Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pi-Top Raspberry Pi Laptop

Earlier this year I learned about the Pi-Top, a kit for turning a Raspberry Pi single board computer into a laptop, from a friend's post on Facebook. A portable RPi-based system is something I've been interested in for awhile, because if it has enough horsepower to run Fldigi, it would make a neat, relatively inexpensive system to run digital modes on ham radio while in the field with low electrical power requirements.

Last weekend I was down at Microcenter in St. David's, PA to return a cell phone car mount that didn't work out for me*, when I wander over into the DIY section. A few years ago, Microcenter decided to cater to the maker movement and has been carrying a lot of neat stuff. Its what Radio Shack should've done instead of trying to be another cell phone hawker.

Anyway, I saw that they had the Pi-Top kits for sale so I decided to get one. The Pi-Top kit does not include an RPi, so I also got a RPi 3 Model B, which included onboard Bluetooth and WiFi.

The Pi-Top was about $265, while the RPi 3 was on sale for $30.

Laptop guts on my dining room table:

The kit was well packaged in a cleverly designed box and came with an 8 GB microSD card pre-loaded with a version of Raspbian customized for the Pi-Top hardware. The instruction booklet that came with it was pretty good but lacked any info about the OS, except a pointer to the Pi-Top website. It didn't even include the default login info.

Closeup of the USB hub (left) and the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B:

The Pi-Top case is molded from plastic and feels about like what you'd expect from a $250 laptop. Assembly was pretty straightforward except that I initially mounted the RPi too far to the right in the case. The cables that link the RPi and the USB hub aren't long enough. This results in the RPi being inset to the left inside the case, which makes using the USB ports inconvenient. The case also blocks access to the Pi's onboard Fast Ethernet port.

Click on any of the pics to embiggen.

Boards mounted in the case:

The Pi-Tops 13.3" screen is decent. It's nothing to write home about, especially after one is used to a MacBook Pro with Retina display, but it ain't bad.

The keyboard is OK. I wouldn't want to do any extended writing or coding on it, however.

The shiny plastic cover at the top of the keyboard slides in and out from the right side of the computer. This helps when trying to connect something to the USB ports.

Side-by-side with my mid-2009 15" MacBook Pro:

Because of the plastic construction and a lot of empty space within the case, it's very lightweight.

The Pi-Top doesn't ship with a speaker, so as it comes there's no audio unless you buy the $20 add-on speaker, or run a cable from the RPi's audio jack to a set of external speakers.

After getting it up and running I naturally ran apt-get update and apt-get upgrade to bring the system up-to-date. Normally this wouldn't cause any issues but something related to dpkg got munged and I had to do about an hour's worth of troubleshooting to fix it and restore the ability to install or upgrade packages. Unfortunately I don't recall the specifics and didn't take notes.

Last weekend was ARRL Field Day, so I dragged my Icom 7200 and the Pi-Top out back on Sunday to see how it would fair as a portable digital mode laptop. It decoded PSK31 well, but the screen wasn't bright enough to use without a lot more shade than I had available, so I kept losing the cursor.

There are buttons on the keyboard to adjust screen brightness but they aren't working. I'm not sure if they would have worked pre-update, but they aren't post-update. Such is desktop Linux. Flakiness like that is why I normally run macOS as my desktop UNIX.

The manufacturer claims a 10+ hour battery life and from my testing so far, it sips power.

So, would I recommend the Pi-Top? It depends. If you're an experienced Linux user in search of a portable machine with low electrical power requirements, it's worth considering. Keep in mind that it's also a low computing power device. Web pages render relatively slowly. The OS includes Libre Office. I have not putzed with it yet but based on prior experience with that suite, it's going to run slowly on this hardware.

* Don't try to use a magnetic mount with an iPhone 7+ in a MagPul Field Case. The first bump in the road that you hit, and the phone will fall.

Some Job Updates

Back when I started blogging, first at and then here on Blogger, I wrote a lot about my job. For the first few years I wrote about supporting my employer's commercial cable modem customers and our optical transport network. After that I blogged some about doing ongoing engineering related to the cable modem service. After that, my focus shifted, in part because I didn't feel that I had much of interest to write about.

Seventeen years later, I'm still with the same company but several jobs later. For the past few years I managed the product engineering lab at our corporate headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. That was good data center management experience but I got burned out by the end of last year. Towards the end of 2016 we underwent yet another reorganization and I found myself in a new group with some opportunity for advancement.

As of a few weeks ago I'm no longer a lab manager. I'm now Service Operations Lead for our lab operations team. A big part of this is to help craft our new operations model in compliance with the ITIL best practices. I also have a supervisory role over a few very talented senior-level engineers. So far, I've been extremely busy and I've been enjoying it.

One thing I like in particular about the new position is its location. From 2004 up until earlier this month I commuted into Center City Philadelphia. Now I'm going to our office in Downingtown, PA, about a 25 mile drive. Yeah, I have to drive, but I'm not dependent on the SEPTA Regional Rail lines. And I never have to sit next to some fat guy who smells like cheese, or listen to obnoxious obliviots prattling on their cell phones while riding the "quiet" car during my commute.

Also, back in April I got my fourth US Patent, which was a nice feather in my cap. (I'm a co-inventor on all four.)

Not dead yet, and an update on my newest Mac

Tonight I pulled ye olde blog and realized that I haven't posted anything here since February. Yikes. I have posted over on Survival and Emergency Preparedness, which if you don't read you should check it out. (I might be a bit biased in that regard.)

Anyhoo, in my last post I mentioned that I had a new 15" MacBook Pro on the way. I've been living with it now for several months so I thought I'd offer some subjective impressions:

  • It's fast as hell, even with several large applications open, e.g., Excel, Outlook, Chrome, Slack, and Skype for Business.
  • The screen is beautiful.
  • The keyboard is different from earlier Macs but I got used to it quickly.
  • I love the huge trackpad when I'm not connected to an external keyboard and mouse.
  • With 16 GB of RAM I am able to allocate 8 GB to a Windows 10 VM running in Parallels, and have decent performance in the VM. I most commonly use Windows to run the vSphere Client (still a better UI than VMware's web client) or Visio 2013.
  • Having only USB-C AKA Thunderbolt 3 ports is a pain in the ass. I have to use an adapter to connect to my 27" Thunderbolt display, or connect most common USB drives, or to Ethernet if I'm not using the Thunderbolt display with its integrated Gig-E port.
    • I got one of these Anker USB C to USB 3.0 and Gig-E hubs. It has worked well for me although I haven't tried pounding on an external USB drive with it, just flash drives and Ethernet.
    • The Anker hub worked with my FTDI chipset USB to Cisco console cable. (And of course the point of buying the latter was to minimize the number of dongles attached to my laptop. Grr.)
  • The Touch Bar is a gimmick. Most of the time I don't even see it because I run an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard, so the machine's lid is closed anyway.
  • Battery life is very good.
  • It's super thin and not too heavy.
  • Apple no longer includes the power cord extension with the machine. Just the wall wart and a single USB C cable. The older power cord extensions are compatible with the new power supply, however.
  • I fucking hate that it doesn't have a MagSafe power connection. The MagSafe connection on my other Mac laptops, and my daughters' MacBook Airs, has prevented damage more times than I can count. This is a massive step back.
Overall I am happy with it but would have preferred the retention of at least one USB 3.0 port and I want my damn MagSafe connector back. (Griffin sells a USB C to MagSafe adapter but it's rated for only up to about 60W. The 15" MBP uses an 87W power supply.)