BlackBird Saga: 4. BlackBird

There have been probably more people who have wanted to get a modern POWER/PowePC desktop but were not interested to get so big or so expensive system. So the Raptor people designed the Blackbird – a miniATX mainboard with a single CPU socket and two RAM slots. It still has been a workstation-class thing with POWER CPU and ECC RAM but it’s small, with lower power demand. It is also considerably less expensive (first I wanted to use the word “cheaper” but a $999 mainboard is not actually “cheap”, I think). The price for so small dimensions is the ability to use 8-core CPU and just 2 RAM sticks (no more than 256GB of RAM in total) as maximum. And there are only 2 PCIe slots (one 16-lane for a GPU and one 8-lane). Well, it looked like thing designed especially for my needs! Pre-orders were opened in November 2018.

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BlackBird Saga: 4. BlackBird

BlackBird Saga: 3. There Are Some Raptors Circling Around

During last years an interesting option emerged – the company called Raptor Engineering promised to made the POWER8 workstation called Talos. They failed to allocate funds for that but they haven’t gave up and they have made the second try – the Talos II with the POWER9 CPU. And they have been successful.

The Talos II is real, available and powerfull (up to two 28-core POWER9 CPUs, some terabytes of RAM and so). It should be natural choice for me. But it is obviously expensive. Not only it costs about $6000 (thus about $8500 with VAT, custom fees and shipping to Europe – which is considerably more than the half-year salary of university teacher here) but it’s also too big for my needs.

BlackBird Saga: 3. There Are Some Raptors Circling Around

BlackBird Saga: 2. Power of PowerPC

A also had some Apples: an iBook G3 (dual USB one – than more modern looking one) which was not bad, a Power Mac G4 Sawtooth (unfortunately if was somewhat faulty and died after some time), the Power Macintosh 6100 (a lovely pizzabox – the first PowerPC Apple ever made) and so. I used to travel by train frequently in 2006-2008 so the iBook was very useful. I got it as a “used” with “old battery” with 2 hour life at maximum but it was actually able to work 4-5 hours on the battery (there was no WiFi in train so if was always off-line). In 2006 I have got the iMac G5. The main reason was its cool look. We have been using it at home as a multimedia computer (to watch DVD movies).

But I always wanted an actual POWER workstation. I’m sorry but “modern” Power Macintoshes (bule-white G3 and newer) with their IDE drives and other PC parts are not workstations…

Initially (about 2004?) I have got an Intel-based IBM Intellistation (it was the Pentium II CPU but it used SCSI drives). I ran the Debian on it and ujsed it for some testing and as a PC for visitors. It wasn’t bad but it still was an imitation. Then I got the Intellistation POWER 265. It was an actual workstation – a POWER4 CPU, an AIX, a lot of strange stuff like “smit”. Actually it was well used and thus very noisy so I used it very infrequently. In 2011 I got another one – the Intellistation 185. It was smaller and cheaper. It wasn’t the real POWER workstation as there is a desktop-class G5 CPU (the same that was used in the last dual-core Power Mac G5 computers – the only difference is that the second core is always disabled and it runs at 2.5 GHz at max – the Apple overclocked them to 2.7 GHz). This was somewhat unhappy choice as I was never able to make it work: it’s the only G5 desktop which is nit Apple and the only IBM workstation which is not POWER. So almost every Linux detect it incorrectly and fails on boot (only the long dead Crux-PPC distro is known to boot on it correctly). Thus I was never able to make it work for me. It was a pity because the system was actually very capable in 2011 – a 2.5 GHz 64bit CPU, 2GB of RAM and so on.

In 2018 I accidentally have got an Intellistation 285 almost for free. It has been almost unused system from home user and it was in maximum possible configuration (ans RAM which was “only” 8 GB). And the system have had both AIX and Linux installed (and hit has been running them very well). So it is my only working POWER workstation to the present
day. I don’t run it very often but sometimes it’s useful to have it available.

The problem of the 285 is that is too big, too hungry and too noise. It’s actually not much noisy than the O2 but the difference is still noticeable and annoying. But the need for replacing of my main workstation is increasing during the time (my SGI O2 was made in 1998 so it was 20 years old in 2018 and I use it on daily basis from mid-2005). So I was rearching for the replacement. Yes, I can buy a madern PC. It could be relatively easy but there is risk tha I will
not be able to run Linux without issues (with these secure boots and so) so I wanted a system which is designed to be used with Linux or BSD.

BlackBird Saga: 2. Power of PowerPC

Almost x86-free home

It actually was not planned but I have accomplished something that I has been planning for years. My home setup it almost x86-free.

As most of readers probably know, my main desktop computer since 2005 has been the SGI O2 workstation (it has a MIPS CPU). During the time there arose a need to supplement it by a more modern computer for some tasks (WWW browsing of “modern” and “secure” sites, and for use of USB devices). As my Lenovo X61s refuses to work, I replaced it by first available computer here which was the ODROID XU-4 in the fancy Mini Indigo case. It’s an ARM-based computer. As an off-line WWW and e-book reader (via Plucker/CSpotRun) I use the Palm IIIx (a Motorola m68k-based device). I assume that my Amazon Kindle is also ARM-based and the phone (BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition) is surely, too.

Well, there is still one black sheep: my portable computer is the GPD Pocket (it has an Intel Atom CPU and thus it is x86-compatible). But a portable computer is not a part of the “home setup”, is it?

Almost x86-free home

1600SW, adapter and ODROID

Thanks to care of one good person I now have a working SGI Multilink adapter for my SGI 1600SW displays. It is very useful thing as the 1600SW has a non-standard digital input (it is quite old and when it was designed then there was no DVI at all) so by default it can be only connected to a few SGI workstations (and even these might require a special add-on card).

The 1600SW is relatively nice even today (17.4″ screen with 1600×1024 resolution). It’s colour space is somewhat limited (by today standards) but this is OK for me. I am not a fan of high-resolution displays (at work I have a 12.4″ screen with 1920×1080 resolution and even with a contemporary OS the whole thing is too painful) so I with to use my old LCD screens as long as possible.

Near original SGI Setup ;-).

I still have one non-resolved issue in my home computing: my secondary desktop (that web-browsing one) was the Intel Compute Stick (Ubuntu version) and it died last year. I have replaced it by the Lenovo X61s laptop but I still don’t thing that it is an optimal use of a ultra-portable PC (and it’s even a PC).
Last year I have got a 3D-printed miniature of the Silicon Graphics IRIS Indigo computer from Dodoid. I had no particular use for it, I just wanted to have that toy.

But the device is designed to fit the ODROID-XU4. So I have obtained a second-hand one in order to try to replace the X61s. At least is’s not PC-based.

The first attempt to used it failed as I haven’t been able to make it work with my ViewSonic VP171 LCD or any other LCD with 1280×1024 resolution. It seems to me that there is no easy way to make the Xorg (or the hardware itself) to send a proper signal – the image was something like 1116×1024 instead.

So I decided to try the wide-screen 1600SW with the ODROID. So I prepared the testing setup (pictured above) in a separate room, connected everything together and it simply worked! So now I should re-arrange my working desk to put the new stuff on in (hopefully it will not need further year…).

The pre-installed OS on the ODROID is the Ubuntu 16.04 (MATE Edition) which is actually not too bad. The MATE seems to be quite fast (and it is basically an updated GNOME 2.0 which is probably the last usable desktop environment for the Linux – it’s uncomplicated and configurable enough). So I will probably continue to use it.

1600SW, adapter and ODROID

GPD Pocket

I have got one from the IndieGoGo project. It’s very nice. Of course, it’s the Ubuntu version.

GPD Pocket (Ubuntu version)

But it’s not perfect. The fan is noisy (not in the values in dB but the sound is not nice) and it is spinning quite often. And the Atom CPU is … the Atom CPU. But it’s OK in most cases, except the Firefox rendering modern WWW pages… But even the FreeCAD is running rather smoothly.

The OS support is acceptable – after some updates the most of stuff work well (except the build-in speaker – it’s strange that headphones works but speaker does not). The only – small but stupid – issue is that the device boots in portrait mode and the (proper)landscape mode has to be set in the Ubuntu settings. The BIOS (or what it is) is also in portrait mode.

The keyboard is relatively good. One can write English texts with ease but the keys required for the Czech language are partially located in the tiny upper row and the “ú” and “ů” are located in unusual and remote positions. I often use the device for taking notes at work so it is an issue for me.

At the moment, I use the device for most of my work outside the office, thus replacing both a PDA (the Sharp Zaurus or the Ubuntu phone for PIM functionality – as the phone has to be turned off on most of meetings it makes little sense to carry it) and the laptop (the Lenovo X260). It is small and light (0.5 kg), it’s very solid and it’s battery life is good (it’s surely better than 6 hours but I haven’t an opportunity to use it for a longer time; the producer declares up to 12 hours).

GPD Pocket