MSI Wind U120 – Wireless Card Upgrade

So, my wife has an MSI Wind U120.  It’s a great little netbook — especially after I installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10.  She loves it and uses it constantly.  But there’s always been a problem with this netbook.  Not the keyboard, or even the track pad buttons that some complain about.  No… our problem has been the Wireless card.

Realtek RTL8187SE

Perhaps it was bad luck, or a bad card, but the Realtek RTL8187 that came with our Wind was awful.  Not simply slow, or a little bit of a pain.  Completely and totally abysmal.  It took close to  a minute to lock on to a WiFi access point that was across a small room.  It refused to stay connected to almost any wireless access point.  On a public access point with any sort of traffic, it would drop out every couple minutes.  Digging in to the problem, I found that it was dropping more packets than it was receiving!  Which means that less than 50% of the packets were ever getting to the computer.  Lets just say that watching YouTube videos was an exercise in patience.  Even going to a web page was painful.

Looking in to the problem, I found that I’m actually not alone in this dilemma.  Many people reported that they just lived with the issues.  Some talked about replacing the wireless card.  Hmm… Being a bit of a geek, any excuse to take apart a computer seems to be a good option.

So, I went to eBay and ordered an Intel 4965AGN MiniPCIe card.  Total cost, including shipping, came out to $12.18.   It came today and I installed it in a little under an hour.  Not only is this card have built-in support under Linux, but it adds Wireless N capabilities which the previous card didn’t have.  Not that I have a Wireless N router, but it never hurts to upgrade if you’re going to take the computer apart anyway.

Installing the Intel 4965AGN on an MSI Wind U120

I’ve taken this netbook apart already when I replaced the hard drive.  There was nothing wrong with the old hard drive, but I figured that I’d save the Windows install that came with it and install Linux on a new hard drive (that I had laying around).  This way, if my wife didn’t like the Linux experience, she could easily go back to the native Windows install by just swapping back.

Please be warned – I am not responsible for you breaking your computer.  These instructions worked for me.  Also note that by the end of this whole thing, we’ll have taken the screen apart too so if you aren’t comfortable continuing, don’t.

Step 1 – Remove the Back Cover

I won’t go in to too many details here since I believe that if you can’t remove the back cover, you probably shouldn’t undertake this project.  One word of wisdom is that there is a screw under the warranty sticker.  This means you will have to void your warranty to do this.  Another word of wisdom is that you should have removed the battery before you started.  After loosening all the screws, the back cover snaps off.  It’s a little stubborn, but if you go slow and use something plastic like a credit card to separate the cover, it shouldn’t be too bad.

Step 2 – Locate the Mini PCIe WiFi Card

A little background here.  The MSI Wind U120 has two derivatives – the normal U120, and the U120H which includes optional 3G Cellular compatibility.  It is my understanding that the instructions written here should work for either so long as you don’t use the 3G capability.  The consequence of this is that MSI moved the WiFi card from where it was on the U100 series (in the back corner) and placed it right in the middle of the netbook.  This is all well and good, but they also put a non-standard Mini PCIe card in that’s about half as long as is standard.  Not good since the Intel 4965AGW I purchased wouldn’t fit there (due to the screw hole being in the wrong place in the motherboard).  What to do.  First off, I removed the crappy RealTek card gently popping the antenna wires up using a small flat-head screwdriver and undoing the lone screw holding it in place.  It slid right out.  Tossing that in the garbage, I continued.

Since I don’t have the 3G capability, I had an empty Mini PCIe slot in the back right corner (as shown below).  (If you have a 120U, this will be filled with the 3G card)  So, I figured I’d just put the new card there.  Easy!

NIKON D200 @ 50mm — ¹/60 sec, ƒ/6.3, ISO 200 | zoom in

Not so fast.  While the card fits fine, the antenna wires don’t reach!  In fact, it looks like they just swapped the left and right wires from the U100 series.  These wires go through the hinge and up to the top of the screen portion of the netbook.  Time to swap them back!

Step 3 – Removing the Screen

To remove the screen, it’s necessary to remove three plugs.  These go to the screen itself, the microphone, and the webcam.  Once these wires are loose, the hinges need to be unscrewed.  There are two screws on one side, and one screw on the other.  Note the position of these screws as if you put them back in the wrong holes, you won’t be able to put the back cover on again (since its screws use the other holes).  With the hinge undone, open the netbook to about  90 degrees and it should come right off.  Easy, right?  Now look at those hinges.  The black plastic covers over the hinges are actually two pieces.  Remove the small piece on each side and keep them separate so you know which is which.

Step 4 – Opening the screen

Now comes the tricky part.  Removing the bezel (the black frame around the screen) from the screen.  There are four screws holding the bezel on located under the rubber pads at the four corners.  Remove these pads carefully as you’ll want to put them back over the screws when you are done.  Note: the top of the screen has two pads in the middle.  These don’t need to be removed.

With the screws removed, insert a plastic card (credit card or the like) into the groove and pop the two halves of the screen apart.  Scary popping noises may occur.  Proceed at your own comfort.  Once the bezel is removed, you should be able to see the two antenna wires going to the top of the screen and attaching to brass antenna pads.  These are the things you want to swap!  You’re getting close.  Remove the actual screen by unscrewing the four corners and gently lifting out (and setting someplace safe).  From here, I found that peeling back the sticky brass antenna (with the green piece of circuit board still attached) would peel back the foam at the same time.  Made it pretty simple to just swap the antenna.  Now the long cable is on the correct side of the screen like in the photo below!

NIKON D200 @ 50mm — ¹/60 sec, ƒ/6.3, ISO 200 | zoom in

Step 5 – Re-Assemble the Screen and Re-Attach

Again, I’m assuming that if you’ve come this far, you can safely re-assemble the computer.  Just reverse the following steps until you have the screen re-attached to the computer and the wires re-attached (except for the antenna wires).  No real words of warning here — just be careful and take it slow.  Everything went back together for me without a hitch.  At this point, you’re ready to install the new WiFi Card!

Step 6 – Install the Intel 4965AGN Card

This is super easy.  Just put it in the slot near the back right of the computer by sliding the front edge (with the brass connectors) into the connector and gently pressing down the back of the card.  The screw hole should line up with the stand off that is already there.  Just re-use the original screw from the old card.  At this point, you’ll notice that the two wires we swapped both reach a terminal of the card.  I attached one to the terminal labeled “1” and the other to the terminal labeled “2”.  I really don’t think it matters which wire goes where as they both lead to the brass antenna pads.  See below.

NIKON D200 @ 50mm — ¹/60 sec, ƒ/6.3, ISO 200 | zoom in

Step 7 – Finish Reassembly, Insert Battery and Power On

Check for spare parts.  If you have anything left over other than the crappy Realtek card, figure out what it is and replace it.  So long as you didn’t break anything (and remember, I warned you it’s not my fault), Linux will simply recognize the new, improved, and fully functional card and connect to the network.  Easy as 1, 2, 3.  What’s more, if your experience is anything like my experience, the card will connect to the network in much less time than the old, crappy card.  Also, checking for dropped packets, I was thrilled to note that even after surfing for a long time, I had zero dropped packets.  Also, I seem to get much better signal strength.

Apple iPad for Photographers?

Just this week, Apple announced their newest product the iPad.  This tablet Mac is supposed to shake up the industry and fill the gap between mobile phone browsing and netbook computing.  Along the way, they are trying to steal some market share from Amazon and their Kindle electronic book reader.  But what about photographers?  Is the iPad of any interest?

The other day I was asked by an acquaintance if I was going to order an iPad as soon as it came out.  I was a bit taken aback by this question as I really hadn’t shown any interest in tablet computers.  It turns out that he figured that since I was a photographer, I’d order one straight away.

“Why?” I asked?

“To display your photos!” was their response.

So consider me one who apparently just doesn’t get it.  Especially as a photographer.  Sure, there’s the iPad Camera Connection Kit, but since I shoot in RAW, I highly doubt that even if I could download my photos to the iPad, it could actually display them.  Plus, with a 1 gigahertz processor, photo editing is out.  Let’s not mention that the largest version is only 64GB!  I know professional photographers who take that quantity of photos in a week!

So no.  As a photographer I really don’t see the point of the iPad.  Do you?

Don’t get me wrong.  For simple computing tasks such as browsing the web or reading electronic media, I can see the iPad as a great gadget.  Heck!  If someone wants to donate one to me for testing I’d be happy to review it from a photographer’s perspective.  But no.  Sadly, I won’t be forking over the cash to purchase one myself.  Instead, I’ll be happily saving for a new 15″ MacBook Pro!

Back to Mac Basics

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been busy cleaning up my MacBook and rethinking everything with regards to my computer productivity and workflow. I upgraded to Snow Leopard which was a huge usability improvement and then started critically evaluating my day to day computing needs. As much as I love the Mac way of doing things, I had never fully embraced an all Mac workflow. I was using Firefox, Thunderbird and a host of third party software. So, after performing a clean install of Snow Leopard, I decided to use the built-in applications for a week or two to see exactly what, if anything, I was missing.

I must say, I’ve been impressed. Native Mac applications have a certain feel to them that their alternatives simply don’t match. Therefore, Safari and Mail.app are very clean with regards to look and feel. However, it hasn’t all been wine and roses.

Safari

Frankly, I really am enjoying Safari for my browsing. I was able to import my bookmarks via Xmarks which is phenomenal. Since this is a two-way sync, I can easily use Safari on my MacBook, Firefox on my Ubuntu server and Firefox on Windows at work and my bookmarks are all the same. Very nice!

Other than a few interface differences, Safari is just as nice as Firefox and faster in many regards. However, I do miss certain Firefox extensions. In the end, I’m typing this blog post from within Safari.

Address Book

Well, it does exactly what it says. No more, and not much less. But, it does happily integrate into all the other made for Mac software which is really nice.

Mail.app

Here is where things get a little rocky. I have about 5 IMAP email accounts comprising over 500MB of mail all stored on servers. Frankly, Mail.app just couldn’t handle it. It kept loosing connections to IMAP servers and just stalling.

I got so desperate that I installed Thunderbird. Presto, everything just worked. So… what to do. Since Thunderbird doesn’t have support for the Mac Address Book, I don’t really have any benefit to keeping anything in the address book. Hmm….

So I went online and started looking around. I found that Thunderbird 3 Beta (version 4 as of right now) does indeed use the Mac Address Book. Happy day! I can’t recommend Mail.app, but Thunderbird 3 is a huge step forward and I highly recommend it to all Mac enthusiasts who need a bit more powerful mail application.

iCal

iCal is much like the Address Book. Simple, effective. No more functionality that one needs, and just enough to be useful. However, it doesn’t sync with my BlackBerry. Sigh. Apparently there are third party applications to fix this, so I’ll give it a whirl when I have a chance. I’m not holding my breath though. And I’m certainly not switching to an iPhone (which apparently does sync happily).

Conclusion

I really feel that my exercise was worthwhile. It really opened my eyes to the power of Mac applications and frankly, I find that their integration with each other is second to none. However, they seem to be geared to the basic users. Problems with IMAP servers are unacceptable in 2009. And the lack of support for thousands of messages makes them a bit unrealistic for many mobile professionals.

What do you think? What are your favorite native Mac applications?

Magnetic Photo Rope — Too Cool!

It’s not often I see a product that seems both innovative and useful at the same time. But this Magnetic Photo Rope, by Photojojo seems like the perfect display solution for photos, artwork and just about anything else you could want to display that’s made of a thin material!

Check it out here.

I guess you could say it’s the sleek, modern way of hanging stuff on the refrigerator — but without all the magnets!

An Organized Life

While this may seem obvious for so many people reading, I feel it’s safe to say that over the last six months, I’ve discovered just how time consuming even the smallest photography endeavors can become.  Not only that, the quantity of work a good blog takes is much greater than I had ever imagined.  What this means to me is that I took a break from blogging to attempt to clear my mind (and my to do list).

While this break from blogging was really healthy, I realized a couple weeks ago that my to do list isn’t getting smaller anytime soon.  What’s more, I really missed the time I spent blogging about something that I’m very passionate about.  Therefore, for the last two weeks, I’ve been looking into managing my to do items in an organized fashion so I can work efficiently as possible in an effort to accomplish everything I need to — thus leaving time for doing things I want to do such as blog!

I’m sure those of you tied into the business productivity scene have heard of David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done (GTD) book.  For those who haven’t, here’s the premise — direct form his site.

Whether you are a CEO, a student, or a stay-at-home worker, we’ll give you the keys to focus your energies without letting things fall through the cracks.  We’ll show you how to create environments and best practices for work and home to avoid burn-out and keep you relaxed, refreshed, focused, and productive.

Further investigation shows that the “relaxed, refreshed, focused, and productive.” phrase may be a bit optimistic for my tastes, a lot of what he discusses is good stuff — especially for someone like me who is digitally connected via BlackBerry, Facebook, Twitter and the like.

The key to the whole system is to record any tasks that are going to take longer than a couple minutes into your task management system.  On a regular basis, the task management system is organized into appropriate contexts, locations and next actions.  You then work on the next actions and only the next actions.  This enables the user to stay focused and not become overwhelmed.  The part I really appreciate is that I don’t have to try to remember the hundreds of tasks I need to do at any given time.  Talk about reducing stress!

Finding an online task management system which can leverage my digital connectivity pulls everything together.  While I really haven’t spent enough time with this whole system to recommend anything, I am finding that my current attempt at a GTD system is working well.

So.  What does this mean for the readers of this blog?  From what I can tell, it means a few things.  First, I am making an active effort to schedule in tasks which include blog writing and photo organizing / keywording.  Second, I believe that jotting down blog entry ideas on the go will help me to remember all the great ideas I’ve had when not at my computer which are instantly forgotten when I try to write anything.  And thirdly, hopefully staying organized will allow me to further expand my photography through the use of defined goals.

Sounds great, but will it work?  Who knows.  I’m quite hopeful.  While I realize that it’s not a direct photography related topic, I do feel that it applies to the vast majority of photographers either full time or part time like myself.  There is a lot to running a business.  Without good organization, I really feel that businesses will lack momentum and focus.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic as I struggle to organize my life, let me know!  If you’d rather this be kept a purely photographic oriented blog, let me know that too.  Your opinions are important.  Finally, if you have any advice, please let me know that too!