Unity

March 31, 2009

Disclaimer: this post is not about the current PCLInuxOS hoopla. Apparently many people are upset and there’s much ruffling of feathers. It makes the latest Distrowatch a very entertaining read, especially the comments, but what really grabbed my eye was this:

In related news, Derrick Devine, former administrator of the community project site MyPCLinuxOS, recently handed over control of the project and announced work on a new Linux distribution, called Unity, with many of the other former PCLinuxOS developers: “What it will be is a new Linux distribution that takes an incremental approach to desktop Linux. It will provide a central core and use the mklivecd scripts that PCLinuxOS uses and it will provide a base from which to build just about any desktop you want out there.

At the moment, it’s not yet very clear whether that means it’ll be a base for other distributions, or one for the everyday user. I really hope it’s the latter, where you’d install a base system, on top of that you’d install everything else you want, and most importantly, you could leave out everything you don’t want. This is the easiest way to provide the complete richness of the Linux desktop, and it’s one of the main reasons I use Arch. In Kmandla’s words, “everybody hates the default desktop no matter what distro, release or version it is, so just get over it, change it to what you like, and move forward in life.”

There are other advantages. In the same way it’s easier to take something apart if you built it yourself, “creating” your own Linux desktop solution makes it easier to switch DE/WM. I know metapackages exist, but there’s always some command line wizardry to be done afterwards, even if it’s just switching login managers, cleaning up cruft, or simply trying to figure out what went wrong and why you end up in twm and your PC looks like it has been barfed upon in the eighties.

It’s easier for the developers too. You don’t patch the hell out of everything, you just provide packages for vanilla software (critical/safety patches being the exception), and let the user do the configuration.

In short, I think Unity is taking a very good approach here. Of course, at this time Unity doesn’t really exist. It’s a concept, a Distrowatch article, and a webpage. I’ll be keeping an eye on it though.

San


I just had an Epiphany

March 27, 2009

Yes, I know that title is probably the worst I ever used. Let’s move on.

Everybody’s talking browser wars again. IE8 is out, which doesn’t matter much to Linux users, and Chrome for Linux is getting closer to being usable, which does. Webkit browsers seem to be the next big thing, even though none of them are really available yet, safe for Safari. Everything else is still in alpha/beta. Even though, people are predicting the demise of Firefox already.

While that’s certainly premature, certainly on the Windows size of the OS world, when it comes to Linux things look a little bleaker. There’s no denying that the Linux version of Firefox leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to speed, certainly the first time it’s booted. Still, it has an enormous collection of extensions and themes none of its competitors have. I’ve seen many people claim they stick with Firefox because they can’t live without a certain extension.

But I run Firefox pretty much as-is. When I started using it, it was still called Phoenix 0.3 and IE was at version 6. Everything is better than IE6, and Phoenix at the time certainly was. It was faster. It was prettier. Most importantly, it had tabs. I never used IE6 again, not voluntarily at least.

Things have remained that way for over six years, but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with Firefox’s speed. To put it quite simply, when it comes to speed Firefox is lagging behind. Opera boots faster, and loads webpages faster, although the difference is marginal. Chrome is much faster, in all aspects.That’s why at work (where I’m forced to use Windows) Chrome 2.0 Beta has replaced Firefox as my browser of choice.

On the Linux side, I’ve kept using Firefox up until now. I’ve tried Opera, but since it’s Qt it doesn’t mix well with my GTK system, it isn’t free, and as I said, speedwise there isn’t that much difference. Kazekahase is a bit too sparse to my tastes, and so is Dillo. Midori kept crashing on me.

And then I read this article. I had tried Epiphany before, but dismissed it as another Dillo. Still, I was browsing for a new browser (see what I did there? I’m so funny…), so I thought, what the heck, and installed it. And loved it.

Don’t blink when you start this browser, you’ll miss it popping up. It’s that fast. It zooms. It snaps. It flies, and all that while using the Gecko engine. It should be even faster when it starts using Webkit. I’m browsing the web, and I don’t have to wait. Fantastic.

But wait, there’s more. Since it’s a native Gnome application, it’s GTK-integration is so much better. The style matches the rest of my desktop, so do the icons and the language, and I don’t have to configure anything. It doesn’t have many options, but it has all those I want. All I changed was the startpage (blank), download location and minimum font size.

I already had the flashplugin installed, so sites like Youtube provided no problem, and loaded a good deal faster too.

And it has Adblock! Well, it does if you install epiphany-extensions, and there’s no reason not to. Who doesn’t love Adblock? It’s the best thing that ever happened to a browser since the invention of tabs.

Best thing of all? I’m not even the latest version, because I’m using Arch Linux and GNOME 2.26 (and thus, Epiphany 2.26) is still in testing. The new version comes with its own version of the Awesome bar, which isn’t essential but still quite handy. Honestly, the only things I’m missing are some shortcuts, like ctrl + Enter for url completion, and ctrl + tab for switching between tabs. I’ll just have to get used to ctrl + PageUp/PageDown.

So yeah, if you’re using Firefox with a dozen extensions, stick with it. But if you don’t, and you wish your favourite browser would boot faster, look better, or use less memory…don’t look any further. You’ll love Epiphany.

Epiphany

Epiphany

San


Wine, OpenGL direct rendering, and compositing

March 25, 2009

I mentioned problems running Warcraft 3 under wine yesterday, but I was convinced that it should be possible.

Of course, I couldn’t just let things go.

After some browsing around, and googling, and generally driving Jen nuts, I became convinced the problem was connected to direct rendering. I had done “glxinfo | grep render” before, but glanced over the result after I saw “direct rendering: yes”.
This time however: I noticed this: “OpenGL renderer string: Software Rasterizer “. No wonder everything was so slow: hardware rendering was turned off.

As usual, once you find the problem, the solution is found immediately afterwards. This forum post took care of the slowness, but warcraft kept crashing X when it was not run in windowed mode. It only happened in KDE though, not in Openbox (which I installed specifically to test these kind of issues). The solution was easy: I simply turned off compositing in KDE. After that, the game ran flawlessly.

I also checked if it was possible to play Heroes of Might and Magic 3 in wine (it was), and then I added some launchers to her desktop, which now looks like this:

Jen's pretty KDE desktop

Jen's pretty KDE desktop

I haven’t changed the default plasma theme, or the default looks in general, because quite frankly, she wouldn’t even notice. The launchers are little plasmoids, and I’m actually rather proud of the first one because it points to a very simple script that changed the directory to the one where the Heroes executable is stored, otherwise it complained about missing files.

And I added the moon phase plasmoid, because she’s a woman. Moon phases are special to them.

San


The ongoing adventures of Jen on Linux

March 24, 2009

Let’s start with a failure: I haven’t been able to get Warcraft 3 running on her laptop. At first, the problem was that the NTFS partition with the Warcraft directory wasn’t mounted with ntfs-3g, so I corrected that. Then, I forgot to rename the Movies directory (Warcraft 3 movies don’t play in wine), so I fixed that. Then, apparently, there were some sound issues. In any case, as soon as I started the game, X restarted. With some fiddling in winecgf, I managed to start the game in windowed mode, at the speed of, well, whatever’s the opposite of lightning. Even moving the mouse around the menu didn’t work…the cursor remained where it was, then moved a couple of inches, then remined fixed again. A test with Heroes 3 also crashed X.

I have no idea why this is. I can safely rule out any problems with Arch, or wine, since I use the same versions on my PC, which work just fine. The only difference is that my desktop has a nvidia 8600GT videocard, and her laptop has an integrated intel i915 chip.

It’s frustrating, and googling it didn’t yield much result. Maybe the intel drivers simply aren’t good enough, but somehow I don’t think that’s it. Maybe I should look into the wine configuration some more, but I have no idea what to change exactly. Both games run just fine in Windows, so at least the hardware is capable enough.

I hate it when I can’t solve a problem.

San


Installing Linux on my girfriend’s laptop: an overview

March 21, 2009

Jen’s off to see Shopaholic with her sisters, and left me alone with her laptop. Moo hoo ha ha.

I now have a couple of hours to free some room on her hard disk for a Linux partition, and install Arch on it. At this time, I’m still not decided if I’ll put KDE or GNOME on it. We’ll see. My plan  is to keep updating this post while I’m working, so if you’re reading this, don’t forget to come back later to read about Jen’s reaction when she finds out I changed her life with open source/corrupted all her data beyond repair because I did something stupid/made the laptop explode and took the whole of Belgium with it. We’ll see.

  • First of all I have to create a new partition. She hasn’t much room left on this hard drive, so 5GB will have to do. There are two NTFS partitions on the HD, I’ll have to shrink the second. I’m a little bit worried because trying a disk defragment threw an error (stupid XP), and no fixes I found on the net actually fixed the problem.
    I could use the Arch LiveCD to re-partition the drive, but I find gparted is simply easier, so I’ll use a Linux Mint 6.0 LiveCd for this.
  • I hate Vista. I’m typing this from the laptop of Jen’s sister (Jen’s laptop is reformatting the HD and I don’t want to much strain on it), and just opening the Network Center took a whole minute. Then, I typed an entire paragraph down, clicked “Update post”, only to find out nothing happened and everything I wrote is lost. At first glance, seems like a Flash problem in Firefox…everytime I use Vista I find more reasons not to. The whole thing is slow as molasses.
    Anyway, I went about reformatting Jen’s HD as safely as I could: After Linux Mint had booted up, I moved/resized both partitions, created two new ones, completely ignored the safety-warning yelling at me I should do a backup, and hit Enter. Fingers crossed.
  • Apparently, the move/resize of the second partition will take another two hours. Ah well, I have time, and my boy is watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I think I’ll join him.
  • Partitioning has finished. I booted up Windows to look around, and it looks like nothing went wrong. In the meantime, internet connection went down, so I checked the modem. Instead of one modem, I found four devices, all with lights flickering in every colour imaginable. Me being the genius that I am, I switched them all off and then turned them back on. To my horror, the laptops couldn’t even connect to the wireless network after that. With visions of parents in law burning me at the stake, I checked everything again. Seems like a network cable had come loose, I plugged it back in. Nothing happened. I saw another loose network cable and plugged that one in. Nothing happened. I really started panicking at that time. Finally, I worked out that both cables were in fact the ends of the same cable, and plugged one in the switch, the other in the access point. After that, the internet was back, and the pizza my mother in law had bought for me was burned to a crisp. I suck.
  • Arch is installing now. I hope the wireless connection doesn’t give me too much trouble.
  • Arch is installed, configured and updated. Configuring wireless was no trouble at all, using the excellent Beginner’s Guide at the Archlinux Wiki. However, xorg.conf has me stumped at the moment. There’s an intel driver in that laptop somewhere, which means I can’t use nvidia-xconfig like I always do on my PC, which means that so far X refuses to boot. I’m trying now to copy and use the xorg.conf of the Mint LiveCD.
  • That didn’t work. Neither did using the xorg.conf of the PCLinuxOS LiveCD (but it did point me in the direction of the right touchpad driver). In the end, I noticed X started if I ran xorgcgf as root, so last night I let the laptop download and install kdemod-complete. That works, and looks great.
    Things still to do: Install some kind of Qt networkmanager (I’d really like to try out the plasmoid), make the fonts somewhat less blurry, and installing/configuring some software.
  • The kNetworkmanager plasmoid is in testing, but I don’t want to enable that repository, so in the end I decided to install wicd, and gtk-qt-engine to make it look good. Works like a charm. Fonts are being worked on now.
  • Fonts are okay, I installed the “-lcd” packages. I tweaked the gtk looks, by installing the oxygen icons and a ported oxygen theme, which improved the Firefox scrollbars.

I could go on and on like this, because there’s still some tweaking and configuring to be done, but the main things are installed and are working just fine. She already used it a couple of times, telling me she didn’t notice the difference with Windows.

I guess that’s a good thing 😉

San


Linux for a new user: Gnome or KDE?

March 19, 2009

So now that I have decided I’ll install Arch on Jen’s laptop, what DE should I install with it? I know I said I wanted to use KDE 4.2.1 (and I still do), but I’ve been thinking. Unfortunately. There’s a lot to be said for both of them.

Why KDE?

One of the main selling points of the KDE4 release is, undoubtedly, looks. Microsoft and Apple are really sexy-fying their OS, and KDE4 now looks just as good. Just look at these screenshots.

This is how the latest build of Windows 7 looks out of the box:

Windows 7 Beta: Default look

Windows 7 Beta: Default look

Now, you may argue about the quality of the OS, or non-free software, and I’d agree, but damn if that doesn’t look great.

Let’s have a look at the latest OS X (Leopard):

Mac OS X Leopard: Default look

Mac OS X Leopard: Default look

That’s polished, shiny, and professional. I don’t think Macs offer enough value for money, but Apple knows what’s beautiful and what’s not.

So how does KDE 4.2.1 measure up?

KDE 4.2: Default look

KDE 4.2: Default look

Very well, actually. You get the same sense of polished sleekness when you compare KDE to OS X and Windows 7.

By contrast, this is what the latest GNOME (2.26) looks like:

Gnome 2.26: Default look

Gnome 2.26: Default look

That doesn’t look good! And yes, I know that look is easily changed. I know that, because everybody does it. That screenshot of a default GNOME screenshot comes straight from the official homepage, because it’s the only one I could find. No-one in their right mind leaves their GNOME looking like that. I suggest having a look around the various screenshot threads in the distribution forums…there are beautiful GNOME screenshots everywhere. It’s easy to change the theme and the icons, but out of the box, it’s fugly.
Why is that important? Because alternative themes and icons are more often than not done by amateurs. Which means they can be incomplete, or have flaws where text is unreadable in certain cases, or not maintained anymore. I know, I’ve been there…I’ve changed many icon names or symlinks or .gtkrc files so that icons would show up properly. You can’t expect that from the average user.

KDE has other advantages too, not in the least that it’s more actively developed. Yes, KDE 4.0 broke almost everything, but every release since has been more stable, faster, and generally better. The GNOME devs on the other hand seem quite content with just polishing their DE a bit every six months. The biggest item in the GNOME 2.26 changelog is that Brasero is now included by default. Six months ago, the hot topic was the new tabs in Nautilus. The overal impression is that GNOME is lagging behind KDE, and that the gap is widening.

Why GNOME?

Ironically, GNOME’s biggest drawback is also it’s biggest strength. GNOME is a finished product. It works, it’s stable, and it holds no surprises. No matter how much KDE is improving, it’s stability is not quite at GNOME levels, nor is it as bugfree. Considering how young KDE4 is, it’s only normal that this is the case, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Another point in GNOME’s favour are the applications. There are tons of GTK-apps out there, with multiple choices for every possible purpose. Don’t like Rhythmbox? Try Banshee, or Exaile, or gmusicbrowser, or QuodLibet, or Consonance, or one of the many, many mpd clients. Nautilus does nothing for you? Thunar or PCmanFM or even emelfm2 can help you out. The list goes on and on and on.

And Firefox uses GTK, which is a huge point in GNOME’s favour. There has been talk of a Qt version of Firefox in August last year, but it has been dead quiet since.

Application support in KDE on the other hand is a bit spotty. When KDE switched to Qt4, all the third party developers of KDE software had to follow, and many of those still aren’t finished.  To name a few: Amarok and Ktorrent were rather fast, but have to keep updating to get the functionality at the same level as the previous versions, and to squash bugs; digiKam 10.0 has only just been released, Kaffeine is still in svn and taking longer than expected, and does anybody know what the hell is happening with k3B? The last entry on the website mentions a KDE4 port, but it’s dated May 2008. Of course it’s lead developer is very busy with Nepomuk, but considering k3b wasn’t just the best burning software in KDE, but the best in Linux period, this is a rather big gap in KDE’s application list.

In the end, it’s easy to have a desktop environment with just GNOME/GTK applications, but at the moment, it’s a bit of a pain to do the same with KDE/Qt. Worst scenario: you end up with a mixed GTK/Qt3/Qt4 desktop, which looks absolutely horrible.

Conclusion

I honestly have no idea. I find myself going back and forth on this one. The safe and easy choice would be GNOME, the pretty and challenging one would be KDE.

I think I’ll just take the challenge, and see if things work out. In five minutes, I’ll probably think something else.

San


Linux for a new user: what distribution?

March 17, 2009

Jen has given me her permission to install Linux on her laptop, on the condition that she doesn’t actually has to use it.

Fine by me!

I’m thinking of creating an extra partition on her hard disk for that purpose. 10 GB should be more than enough, and afterwards I can install all the apps she needs and configure things to her liking (even if she doesn’t want to use it 🙂 ).

At first, I meant to install the latest release of PCLinuxOS, but after testing it myself, I changed my mind. I’d like to give her KDE 4.2 (4.2.1 with Qt 4.5, if possible), which limits my options. Ubuntu is out for obvious reasons, and I haven’t used Kubuntu in ages. Same for Mandriva. Besides, those two only offer KDE 4.2.1 and Qt 4.5 in their alpha releases/release candidates, and I’m not installing beta software on somebody else’s computer. Well, not anymore.

So it seems like I need something with a rolling rolease model, which would provide me with the latest software (after a reasonable testing period). That sounds like Arch.

I also want a distribution where it’s easy to compile software, especially since we like to play Warcraft 3, which needs a patched version of wine to be able to host games and connect to the net. That too, sounds like Arch. I had to patch wine myself a week ago, and it was just a case of opening the PKGbuild, add a patch line, and type makepkg.

And I want a distribution I’m familiar with myself. If there are problems popping up, I want them fixed fast and easy.

Hmh.

Arch it is.

San


Wireless issue due to an underpowered USB port

March 15, 2009

One if the issues I had with PCLinuxOS 2009.1 was that the wireless connection simply stopped working whenever I wanted to download a file or a torrent. Turns out that had nothing to do with PCLinuxOS, since today it also happened in Arch. After a bit of searching around in my system and the net, I concluded that my PC simply thought the USB dongle was unplugged. This happened even more when I plugged in my USB stick underneath the USB dongle, and that’s when bells started ringing.

Apparently, my PC just can’t provide my front USB ports with enough power to keep them running properly, at least not when I start downloading, for example, Linux distributions at high speed. The solution was rather simple: I plugged the wireless USB dongle into one of the USB ports at the back. Problem solved.

I’m just glad this wasn’t a case of sub-standard drivers. I’m having a hard enough time as it is to convince people Linux is a great desktop OS.

San


PCLinuxOS 2009.1: a review

March 14, 2009

PCLinuxOS is a Linux distribution aimed at those who are used to working with Windows, or simply want to have an OS where there isn’t much configuration to be done. In short, the same crowd that Ubuntu, Mandriva and OpenSUSE also cater for. If that sounds dismissive, it’s not. There should be distributions like this, which aim to make things easy for the user. Unfortunately, an entire OS is such a complicated piece of software literally millions of things can go wrong, and this is true for any OS. There are two possible ways to handle this: either you give the users the tools to solve problems themselves (Slackware, Arch, Gentoo…), or you try to make an OS where almost all configuration is done automatically, so that the user can’t screw things up.

In this world, Ubuntu is king. I know there are people who will vehemently disagree with me on this, and that’s their good right. In my experience however, there isn’t a single other Linux distribution who makes it so easy to install the OS, and configure it afterwards. After testing PCLinuxOS 2009.1, I’m sorry to say that’s still true. PCLinuxOS makes a great first impression, but I encountered too many issues afterwards for this to be a contender to Ubuntu’s crown.

LiveCD

As I mentioned yesterday, I first tried the LiveCD out on my girlfriend’s Dell laptop. At that moment, everything still smelled of roses: wireless card was detected and configured, mp3s played effortlessly, Youtube played its content without issue, and even the notoriously difficult trailers at apple.com provided no problem for PCLinuxOS. Everything looked OK.

Installation

For the most part, the installation went fine too. I say for the most part, because things got slightly hairy when trying to install PCLinuxOS on a partition that contained Windows 7 Beta. Upon selecting that partition, the installer told me the filesystem (NTFS) wasn’t right. Fair enough, I clicked “Format”. Which did something, because I saw a progress bar. What it did wasn’t exactly clear, because the installer didn’t ask me to pick a new filesystem, or anything of the kind. Sure enough, selecting the partition again just made the error message re-appear. I then deleted the partition, created a new one as ext3, and selected “/” as the mount point. That worked just fine, but why is that “Format” button even there?

Other small detail: no possibility use ext4 as the filesystem. Ext3 is true and tried though, and there has been some mentioning of data loss due to ext4, so I won’t make an issue out of it. The rest of the install went smooth and fast, just like the first-boot configuration. Only thing left for me to do is jump into the PCLinuxOS Administration Center and add the printer, which was entirely point and click.

Look and Feel

After the install PCLinuxOS booted into a nice looking KDE 3.5 desktop. KDE 3.5, as the PCLinuxOS developers felt they couldn’t provide the same functionality with KDE4. They will, however, release KDE4 packages as soon as they can.

The look, while pretty, is a bit “heavy” for my taste, especially the taskbar which looks bigger than it actually is because of the blue gradient. I also found the wallpaper a bit too dark, and the window bordersa bit too familiar.

PCLinuxOS 2009.1: Default look

PCLinuxOS 2009.1: Default look

Of course, all that’s easily fixed.

PCLinuxOS 2009.1: Custom look

PCLinuxOS 2009.1: Custom look

Other issue with the looks: fonts look smeared out and blurry,and I couldn’t turn on sub-pixel hinting in the KDE Control Center, because it was greyed out.

Finally, PCLinuxOS mixes GTK and Qt applications. Nothing wrong with that, but the GTK apps don’t get a decent icon theme. Some more effort could have gone into that.

Standard, drab Gnome icons

Standard, drab Gnome icons

Applications

PCLinuxOS comes with all the applications you need for the most common computer tasks, like Firefox for browsing, Thunderbird for e-mail, Amarok for music management, Kaffeine and Mplayer for watching videos and Ktorrent and Frostwire for, well, all that legal downloading we do. I tested all of them briefly, and they worked well, except Amarok, which refused to load 90% of my music collection. As it turned out, this was permission problem, since most of those files were owned by userID 1000 (default in  most Linux distributions), where my user in PCLinuxOS had userID 500. The permissions problem was easily fixed, and while I could happily play mp3s in Kaffeine, Amarok then took ages to rebuild the collection, and still didn’t display the extra songs. However, Amarok has always hated me and my collection, and problems like this have occured in other distributions as well. After a new re-scan, which took 45 minutes, everything finally showed up.

Problems

Nothing serious so far, but as I said, fonts looked a bit blurred and I wondered if this could have something to do with a wrong screen resolution. Right-clicking the desktop and selecting display settings showed me that the resolution was 1400×1050, which is defenitely not the right one. However, the PCLinuxOS Administration Manager told me that I had the right 1600×1200 setting. As a result, I have no idea what my current screen resolution actually is.

Much worse: at some point my wireless connection started disappearing. Without any apparent reason the connection was cut, and no matter what I did, my wireless network wasn’t found. Only one thing helped: pulling out my Linksys USB stick, and putting it back in. This didn’t happen the first hour, three times in the following 5 minutes, stopped happening completely in the next hour. I have no idea if this was a temporary thing or not. (Edit: As it turns out, this has nothing to do with PCLinuxOS)

Conclusion

All in all, I really can’t recommend PCLinuxOS to anyone except (K)ubuntu users who prefer KDE 3.5. For everyone else, I think Ubuntu is the better option. PCLinux does a lot of things right, but so does Ubuntu, without blurry fonts, derivative window borders, an unfinished look and flaky wireless connections. Of course, that’s just my personal experience. Your mileage may vary.

San


Famous firsts: Wireless

March 13, 2009

One of the reasons I’ve always stayed away from wireless networks is because I started using Linux in a time where even plugging in a USB stick in your PC did absolutely nothing, so imagine how hard it was to get a wireless connection working.

Things have changed the last couple of years though. I’ve had positive experiences on Jen’s laptop with LiveCDs of Mandriva, Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS: all of them configured and used the Intel wireless chipset without issue. Of course, I’m difficult, so I don’t use those distributions, I use Arch, where configuration has to be done manually. I’ll be honest and say that I expected things to take hours and days.

Today I took the plunge anyway. I had bought a Linksys WUSB54GC, because its drivers are included in the latest kernels, read the excellent Arch wiki page on wireless networking, installed the firmware and wicd (an alternative for networkmanager), and rebooted.

After that, getting online was as easy as clicking on the wicd icon, filling in the encryption key, and clicking “Connect”.

WICD configuration

WICD configuration

Easy as pie. And these days, that’s the difficult way to do things in Linux.

San