Faster Computers Lead to Slower Experiences?

Ever get that funny feeling that things aren’t quite what they used to be? Not in the way that a new washing machine has more plastic parts than one 40 years its senior. More like “my laptop can churn through hundreds of gigaflops, but when I scroll it doesn’t feel great.” That perception of smoothness might be based on a couple factors, including system latency. A couple years ago [danluu] had that feeling too and measured the latency of “devices I’ve run into in the past few months” (based on this list, he lives a more interesting life than we do). It turns out his hunch was objectively correct. What he wrote was a wonderful deep dive into how and why a wide variety of devices work and the hardware and software contributors to latency.

Let’s be clear about what “latency” means in this context. [danluu] was checking the time between a user input and some response on screen. For desktop systems he measured a keystroke, for mobile devices scrolling a browser. If you’re here on Hackaday (or maybe at a Vintage Computer Festival) the cause of the apparent contradiction at the top of the charts might be obvious.

Q: Why are some older systems faster than devices built decades later? A: The older systems just didn’t do much! Instead of complex multi-tasking operating systems doing hundreds of things at once, the CPU’s entire attention was bent on whatever user process was running. There are obvious practical drawbacks here but it certainly reduces context switching!

In some sense this complexity that [danluu] describes is at the core of how we solve problems with programming. Writing code is all about abstraction. While it’s true that any program could be written directly in machine code and customized to an individual machine’s hardware configuration, it would be pretty inconvenient for both developer and user. So over time layers of sugar have been added on top to hide raw hardware behind nicer interfaces written in higher-level programming languages.

And instead of writing every program to target exact hardware configurations there is a kernel to handle the lowest layers, then layers adding hotplug systems, power management, pluggable module and driver infrastructure, and more. When considering solutions to a programming problem the approach is always recursive: you can solve the problem, or add a layer of abstraction and reframe it. Enough layers of the latter makes the former trivial. But it’s abstractions all the way down.

[danluu]’s observation is that we’re just now starting to curve back around and hit low latency again, but this time by brute force! Modern solutions to latency largely look like increasingly exotic display technologies and complex optimizations which reach from UI draw functions all the way down to the silicon, not removing software and system infrastructure. It turns out the benefits of software complexity in terms of user experience and ease of development are worth it most of the time.

For a very tangible illustration of latency as applied to touchscreen devices, check out the Microsoft Research video after the break (linked to in [danluu]’s piece).

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Venabili is the Delightful Keyboard You Can’t Buy

If you code or write a lot, you live or die with your keyboard. The Venabili web site calls Venabili “the delightful keyboard” which begs the question: what makes a keyboard delightful. The site continues:

“Venabili is a 40% mechanical, programmable, ergonomic and hackable computer keyboard.

Being a fully programmable keyboard, it gives you the ability to create layers of functionality, declare multifunction keys that can operate as both modifiers and normal keys, control the mouse, define macros, and more.”

Sounds at least 40% delightful, right? Where do you buy one? You don’t. The keyboard is a set of plans and like a Jedi lightsaber, you have to build your own. Continue reading “Venabili is the Delightful Keyboard You Can’t Buy”

A Lasercut ATX Case For Your Next Desktop Rig

Case modding exploded in the late 1990s, as computer enthusiasts the world over grew tired of the beige box and took matters into their own hands. The movement began with custom paints and finishes on existing cases, with competitions and bragging rights then taking over to further push the state of the art. It’s one thing to mod a case, however, and another to build one entirely from scratch. [Wesley]’s lasercut case build is an excellent example of the latter.

The build is designed for the ATX form factor, making it suitable for regular desktop computer parts. There are provisions for 3.5 and 2.5 inch drives, as well as a standard ATX PSU and provisions for case fans. The large lasercut panels are supplemented by some 3D printed parts, and the usual metric M3 hardware used with the ATX standard.

It’s a tidy build you can replicate yourself, with the parts available on Thingiverse for your making pleasure. [Wesley]’s build is resplendent in orange, but we’d also love to see an all-transparent build with blinding LED light effects. If you build it, you know where to send it.

Of course, if you’re looking for something more compact, you could always build the whole computer inside the power supply. 

From A Dead Laptop To A Portable KVM And PiTop

An essential tool of many sysadmins is a portable terminal ready to plug into an ailing rack-mounted server to administer first aid. At their simplest, they are simply a monitor and keyboard on a trolley, but more often they will be a laptop pre-loaded with tools for the purpose. Sysadmins will hang on tenaciously to now-ancient laptops for this application because they possess a hardware serial port.

[Frank Adams] has taken a different route with his emergency server crash cart, because while he’s used an old laptop he hasn’t hung onto it for its original hardware. Instead, he’s used a Teensy and an LVDS driver board to replace the motherboards of two old Dell Latitude laptops, one of which is a simple KVM device and the other of which is a laptop in its own right featuring a Raspberry Pi 3. He’s produced a video as well, which we’ve placed below the break.

There was a time when laptop display panels were seen as unhackable, but the advent of cheap driver boards has meant that conversions such as this one have become a relatively well-worn path. The job he’s done here is a particularly well-executed one though, making good use of the generous amount of space to be found in an older business-class laptop. There isn’t a battery because this application doesn’t demand one, however, with the battery compartment intact it does not seem impossible that a suitable charger/monitor board could be included along with a boost converter to provide his 12V supply.

This isn’t the first Pi laptop in a re-used commercial machine’s case we’ve seen, there was also this Sony Vaio.

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A Nurse Call System Becomes Turing Complete

George Mallory, a famous English mountaineer, once suggested that it was of no use to climb mountains. Instead, he posited, the only reason to climb a mountain is because it is there. Likewise, when you become an expert in nurse call systems like those found in hospitals, you may find that you do things with them that are of similar use. Making a Turing-complete nurse call system is something you do because you can.

[Erik] has been working on this particular call system, known as Netrix, and used Wireshark to sniff out all of its protocols. With this information he realized that it would be possible to use the system’s routing features to perform all of the tasks that any Turing complete system can do: conditional branching and memory access. He set up a virtual machine and set about implementing all of these tasks using the nurse call system’s features.

The setup for this project is impressive, and belies an extensive knowledge of this one proprietary system but also of computer science in general. It’s interesting to see how something can be formed into a working computer system from parts that otherwise might not be used that way. Even things that aren’t electronic can be used as Turing-complete computers.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Our Right To Repair Depends On A Minimally Viable Laptop

It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.

The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?

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3D Printing Logic Gates

It may seem a paradox, but in the future tiny computers may dump electronics and return to their mechanical roots. At the macroscale, mechanical computers are fussy and slow, but when your area is down to a few molecules, electronics have trouble working but mechanical systems do just fine. In addition, these devices don’t use electricity directly, don’t generate electronic signatures, and may be less sensitive to things like radiation that damage electronics. A recent paper in Nature Communications discusses how to 3D print common logic gates using both macro-scale 3D printing techniques and a much smaller version with microstereolithography. You can see a video of gates in action below.

The gates use a bistable flexible mechanism. The larger gates use ABS plastic and measure about 250mm square. The smaller gate measures less than 25 mm square. They also use a special technique to make gates as small as 100 microns theoretically possible, although some of that is future work for the team.

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