Ask Hackaday: Are Unlockable Features Good for the User?

There are numerous examples of hardware which has latent features waiting to be unlocked by software. Most recently, we saw a Casio calculator which has the same features as its bigger sibling hidden within the firmware, only to be exposed by a buffer overflow bug (or the lead from a pencil if you prefer a hardware hack).

More famously, oscilloscopes have been notorious for having crippled features. The Rigol DS1052E was hugely popular on hacker benches because of it’s very approachable price tag. The model shipped with 50 MHz bandwidth but it was discovered that a simple hack turned it into the DS1102E 100 MHz scope. Tektronix has gotten in on this action as well, shipping modules like I2C, CAN, and LIN analyzation on the scope but requiring a hardware key to unlock (these were discovered to have a horribly insecure unlock method). Similar feature barriers are found on Rigol’s new reigning entry-level scope, the DS1054Z, which ships with protocol analyzation modules (among others) that are enabled only for the first 70 hours of scope operation, requiring an additional payment to unlock them. Most scope manufacturers are in on the game, and of course this is not limited to our tools. WiFi routers are another great example of hardware hosting firmware-unlockable features.

So, the question on my mind which I’d like to ask all of the Hackaday community is this: are unlockable features good for us, the people who use these tools? Let’s take a look at some of the background of these practices and then jump into a discussion in the comments.

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Optimizing Linux for Slow Computers

It’s interesting, to consider what constitutes a power user of an operating system. For most people in the wider world a power user is someone who knows their way around Windows and Microsoft Office a lot, and can help them get their print jobs to come out right. For those of us in our community, and in particular Linux users though it’s a more difficult thing to nail down. If you’re a LibreOffice power user like your Windows counterpart, you’ve only really scratched the surface. Even if you’ve made your Raspberry Pi do all sorts of tricks in Python from the command line, or spent a career shepherding websites onto virtual Linux machines loaded with Apache and MySQL, are you then a power user compared to the person who knows their way around the system at the lower level and has an understanding of the kernel? Probably not. It’s like climbing a mountain with false summits, there are so many layers to power usership.

So while some of you readers will be au fait with your OS at its very lowest level, most of us will be somewhere intermediate. We’ll know our way around our OS in terms of the things we do with it, and while those things might be quite advanced we’ll rely on our distribution packager to take care of the vast majority of the hard work.

Linux distributions, at least the general purpose ones, have to be all things to all people. Which means that the way they work has to deliver acceptable performance to multiple use cases, from servers through desktops, portable, and even mobile devices. Those low-level power users we mentioned earlier can tweak their systems to release any extra performance, but the rest of us? We just have to put up with it.

To help us, [Fabio Akita] has written an excellent piece on optimizing Linux for slow computers. By which he means optimising Linux for desktop use on yesterday’s laptop that came with Windows XP or Vista, rather than on that ancient 486 in the cupboard. To a Hackaday scribe using a Core 2 Duo, and no doubt to many of you too, it’s an interesting read.

In it he explains the problem as more one of responsiveness than of hardware performance, and investigates the ways in which a typical distro can take away your resources without your realising it. He looks at RAM versus swap memory, schedulers, and tackles the thorny question of window managers head-on. Some of the tweaks that deliver the most are the easiest, for example the Great Suspender plugin for Chrome, or making Dropbox less of a hog. It’s not a hardware hack by any means, but we suspect that many readers will come away from it with a faster machine.

If you’re a power user whose skills are so advanced you have no need for such things as [Fabio]’s piece, share your wisdom on sharpening up a Linux distro for the rest of us in the comments.

Via Hacker News.

Header image, Tux: Larry Ewing, Simon Budig, Garrett LeSage [Copyrighted free use or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Medium Over Message: A CD-ROM Multimedia Bubble Survivor’s Tale

Sometimes in the never-ending progression of technology, people take wrong turns. They pursue dead-ends they believe represent a bright future, often in spite of obvious indications to the contrary. IBM doggedly insisting Micro Channel Architecture was the future of PC hardware, for example, or Nokia’s seeming inability to recognise that the mobile phone experience had changed for ever when the first iPhones and Android devices appeared.

Every once in a while, that collective delusion grips an entire industry. All the players in a particular market nail their colours to a technology, seemingly without heed to what seems with hindsight to have been a completely obvious threat from the alternative that sidelined them. It is a tale of personal experience that prompts this line of thought, for the industry that tempted me away from hardware to a career in electronic publishing in the early 1990s was CD-ROM multimedia.

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Documentation? Wave Me!

A lot of hardware and software hackers aren’t all that keen on documentation. The problem is, if you don’t document, it is harder for people to replicate or build on your work. If you aren’t happy writing, keep the old adage in mind: a picture is worth a thousand words.

With a digital design, a timing diagram is often a key piece of documentation. WaveMe is a free Windows program that makes it easy to create good-looking timing diagrams. You can run the software on other platforms via Wine.

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Pulling Music Out Of The Airwaves

RADIO WONDERLAND is a one-man band with many famous unintentional collaborators. [Joshua Fried]’s shows start off with him walking in carrying a boombox playing FM radio. He plugs it into his sound rig, tunes around a while, and collects some samples. Magic happens, he turns an ancient Buick steering wheel, and music emerges from the resampled radio cacophony.

It’s experimental music, which is secret art-scene-insider code for “you might not like it”, but we love the hacking. In addition to the above-mentioned steering wheel, he also plays a rack of shoes with drumsticks. If we had to guess, we’d say rotary encoders and piezos. All of this is just input for his computer programs which take care of the sampling, chopping, and slicing of live radio into dance music. It’s good enough that he’s opened for [They Might Be Giants].

Check out the videos (embedded below) for a taste of what a live show was like. There are definitely parts where the show is a little slow, but they make it seem cooler when a beat comes together out of found Huey Lewis. We especially like the “re-esser” routine that hones in on the hissier parts of speech to turn them into cymbals. And if you scan the crowd in the beginning, you can find a ten-years-younger [Limor Fried] and [Phil Torrone].

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Hackspace Websites And The Great Software Trap

Part of the job of a Hackaday writer involves seeking out new stories to write for your delectation and edification. Our tips line provides a fruitful fount of interesting things to write about, but we’d miss so much if we restricted ourselves to only writing up stories from that source. Each of us writers will therefore have a list of favourite places to keep an eye on and catch new stuff as it appears. News sites, blogs, videos, forums, that kind of thing. In my case I hope I’m not giving away too much to my colleagues when I say I keep an eye on the activities of as many hackspaces as I can.

So aside from picking up the occasional gem for these pages there is something else I gain that is of great personal interest as a director of my local hackspace. I see how a lot of other spaces approach the web, and can couple it to my behind-the-scenes view of doing the same thing here in our space. Along the way due to both experiences I’ve begun to despair slightly at the way our movement approaches the dissemination of information, the web, and software in general. So here follows a highly personal treatise on the subject that probably skirts the edge of outright ranting but within which I hope you’ll see parallels in your own spaces.

Before continuing it’s worth for a moment considering why a hackspace needs a public website. What is its purpose, who are its audience, and what information does it need to have?

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OneSolver Does What Wolfram Can’t

Wolfram Alpha has been “helping” students get through higher math and science classes for years. It can do almost everything from solving Laplace transforms to various differential equations. It’s a little lacking when it comes to solving circuits, though, which is where [Grant] steps in. He’s come up with a tool called OneSolver which can help anyone work out a number of electrical circuits (and a few common physics problems, too).

[Grant] has been slowly building an online database of circuit designs that has gotten up to around a hundred unique solvers. The interesting thing is that the site implements a unique algorithm where all input fields of a circuits design can also become output fields. This is unique to most other online calculators because it lets you do things that circuit simulators and commercial math packages can’t. The framework defines one system of equations, and will solve all possible combinations, and lets one quickly home in on a desired design solution.

If you’re a student or someone who constantly builds regulators or other tiny circuits (probably most of us) then give this tool a shot. [Grant] is still adding to it, so it will only get better over time. This may be the first time we’ve seen something like this here, too, but there have been other more specific pieces of software to help out with your circuit design.