Friday, 29 January 2016

Photo/Media backup on the move - a Linux Netbook Solution

I was looking for a small solution that can be used to back up photos/media whilst traveling, but most solutions require a computer - whilst there are solutions that are essentially a harddisk wrapped in h/w with an SD or CF slot that perform basic backup. These solutions however are relatively expensive (200GBP + range) and they are providing limited functionality. Other options would be simply to buy more CF/SD cards but I've always found these to be a waste since they become redundant with the next camera upgrade.

Therefore, the realistic option was to look at a laptop... but new lightweight laptops are expensive. However there was a market segment in ~2009-2012 that may fit the requirements: netbooks. Netbooks were a range of small/lightweight and inexpensive laptop that filled a market that has since been dominated by the popularity of iPad and other tablets. The netbooks were relatively small but under powered laptops with a generation of mobile processors (typically, the Intel Atom) that was designed, seemingly, for internet access and minor word processing/office tasks - as such netbooks were usually installed with Windows XP or a slimmed down version of Windows7 (called 'Starter') although some Linux variants were shipped by manufacturers.

So the hunt was on - and after some initial considerations (keyboard layout - where's the pipe key?!?) the HP Mini 210-3025sa was the one I targeted on eBay at the time.

The final price for the HP Mini netbook was ~63GBP which at this time, is still cheaper and more future proof (card sizes obsolete next year) than buying another set of matched 64Gb SD/CF Sandisk cards.

The HP Mini 210-3025sa spec's included an Intel Atom n570 processor (which surprisingly a 64bit dual core 1.67Ghz chip with hyper threading), Windows 7 Starter and a 250Gb internal 2.5" disk (with a standard 9.5mm height rather than the slimmer 7mm) and 1GB RAM - the machine was equipped with a Wireless adaptor, a 10/100Mbit ethernet, 3x USB 2.0 ports and an internal SD/MMC reader that supports "Secure Digital Extended Capacity (SDxC)": this essentially means >32Gb SD cards will be fine. The screen is 10.1" with a max 1024x600 resolution and weighing in at 1.04kg (machine only) with a 0.305kg charger - the battery was 0.310kg so a minimum weight of 1.44kg.

This netbook requires a 19.5V power brick, allowing the HP to draw 2.05A - the HP Mini 210-3000 series power requirements differ slight against the older HP Minis that used a 19V. The size is reasonable but not Mac book pro-like but that's to be expected.

The reviews and comments at the time for the netbooks always seemed to focus on how slow the machines would become - the HP Mini 210-3025 that I got from eBay (it had a 2GB RAM chip installed and was factory reset) took nearly 3mins to boot, so using Nikon Caputre NX2/Lightroom on this netbook would out of the Q. This would mean that it would be primarily as a storage manager only. I had the expectation that I would have to install Linux onto it and use the machine as a hub, maybe connecting additional external USB hard drives - the problem with Linux would be whether the current distributions (looking at Fedora 23 at this time, although smaller distributions are available) would support all the h/w or whether the HP Mini would require pain proprietary drivers, which was the case historically for the wireless card and internal card reader. Additionally, would Linux give me suitable access to my devices: Nikon DSLR that offer MTP/PTP connectivity and Apple IOS 7.x and 9.x devices and their internal storage.

Having used Redhat and Fedora for many years, I went back Fedora as the choice for Linux installation. Many things had changed since my last (Fedora 12? ~2011) installation. It appears that Fedora is now installed via a live image, which is obtained as a DVD/bootable USB, which can be installed to your machine. Following the installation (which is a base system providing a graphical interface and some basic applications, additional packages (like the GCC compiler or gimp image editor etc) installations are directly from the Fedora Repositories.

This is fine - no point downloading several GB of pkgs that I'm never going to install. In selecting a desktop (rather than server based) live image, there is the option of several 'spins' which are typically providing a different base graphical/X desktop (Gnome vs KDE vs LXFE etc). For my needs, I needed that the live image provided easy means to access my media devices; automouting and presenting them on the desktop would the minimum. I tried the LXFE and other lightweight spins but they didn't appear to offer the automounting/presentation of my media - I'm fairly certain that these could be made to perform the tasks I required but the point was to make life easier for myself. And so, the Fedora 23 Mate-Compiz Desktop spin was the one chosen.

Using the live image on the HP Mini, an iPhone 6 and 4s (IOS 9.x and 7.x) and Nikon D800 (MTP) were all auto recognised and presented on the desktop, as well as full support for the HP Mini 210-3025sa hardware, such as the inbuilt SD/SDHC/SDxC card reader and the networking options of wireless/ethernet. Further more and surprisingly all of the 'hotkeys' (brightness and volume up/down, mute, wifi on/off) functioned as expected straight out of the box. Great news.

So following a trouble free Fedora 23 installation onto the netbook, the HP Mini booted in a respectable ~55 seconds. The base installation left about 220GB storage available. This should be enough although replacing the disk with something like a 1Tb Toshiba MQ01abd100 2.5" 9.5mm drive for ~ 40GBP is also a future option.

Finally, to configure the additional services for easier access and retrieval of media: Samba, NFS and (anonymous) ftp. These options were going to allow means to get files off the netbook onto my Windows desktop for CNX2. Ftp was installed as in previous testing, it was somewhat faster than using the drag and drop Samba mount - with only a 100Mbps ethernet (the 802.11b/g/n could give you a theoretical 600Mbps but I doubt it in a busy home network), I'll take all the speed I can get.

Overall, the impressions of the HP Mini 210-3025sa running Linux aren't bad - all the things that used to be a pain with Linux (various device/phone/camera support, as well as standard laptop functionality such as hibernation etc) have disappeared: there are even applications (like Darktable - a Lightroom-esque tool) that surprise me even further. The HP Mini does still suffer from the performance issues that essentially killed the netbook genre: using light web browsing is fine although some websites do push the machine to 100%, using gimp is slow but not painful. When comparing the HP Mini against a (heavy and largish) IBM T42 Pentium M 1.6Ghz single core with 1Gb RAM that was running an old Fedora installation, it was the much older IBM T42 that was snappier to use in general (web browsing and using multiple tasks). I would expect that as a storage manager, copying files from SD cards/over USB and then serving these files back out via Samba or FTP, these two machines would be probably the same.

In conclusion, using the HP Mini netbook as a storage manager for photos and media whilst traveling seems to fit this netbook well, especially for the price/weight/size ratio.

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