ubermix 1.0 beta1 - testers wanted

Posted by ubermix On Wednesday, May 16, 2012 4 comments
ubermix 1.0 beta1 is now available for download at http://ubermix.org/files.html This first beta release is relatively "feature-complete" and ready for testing. Those of you who grabbed the early alpha release will find that the basic functionality is relatively similar (see my prior post for details), however this build now has all of the applications updated for the new build, and all of the features you know and love from prior versions of ubermix are now functional. As a reminder, ubermix 1.0 is based on the latest version of Ubuntu - version 12.04 "Precise Pangolin" - which is a Long Term Support (LTS) release that Canonical (the parent organization) intends to provide updates and fixes for until 2015.

There are a few application changes from prior releases, including the following:
  • Zim Desktop Wiki: Replacing Tomboy in this release is Zim Desktop Wiki, which is a graphical text editor used to maintain a collection of pages or notes. Designed to "get out of your way", Zim makes it easy to create simple text or sophisticated, media-rich content, with strong organization tools and a variety of plugins that enhance the application's functionality.

  • Klavaro: Replacing KTouch is Klavaro, a better organized and more functional touch typing tutor.It features a variety of adaptability, velocity, and fluidity exercises, as well as graphical charts and a scoring mechanism.

  • iGNUit Flashcard Trainer: iGNUit is a memorization aid based on the Leitner flashcard system. It has a GNOME look and feel, a good selection of quiz options, and supports UTF-8. Cards can include embedded audio, images, and mathematical formulae (via LaTeX). It can import and export several file formats, including CSV. Great for both long-term learning and cramming.

  • VUE Visual Understanding Environment:  The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University, focused on creating flexible tools for managing and integrating digital resources in support of teaching, learning and research. VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information.

  • Freeciv: Freeciv is a Free and Open Source empire-building strategy game inspired by the history of human civilization. The game commences in prehistory and your mission is to lead your tribe from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

  • Drawpile: DrawPile is a sketching oriented drawing program with a twist: you can share your drawing live with other users. There are no restrictions on who may draw where; every user has full access to the whole picture simultaneously.

  •  TBO Comic Creator: TBO Comic Creator is an easy and fun application for telling stories through comics. Comics created with TBO Comic Creator can be exported to PDF, SVG, and PNG for easy distribution. There are many ready-to-use characters, callouts, and templates which make TBO Comic Creator very easy to use.

  • Nitro Tasks: Nitro is a light task manager, that presents via a simple yet fancy interface with a place to add, edit and manage task lists with due dates, importance level and logbook support.

  • ffDiaporama Movie Maker: ffDiaporama enables you to create video presentations or slideshows from your photos, movie clips and background music. You can spice up your slideshow with custom title slides using text, images and animated effects as well as slide and background transitions. If you want quick results, you can simply add your images to the project and create a standard slideshow, or you can customize the look and feel by editing individual slides and apply zoom effects, object rotations, text annotations and other custom effects.

Of course, these new applications are only a fraction of those that come with the ubermix. So have a look, play with the new applications, test your old favorites, and provide feedback. The most important person on the ubermix team is you!

A few notes:
  • ubermix is now a universal build, so there are no longer two versions (formerly General Availability "GA" and Cedar Trail "CT"). If you 1.0 beta1 on a brand new Cedar Trail netbook, please follow the instructions at http://wiki.ubermix.org/page/Cedar_Trail_Devices
  •  If you have an HP Mini 1104, dm1z, 3115M, or another device with an Ralink RT3562 wireless card in it, follow the instructions at http://wiki.ubermix.org/page/Ralink_RT3562 to make it work

Deployment strategies for ubermix

Posted by ubermix On Wednesday, May 9, 2012 0 comments
I'm often asked for advice regarding deploying or updating ubermix at scale, especially as summer break approaches for school districts. This makes a lot of sense, since summer is the perfect time to wipe down, clean up, and update netbook carts, computer labs, etc., especially for overworked and understaffed school IT departments. ubermix's rapid and scalable deployment mechanisms makes this process fairly quick and relatively painless, however the right strategy going into a new build and a new year can certainly relieve a ton of anxiety. Here's how I do it:

When it comes to prepping for the new year, I will usually wait until the last minute to create my final, master image and key. I typically do a lot of prototyping along the way, making sure that I write down all the things I do, then when I need to get going I download the absolute latest build and re-apply my changes to do my final tests against. I try everything to make sure that all works as expected, then create my master keys. The reason I don't build my master keys too early is ubermix updates track Ubuntu updates, and a new version of Ubuntu is always released at the end of April. ubermix releases follow shortly thereafter, with everyone downloading and testing the latest version, offering feedback, reporting problems, etc. Updates are typically fast and furious, as a result, so waiting until right before your ready to image is always a good idea. FYI, if you are currently gearing up for next school year, you can get started testing your devices with the first alpha release of ubermix 1.0 now. Details are at: http://goo.gl/zjPD4

When setting up my master machine, I always follow the instructions under "Rebuilding the Base Image" on the ubermix Customization page. Simple updates (as described on the Customization page) really aren't designed to be used for anything but adding printers, making minor settings changes, etc., and they take extra time to install. Not a lot of time, but extra seconds add up when you are working with thousands of machines.

Once I have what I believe to be my perfectly setup machine, I update my ubermix USB key, again following the instructions under "Rebuilding the Base Image" on the ubermix Customization page. If I plan to use that master to image several different device models, I'll test that image against those as well, just to make absolutely sure that they all work.

When I know that my image is ready to go, I then make a bunch of copies of that key by following the instructions in the Making copies of the USB key page on the ubermix wiki. USB keys are cheap and I can install on as many machines at one time as I have keys, so imaging using keys is always quicker than any sort of network-based imaging solution. While I'm waiting for the image to complete, I'll clean each device using computer wipes like these and dry cloths to dry up the excess cleaning fluid, making sure my machines are neat and tidy for the next batch of students. If the devices are in a cart, I'll be sure to clean up loose cabling and make sure that the timer still works. By the time I am done, all of the devices will be imaged and ready to return to the carts.

During the school year we rarely (if ever) update the devices directly. If we need to make changes, we take advantage of the Auto-update script to push them out to everyone without touching each device.

Obviously, there are a nearly-infinite number of ways to do it, this is just my approach. If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments, or better yet, on the ubermix wiki site.

Photo: Some rights reserved by jurvetson

A look at the latest netbooks

Posted by ubermix On Tuesday, May 8, 2012 0 comments
Now that the weather is getting warm and summer is approaching, a number of schools and districts are looking into what netbook model they might want to purchase for the coming school year. With Intel having (finally) ramped up production of the Atom N2x00 (Cedar Trail) processor family and hard disk manufacturing back on track in Thailand, the market is flush with options. In an effort to help ubermixers make decisions around hardware, below are video reviews of models from the major players in the space. All have been tested with ubermix, and are known to work well.

Asus EeePC 1025C vs EeePC 1011cx

Asus created quite a buzz around its new 1025C netbook model at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, but the 1011cx came out of nowhere and wowed ubermixers from coast-to-coast. The 1025C edges out the 1011cx on style and battery life, but the 1011cx is available with double the RAM and no Windows clogging things up - all for $20 less than the $299 1025C. Both models are excellent for use with ubermix.

Acer Aspire One D270 and Gateway LT40

Both of these models from the Acer corporation are excellent choices for ubermix. Acer has been aggressively pursuing the education market, and also appears to be listening to their customers, as these models demonstrate. Gone are the build quality issues from the Acer of old, replaced with much-improved durability and a surprisingly thin and light chassis. And Acer somehow manages to keep the price under that of most of its competitors.

All of that said, there are some issues to take note of with the Acer-built models. The touchpad rocker-button on these models is a bit stiff and has a very short throw, making it occasionally feel unresponsive. The 6-cell battery size on both of these models is on the small end of the spectrum at 4400mAh, which means you can expect roughly 6 hours of realistic battery life. The D270, however, has some upscale specs, like a quicker-than-the-competition GMA3650 GPU and a 1.3 megapixel webcam. And at $249 for the LT40 and $289 for the D270, these are some of the most aggressively priced units on the market. 

HP Mini 1104

For HP fans out there, the Mini 1104 is the successor to last year's Mini 1103. The new model features a more refined design, with the trackpad buttons pushed all the way to the edge of the case, and rounded corners near the screen hinges which will hopefully fend off the broken plastic hinge cover problems on the 1103. It also features a student-friendly spill-proof keyboard, accelerometer protection for the hard drive, and a TPM module. That's all great, however for these additional features you get to pay $50 more than the competition, per unit (pricing starts at $349). If you're a die-hard HP shop, these are certainly worth looking into, but the extra $50 really adds up when purchasing in quantity. For every 5 HP units, you could have 6 (or more) of the competitor's models.

HP dm1z/3115M Mini Laptop

If you're looking for a little more horsepower from your devices, AMD Fusion-based mini laptops make quite an impression. These devices feature advanced graphics processing units (GPUs) capable of decoding 1080P HD video, as well as providing some impressive 3D performance. Screen sizes are bigger (11.6"-12") with higher resolution (1366x768) on these models, and keyboards are full-sized. That said, battery life isn't typically as good as Intel Atom-based netbooks, so don't expect to get more than 5 hours or so out of them between charges. And these are more expensive, typically starting at around $400.

I hope you find these reviews helpful as you look to make decisions about which hardware you might use for future ubermix installs. It's always great to have lots of options when selecting hardware, and the ubermix makes this easy as it runs well on just about anything, including full-sized laptops and desktops. Be sure to add your favorite devices to the comments and let us all know what you think.