When you use Ubuntu, stick to the defaults

June 29, 2009

After a few days, it became apparent my Ubuntu + Openbox experiment wasn’t as succesful as I had hoped. There were some nagging issues with it which prevent me from using it full time.

  • Sound muted after boot: a weird one, since it didn’t show up when I used GNOME. After a bit of searching I learned that, instead of the sound being muted after boot, it became muted as soon as I launced any application that made a sound. After that, I had to unmute the Front channel, and everything would be well until the next reboot. I fiddled around with sound settings and alsa for a while, but in the end I simply uninstalled PulseAudio, which got rid of the problem. As a sidenote, why do I need PulseAudio again? I didn’t seem to lose any functionality. Sound still worked…as a matter of fact, it worked better than before.
  • Another sound-related problem: I couldn’t get rid of the sound theme while Openbox. Both gnome-sound-properties as gconf showed me that the Ubuntu sound theme was disabled, but I was still hearing drums everywhere. Minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.
  • The flashplugin had some issues (I can’t play Zynga Texas Hold’Em poker in Facebook). This isn’t Ubuntu specific: I have the same problem in Arch but I work around it by using Midori. In Ubuntu however, Midori doesn’t even want to load Facebook…probably because it’s an older version. I tried Opera, Kazehakase and Epiphany but that didn’t work. Very minor annoyance, and not Ubuntu’s fault at all, but I need to play poker!

Which proves that Ubuntu’s a very polished distribution as long as you stick to the defaults. For example, when googling the second issue I found that some users of Mythbuntu and Xubuntu were also affected. It seems like Ubuntu is a very versatile OS, with its *buntu variants, but actually only Ubuntu itself rises above the rest. Ovbviously, when I try to create my own “Openboxbuntu”, a lot of what makes Ubuntu good disappears.

That being said, I’ll try to install a real Ubuntu with Openbox next: Crunchbang Linux. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.


From Arch to Ubuntu?

June 23, 2009

As the few, but loyal readers of my blog now, I’m a big fan of Arch. It’s the Swiss army knife of Linux distributions, with the possibility to install as little or as much as you want. However, I’m also a fan of Ubuntu and when I install Linux on the PC of a friend who wants to try it, that’s the distribution I’ll use. These two distributions have two very different goals: Arch wants to give the user complete freedom over his install, Ubuntu wants to provide a complete, easy OS. But of course, both use the same, open-source building blocks.

Now, one of the reasons I love Arch is Openbox. Many Archers list it as their favourite window manager, and the monthly screenshot thread really showed me how beautiful it can be. What’s more, it loads much, much faster than GNOME, even when you basically use the same applications, and as a window manager it’s (in my opinion) far superior to Metacity or Compiz. Openbox has pipe menus, can keybind anything to anything, opens applications in the virtual desktop you want it to open, and lets you set borders that applications can’t overlap, which you can define to the pixel, which are all features I miss in GNOME’s default window managers. Arch’s excellent wiki, together with Urukrama’s incredible Openbox guide, helped me through the initial hurdle of editing the configuration files by hand, and afterwards I never looked back.

However, Openbox is available in other distributions too. I installed it in Fedora and Mandriva when I tested those (it comes as the default window manager of LXDE). I thought about copying my configuration files to Mandriva to compare it with Arch, but I don’t have that much interest in Mandriva to be honest. Ubuntu is another matter though, so I installed 9.04 on my spare partition, then installed Openbox together with wicd, galculator, emesene, conky, obmenu, leafpad, catfish, thunar, mirage, emelfm2, trayer, xcompmgr, gnome-player, gecko-mediaplayer, lxappearance, comix and audacious, which were all available in the repositories. Bmpanel I had to hunt down on getdeb.net, but sakura (my favourite terminal) proved to be a bigger challenge. In the end I settled for the Debian package. Not ideal, and it won’t be updated, but it works just fine.

Configuration was easy. I simply copied all the point directories from my Arch install, so all my settings were saved. Installing wicd automatically got rid of networkmanager. Replacing the totem-plugins with the far better gecko-mediaplayer (with mplayer as the backend) I had to do myself, but was easily done. Only the fonts were a bit messy, and the Arch lcd packages for font smoothing weren’t available. However, Ubuntu fonts look good out of the box, only subpixel hinting isn’t applied automatically everywhere in Openbox. A quick edit of ~/.fonts.conf took care of that, and after a bit of icon- and theme-tweaking I was all done.

So now that I’m using the same window manager and the same applications, what are the advantages of Ubuntu over Arch?

  • Just as fast. Of course, Ubuntu has an unfair advantage here. It’s on an ext4 partition, while Arch is still on ext3. Furthermore, I tested all possible desktop environments, window managers and other kinds of software on that Arch install, and I shudder at the thought of all the clutter I must have left all over my system. Still, Ubuntu boots and feels as fast as my Arch install now.
  • Less, and easier configuration. Of course, that’s an advantage Ubuntu has by design. Still, it’s nice to be prompted to install the nvidia driver, flash player, and various codecs, without having to do any kind of configuration afterwards.
  • Kick-ass looking notifications. I don’t care how childish this is, those transparent black popups look sweet.

But of course, Arch still has many advantages too:

  • Less is more. In Arch I would only have installed that list of applications I mentioned above. In Ubuntu, I have the entire GNOME desktop environment installed too. I probably could have kept things minimal, but for convenience sake, I started from a regular GNOME install.
  • People install arch just because they want to be able to configure anything. Total control is important for an Archer.
  • The rolling release model means I don’t have to worry about new releases breaking my system. Software’s more up to date too.
  • Thanks to the PKGBUILDS, packages are much easier to patch in Arch. I can’t run my patched version of wine in Ubuntu.

In the end, it’s a trade-off…ease of use versus control over your system. In any case, my Arch install needed to be updated, because of the whole ext3 thing, and the fact that I just want to clean it after trying to install every possible open source application on it. Installing and configuring Arch still takes me something like an hour though, so I’ll stick with Ubuntu for a while. Knowing me, I’ll get bored of it soon enough.

Now for some screenshots:

My Arch install

My Arch install

My Ubuntu install

My Ubuntu install

It’s a world of difference!


Mandriva 2009 Spring: Quick review

June 21, 2009

When it comes to the big distros I tend to stick to the ones that are based on Debian. Apt just is simpler and faster to me than rpm. But since I reviewed Fedora 11 (or tried to, in any case), I thought I’d have a go at the other big two RPM distributions: OpenSuse and Mandriva.

OpenSuse I already did, so let’s have a look at Mandriva 2009 Spring (GNOME).

Live CD

Again, no surprises. The LiveCD feels a bit faster than openSuse, and more importantly, it booted into an acceptable resolution of 1600×1200.

Installation & configuration

Installing Mandriva was easy and fast, with the configuration of root and user accounts done at first boot. Unlike openSuse, the entire system was already in Dutch. Installing software was a bit faster, but RPM-based distributions are still slower than APT-based ones. LXDE was easily installed, and performed fast. I didn’t find my favourite terminal, sakura, but I’ll admit it’s a bit obscure. Nano should come installed by default though.
Codec installation was easy: after I clicked an mp3, Mandriva offered me a the choice of installing the commercial Fluendo codecs, or the free-as-in-beer gstreamer plugins. I picked the latter.
Configuring the nVidia driver was a bit more difficult than it needed to be. Mandriva is capable of autodetecting the nVidia videocard, and asking the user if he wants to use the propertiery driver or not. It just doesn’t do so on my system. I have to start the (excellent) configuration center, choose the X configuration module, change absolutely nothing and click OK, and THEN the system will ask me. I also had to change the twinview settings there before nvidia-settings was able to change the resolution to the desired 1680×1050.

Look and feel

I’ve had problems with Mandriva fonts before, but not this time. Fonts looked very crisp, even without turning on subpixel hinting to the fullest. Concerning the GTK-theme, I’m not a fan of La Ora, Mandriva’s default. It’s acceptable though. On the other hand, the icon theme completely outdated, which seems to be something RPM-distributions have in common. All icons were that green/grey colour of the default GNOME iconset. Considering there are many better looking icon themes out there, not including one seems a bit lazy.

Otherwise I have no complaints. Both GRUB and GDM look very nice and professional, and so does the default wallpaper.


All in all, I consider Mandriva to be the best of the RPM based distributions at the moment. The only difficulty I had was installing the nVidia driver, and even that was easily fixed. It’s faster than openSuse, and it’s configuration center is better layed out than Yast. Fedora looks good, is fast, but suffers from an limited installer, and some weird dependency issues. If you want RPM, go Mandriva.


OpenSuse 11.1: Quick review

June 18, 2009

When it comes to the big distros I tend to stick to the ones that are based on Debian. Apt just is simpler and faster to me than rpm. But since I reviewed Fedora 11 (or tried to, in any case), I thought I’d have a go at the other big two RPM distributions: OpenSuse and Mandriva.

OpenSuse’s last release came out last year, so it doesn’t offer the latest and greatest out of the box, but I that wouldn’t matter. I’d use the GNOME 64-bit Live-CD, and there isn’t much difference between GNOME 2.24 and 2.26 anyway. As long as it provided me with an easy, stable OS, that would be enough for me.


These days, there’s not much to say about Linux Live CDs. They tend to work well, detect all your hardware, and let you discover the OS while providing an easy way to install it. OpenSuse was no different. Three remarks though: I thought the CD booted a bit slower than I’m used to (though after boot, overal performance was good), I thought the Gilouche theme looked a bit dated when compared to the crisp, green looks of Linux Mint, and the resolution was no higher than 1280×1024@60Hz. Now, I know that even the nv driver can do a better job than that on my system, so it’s odd that while openSuse correctly identified my nVidia 8600GT videocard and my Samsung 22″ screen, it couldn’t give me better than that.

Installation and configuration

The install was easy and went well, but I missed the options to give the hostname and install grub on the root partition instead of the master boot record. In any case, the installer correctly identified my Arch install and added a meny entry. Grub also looked much nicer than it does in Ubuntu, which has provided a functional, but boring white on black menu for ages. Ubuntu 9.10 is supposed to remedy that, but openSuse already offers it. Good marks here. The install went past much faster than I remember. I used Suse for a while a couple of years back, and I remember an install taking the better part of an hour. These days, first-boot configuration included, everything was finished after a good 15 minutes. Nice.

The screen resolution was still criminally low though, and looking through Yast, the configuration tool, I didn’t find an easy way to install the nVidia drivers. A quick google search helped me out here, and the one-click install was very easy. However, ideally the OS would have pointed me in the right direction, and ask me for a reboot/restart of X afterwards. It did neither.
Strangely enough, at this point all the Dutch translations were downloaded and installed, and after a reboot my system was in Dutch at last, and I could pick a higher resolution. Again, I feel that openSuse should have done this automatically. A 1280×1024 resolution is never going to be right for a 22″ widescreen.

Look and Feel

OpenSuse looks good, but as I mentioned before, if you’re going for a green theme, I feel Linux Mint does a better job. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so I won’t elaborate on it.
The menu though is completely idiotic. It takes a lot of screen estate but takes far too much clicks to navigate through, and it doesn’t really offer a way of opening your applications. Your favourites are there, and the last opened applications, but everything else needs the “Applications…” button, which opens another window. Again, Linux Mint offers a better implementation of the same idea, especially by letting you search not only for files, but also for applications, even the ones you haven’t installed yet. I quickly disposed of the menu, and added the standard GNOME “Applications – Places – System” applet. It’s simpler, and easier to use.
I felt the same way about Yast. I’m sure it offers endless possibilities to configure your system, but it still felt slow and complicated to me. I spent a lot of time searching through it, looking for various functions, and that takes a while. Luckily, most of the system configuration can be done with the standard GNOME tools.

As a final test, I decided to install LXDE, just like I had done in Fedora. To my surprise, it wasn’t present in the standard repositories, and neither was Openbox. I found this One-Click install, but the latest offering was for 11.0. There’s a version for 11.1 on the LXDE wiki, which looked beautiful, was much faster than the standard GNOME desktop, but ultimately disappointed because lxpanel kept crashing. I can’t hold this against openSuse since it’s not an official repository, but in any case it’s disappointing that this distrbution doesn’t even offer it.


There was nothing really wrong with openSuse 11.1, but on the other hand it didn’t convince me either. It felt a bit like a throwback to the Linux of a couple of years ago, where everything would eventually work if you tried long enough. Except, it’s not aimed at those kind of users who like to tinker with their PCs until sunset. It’s meant to be an easy, complete desktop system, and as such, in my opinion it fails. For users looking for that kind of operating system I’d recommend Ubuntu or Linux Mint.


Linux versus Windows: the eternal discussion

June 16, 2009

Yesterday I got dragged into a “Windows versus Linux” discussion, because on my Facebook profile I had made a quiz, and one of the questions was “What OS do I use?”. My sister in law got that one wrong, and exlaimed “Stupid Linux!”. Of course I responded with “Linux isn’t stupid!” and off we went. My girlfriend and other sister-in-law got dragged in it too, and it got very heated (but still enjoyable). Let’s introduce the participants.

My girlfriend runs a rather old Dell Inspiron which dual boots Windows XP Pro and Ubuntu Jaunty. She uses Windows for MS Office and the fun MSN Messenger games. For photo editing she uses the GIMP.
Sister One has a newer laptop which came with Vista, promptly got infected by some nasty virusses which deleted half of her system files, and now her father has installed XP Pro on it.
Sister Two uses Windows exclusively, and I believe her and her boyfriend’s computers run Vista and XP.
And of course, me.

The arguments pro Windows were: It’s more familiar, it looks better, it runs software like The Sims and MS Office, and Linux is for nerds.
The arguments pro Linux were: It’s safer, it looks better, there’s more choice, and it’s free.

Now, many of these arguments are bogus. Looks don’t matter much in discussions like these, both operating systems run software the other one doesn’t (I don’t care about the Sims, but I do want Openbox), and I’m not a nerd. 😉

The one thing that did struck me was how they felt about price. Linux is free, and almost all it’s software too? Well, so is Windows, and applications can be cracked.

I find that questionable at best, and it’s odd that people who can vehemently defend Windows don’t feel like they have to pay for it. On top of that, they use a previous release (XP is EIGHT years old at the moment), because the latest MS OS just doesn’t cut it. On top of that, they all mentioned problems with Windows: the aformentioned virus fiasco, a Genuine Advantage error that added ten minutes to the boottime, and network connection issues. It seemed to me that the argument came down to “Windows is better because it’s more familiar, it runs my favourite software, and if I run into trouble it’s not me who has to solve it/pay for it”.

At that point, a good friend of sister One entered the discussion, using aMsn on OpenSuse. She didn’t want to discuss Linux, she just wanted to use it since “she didn’t want to pay for that Microsoft joke of an OS”. She wasn’t a nerd at all. She wasn’t interested in Linux. She just wanted to use her PC and be free of the hassle and the cost of Microsoft software.

The discussion ended there and then. I didn’t want to keep on discussing the issue, because I felt I made my point. You don’t need to be a nerd to use a computer, whether it’s Linux or Windows. But in the hands of the careless, casual user, Windows has a tendency to break down completely, either due to bugs or because of virusses. That risk is smaller in any Linux distribution, for a great number of reasons.

And don’t kid yourself by thinking Windows is free. It isn’t. Just because you can crack your way around that doesn’t make Windows better.


Fedora 11: A genuine WTH moment

June 14, 2009

I mentioned I wouldn’t install Fedora 11, and since I’m a man of my word, of steady character and true to myself, I downloaded the netinstall CD, which made it possible to install it on an ext3 partition. I was planning to install GNOME, but during install I noticed one of the possibilities was LXDE. Since Openbox is my favourite window manager, and LXDE is a project I’m actively involved in (albeit as a mere translator), I decided to go for that. Install took some time but went fine, and afterwards I rebooted straight into…KDE? WTH?

I assumed I had made an error during install, something that seemed to be confirmed when I logged out of KDE and saw LXDE as one of the session possibilities. I started LXDE, noticed that everything looked fantastic, and tried to remove KDE. There’s a GUI for this, so I just unchecked everything KDE related and hit OK. The mistake here was not really paying attention to the list of dependencies that would be uninstalled too, which included everything from Totem to Firefox, from Brasero to Rhythmbox, and from gvfs to Empathy. I reinstalled everything as well as I could. Here’s a screenshot:

Fedora 11 weirdness

Fedora 11 weirdness

Well, no! Of course that’s not OK! Of course, I did not install Fedora the usual way, but if Firefox is dependent on the KDE libs, wouldn’t I have the same problem in GNOME? Can somebody help me out here?


Fedora 11: No review

June 12, 2009

I wanted to try out and review the new Fedora, but I’ll pass. I did actually download the Fedora Live CD, but it refused to install, in a way that would be amusing if it wasn’t frustrating. I chose ext4 as the filesystem, but the installer wouldn’t accept that. Apparently, Fedora 11 needs a ext3 formatted boot partition, since the grub that comes with it doesn’t support booting from an ext4 one.

Okay, but the grub that comes with Arch does, and is installed in my MBR, which I didn’t want to overwrite in any case. In other words, I did not need a seperate boot partition, but skipping the error simply wasn’t possible.

No sweat, I thought, I’ll just format the partition as ext3. Alas, the Live CD doesn’t support that. You need one of the other install media for that.


What’s more, the reviews I read of Fedora 11 aren’t very positive, so I’ll sit this one out.