by default”, the OpenBSD operating system has played an important role in open source for more than a quarter century. It has also been fairly central to what I have done for the last two decades and some. What follows is my personal view of what life with OpenBSD has been like, with an emphasis on moments and developments that I feel made life, or at least my life, better. Good article about an operating system that seems to just do its thing, and do it well.

The semiconductor heist of the century: Arm China has gone completely rogue

Arm is widely regarded as the most important semiconductor IP firm. Their IP ships in billions of new chips every year from phones, cars, microcontrollers, Amazon servers, and even Intel’s latest IPU. Originally it was a British owned and headquartered company, but SoftBank acquired the firm in 2016. They proceeded to plow money into Arm Holdings to develop deep pushes into the internet of things, automotive, and server. Part of their push was also to go hard into China and become the dominant CPU supplier in all segments of the market. As part of the emphasis on the Chinese market, SoftBank succumbed to pressure and formed a joint venture. In the new joint venture, Arm Holdings, the SoftBank subsidiary sold a 51% stake of the company to a consortium of Chinese investors for paltry $775M. This venture has the exclusive right to license Arm’s IP within China. Within 2 years, the venture went rogue. Recently, they gave a presentation to the industry about rebranding, developing their own IP, and striking their own independently operated path. This is not the first time the Chinese government – through its companies and investors – has gained access to a large amount of silicon IP (both VIA and AMD fell for this too). Not that I care much for Arm here – they were blinded by greed, and will pay the price – but hopefully this opens the eyes of other companies in similar positions.

Apple just declared war on your privacy

Edward Snowden: Having read thousands upon thousands of remarks on this growing scandal, it has become clear to me that many understand it doesn’t matter, but few if any have been willing to actually say it. Speaking candidly, if that’s still allowed, that’s the way it always goes when someone of institutional significance launches a campaign to defend an indefensible intrusion into our private spaces. They make a mad dash to the supposed high ground, from which they speak in low, solemn tones about their moral mission before fervently invoking the dread spectre of the Four Horsemen of the Infopocalypse, warning that only a dubious amulet—or suspicious software update—can save us from the most threatening members of our species. Suddenly, everybody with a principled objection is forced to preface their concern with apologetic throat-clearing and the establishment of bonafides: I lost a friend when the towers came down, however… As a parent, I understand this is a real problem, but… An excellent and scathing takedown of Apple’s planned backdoors.

Thousands of Debian packages updated from their upstream Git repository

Linux distributions like Debian fulfill an important function in the FOSS ecosystem – they are system integrators that take existing free and open source software projects and adapt them where necessary to work well together. They also make it possible for users to install more software in an easy and consistent way and with some degree of quality control and review. One of the consequences of this model is that the distribution package often lags behind upstream releases. This is especially true for distributions that have tighter integration and standardization (such as Debian), and often new upstream code is only imported irregularly because it is a manual process – both updating the package, but also making sure that it still works together well with the rest of the system. However, there have been developments over the last decade that make it easier to import new upstream releases into Debian packages. An interesting look at what the Debian project is doing to make it easier for upstream code to be packaged as proper .deb packages.

A decade and a half of instability: the history of Google messaging apps

Currently, you would probably rank Google’s offerings behind every other big-tech competitor. A lack of any kind of top-down messaging leadership at Google has led to a decade and a half of messaging purgatory, with Google both unable to leave the space altogether and unable to commit to a single product. While companies like Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into a lone messaging app, Google seems content only to spin up an innumerable number of under-funded, unstable side projects led by job-hopping project managers. There have been periods when Google briefly produced a good messaging solution, but the constant shutdowns, focus-shifting, and sabotage of established products have stopped Google from carrying much of these user bases—or user goodwill—forward into the present day. Because no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products (and because it has barely been a month since the rollout of Google Chat), the time has come to outline the history of Google messaging. Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for a non-stop rollercoaster of new product launches, neglected established products, unexpected shut-downs, and legions of confused, frustrated, and exiled users. This is delightfully depressing.