Sunday, August 30, 2009

The ideal portable media player

After the overwhelming response to my Goodbye Apple blog post, I have compiled a list of criteria I would like to see in a portable music player:

Linux compatibility

This is a deal-breaker for me, as I only use Ubuntu. The next mp3 player should be manageable from a Ubuntu desktop. In order of preference:

  • Manufacturer lists Linux support or compatibility on the box
  • Manufacturer lists Linux support or compatibility on their website
  • Device is known to work with Linux

Of course, I would also need to be able to update the device's firmware, but this isn't a must. I can probably find someone with a Windows box to do a one-time firmware update.

Video support

I spend a lot of time in airports and planes. This is where I use my player the most. I like watching videos and movies while on the move. I want at least a 2.5 inch screen, but it still needs to be light and small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. It's what I had on my 5G iPod Video, and it's the minimum I would tolerate.

Video conversion should be easy, and should not require Windows-only software. I should be able to encode video from DVDs I own, and from video podcasts I download from the Internet.

Bonus points if the manufacturer gives some example ffmpeg or mencoder command-lines in a wiki somewhere, or submits presets for their device to encoding software such as Handbrake.

Podcast support

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Since a lot of podcasts are available encoded in mp3 format, most people think they work on any mp3 player. Fact is, I want the player to be able to recognize podcasts and apply special logic to them the way iPods do. They need to:

  • Have a “completed” flag to be able to easily spot the ones I've listened to already
  • Automatically resume from where they were left off (without having to manually set a “bookmark”)
  • Be in a separate list from regular music files

The most important criteria for me is the automatic resume one, and is the one most media players are lacking. I don't enjoy losing my place in a podcast when I get interrupted, or want to listen to some music. Trying to locate where you were in an hour-long podcast with a fast-forward button is painful.

Standard USB port

I want a media player with a standard mini or micro USB port for syncing and charging. I hate having to spend extra on spare proprietary cables. I hate having to lug ten different proprietary cables in my laptop bag when I travel. And most of all: I hate forgetting the proprietary cable at home when I leave on a trip. Even though the iPod has a proprietary connector, at least you can purchase a spare cable pretty much anywhere.

Of course, most devices come with proprietary ports because a standard USB port can't offer all the extra features that a portable media device needs, such as TV Out, Audio Out, Line in, etc. How about this for an idea, folks: USB for syncing/charging, and proprietary port for all the rest.

User-friendly interface

My dad came over the other day with a cheap no-name 3rd generation iPod Nano knockoff he bought at an electronics store. He was raving about how inexpensive it was.

The user interface was the most horrible thing I have ever encountered. It was so complicated to simply get a song to play that I would have paid double the price difference to never see it again.

On-demand playlist support

Although this isn't something that's absolutely necessary, I really enjoy listening to music while creating a playlist on the device itself.

Adequate volume

The volume needs to be loud enough to listen to music and movies while on a plane. My Sony PSP isn't loud enough for me to listen to movies on a plane.

Open multimedia format support

It would be great if the device supported open multimedia formats and codecs, such as Ogg, FLAC and Theora.

Well, that's all I can think of for now. Based on recommendations in my blog comments, I have purchased a Cowon S9. Also, I have received a Creative Zen MX, and will be receiving a Sansa Fuse shortly. In the coming weeks, I'll be reviewing each of these (and maybe others) to try and find the ideal portable media player for Linux users.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My God! It's full of stars!

Ever try hooking up a server or firewall with multiple network cards? You stand in back of it wondering which RJ45 port is eth0, which one is eth1...

Here's a little tip: you can make network card lights blink with the ethtool command:

ethtool -p eth0

You can make each card blink for 30 seconds in order with something like:

for net in eth0 eth1 eth2; do ethtool -p $net 30; done

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aide (Advanced Intrusion Detection Environment) improvements

At the Karmic Ubuntu developer summit, we had a session on filesystem integrity checkers. The main purpose of the session was to see what the current state of them was, and if we needed to replace Aide in main with a newer alternative.

I don't traditionally like filesystem checkers. While they are very useful to detect files that get modified during an intrusion, an administrator needs to invest an incredible amount of time in analyzing the log files that they produce every day. This is compounded by the fact that servers don't remain static: they get security and stability software updates installed. The more that servers get updated, the more they divert from the original database that was generated by the integrity checker, and the more false positives get reported in the log.

Wouldn't it be great if the integrity checker was smart enough not to report on files that were changed by operating system updates?

I introduced this very feature in the Aide package in Karmic Koala. It is disabled by default. To activate it, simply modify the /etc/default/aide configuration file and set “FILTERUPDATES” to “yes”. I also recommend changing “COPYNEWDB” to “yes” in order to get changes reported only once.

This new configuration option will filter out files that were modified by operating system updates from the daily email sent to the administrator. It will not filter them out from the main log file.

Of course, overwriting the pristine database every day and filtering out the files changed by system updates may slightly reduce Aide's effectiveness, but I think it's a compromise worth having if the alternative is to not use Aide at all because of administrative overhead.

If you've never used Aide before on your Ubuntu server, and would like to give it a try on Karmic, here are the steps necessary to get started:

1- Install aide:

apt-get install aide

2- Create the initial database (this may take a while):


3- Customize the MAILTO, COPYNEWDB and FILTERUPDATES parameters in /etc/default/aide

4- You should now get a daily email report on filesystem changes!