Mini-Review: Generic hot-swap eSATA Docking Bay with Ubuntu

I regularly deal with external hard-drives, be it for data backup or if I’m rescuing a client’s hard-drive from uncertain death.

Since the idea of opening my PC on a regular basis to connect a drive is a bit of a turn off, I used to use an external USB drive enclosure. This works fine, but it’s a bit slow (well, at least until USB 3.0 makes its debut). The eSATA standard allows you to connect external drives at full SATA speed, but it’s not cost-effective to buy an enclosure for every external drive you have.

Enter the Docking Bay. This is a simple weighed base that allows you to connect a hard-drive in a similar way to how you used to plug in game cartridges into a classic game console like the Atari 2600. You can then eject the hard-drive and plug another one in, all without restarting the PC.

This is a review of one such Docking Bay and how it works with Ubuntu, including the wonders of hot-swapping.

I came across this generic eSATA Docking Bay whilst browsing my local PC store. eSATA Docking Bays have been around for awhile now, but I never got around to getting one so I figured I may as well try this one and see how it went under Ubuntu.

With a HDD inserted into the dock

Without the HDD inserted into the dock

There is unit was branded “A-Power” but I’ve seen several of these drives with various brand names on it, so this one is as generic as they come, but it comes in one of three variants:

  1. eSATA and USB Docking Bay
  2. eSATA and USB Docking Bay with in-built USB card-reader
  3. USB-only Docking Bay with in-built USB card-reader

In my case, I got the first variant as I already have a separate card-reader.

Hooking Up

The Docking Bay is very easy to hook up. The package comes with the following components:

  • The Docking Bay unit
  • Power Supply
  • eSATA cable
  • USB cable

After connecting power, the Docking Bay is connected to the PC by the eSATA cable to a spare eSATA port on the back of your PC. You then insert the hard-drive into the slot on the top of the unit – it caters for both 3.5″ desktop hard-drives and 2.5″ notebook hard-drives. Once inserted, power on the drive using the power button at the back of the unit. The power light on the top of the Docking Bay will light up and you can now switch on your PC.


eSATA Docking Bays don’t actually need any configuration as such. If you wish to make use of SATA’s ability to hot-swap, you will need to enable the Advanced Configuration Host Interface (AHCI) in your PC’s BIOS. Not every motherboard has AHCI, but if your machine is a recent machine, you should have AHCI capabilities. If you do not enable AHCI, you can still use your Docking Bay, however you will not be able to hot-swap a new drive without shutting down your PC first.

Using the Docking Bay

Drives inserted into the Docking bay appear like any ordinary permanently installed hard-drive inside your PC. You can format them, partition them, read and write data to them and see their SMART status like any other drive.

Doing an unscientific benchmarks using the dd app with a 7200rpm Seagate 1TB HDD, I was able to write straight zeros to the drive at a rate of about 116MB/s and read at about 120MB/s.

Real-world file copying transferred data at about 86MB/s which is consistent with normal single-drive copy speeds.

Doing a fresh installation of Ubuntu Karmic 9.10 on the hard-drive and booting my system from the docking bay and then repeating the boot test with the drive attached directly to the internal SATA connection as normal, Ubuntu booted in precisely the same amount of time, as one would expect. I was also able to dual-boot Ubuntu with Windows 7 without any issue.

Hot-swapping works well also. While Ubuntu is running, I insert my hard-drive into the dock, power on the drive and wait a few seconds. The drive appears in the Places menu, you choose it, enter your sudo password to mount the drive, and the drive appears on your desktop. When you are done with the drive, you simply do a right-mouse-click on the drive’s icon, choose “Unmount” and wait for any data to be written to the drive. Once the drive icon disappears off the desktop, you can then power off the drive in the docking bay, then press the eject button to remove the drive.

Dealing with differently sized drives, I tried a half-height Seagate 500GB I have (see photos). The spring-loaded flap on the top of the drive was able to hold the drive in place without a problem. Trying with a 2.5″ notebook HDD, the docking bay provides a cut-out section that allows you to insert the 2.5″ HDD but the flap does not press directly against the drive.


The convenience of a hard-drive docking station cannot be understated. This unit provides a simple, effective interface. For AUD$25 it’s cheap and in the last couple of months I’ve been using this unit, it has proven to be very reliable.

While this unit is not exactly the most elegant-looking of devices, it does the job and does it well.

Review score: 9 out of 10

Mini-Review: Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex 8.10 on the PlayStation3

Sony PlayStation Logo

So I finally joined the masses in next-gen console gaming nirvana when I finally bought myself a 40GB PlayStation3 that I got cheap at a Big W clearance sale for AUD$398!

After playing a couple of games, one of the next things I did was to partition the hard-drive and install the PPC version of Ubuntu 8.10 onto it. This is a quick run-down of my experience installing and playing with it.

Well first up I needed to grab the PPC version of Ubuntu. I was under the impression that Canonical had ceased PPC Ubuntu development, but it appears they haven’t. I found the Alternate Install for a dedicated PS3 Ubuntu Intrepid 8.10 ISO here for download. This disc is tailor made for the PS3 to get you up and running with the minimum of fuss.

EDIT September 2009: The release of the new “slim” PlayStation3 console has unfortunately seen Sony Computer Entertainment remove the ability to install Linux onto the hard-drive. Only owners of the older, larger PS3’s will be able to install Linux to their systems from now on.

While that downloaded, I prepared the PS3 itself. Thankfully Sony had the foresight to allow alternate operating systems to be installed, thus creating a greater attraction for tinkerers like myself. Unfortunately the ability to install Linux is marred by the fact that access is provided through a Hypervisor which does not give access to the PS3’s graphics hardware, thus preventing the possibility of creating home-brew games. It also limits you to 217MB of the total 256MB system RAM, presumably with some RAM being used for the video framebuffer much like a cheap motherboard with no dedicated video RAM.

Preparing the PS3 for a Linux install is simple enough. First you need to partition the drive. The PS3 OS allows you to allocate 10GB to the “other OS” or 10GB to the PS3 OS. You do not have any ability to set the size manually. Since I don’t really intend to use the PS3 as a workstation for any serious work, I opted to give Linux only 10GB. The system partitioned the drive and rebooted. WARNING: This process will destroy any data already on the drive, including downloaded games and configuration data. Make sure you backup your PS3 data before doing this!

Preparing the PS3 HDD for installation

After that, you need to install the bootloader for the “other OS”. The ISO image I downloaded contained the required PS3 bootloader KBoot and once the ISO finished downloading and I burned it to a CD, I stuck it into the PS3’s optical drive and told the PS3 to go looking for the boot loader there. It found it, installed it and all was good.

Getting ready to start the bootloader

You then need to tell the PS3 to change its “default OS” when turning on the system. By default it’s “PS3″, so I changed this in the system settings to be “Other OS” and the PS3 immediately asked if I wanted to reboot into the “other OS” now. I said “yes”. The machine shutdown and rebooted.

Default OS setting on startup
Ready to reboot into the “Other OS”

Almost right away I was looking at two penguins and a bit of text centred on my Benq E2200HD screen (connected via HDMI). Like most Linux distros, all I had to do was hit Enter to begin loading the installation program. To do that, however, I needed a keyboard! I grabbed my Microsoft USB keyboard and mouse, connected them to a passive USB four-port hub and then connected that to the PS3, so I could keep the other powered USB port free if I needed it for things like external HDD’s and the like. One USB port can happily power a USB keyboard and mouse together without a problem.

The Linux installer booting on the PS3

Ubuntu’s Alternate installer for PPC processors starts and looks exactly like its x86 bretheren, so I won’t go into detail about it here other than point out that when it asked which device I wanted to install on, the hard-drive presented was just the 10GB partition that the PS3 had created – you cannot see the rest of the drive at all (because this is all the Hypervisor presents to you).

The rest of the installation went as normal as any x86 install, however I did notice that the overall installation time was about double that of a typical desktop install. I put this down to two factors – the PS3’s HDD is only 5400rpm and the low available memory probably slowed it down too.

Once installed, the system rebooted. Unlike the desktop flavour of Ubuntu, you don’t get the splash screen, only Linux’s trademarked scrolling of information (most of which has been suppressed by the “quiet” kernel option in the KBoot configuration file). The console was in 1440×900 mode, but the screenshot below shows the console in 1920×1080 mode after I changed the config (see further below).

Booting Linux natively from the PS3 HDD after installation

Once loaded, the ever-familiar GDM login screen appeared. I logged in and within 10 seconds I was looking at the default Ubuntu Intrepid GNOME desktop. Unfortunately it didn’t fill my screen. In fact, it was only 1440×900 in size on my 1920×1080 monitor, neatly centred in the middle of the screen.

We needed to fix this, so first up was a quick review of the Linux PS3 wiki that had a reference for all the available screenmodes and the required changes to the KBoot configuration file that were required. In my case, I wanted to envoke a 1080p screen mode. I edited the KBoot configuration with:

$ sudo gedit /boot/etc/kboot.conf

…and added the following onto the ends of the two kernel lines in that file:


This will tell Ubuntu to use 1080p “full screen” on reboot. I saved the configuration, performed a full system restart (you can’t just restart X) and viola! Ubuntu’s console and X displays were now in glorious 1080p.

If you are using an ordinary television, you can try:


…which will give you full DVD resolution at 720 x 576 (576i mode), but you may need to adjust your TV’s settings to be able to see the entire picture as this will make use of your display’s “overscan” area which is generally beyond the visible area of the screen.

The GNOME login screen on PS3

Logging in and starting a few apps, Ubuntu runs exactly as you’d expect on any desktop PC system. Unfortunately due to the low memory available, performance is a little sluggish, but it’s not bad enough that you couldn’t make serious use of it.

Using the GNOME desktop on PS3

I did notice that general performance improved once you had used a few applications. For example, took a full minute to load up for the first time, but subsequent starts only took about 5-10 seconds. Mozilla took about 30 seconds to start, but once up, it surfed the ‘net quickly and no differently to a normal desktop installation. I was also able to use the optical drive and read the content of CD, DVD and Blu-ray media. I could also happily playback most media without issue after installing the Ubuntu Restricted Extras package as well.

Unfortunately desktop effects such as Compiz are not possible on the PS3 because the Hypervisor does not give you direct access to the PS3’s “RSX” GPU. This was a deliberate move by Sony to prevent homebrew games being developed. Not a great loss, however, as the PS3 is already a little hampered by the fact that it has less than 256MB of RAM to work with.

The PS3 is now “permanently” in Linux mode until you tell it to go back to the normal PS3 OS. If you shutdown and reboot (or indeed turn the console off and back on again), it will boot straight back to Linux every time. To get back to the PS3 OS, all you have to do is issue the following command at the kboot prompt, before Ubuntu starts to boot:


…and hit Enter. The PS3 will shutdown, restart and next thing you know you’re looking at the PS3’s normal Xross-Media Bar (XMB) menu again. To get back into Linux again, you simply change the “default OS” back to “other OS” again and reboot when prompted.

Ubuntu is of course not the only Linux distribution that can be installed onto the PS3, and there are plenty of videos on YouTube of people using one or more PS3’s running Linux to great effect. Check them out!

Conclusion: It’s awesome that Sony allow people to play with their hardware (with certain restrictions) and makes the PS3 a far more attractive option to buy than the XBox360 or even the Wii. The latter two options really are geared towards playing games only whilst the PS3 can entertain you and help you with serious work, especially tapping into the awesome power of the PPC. For families who are a cash-strapped for a new PC, the speed of Ubuntu on the PS3 won’t blow you away, however it is perfectly viable to use as a cheap home computer that can also keep the kids happy and play high-definition Blu-ray movies, however after trying out Ubuntu on a regular TV display (an old Amiga 1084 monitor) for the hell of it, 576i takes me right back to the days of Amiga Workbench in 15KHz interlace complete with full flicker!! No, you really need to have a proper 720p or preferably a 1080p display to use Ubuntu properly, to not only keep the sanity of your vision but to give you enough desktop real estate to move around as well.

Review score: 8 out of 10

Mini-Review: Transcend JF V60 32GB USB Flash Drive on Ubuntu

It was only just 10 years ago that some of the first USB Flash Drive storage solutions became available in the form of highly expensive sticks that only had a capacity of upwards to 32MB (yes, Megabytes) and had transfer speeds that were slower than molasses on sandpaper.

Today, we now have 32GB USB Flash Drives that go for a paltry AUD$95, and this is a review of Transcend’s offering.

I have to admit I’m a bit of sucker for Transcend. They make good products that perform well at a reasonable price, and I have bought several of their USB Flash Drive products over the last 5 years from 1GB through to 8GB. Sure, there are solutions that are much faster than Trancend, such as Corsair, but along with that comes a larger price tag. The Transcend product is competitively priced and performs more than acceptably to be used even as a boot device.

So today I obtained a 32GB stick. The package is simple – along with some catalogue advertising material, the stick itself is roughly 10mm x 50mm in size and is about 6mm deep, comes with a Transcend-branded lanyard, a removable thin clear plastic layer on the burgundy-coloured part of the stick to protect it from scratches and that’s pretty much it. The non-retractable USB connector is protected by a removable plastic cap. Refreshingly, the cardboard insert from the packaging actually makes reference to Linux as a supported platform, citing a requirement of kernel 2.4.2 or later.

The Transcend JF V60 32GB USB stick and included lanyard

Like all sticks these days, this USB 2.0 unit is pre-formatted to FAT32 thus allowing it to work with pretty much every major platform out there. Personally I rarely use my sticks on Windows PC’s, though I keep an 8GB stick handy with FAT32 just in case. Most of the time, however, I reformat them to EXT2 or EXT3.

So, let’s plug this guy in. It’s always interesting to see how they implement the activity LED (well OK, it’s hardly anything to write home about, but I’ve got to generate some excitement somehow…!). Previous Transcend sticks had an obvious dot on the top, usually sporting a blue LED as has been the trend for the last few years, but this time they’ve gone different. There is no obvious hole on the stick for an activity light and upon connecting it to my PC’s front USB ports, the end of the stick suddenly lit up in bright roadwork-vest-orange. Well, that’s a welcome change. I can leave it plugged in a dark room without it becoming distracting! The LED remains on all the time to show that it is active and flashes HDD-style when there is activity.

The activity LED on the end of the USB stick

Nautilus popped up its usual “what do you want to do” prompt and I elected to open a window. As typical with most USB Flash Drives, this one came up imaginatively titled “disk” which is Ubuntu’s way of telling you that the stick has no actual label. The stick itself is completely empty – no promotional software or funky one-touch-backup applications are included.

First thing was first – relabel that stick. There’s nothing worse than having several USB Flash Drives and not knowing what’s on them at a glance. I fired up Ubuntu’s Partition Editor (GParted) and had a look at the stick. The stick’s actual storage space is 29.92GB and I observed that the leading 4MB were not allocated. Usually you find most Windows-formatted devices have the last few MB unallocatable, not that it actually matters.

Transcend 32GB Stick in GParted

Anyway, I quickly unmounted the stick and renamed it and remounted it. For those that are interested, this is what the dmesg output for it looks like:

usb 8-3: new high speed USB device using ehci_hcd and address 8
usb 8-3: configuration #1 chosen from 1 choice
scsi19 : SCSI emulation for USB Mass Storage devices
usb-storage: device found at 8
usb-storage: waiting for device to settle before scanning
usb-storage: device scan complete
scsi 19:0:0:0: Direct-Access     JetFlash Transcend 32GB   8.07 PQ: 0 ANSI: 2
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] 62750720 512-byte hardware sectors (32128 MB)
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Write Protect is off
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Mode Sense: 03 00 00 00
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Assuming drive cache: write through
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] 62750720 512-byte hardware sectors (32128 MB)
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Write Protect is off
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Mode Sense: 03 00 00 00
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Assuming drive cache: write through
 sdf: sdf1
sd 19:0:0:0: [sdf] Attached SCSI removable disk
sd 19:0:0:0: Attached scsi generic sg6 type 0

Exciting stuff. Smilie: ;)

With my now-properly-named stick, it was time to do some read/write tests. The stick comes preformatted as FAT32, so we’ll use that, but at the same time I will also conduct some tests using Linux-native filesystems. In this case, EXT3. Our test data will be a series of 15,645 thumbnail images, each averaging about 18K in size. We will also do a large file copy test using a compressed high-definition video file at 3.1GB in size. We will time how long it takes to copy this data to the USB Flash Drive and calculate the transfer speed from that. Then we will reboot the machine, to ensure no data is cached, and copy that data back from the USB stick to measure the read speed.

For comparison, we will also do the EXT3 tests with an older (6 month old) 8GB USB Flash Drive, also made by Transcend, to see if there has been a notable change in read or write speed between products.

First up, the small file copy test. Our test data is 15,645 thumbnail files from our host PC’s hard-drive, each averaging about 18K in size (total 281MB).

  • Using the FAT32 filesystem on the 32GB stick, copying the small files took 12 minutes to copy at approximately 345K per second. Ouch – slow.
  • Using the Ext3 filesystem on the 32GB stick, copying the same files took only 2 minutes and 53 seconds at a rate of approximately 1.6MB per second. Much better.
  • And using the EXT3 filesystem on the older 8GB stick, copying the same data took only 2 minutes and 40 seconds, just edging out the 32GB stick.
Small File Copy Test - Time Taken
Small File Copy Test - Transfer Speed

Now for the large file copy test. Our test data is a single 3.1GB high-definition video file being copied from the host PC’s hard-drive.

  • Using the FAT32 filesystem on the 32GB stick, copying the large file took a pathetic 69 minutes and 24 seconds to transfer, or about 780K per second. It really shows that FAT32 really does not like large files at all.
  • Using the Ext3 filesystem on the 32GB stick, copying the same file took a far more respectable 6 minutes and 16 seconds to complete at approximately 8.4MB per second.
  • Finally, the Ext3-formatted 8GB stick copied the file in 5 minutes and 55 seconds, which beats the 32GB stick, but only by about 20 seconds and half a megabyte per second (8.9MB/s).
Large File Copy Test - Time Taken
Large File Copy Test - Transfer Speed

To be fair, Windows’ NTFS filesystem should show reasonably similar figures to Ext3, but I did not test that as this article is about Ubuntu, not Windows! Smilie: ;)

Finally, we have the read-test. We rebooted the host PC to clear any cached data and copied only the 3.1GB large file from the USB stick to the host PC’s hard-drive.

  • The FAT32-formatted 32GB stick copied the file in 3 minutes and 13 seconds. Exponentially faster than its write action.
  • The EXT3-formatted 32GB stick took 2 minutes and 32 seconds to copy the file.
  • The EXT3-formatted 8GB stick by comparison did the same copy in 3 minutes and four seconds. Interesting that it’s a slow reader compared to the 32Gb stick, but a slightly faster writer.
Large File Read Test - Time Taken
Large File Read Test - Transfer Speed

So transfer speeds have largely remained unchanged between generations, which is a Good Thing(TM) – if there is any faster speed, then that’s a bonus, but the last thing you want is greater capacity at a tragic expense of transfer speed, and whilst we do have that discrepancy here, it’s negligible at best.


Trancend’s 32GB USB Flash Drive is not the largest currently-available on the market, but it is certainly one of the most affordable and has good performance to boot. Aesthetically, the white plastic looks and feels a little cheap, but the stick as a whole feels robust and could probably take a few knocks without having a fit. The lanyard included is more than adequate to hang around your neck with, and the overall size of the stick means you could also comfortably add it to your keyring or hip pocket without it getting in the way, though the separate USB cap could probably be easily lost in that instance.

Review score: 8 out of 10

Mini-review: LG GGC-H20L Super Multi Blue Blu-ray Disc & HD DVD-ROM Drive on Ubuntu

Optical storage certainly has come a long way, and with each new advance brings new affordable hardware to help nudge it along. The HD-DVD and Blu-ray disc formats brought along with it the ability to store and distribute high-quality, full high-definition 1080p movies.

Unlike when DVD first appeared, and probably thanks to the battle that was waged between the HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats, the provision of high-definition media and associated players has dropped in price rather dramatically to drive acceptance. I have a fairly large original DVD collection, but I am a quality freak and in light of high-definition releases, I loathed the idea of buying a DVD version of a given movie knowing that for about the same price I can buy a high-definition version.

So I decided to buy a Blu-ray drive. One of the cheapest options on the market is LG’s internal drive option called the “Super Multi Blue Blu-ray Disc & HD DVD-ROM Drive”, model GGC-H20L for about AUD$150. This review is my experience using the drive under Ubuntu 8.10, Intrepid Ibex.

My unit came packaged in a slightly larger-than-usual box with attractive print on it. I normally prefer to buy an OEM drive since this packaging generally always ends up in the bin, so I’d rather save some money. Unfortunately my retailer didn’t have any, so I had to buy the retail box.

The LG GGC-H20L drive

In a nutshell, this unit is able to read HD-DVD and Blu-Ray media as well as DVD and CD media, but it can only write to DVD and CD media (all the usual formats you expect, so I won’t detail them here). This suits me fine as these days I rarely write any discs except for giving someone a copy of Ubuntu on disc, and I just needed the ability to read Blu-ray movies that I buy.

Out of the box, the package contains the drive itself, a program disc for Windows only with disc burning software, a backup application, a simple DVD authoring application and PowerDVD for movie playback (this disc was promptly thrown in the bin – I don’t need it). There is also a printed manual, four mounting screws and a serial ATA (SATA) cable and a serial ATA Molex-to-SATA power adapter cable provided.

This is my first optical drive with a SATA interface – everything before this used the usual IDE cable, so it was a pleasure to connect the drive and banish the last of my parallel cables to the cable bucket. General installation was a breeze – as typical as any other optical drive.

Powering up, the system recognised the drive straight away and Ubuntu started booting. Ubuntu saw the drive right away and mounted it as my CDROM drive. It still gets referred to as /media/cdrom which I could change, but honestly, there’s little point to that (and maybe I’m being just a bit lazy because typing “cdrom” is faster and easier than typing “blu-ray”Smilie: ;).

The tray of the drive ejects very quietly which is a nice change from my old Sony DVD-RW unit and upon closing makes that satisfying deep “ker-klump” noise akin to the quiet closing of a door on an expensive luxury car. Smilie: :) The activity light on the front of the unit is a lone bright-blue LED. Of course, a Blu-ray capable unit with a blue light – brilliant…

To do some basic testing, I stuck in a regular CD. The drive detected the disc within seconds and Ubuntu popped up the icon for it on my desktop. No faster or slower than my Sony drive. I was able to read the CD without any issue.

I repeated the test with a DVD disc. Again, no issues. The disc was identified and opened within seconds.

I don’t have any HD-DVD discs handy, so I was unable to test this feature (not that you can buy any of these discs out there anymore anyway).

I then inserted one of my newly purchased Blu-Ray movie discs. Again, the disc was detected within seconds and an icon appeared for it on my desktop (note that reading Blu-ray discs requires the UDF 2.5 filesystem which Ubuntu Intrepid thankfully has already).

The AU/UK release of “The Island” on Blu-Ray disc

The Autorun had no idea what to do with the disc:

Autorun Prompt after inserting the disc

I was half expecting the laser to spend a few extra seconds determining whether or not the disc was Blu-ray or HD-DVD, but clearly a delay is not needed, despite using a different laser. I was impressed. Again, I was able to read and navigate the Blu-ray disc and I was also able to copy files from it without any issue. The drive transferred data at approximately 8.8MB per second. I was able to read off 500MB worth of data in about 1 minute. In the case of the movie disc I inserted, the actual feature is a 21GB file which would have taken approximately 40 minutes to copy.

The file structure on the disc

Burning discs was completed with usual success. I burnt an Ubuntu ISO to a CD using Brasero without any issue. Burning a DVD was effortless also. Again, burn time seemed to be no different to my old Sony unit.

The drive has Lightscribe ability as well, to burn funky labels onto Lightscribe-compatible discs, but as I did not have any such discs handy, I was unable to test this feature.

In operation, the drive is very quiet. Any noise it does make is certainly being overshadowed by the noise of my PC’s fan and the room air-conditioning I’m using right now.

Predictably I was unable to PLAY any of the Blu-ray movies I purchased due to the fact that the DRM used on these movies is vastly different to that on DVD’s, and that Linux has no official support for Blu-ray – both Totem and MPlayer certainly had no idea what the media was.

Totem cant play Blu-ray

Instead, my primary use of this drive will be to make file backups of decrypted Blu-ray movies I purchase and watch them that way instead (because I’m a sucker for high-definition). I have written up a separate post detailing how I did this, the results of which are playable in both Totem and MPlayer – you can read it here.

All up, I think this is a good value for money drive. It’s cheap, cheerful and does the job as advertised. At the moment, it appears the only widespread use of the Blu-ray medium is for movies (and PlayStation3 titles). Outside of that, my drive will ultimately still spend most of its time reading DVD and CD mediums. Who knows, maybe PC games and Linux distros will eventually be released on Blu-ray?

Outside of that, the drive is reasonably future-proof with the ability to be updated via firmware updates, although such updates are Windows-only executables on the LG website, which is a shame. Still, it’s better than having to deal with a DOS boot floppy of old, and it is possible to run the firmware update through a virtual Windows session or via Wine. At the time of writing, my drive was delivered with version 1.03 of the firmware.

Aside from its enforcement of DRM, the Windows-only firmware upgrades and its decidely Volvo-like aesthetics (it’s boxy, but it’s good), there’s nothing really to fault this drive. I give it a hearty thumbs up.

Review score: 8 out of 10

Mini-Review: Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000

Well, it’s post-Xmas sales time again and vendors everywhere are struggling to get rid of their stock in readiness for 2009. Whilst I wasn’t in any specific need for something, I found JB Hi-Fi selling Microsoft’s Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 series for AUD$45. This isn’t the cheapest I’ve seen it, mind you, only a few months ago Officeworks sold them for a brief period for only $35 in conjunction with a Microsoft promo, but I digress – I decided to purchase one of these mice for my EeePC 701 since they’re some 35% cheaper than its nearest rivals such as Logitech. But does that cheaper price come at a cost?

So why would you want a Bluetooth mouse? Well, the obvious reason is the convenience of no cables. This mouse is primarily targeted at the notebook market where people cannot easily use, or just plain don’t like, the mouse touchpad or joystick. Being Bluetooth, you can connect it to any device that also has Bluetooth capability (which these days is just about every modern notebook, or desktop with a USB Bluetooth adapter). The only real con is having to charge or replace batteries.

The Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 comes packaged in one of those annoying difficult-to-open hard plastic packages – you know, the kind that usually draws blood. Thankfully, I think Microsoft have heeded the baying masses and have neatly provided little holes in the backside of the packaging for you to easily get a pair of scissors into as indicated by a couple of printed scissor icons, but then I discovered I didn’t even need to do that either – the plastic is perforated, allowing you to get a finger in and simply rip the packaging open – with no blood being drawn – extra points there.

Product packaging

So once you have playfully ripped into the packaging like a 10 year old on Xmas morning, this is what comes inside the retail package:

What’s in the box

You get:

  • The mouse
  • A trendy neoprene rubber carry pouch
  • Two AAA batteries
  • A quickstart guide, battery disposal disclaimer and a full instruction manual, neatly crushed into a triangle by the top side of the box packaging

The mouse is very lightweight and looks pretty stylish with an attractive combination of black underside and sideskirts, white top and a spine of gun-metal grey. The mouse wheel is transparent. The top side features a Bluetooth logo and a battery indicator. There are four buttons – two traditional left & right mouse buttons, wheel button in the middle and a thumb button that is designed with right-handed users in mind. The wheel does not feature left & right movement, but has a fairly notchy ratchet when rotating the wheel, but does not require much pressure to rotate.

The front

The rear end resembles a Renault Megane – with a big arse and a star-zappy logo thing which is not a button and appears to be for decorative purposes only.

The back

The underside features the battery compartment, the laser unit, Bluetooth pairing button, a two-position sliding on-off switch, usual array of skidpads and a Gnuine Microsoft sticker.

The bottom

Overall, this mouse is roughly two-thirds the size of a regular adult desktop mouse. It’s even smaller than a CD-ROM disc! The size is deliberate, however – it makes for a more portable package in your laptop bag.

The top – CD-ROM for size

The neoprene rubber pouch provided is a snug fit for the mouse, but makes a good home for it when stashing it away in your bag. The pouch features a simple hook-tape seal and does the job. If you are an EeePC user, you will already be familiar with the good protection the neoprene rubber sleeve provides, so this mouse pouch will look right at home next to it. The pouch also has a red Microsoft logo tag on it to satisfy brand-toting users.

The neat carry pouch

Inserting the batteries is a very straight-forward exercise without any difficulty. The battery is cover is easily removed by finger without needing a tool and the battery compartments are spacious and feature pull-up tabs to remove the batteries easily when they eventually need replacement.

Not often you get batteries included these days

Upon switching on the mouse, the battery indicator on top of the mouse turned green for a few seconds, then went out and started alternating between green and red flashes at a rate of one flash per second. It had immediately entered pairing mode without me having to manually trigger it. The Bluetooth logo does not light up.

Mouse goes green
Mouse goes red

Pairing the mouse with Ubuntu Intrepid is an incredibly simple four-step process:

EDIT August 2009: The Bluetooth stack in Ubuntu Jaunty changed such that the mouse will pair, but the mouse will not acknowledge the connection nor will the mouse ever work. As of August 2009, the latest version of the Bluez Bluetooth stack and the Blueman applet fix this problem. Refer to this article for more information.

  1. Do a single right-mouse click on the Bluetooth icon in your system tray and choose “Setup new device…”.
  1. The Bluetooth Device Wizard will appear. Click “Forward”.
  1. Your PC will query for local unpaired Bluetooth devices. After a brief delay, you will see the Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000’s MAC address followed shortly by its actual name. Simply click on the name in the list and click “Forward”.
  1. Your PC will commence pairing with the mouse. You don’t have to do anything except wait a couple of seconds. Once the pairing is complete, the wizard will finish.

The mouse is now immediately usable and you can also keep using your original mouse at the same time as well (if you like fighting over one mouse pointer, that is). At this time, the indicator on the top of the mouse switches off as well. The only time I should see it next illuminate is during power-on self-test or when the battery starts running low.

In operation, the mouse feels reasonably comfortable and is easy to maneuver. Button clicks are clear and responsive, although the fourth thumb button was technically non-functional, though pressing it brought focus upon whatever you were hovering over without actually performing a left-mouse click.  It’s not too heavy but not too light either, though with prolonged use, I suspect those with relatively big hands will find the apparent gap underneath the palm of your hand to get annoying and the mouse is a good third smaller than a regular sized mouse (remember it’s intended to be carried by notebook users, not used on a desktop). Those with smaller hands such as most female adults and early-teen children, may probably find this mouse to be more comfortable than a regularly-sized mouse for western adult hands.

I found that the mouse was quite sensitive compared to my regular desktop mouse, as though mouse-acceleration had been increased by a small percentage in my system’s configuration. If this proves annoying, you would have to adjust your desktop mouse preferences a bit to compensate.

Rather interestingly, the laser is completely invisible. There is no red glow emanating from the mouse at all, even if you lift the mouse slightly off the table. There are no blingy glowy bits on the top side of the mouse to waste battery either.

Unfortunately I cannot gauge the expected battery life until I’ve made prolonged use of the mouse, and the manual provided does not provide any indication as to the expected battery life nor does it mention any potential power-saving features of the mouse such as power-down due to in activity, etc (however the quick-start guide makes reference to switching off the mouse when in transit). In fact, I found it amusing to read in the manual protective advisories not to “walk on power cords” in relation to the mouse – it appears this is a generic peripheral manual that Microsoft supply with all their gear.

Anyway, I went on to test the reconnection speed of the mouse now that it was paired. I switched off the mouse for a few seconds and then turned it back on and started moving the mouse until I saw the mouse pointer moving on-screen. Disappointingly, Ubuntu did not reconnect with the mouse. In fact, I wasn’t able to reconnect to it until I had deleted the pairing and re-paired it again.

A system restart after having successfully paired the mouse earlier also failed to reconnect it when the desktop reappeared again.

EDIT August 2009: The latest version of the Bluez Bluetooth stack and the Blueman applet fixes this re-connection problem under Ubuntu Intrepid and Ubuntu Jaunty without the need to do the manual fix below.

This is contrary to previous versions of Ubuntu where reconnection occurred without a problem. As it turns out, the HIDD application and corresponding hcid.conf file are not employed anymore by Ubuntu Intrepid, having been replaced by the Bluetooth applet we’re using today. It appears Intrepid does not actively scan for Bluetooth devices to “re-activate” them upon a restart.

So with that in mind, I tried issuing the following command in a terminal:

$ sudo hciconfig hci0 pscan

…which tells my Bluetooth adapter at hci0 to switch to “scanning” mode. Within about 10 seconds, the mouse pointer started moving again!

Another reboot still failed to have the mouse reconnect automatically again, so I decided to add the command into my /etc/rc.local file which is executed every time the system reboots.

Edit it with:

$ sudo gedit /etc/rc.local

…and in the editor, add it anywhere BEFORE the last exit 0 line, eg:

#!/bin/sh -e
# rc.local
# This script is executed at the end of each multiuser runlevel.
# Make sure that the script will "exit 0" on success or any other
# value on error.
# In order to enable or disable this script just change the execution
# bits.
# By default this script does nothing.

sudo hciconfig hci0 pscan
exit 0

Save your changes and reboot. When the system restarted, the mouse still failed to move, however turning the mouse off and then on again without another reboot did make the mouse start moving again within 10 seconds, so the reconnection process relies on the rodent’s current connection status to be “deleted” before Ubuntu will reconnect to it. This is annoying, but for the moment switching the mouse off and then on is a helluva lot less painful than having to delete and re-pair the mouse manually every reboot. A number of bug reports have already been listed on Launchpad in relation to this problem, so no doubt it will be rectified in due course.


This is a reasonably comfortable, sturdy mouse with a robust feel to it that I believe would survive being knocked about a few times. It is compact and does not have unnecessary design features that would waste battery life. It meets the requirements to be portable and is simple to use.

The manual is generic and not very helpful in relation to the nature of the product (with the exception of the quick-start guide), however I think in this day and age most people have a good basic understanding of mouse concepts to not need a manual.

I’d have liked to have been given a written reference to the expected battery life, and it would have been nice to have a plug-in USB recharge feature or a docking station of some sort, however such features would have increased the cost of the product.

While not a feature-rich mouse in general given the target audience for a simple “it just works” device, this is a great value-for-money product and I would have no hesitation in recommending it to prospective users. At AUD$45, it’s a bargain compared to its nearest rivals who list for AUD$65 or more for the same featureset.

Review score: 8 out of 10

Virtualbox 2.1

Sun’s ubiquitous virtualisation application Virtualbox has been updated to version 2.1 and brings with it a number of new additions to warrant a major update, with two of the most interesting new features being 3D acceleration support and Networking changes that negate the need for bridging the host adapter to the guest.

If you’ve already setup previous versions via the Sun repository, then Virtualbox appears in Synaptic as a completely separate application to previous versions. Generally you uninstall the previous version (preserving your config files) and then install the new version, which automatically performs any upgrading that is required of your config files. Thankfully Synaptic can do the job in one hit, uninstalling selected software prior to installing new selections.

Installing VirtualBox 2.1 from Synaptic

Once installed, I was presented with the familiar Virtualbox interface. Nothing has changed here. What has changed is largely under the surface and one or two extra Settings options. For starters, under General->Basic, we have a new checkbox for enabling 3D acceleration. Theoretically this would allow you to play games and use other accelerated applications within a virtual session, as it would be passed through to your host’s 3D video card to process. At this stage, this feature is highly experimental and only supports OpenGL currently (no Direct3D), and only supports it under specific guest configurations. This will change in due course, but for now is a welcome addition to Virtualbox.

Setting up a Windows XP VM in VirtualBox 2.1

The second great change that I notice is the complete elimination for the need to use network bridges or TUN/TAP devices to give your Virtual Machine a true connection to your network. It’s now simply a case of telling your VM to use a Host adapter and then pick a Host adapter from the available list. Very cool.

Virtual Machine Network Configuration

Other features in this release:

  • Support for hardware virtualization (VT-x and AMD-V) on Mac OS X hosts
  • Support for 64-bit guests on 32-bit host operating systems (experimental)
  • Added support for Intel Nehalem virtualization enhancements (EPT and VPID)
  • Experimental LsiLogic and BusLogic SCSI controllers
  • Full VMDK/VHD support including snapshots
  • New NAT engine with significantly better performance, reliability and ICMP echo (ping) support

…and the usual array of bug fixes.

So how does it run?

After initial installation, I ran up my VM install of Windows XP MCE 2005 without changing any of the VM settings and shortly after boot commenced I was met with as Blue Screen of Death. Oh dear, however I wasn’t completely surprised either – Windows will complain over the smallest of changes.

Not fussed, I figured I’d just do a fresh installation of XP Professional with SP3. I decided to give the VM 2GB RAM, 128MB video memory, enabled the SATA controller, enabled 3D acceleration and give it a network card that went through the Host’s Eth0 adapter (no NAT).

During the graphical component of the installation process, I got this…


Oh dear again…

So I shutdown the VM and started disabling options one at a time in a bid to see if it was one of the new features that was killing the installation process. I started with the obvious: 3D acceleration. I switched it off and began the install process again. Bang: BSOD again.

OK, so I reduced memory to 1GB and video RAM to 32MB, then restarted the installation process from scratch again. Bang: BSOD again!

Fine, I switched the network config back to a NAT-based setup and restarted the installation process yet again. I made absolutely sure that we were not installing over the top of the old install and that the drive was properly formatted instead of quick-formatted. Another BSOD. What’s the go here?

I decided to go hard-core. I disabled everything that wasn’t really necessary: SATA controller, network, audio and USB. This time, when I restarted installation, it successfully got through to the first stage of the graphical installer prompting for the regional and language options! I shutdown the VM.

I changed the VM settings again, re-enabling components one at a time until I got a failure. After some trial and error, I finally had the VM BSOD again when the SATA controller was enabled! Looks like there are some bugs that need to be sorted out there. I left that disabled and continued installing Windows without incident.

Installing the VirtualBox Additions Driver Package into Windows XP

Once the Virtualbox Guest Additions were installed, I immediately looked for something OpenGL related – the screensavers. The OpenGL screensavers such as the FlowerBox ran and rendered well, though there was a slight amount of choppyness to them, but nothing serious. At this stage I figured that the OpenGL works, so when they iron out the bugs, this may get smoother.

I decided to dare to test something a bit more complex, on the expectation that the VM would crash or lockup – an OpenGL GAME. Since the screensaver suggested that the translation was slow, I decided to go old school and install the original Quake on my XP VM, using ProQuake to render the GL version of it. This is where I got a virtual slap in the face…

Quake in OpenGL runs perfectly – fast and smooth! In whatever resolution I throw at it!


Quake in OpenGL in a Windows XP Virtual Machine
The game is smooth and playable, even when the window is scaled up to a larger size!

I discovered the same with just about every other OpenGL title I threw at it, including Serious Sam 2 and Doom 3 – all ran at fluid full speed, at whatever resolution. Great stuff, but I did discover one bug – only in Serious Sam 2, for some reason 10 minutes into gameplay, the video card would just stop – the monitor would switch off and the machine would lock. I could only get it back by resetting the physical host, and even then the video card still did not initialise again until I power cycled the PC. This wasn’t a one-off either. I managed to reproduce the bug three times in an hour. But this is a new feature, it’s off by default because it is experimental, and I have to say that it’s so far a resounding success. With time, the bugs will be ironed out and we will quite literally be one step closer to banishing the concept of dual-booting Windows on PC’s for games! I look forward to Sun’s implementation of DirectX translation.

Outside of all this, I also found that VM’s generally boot up a bit quicker (especially Win XP guests – hellishly quick) and that tiny things such as the icons at the bottom-right of each VM window provide slightly clearer information about what is currently being employed.

So 2.1 is indeed a big step up. Sun have made great strides with Virtualbox, and even better still it remains a free (as in beer) product! I can’t wait for the next release!

EDIT: If you’d like to see Serious Sam 2 and ProQuake in action in Virtualbox 2.1, I’ve knocked up a video and stuck it up on YouTube here.