Software and Hardware Tinkering - Then and Now

June 8, 2013 —

I've traditionally been the type of computer user that likes to tinker with the hardware in my desktop computer. Right down to minor details. I didn't do the "coloured LED lights inside the case" thing, but pretty much everything else I would toy around with. I built my first PC from scratch at the end of 2003 with money that should have been spent on tuition, food, or other much more important things at the time. It was fun. I can remember I spent a long while researching parts before buying and then putting everything together, configuring it all just so.

In 2005, I blew away my Windows install and installed Gentoo Linux. This was my first real experience with a full blown desktop Linux installation. My prior Linux experience was a bit limited, a bit of Red Hat usage from a normal desktop user point of view and a class in my first year of college learning some Unix shell scripting fundamentals with IBM AIX. Installing Gentoo on my own was quite a learning experience, as well as an exercise in frustration. I learned a lot. Gentoo is one of those "build it yourself" distros as opposed to something like Ubuntu today which out of the box gives you a working desktop system which supports a good number of extra hardware. I ran Gentoo for a few years after first installing it. It had its ups and downs.

I compiled my own Linux kernel. I did this a lot. As I write this, I haven't done it in quite a while, but the last time I did on an old Gentoo box I still had sitting around, I was able to find all the kernel modules I needed for my hardware without searching or looking it up on Google first. I hand wrote more then my fair share of xorg.conf configurations from scratch, some for a single monitor, some for two. I wrestled with the, at the time, quite picky proprietary ATI driver "fglrx" on an old Thinkpad laptop. I've endlessly fiddled with manual configuration for a wide variety of modules for media keys, OSD icons, wifi, power saving, etc. for that same Thinkpad. I've switched from KDE to Gnome to XFCE and back, ensuring I cleaned up leftover packages between each switch since I didn't want to do a clean OS install. I wrote a dialup connection script in Perl that was a wrapper for pppd because for some reason Gnome-PPP and Wvdial stopped being able to establish a connection to the dial-up ISP I had at the time (I always suspected that the ISP had changed something on their end, since I knew for a fact nothing had changed on mine... grrr). I've spent many, many, many hours fiddling with Wine configurations to play WoW in Linux. I switched from an ATI card to Nvidia to boost performance with Wine + WoW (and, wow, it really did help a lot at the time). I've screwed up creating my partitions via fdisk on several occasions and then successfully recovered them after booting up from a minimal live-CD. I've installed bootsplash to have a custom splash screen appear during bootup. I've obsessed over getting the screen resolution during bootup to switch to a high resolution as soon as possible even though the only thing it's showing is kernel output. I've configured a spare desktop computer to serve as a network router + NAS running Linux. I've spent hours tweaking my conkyrc to get it looking "really cool" even though I was the only one who would ever really be looking at it... and half of the system stats it was showing me certainly didn't need to be overlaid on my desktop all the time.

Well, I could go on for quite a while.

Anyway... over the last one or two years, I've come to the realization that I just don't care anymore. I used to find that stuff kind of fun. I suppose I still do find it a little bit fun now and then. However, nowadays I feel like there just isn't enough hours in the day. I'd rather use my limited time to get something more productive done instead of, for example, compiling the Linux kernel for the umpteenth time. On pretty much every occasion when something goes wrong with software or hardware my first reaction is to groan. Second reaction is usually "can I get away with not fixing this now?" Third reaction is usually to reach for my desktop/laptop (whichever one the problem didn't occur with). Usually. Younger me loved that stuff. Older me... not so much.

Today, more often then not, I want things to "just work."

Which brings me to OS X. I've been using it pretty solidly for a year and a half now. I installed it as a Hackintosh on my desktop PC that I previously built to run Windows. I ended up giving it a try as I wanted a Unix-based OS with some "better then Linux" support for playing games. I also bought a MacBook Air last year which I tell everyone is easily one of the best laptops that I've owned. Most people who know me kind of do a double-take when they hear me say that as they know I don't care for Apple at all. The Hackintosh part is the one remaining piece of hardware/software configuration annoyances that I have. It works quite well, better even then I expected when I first set it up. But new hardware has to be selected carefully and OS updates should only be installed after doing a full backup to a spare drive. It's annoying.

I had been thinking about what I wanted to do to remove this last minor annoyance. With WWDC coming up next week and rumours of new Intel Haswell powered Retina Macbooks, I'd started to mull over the idea of using a laptop as a full desktop replacement. When I'm home and sitting at my desk, just hooking it up to a keyboard, mouse and external monitors, but still retaining the ability to take it with me when I go. It would probably end up sitting at home on my desk most of the time, but I do enjoy having the mobility option quite a bit right now (the reason I have a laptop in the first place). Apple hardware, as I've found with my current Macbook Air, is quite good and the "it just works" is pretty much exactly what "Older me" is looking for now. Still not sure if this is the right decision for me, but the more I think about it, the more I find myself leaning in this direction.

Heh. Well. I originally started writing this post in part to help justify a potential decision to myself, but I don't know if it's helped. In any event, I do find it interesting to look back on the past 10 years and see how I've changed. I guess we'll see what happens next week.