XP versus Vista-ish

May 28, 2008

Update: I measured the times again ( I lost the original results). They were about the same as I remembered.

A couple of days ago I installed Arch Linux on an old PC, with IceWM as the window manager, and made it look like Vista. At the end of the article, I promised I’d compare the performance that PC with that of a PC with Windows XP on it, and post the results.

The XP-machine is a Dell Inspiron laptop. It’s specifications are:

  • Intel Core Duo 1.60 GhZ CPU with 2 MB cache
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • An 80 GB hard disk
  • Integrated Intel Graphics card

The old PC is a combination of parts I found/borrowed/inherited/got as a gift and put together to make the PC of Frankenstein:

  • Athlon XP 1800+ 1.50 GhZ with 256 KB cache
  • 512 MB of RAM
  • a 120GB hard disk
  • (extremely crappy) Nvidia nforce2 integrated graphics card

As you can see, the desktop is very much in a lower league. It only has one, less powerful CPU which seriously lacks in cache, and only half the RAM. Those are serious handicaps, and even with the desktop running Arch and a lightweight window manager, I expected the Dell to be faster.

Keep in mind there’s nothing really scientific about what I did. I measured the times, very accurately, with…the stopwatch on my mobile phone. Every measurement I made only twice, and I compared applications which can’t really be compared. Still, it’s an indication of how snappy the systems feel.

Boot and shutdown:

I booted both machines twice, measuring both startup and shutdown times. Here, I was almost certain the laptop would win. In general, Windows boots faster than Linux. Since XP is pretty much useless without a firewall and virusscanner, those were installed, which of course adds to the boot-times. Arch had to boot IceWM, feh, iDesk, and xscreensaver.

Laptop:

  • Boot 1: 1 min 11.9 sec
  • Boot 2: 1 min 13.7 sec
  • Shutdown 1: 33.1 sec
  • Shutdown 2: 30.5 sec

Desktop:

  • Boot 1: 52.3 sec
  • Boot 2: 51.3 sec
  • Shutdown 1: 12.1 sec
  • Shutdown 2: 12.0 sec

As you can see, the desktop outperforms the laptop by quite a margin, but these numbers have to be put into perspective. There seemed to be something wrong with the BIOS of the laptop: it took 30 seconds before XP could start booting. On the desktop it took only 12 seconds. So, if we deduce the BIOS loading times, we find that Windows boots to a fully loaded desktop in 41 seconds, while Arch does it in 40, despite the hardware handicap.

When it comes to shutting down however, Arch blows Windows away. Granted, not many people wait impatiently in front of their PC until it has shut down, but the difference is nonetheless huge: close to twenty seconds.

Applications:

I measured the boot-times of Firefox, Explorer/Thunar, Windows Media Player/Exaile and Windows Live Messenger/Emesene.

Like I said before, this isn’t exactly fair. Only Firefox is the same program on both systems. When it comes to file managers, Explorer has many, many functions Thunar doesn’t have. The same goes for Windows Live Messenger and Emesene. Still, the main functions and the general purpose of the applications are the same, so I compared them anyway.

To my shame, I must admit that after carefully measuring every boot-time twice, and duly typing them down…I closed Leafpad without saving. At this moment, I can’t use the Windows XP laptop, so you’ll have to wait until tonight or tomorrow for the exact results. However, I do remember most of them, so I’ll draw my conclusions without facts to back them up (as you have read, this has been fixed). Blogging is fun that way.

  • Firefox 3 rc1

The results here are very different from one startup to the next, because the second time, Firefox is partly preloaded. On the Windows machine, Firefox took 6.4 seconds to boot the first time, and 1.6 seconds the next. On the other hand, in Arch, Firefox booted in 5.5 seconds the first time, but still needed 2.5 seconds the second time. Here, the laptop shows it has more memory. The desktop isn’t far behind though.

  • Explorer/Thunar 0.9

Similar results here. Once Explorer is preloaded, it boots (slightly) faster than Thunar, but the first time, Thunar boots in 2.2 seconds, while Explorer takes a surprising 4.1. The second time, it needs only 0.4 seconds, while Thunar appeared after 0.6.

  • Windows Media Player 11/Exaile 0.2.13

In contrast, there was a very big difference here. WMP needed 1.6 seconds to load the first time, and just 0.4 the next. Exaile needed 12.5 and 9.4 seconds. To put this into context, 7 of those seconds were used to load the database, something Windows Media Player didn’t have to do. That still means Exaile is 4 seconds slower both times, and that’s very noticable.

Maybe it would have been more fair to use iTunes on the XP laptop, but that wasn’t installed, and I didn’t want to clutter my girlfriends’s laptop with software she didn’t want to use. In any case, the Arch desktop lags behind.

  • Windows Live Messenger 8.5/Emesene 1.0

Not the same program, again, but I’d dare to argue that every extra feature Windows Live Messenger has is unneeded clutter, except maybe voice- and videochat. The latest WLM took around 2.4 seconds the first time, and 1.1 seconds the next. Emesene after 2.2 seconds the first time, and…1.1 seconds the second time. No noticable difference here.

Conclusion:

I could throw numbers at you all until you feel dizzy, but in the end the main conclusion is that the desktop doesn’t feel like it’s only half as powerful as the laptop. Sometimes it’s even faster, sometimes it’s slightly slower…without a stopwatch, it feels about the same.

Considering that it really is only half as powerful, it’s a remarkable achievement. Even better, it comes with all the advantages a Linux system has, such as added security, and a lower cost. Finally, to me it looks a million times better.

Vista-ish for the win πŸ˜‰

San


Open Source Applications: EmelFM2

May 26, 2008

I’ve discussed both Firefox and Pidgin before. Both are very nice applications, and in the Linux world, they’re pretty well known. Firefox has become the default internet browser in almost every distribution, and the same thing goes for Pidgin (sometimes even in KDE-centric distributions). This time, I want to draw some attention to a hidden gem I’ve discovered not too long ago: EmelFM2, a wonderful two-pane view lightweight file manager.

Let me back up here a bit. In any operating system, the file manager is one of the most important programs. It’s no coincidence that the first Windows File Manager had a file cabinet as its icon, because that’s what it felt like: a cabinet with hundreds of drawers holding your files…and other drawers. The analogy gets lost a bit when it comes to subdirectories, but you know what I mean.

Fifteen years ago, a file manager managed your files, and not much more. You could copy, move, delete, and open files in the right program…and in Windows 3.X,Β  most people just browsed to the right *.exe to start those programs. This was before Windows 95, and a start button was still an unknown concept.

Along the way, file managers became more and more complicated, something which can be seen in the screenshots in the Wikipedia article on Windows Explorer. These days, Windows Explorer not only lets you browse your files, it also displays “the desktop icons, the Start Menu, the Taskbar, and the Control Panel”. Nautilus and Konqueror are more or less the same, being integral parts to their respective desktop environments. Now, this is all fine and dandy, and while I think it’s great that Nautilus provides an audible preview when you hover over an audio file, and Konqueror lets you browse everything from local file systems to websites to ssh shares, I also think they pretty much suck at…file management.

First of all, they’re slow, an unavoidable drawback of their many functions. If you carry a lot of bulk, you’re not built for speed. But secondly, and most importantly, they only have one pane (yes, I know Konqueror has a two pane view, but it’s not one I find usable).

Personally, I need two panes. Everything I download goes into a directory in my /home, unsorted, to check them out. Then, I move them to a spare partition to their own directories, based on filetype, author/artist, age, etc. That means that some days, when I’ve been slacking, I have to move close to a hundred files to a hundred different directories. In a traditional, one-pane file managers, that’s a nightmare. Even with tabs, bookmarks and keyboard shortcuts, I end up spending way too much time on such a simple task.

Two-pane managers are great for this. You have the source directory on the left, the target directory on the right, and all you have to do is select the file and hit one button (most of the times, F6). You still have to switch target directories, but it’s still much faster, and less prone to error (I can’t count how many times I used the wrong keyboard shortcut to copy or paste a file, simply because I was pressing buttons and clicking the mouse all the time).

Now, the best such file manager in Windows is Total Commander, but since this isn’t a Windows blog, I’ll leave it at that. People who use KDE also have nothing to worry about, since Krusader is at least as good. But Gnome/GTK users don’t have such an obvious choice. Gnome Commander is ugly, and never worked well for me. I always found myself struggling selecting files, and moving from directory to directory. Gentoo is even uglier, and Midnight Commander…well…I’m sure it’s very powerful, but that doesn’t mean it has to hurt my eyes.

But then I found EmelFM2. It’s fast, powerful, configurable, lightweight, and it actually looks very good. Every time I need to do some “serious” file management, I fire it up. Even if I have to move dozens and dozens of files, it never takes more than fifteen minutes.

To be fair, I don’t use it for my every day file management. For example, double-clicking a file doesn’t always automatically open the appropriate application. You can configure it until it does…but sometimes even I like things easy πŸ™‚ That’s why I use Thunar most of the time…another great file manager, but it unfortunately doesn’t offer a twin-pane view, or even tabs. On it’s own, it’s just not good enough.

Simply put, if you often have to move files around, and you’re in a GTK-environment, try this one out. You won’t be disappointed in EmelFM2.

San


Making that old PC useful

May 25, 2008

I’ve recently upgraded my pc with new hardware, and the only thing I didn’t replace was the case. That meant that all I had to do to keep the old hardware useful was dig out an old case somewhere, and rebuild it. By modern standards, it’s a very modest machine, with an AMD Athlon 1800 CPU, 512MB of memory, and a crappy nVidia nForce4 compatible integrated video chip. I’ve been using it as a test machine ever since, something to try the new Ubuntu or Mandriva on.

However, recently it also has been a back-up for my girfriend, when her XP-powered laptop is unavailable, which happens every now and then. The last time, it had to be repaired because it was covered with a mix of candle-wax and diet coke. Don’t ask.

Now, both Mandriva and Ubuntu ran well on that old PC. I set it up to boot into Mandriva automatically, and figured my girlfriend wouldn’t have any problems using Firefox and OpenOffice. I was right, but it was slow. The difference between the old PC and the new one was even more obvious, because on the new, faster one I have Arch Linux installed with Openbox, a guarantee for speed. I realised I had to get off my lazy ass, and spend some time in front of the old box.

Having experienced the lightning speeds of the Arch Linux + Openbox combination on my own PC, I decided that was the way to go. It does take a lot of configuration however, and I wanted the result to be a bit more “friendly” than my own setup (no start button, and no desktop icons). Then I got this brilliant idea to make it look like Windows Vista, both to make it feel familiar, and to make a point: “Look at what Linux can do for you!” πŸ˜‰

But, I hit a snag. Openbox’s fantastic, but doesn’t offer much themeing possibilities. More correctly, it does have a lot of nice themes, but none ressembling other operating systems. After browsing around in the theme files, I figured this was because the buttons in the window decorations (close, maximise etc) have a fixed width and height. In any case, that meant I had to give up my plans to make the PC ressemble Vista, or use another window manager. Upon browsing box-look.org, I found this Vistaish theme, but it’s for IceWM, which I didn’t have any experience with. But hey, the fun’s in the challenge! πŸ˜‰

First of all, I had to get Arch installed. Mandriva remained at one partition, for backup, but Ubuntu had to make room. I grabbed the latest 2008.4rc image from their site, and as usual, installing Arch was fast and easy, especially with the great Beginner’s Guide and Official Install Guide
nearby. Of course, an Arch install is always minimal, so after ten minutes or so, I had a console, but nothing more. Just for fun, I showed Jen I could already browse the web with the links browser, but she wasn’t impressed πŸ˜‰

After I installed xorg and the Nvidia drivers, I was ready to install IceWM. Various guides across the web had warned me that IceWM out of the box is ugly as sin, but the result was still shocking. IceWM has great theme support, and a quick google search provides some great looking desktops, so why this should be the default look I simply can’t understand. Together with the default gtk-theme that Arch provides (Raleigh) when you install some applications, the whole thing looked like the ugly stepsister of Windows 95 (you can click on the images for larger versions).

Obviously, there was room for improvement. I unzipped the Vista theme in the right directory (.icewm/themes), and it was instantly available in the menu. One click later, I got rid of the ugly toolbar, start-button and window decorations. Of course, everything else still looked horrible.

Luckily, gnome-look provides some themes that look like Vista. I thought this one looked best. It needs the murrine theme-engine, but that’s just an install away. While I was installing software anyway, I grabbed gtk-chtheme too. It does just what the name suggests: it’s a gui that lets you preview how a certain gtk theme will look. After unzipping the theme in .themes (obvious, no?), it showed up in gtk-chtheme, and the desktop finally started to look somewhat decent. Except for the icons, because there were none.

The icons could wait, though. I thought the theme looked okay, but I’m not a fan of white text on black panels. I also wasn’t crazy about the bluegreen menubar, so I edited the gtkrc until things looked like this.

Now, the icons. Again, there are lots of Vista-inspired icon themes on gnome-look, but this one has the highest rating. It’s by the same author as the theme, so they go great together. There was one problem where a lot of files were in a subdirectory when they should have been in the main directory, but after I figured that one out, I thought the result looked great.

There was two final things to do: I didn’t have a background yet, and IceWM doesn’t draw icons on the desktop. The first problem was fixed easily once I had found the right command to make a background appear, the second one needed the install and configuration of iDesk. It took some tries, and the default text colour was a horrible kind of green, but after some tweaking I had a “Computer” icon on the desktop. I figured that was enough.

After that, things became easier. There was some additional configuring to do, mainly to get the menu right, provide some launcher icons in the toolbar, and configuring some keyboard shortcuts. After that, I simply installed anything I thought my girlfriend would need. Looking at the end-result, I thought it was well worth the trouble.

Yes, there was some trouble πŸ˜‰ It took three evenings to do what I just typed down, mainly because I hit some snags along the way, and I didn’t want to lose too much sleep. There was no way my girlfriend could have done this on her own, or even the casual linux user. It took lots of tries, much googling, much browsing of linux forums and configuration guides, etc.

So then, why do it? Why jump through so many hoops to make a Linux desktop look like some other operating system, instead of just installing XP or Vista, or even a different, easier Linux distribution? Well, I mentioned the answer at the beginning of this article: speed. While looking like Vista (and I do believe it’s close enough to fool the normal pc user), it behaves nothing like it. Vista wouldn’t even install on this machine. XP would be slow. Easy Linux distributions had been installed on this machine and were underperforming too. Now, the old PC was faster than it had ever been. Yes, it’s been a bitch to set up, but I’m confident I can put anyone in front of this computer, and they wouldn’t have any problem at all using it. I’m rather proud of it, actually πŸ˜‰

I’ll try to back up my claims of speed by comparing boot times etc with those of Jen’s laptop, which has better hardware, and a fresh XP install. I’ll post the results in the next couple of days.

San


Open Source Applications: Pidgin

May 19, 2008

I’ve done my fair share of chatting over the years. In fact, I was addicted to chatting before it became “cool” πŸ˜‰ Back in the day, when Windows 95 had just appeared, and I was having trouble figuring out that damn Start button, nobody was online except rich people (who could afford to use dial-up modems for hours on end), and university students, who had access to broadband.

My chatting days started on irc (Internet Relay Chat). I don’t think it’s as popular as it used to be. The channels I used to visit certainly aren’t as popular anymore as they used to be. Even before I left university, ICQ started to become popular, and afterwards, MSN Messenger. And after that, other programs, like AIM, and Yahoo Messenger. And Google Talk.

There’s a problem here, of course. Most of my Belgian friends are on MSN. My family’s on Google Talk, because of my brother, who loves it, and maintains my parent’s computers (they don’t ask me, I’d just slap Linux on their PCs). Some of my LJ contacts are on AIM. None of these programs have an official Linux client, but even in Windows, this is a problem. I’ve seen many people having three IM-clients running at the same time, just to keep track of all their contacts.

Enter: multi-protocol messenging clients. They can connect to all the chat-networks I mentioned before (and usually, a lot more), thus solving the problem. You can even group contacts together, for people who have more than one account. It’s all very handy.
The one I used in Windows was Trillian. It worked just fine, and it was – and is – free, at least up to a point. The Basic version comes without any cost, but you have to pay for the Pro version. Needless to say, I downloaded the Pro, then cracked it… . There were problems too. Trillian 3 suffered from the Vista-syndrome long before Vista came along: it was bigger, slower and clumsier than the previous version. This was around the time I switched to Linux anyway, so I ditched it, in favour of Pidgin.

Which means I finally came to the point πŸ˜‰ Pidgin is a multi-protocol Messaging Client, just like Trillian (the latest version supports up to SIXTEEN different protocols), but it’s free. Unlike Trillian, but like Firefox, it’s available on both Windows and Linux.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Pidgin as much as Firefox, especially for Windows users who love their MSN Messenger. Personally, I think Messenger is full of crap like nudges, and moving emoticons, and games, and everything silly, and the Pidgin developers seem to share my feelings, so they left that stuff out. Except the moving stuff: you can receive them, but not save or send them. They also left out offline messaging.
There’s another, bigger problem though: no webcam-support, and apparently, no plans to ever include webcam support. Even to me, this seems like something a messaging client should have. The problem here is of course the lack of proper webcam drivers in Linux. This means that the crappy webcam you got with your cereal won’t work, but still…if you buy carefully, you can easily get a better cam working in Linux, so why not include webcam chat?

Pidgin development is slow-moving (the focus seems to be on maintenance, not on adding new features), which means other clients have started to pop up, like the excellent Emesene, which looks and feels just like the official MSN client, and definitely wants to include audio and video chat in one of their next releases. Of course, you lose all the advantages of a multi-protocol client. Nothing’s perfect.

Still, if you have a lot of contacts scattered over many networks, and you don’t care about the frills of MSN Messenger, or the bloat of Yahoo, ICQ and AIM, give Pidgin a try. It does the job, and it does it while looking pretty.

San


Open Source Applications: Firefox

May 13, 2008

One of the things about using linux that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, is the fact that most software you’re used to in Windows doesn’t run on it. So no Explorer, Internet Explorer, Winamp, iTunes, MSN Messenger, uTorrent, whatever. Of course you can argue that much of the MS software is bloated and crappy (IE and MSN come to mind), but that’s besides the point. You’re used to them, so switching takes a bit of work. With me it wasn’t any different.

What helped tremendously was the most famous piece of software that runs on both Windows and Linux (and indeed, Apple’s OS X too), which is Firefox. In fact, it was because of Firefox I realised there are alternatives to anything Windows comes up with. I had been using Total Commander and Trillian before (alternatives to Internet Explorer and MSN Messenger respectively), but they’re Windows-exclusive. I haven’t touched either of them in years, but Firefox stayed with me.

I remember it was who first recommended it to me, back when it was still called Phoenix, late 2002. I think it was version 0.3 or 0.4, which makes me one of the earliest adopters. It’s a silly thing to be proud of, and yet I am πŸ˜‰ Even back them it blew me away with all its features, most of which are now adopted in other browsers. Tabbed browsing eliminated the need to have several browser windows open, which cluttered the taskbar. At this point, I regularly have up to ten or fifteen tabs open, something I could never have managed in Internet Explorer (which was at version 6 at that point, and didn’t have tabbed browsing, or indeed much of anything). Other wow-inducing features included the spell-checker, find-as-you-type, the download manager, and the oh so handy searchbar in the top right of the screen. Even better, if after all this I still felt there was a feature I’d like, I’d just hop over to the Firefox extensions page (called add-ons these days), and install it. My favourites have always been Tab Mix Plus, for even better tabbed browsing, and AdBlock Plus. Seriously, whenever I’m using another computer, I’m baffled how many crap commercials are displayed, to the point that I don’t even recognise some sites anymore.

So is it the perfect browser? Well, it’s close. Besides everything I just mentioned, it’s generally regarded as more secure. It’s debatable of course, but here’s an article that sheds some light on the subject.
There are still some websites that don’t display just right in Firefox, which is mostly because web designers don’t make their sites according to standards, but according to how Internet Explorer renders them. However, Firefox’s market share keeps rising, and now is at almost 18%.
It’s not really light-weight either. Although I always felt it’s snappier than Internet Explorer or, for example, Konqueror, it’s far from the speeds browsers like Epiphany or Kazehakase can achieve (keep in mind I mean the speed of the browser itself, not the time which it takes to load pages). However, with those light-weight browsers I always feel like I lose too much functionality, or my favourite key-shortcuts, or they’re just plain ugly. I always switched back to Firefox.

So if you’re one of the people still reading this (despite the depressing lack of updates, and the even more depressing linux-related topics), go and try Firefox. It’s the best browser out there.

San


Arch + Openbox: Screenshots

May 4, 2008

My pc these days. Last time I did one of these I still used KDE. Now it’s Openbox: faster, lighter, better looking…and so, so nerdy πŸ˜‰

San