Arch + XFCE: The perfect Desktop (for now)

July 24, 2010

In the past week I’ve used Ubuntu 10.04, Mint 9, and Arch + GNOME, but Arch + XFCE seems to beat all of those.

While Ubuntu and Mint are both excellent, and very user-friendly, they both had a problem with Rhythmbox import errors. Basically every song with a strange character in the name (e.g. Alizée – A quoi rève une jeune fille) gave an import error, even though it was imported correctly. Switching to Banshee didn’t help much: it only found 214 songs out of close to 7000. Mint, being Ubuntu based, did the exact same thing.

Banshee in Arch found my collection just fine, but with GNOME startup took way too long. There’s still some kind of issue there, because I’ve had the same problem since 2.26. Arch with XFCE proved to be the winner though, being fast, functional and beautiful, all at the same time. Some things take a bit more time to configure, like multimedia keyboard button shortcuts, which should have worked out of the box with banshee, but didn’t, things like that. Nothing major.

Pacman has had a recent upgrade, and now seems to be even faster, and there are some improvements when you want to install a local package. Definitely still the best package manager out there. Chromium, Banshee, Emelfm2, Comix, Audacious, Transmission and Brasero were quickly installed, which only left a good twitter client. I enjoyed using Gwibber in Ubuntu, but in Arch it isn’t available in the official repositories. It’s in the AUR, but required a 100+MB download and…left me with a blank screen. I enjoy using Tweetdeck in Windows, but while it worked fine in Ubuntu, it doesn’t in Arch. Again, it’s only available via the AUR, and for me, it simply didn’t work. Pino came to the rescue, but again, it’s not available in the official repositories. All in all, I don’t get the impression that the Arch devs and packagers are big twitter fans 🙂

I’ve also grown fond of Docky lately. For some reason, I always resisted using a dock, probably because my few experiences with Mac OSX weren’t that positive. However, I realised that what I like about Windows 7’s taskbar are it’s dock-like abilities, so I tried out Docky. Now I don’t know how to live without it. It does require compositing to be on (not a problem these days, easily switched on in XFCE, GNOME and KDE), in order to have some eye candy, but things remain discreet and tasteful. On IntelliHide it provides a bit more screen estate, which is nice.

Configuring GDM’s layout and background isn’t that easy these days, and the Arch Wiki article didn’t work for me, so I switched it for LXDM. I read on the forums it may be unstable, but it has been working like a dream on my Lubuntu netbook, so I wasn’t nervous about giving it a try here. Big plus: the configuration file is plain text, so changing the background and GTK theme was very easy.

It’s in my nature to keep changing my desktop, because I get bored easily and can’t resist shiny new software. But I’m very happy with this. For now.

Obligatory screenshots:

San


KDE or Openbox

February 19, 2010

I love KDE, and the latest release is better than ever. It’s easy, fast, beautiful, all that.

So when I installed Arch on another partition in another attempt to to find the cause behind those pesky network problems, and I slapped Openbox on it because I didn’t want to waste my bandwidth on a KDE install I’d never use, I certainly didn’t think I would consider using it full time.

But conky is getting better all the time, and I tried fbpanel just for the hell of it and thought it came out just fine…and there’s this wallpaper I found on the Arch forums I absolute loved, and that Buuf icon set is a work of art, and…

Well, just look at it and judge for yourself 😉

Arch + Openbox: Clean

Arch + Openbox: DirtySan


Arch is hard to replace

February 15, 2010

There’s a good reason I stayed with Arch for so long: it was simple, easy, behaved exactly as it should and it didn’t break. Until now.

The random plasma crashes are probably because of the recent upgrade to KDE 4.4, and I’m reasonably sure it would be solved if I delete the .kde dir or, in the worst case scenario, reinstall. In fact, I’m pretty sure the plasmoids I have installed from the AUR are the problem…

But the network problems baffle me. I don’t have these in other Linux distributions, but I don’t use them as much as I use Arch. The problem is only with the wired connection, my wireless LinkSys USB wireless thingamajammy could always connect (up until it fell and broke :/). I’m beginning to think the cable might be too long…grasping at straws here.

In any case, I started looking at possible replacements. Over the last couple of days, I tried quite a few:

I didn’t try out OpenSuse KDE, because I was curious about the GNOME version, there’s no Ubuntu because I already had Linux Mint, and I didn’t include Fedora although I wanted to, because I’m a bit worried about my download limit.

My requirements aren’t very hard, I believe.

  1. Relatively easy way to install/configure the nvidia drivers.
  2. I prefer KDE over GNOME, but will use both.
  3. List of preferred applications: nano, Pidgin, Chromium, Amarok/Rhythmbox, Transmission, audacious, k3b/Brasero, Comix, emelfm2 (or Krusader as an alternative), Yakuake/Guake.
  4. If KDE, I prefer the Smooth-Tasks plasmoid over the normal taskbar, and since I dislike the cashew, the I-hate-the-cashew plasmoid is a bonus too.
  5. Multimedia out of the box or easy to install/configure.
  6. No show-stopping bugs, crashes, or other unpleasantries.

So, let’s see what the various distributions are up against.

Arch:

  1. pacman -S nvidia && nvidia-xsettings. Okay, it’s command line, but for me, it’s as easy as that. Never fails.
  2. Arch only installs a base system, so both KDE and GNOME (and everything else) are easily installed. Arch’s packages are split, so you can pacman -S kde for the whole shebang, or pick and choose.
  3. Of those list, nano is installed by default. Everything else is in the official repositories.
  4. Both plasmoids are available in the AUR, so they’re “packaged” by volunteers. You need to be careful with these, but they’re easily installed.
  5. Many options. pacman -S gstreamer0.10-plugins && pacman -S flashplayer will be enough for most people.
  6. I guess the black screens after the latest KDE install and network problems fall in this category.

Now it’s time to have a look at the contenders:

Debian:

  1. Oh dear. While there’s plenty of documentation available, building the nvidia kernel module always failed for me without any helpful errors. I’ve tried this twice, but it just didn’t work. What I didn’t try is installing the drivers from the nvidia website…I didn’t feel like repeating that every time a new kernel came out.
  2. Debian’s repositories are absolutely huge, so both KDE and GNOME are available. The default CD1 installs GNOME, but KDE and XFCE editions are available.
  3. Everything I needed was either already installed or easy to install. Concerning Chromium/Chrome, Google provides a .deb package, but I heard these add their own repository to your sources.list, so use at your own risk.
  4. Not tested
  5. Not tested
  6. Not tested

OpenSuse:

  1. Easy One Click install is available. It’s not very fast, but it works well.
  2. I tried out the GNOME version based on this review.  Of course, KDE is available too.
  3. Again, huge repositories where I found everything I needed. Not all repositories were enabled by default, so this page was a big help. It searches for and installs software in a way familiar to Windows, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  4. Not tested, since I used GNOME. However, smooth tasks is in the repositories. The cashew plasmoid isn’t, but in OpenSuse you can hide it by default
  5. Multimedia codecs aren’t installed by default, but can be easily installed here.
  6. OpenSuse was a bit of a surprise. I liked the looks very much, and it was faster then I remembered, especially Yast. However, I couldn’t get compiz to work. It would start, and I’d have wobbly windows for one second, then it would switch back. This happened on two separate installs.

Mandriva 2010:

  1. Installing the nvidia drivers has been a problem before for me, but this time they were already available after the installation. I didn’t have to do anything. Pleasant surprise.
  2. Both GNOME and KDE are available, I tried KDE.
  3. Mandriva is the only one of the distributions I tried which didn’t have nano installed by default. Considering how small this console editor is, I see no reason not to include it, but there you are. Chromium I found by enabling the backport repositories, and everything else was available too.
  4. Again a pleasant surprise: both plasmoids were available.
  5. In a way similar to Ubuntu, Mandriva detects if you want to play media which is restricted by copyright issues, and offers to install the necessary packages.
  6. There really isn’t much that isn’t to like in Mandriva. There were only two small issues: I found fonts didn’t look as nice on my monitor as they do in the other distributions, and the locale outside of X wasn’t configured properly: I still had a qwerty keyboard. Definitely a contender.

Sidux 2009.04:

  1. Installing the nvidia drivers is not very simple, but it works well. The documentation can be found here.
  2. Sidux comes with KDE as the default. XFCE is available too.
  3. When it came to software, the only problem was finding a Chromium package, but adding a repository rather amusingly called frickelplatz solved that issue.
  4. The cashew plasmoid couldn’t be found, but adding another repository named xadras made Smooth tasks available.
  5. As far as I could see, sidux played multimedia out of the box. I didn’t rest this rigorously.
  6. Some problems here. I installed sidux twice, and the first time everything seemed okay. The second time however problems arose. One boot everything would be okay, the second one the locale would be wrong and I’d end up with a qwerty keyboard. Also, the system didn’t register the first two keystrokes after switching virtual desktop. Extremely odd.

Linux Mint:

  1. Mint’s based on Ubuntu, so it detects automatically if you have hardware which needs restricted drivers, and offers to installs them. Never fails.
  2. Mint’s default is GNOME, but a KDE version is available too. I didn’t test this, because this version  is mainly the standard edition with KDE slapped on top, which makes it a 1,1 GB download.
  3. Everything I needed was already installed, except for Guake and Chromium. Guake was in the repotories, for Chromium I needed to add this PPA to the software sources, which was easily done.
  4. Not tested (GNOME)
  5. Mint prides itself on playing everything out of the box.
  6. I had high hopes for Mint: it provides everything I want, looks fantastic, and never failed me before. However, this time it did. I had no problems in the LiveCD, or right after install, but after the necessary updates, it no longer auto-mounted my USB stick. I installed Mint twice just to be sure, with the same result. I could see the USB stick when I opened “My Computer”, but had to double-click it to mount it. Installing gnome-volume-manager temporarily solved it, but then it reappeared. All in all, disappointing.

And the winner is:

Arch.

That may not be a surprise. There’s nothing much wrong with Mandriva, and I probably would have kept Mint if it didn’t have that USB stick bug, but after testing all those I simply installed Arch again. It took me 25 minutes all in all, KDE 4.4 is behaving now, and the network problems haven’t returned so far. Arch really is radically simple, there’s no substitute for /etc/rc.conf, for pacman, and for the stability that comes with a policy of not patching anything unless there’s absolutely no other way.

Granted, the rolling release model means that things occasionally break. Regular checks of the homepage are required before any major updates, to stay informed of possible issues. But in my experience, no distribution is entirely bug free. Non of them however, comes as close as Arch.

KDE SC 4.4 and Arch

KDE SC 4.4 and Arch

San


Arch is failing me!

February 10, 2010

I’ve been posting less and less here, simply because I’ve been very happy with my system as it was. My distribution of choice is Arch, my DE of choice is KDE, and my applications of choice are Pidgin, Chromium, Amarok (yes, it’s back), and Transmission. I don’t need more, and I was happy.

However.

I’ve mentioned my network woes before. In short: sometimes, when I boot, I have no network. When I don’t log in to KDE immediately, this happens even more. A reboot may solve the issue, but almost never does. When I run “dhcpcd eth0” it just hangs at “Waiting for carrier…” and then times out. I don’t have these problems in other Linux distributions (live-cd or installed), but I then again, I haven’t used them as primary OS either. Whenever I load a livecd though, find the network, then reboot, the problem’s gone in Arch. For a while.
I’m not sure what to blame. Arch? KDE? dhcpcd? Network card failure? Network cable too long? In any case, I’ve been putting off really solving this issue.

However.

Yesterday saw the release of KDE 4.4, and as mentioned on the Archlinux website, Arch users could upgrade almost immediately. I followed the procedure mentioned on the homepage, restarted KDE, and marveled at the beauty that was KDE 4.4. For two seconds, and then the screen went black. I could still hit Ctrl Alt Del, and reboot. Same thing happened.

I must say that at this point I really didn’t want to try and solve the issue, or reinstall Arch (which probably would have solved the issue),  so I now run Mint, my second favourite distribution, with GNOME. While I thing Metacity and Compiz are infinitely inferior to KWin, this works for now.

Unless I have this bug, because right before I left home today I noticed my USB stick didn’t show up. I might be okay…I have problems with pendrives all the time. If not…well, I can always try out OpenSuse I guess…

Sigh. I’m getting too old for this shit 😉

San


After Arch + KDE, there’s Arch with GNOME: KahelOS

October 26, 2009

I’m still happily running Chakra (essentially Arch + KDEmod), but browsing the Arch forums I discovered that Chakra isn’t the only distribution with Arch as its base. Meet Kahel OS, which combines Arch with GNOME.

Now, while Chakra is modest and states it’s essentially Arch with a few added tools (like an installer, GUI front-end for the package management, GUI config tools), Kahel OS claims it’s a whole new distribution. It isn’t…it’s a rebranded Arch, with GNOME added, using the Arch repositories and the Arch installer. If you clicked the link to the Arch forums, this rubbed a few people the wrong way.

I haven’t tried it yet, and I don’t think I will…simply installing Arch and adding GNOME myself is easier for me. But the idea is good…it’s surprising to me not more distributions use Arch as a base.

San


KDE 4.3: Boom baby!

October 10, 2009

I’ve blogged about KDE 4 before, gradually noticing the improvement, but ultimately always running back to Openbox for various reasons. These reasons include:

  • Stability: My earliest posts complained about issues with the nVidia driver, crashing plasmoids, KDE simply failing to start,  Kwin effects leaving artefacts, and systray icons that look horrible.
  • Configuration: It’s a well known fact that, while KDE 3.5 was loved for it’s ability to configure the crap out of it, KDE 4 was somewhat lacking in this regard, especially when it came to the panel. A personal pet-peeve is that KDE 4 left out the ShowDesktop keyboard shortcut, although it supports the function. The only workaround here was to add a plasmoid and assign a shortcut to it, cluttering the panel needlessly.
  • Looks: This might seem strange, since I’ve been raving about the way KDE 4 looks since the very beginning.  To clarify, I have no problem whatsoever with Plasma, which looks gorgeous. However, the novelty of the Oxygen window borders quickly wore off, especially when comparing it to Windows 7 or Snow Leopard. Next to those OSes, KDE’s window borders suddenly look dull and drab. The real issue here however, is that there simply weren’t any serious alternatives available.
  • Qt applications: Yeah, I’m beating the old horse again. To sum things up: I think the available selection of QT software is limited, and lacking in quality.

But when I tested Chakra Alpha 3, I also ended up with KDE 4.3.2, so why not have a look if things have improved?

Stability has gradually improved to the point where I no longer have any problems at all. KDE boots fast and without issue. Applications don’t crash, except for the printer applet after one update, which was immediately remedied in the next. Kwin effects are fast and leave no artifacts. KDE 4 is stable.

chakra: Alt-Tab KWin effect

chakra: Alt-Tab KWin effect

Configuration-wise, things have improved too. Config options have treacled back into KDE 4, and while it still might not be up to the standard set by its predecessor, it’s getting there.
There still isn’t a “Hide all Windows and show the Desktop” keyboard shortcut option, but this post should give you an idea how to implement it yourself. It worked for me.
What’s important too, is that the old layout for the System Settings is available too. Personally, I prefer the Icon View, but at least we have the choice now.

Chakra: Tree View in System Settings

Chakra: Tree View in System Settings

When it comes to looks, KDE has improved even further. The old Oxygen Plasma theme looked very good, but the new Air theme tops it in every way. It’s light, fresh, modern, and altogether beautiful. In contrast, it makes the Oxygen window borders look even worse. Luckily, there’s progress in that area too, with the new Aurorae theme engine. To quote: “It was created with the idea of making KWin decorations as themeable as the Plasma desktop shell.” A truly excellent (and needed) idea, and it’s one I really wish the KDE devs had implemented from the start. The selection of window decoration themes is small but growing. One of the best I think is Glowglass.

Chakra: The Glowglass windows decoration theme

Chakra: The Glowglass windows decoration theme

Finally, the Qt applications thing…I’m sorry to say that in my opinion it hasn’t improved. In some cases it’s a matter of personal preference, in others the Qt apps simply don’t work as well as their GTK counterparts. To deal with the situation, I used whatever application I thought worked best, and installed QtCurve to make sure things looked decent. In fact, they look more than decent: QtCurve is a beautiful, professional looking theme, and is actually a step up from the default Oxygen theme.
However, while QtCurve can make your applications look good, it can’t make them better. For chat, I still prefer Emesene with it’s clean layout over the cluttered Kmess or Kopete. Both Qt options work very well, I just don’t like the looks of the Contact List or the Chat Window.

Chakra: Emesene

Chakra: Emesene

It’s the same with browsers. You can use Konqueror of course, and Chakra also provides Arora as an alternative. I quickly uninstalled it, because if I’ll use a Webkit browser, it’s going to be Chrome. It’s fast, configurable, supports extensions these days, has a lot of available themes (I chose the Porsche one), and is perfectly usable in Linux.

Chakra: Chrome with the Porsche theme

Chakra: Chrome with the Porsche theme

The real sore point in this area is still the music manager. If you want Qt, it’s Amarok, Juk, and maybe Cuberok. That’s it. I still detest Amarok’s playlist based layout, which means that Cuberok is out too (and Exaile and Listen on the GTK side, for that matter). In my mind, music managers have to scan my music collection, play music, and stop bothering me. Amarok doesn’t do that. Besides, upon scanning my collection it stopped at 53% every time. No Amarok for me, and Juk is so old it can’t handle a decent collection without a crash. On the GTK side I still have to try Banshee. I won’t try Rhythmbox because it’s too tied to GNOME. The last time I tried that half of the functions and icons were missing.
In the end, I installed the same music manager I also used in Openbox, which is Goggles MM. It uses the FOX toolkit, which means that QtCurve can’t do anything about the looks, but it does have an Oxygen colour scheme which makes it look a bit better. The next major version will have *gasp* gradients, which should improve things even more.
But here, the looks don’t matter. It has my favourite, Rhythmbox-like layout. It’s lightning fast, scanning my 6000+ music collection in less than 30 seconds. It can edit tags. It has album art. It uses the xine-engine, which means it plays more internetradios than both Rhythmbox and Amarok. Really, the only thing I’m missing is a song queue, but that’s it.

Chakra: Goggles Music Manager

Chakra: Goggles Music Manager

To add insult to injury, I even replaced Konsole with XFCE’s Terminal. It supports transparency just as well, but is much much faster. Konsole booted slow and performed quite badly. Whenever I tried to create a package from the Arch AUR, text scrolled by at a slow, jittering pace. It took me a couple of days to find out that the problem wasn’t Chakra or yaourt, but Konsole itself. Using Terminal immediately solved the problem.

Chakra: XFCE's Terminal

Chakra: XFCE's Terminal

I’ll admit, one of the reasons I wanted to try KDE again is because I was jealous of Jen’s fantastic looking Windows 7 laptop. She had rotating backgrounds of beautiful English landscapes, folders with previews of the pictures inside, nice window effects, a great looking Aero theme, that panel/dock crossover…I wanted that! Well, without installing Windows, obviously. I’d never do that.
In the end, I think I succeeded. Apart from the dock/panel thing I have everything she has, using far less space on my hard drive, with all the benefits of (Arch) Linux included. It’s fast, it’s beautiful, and I like it so much I’m keeping it, even though Dolphin, Krusader and Kaffeine are the only Qt applications I use.

KDE has arrived, baby.

San


Arch and Asus EEE 900

August 25, 2009

My collegue bought an Asus EEE 900 about a year ago, and confessed he was a bit disappointed with the power and HD space, so he sold it to me at a good price.  It had Win XP installed, but I quickly wiped that and installed Arch on it. Mind you, at that point I wasn’t at all confident. I assumed I wouldn’t get things like wireless, webcam, suspend and resume and the function keys to work, and I expected to have to use specialist distributions like EEEbuntu or Moblin.

Well, wireless even worked during the install, so no problems there. The install itself went flawless, which meant that all I had to do was the usual configuration. There were some differences with my normal PC, since I wanted to save as much space as possible. A panel was out, the system tray is on auto-hide, I cropped the window decorations from applications like Firefox and Thunar, and that was pretty much it. Everything else was my normal install of Openbox.

The function keys I got working by adding an extra module from AUR, and although I’m not a regular user of Skype, I installed it to see if the webcam worked. It did, without any tweaking from my part. Same thing for going to sleep when I close the lid. Opening pops it back to live, without a hitch.

Battery life is surprisingly good on this little thing. I’ve been working on it for what must be over two hours now, and I’m still at 30%. CPU load is something like 10% on average, and memory usage has yet to rise over 200 MB, and that’s with Firefox open. About the only thing I don’t really know how to do is slightly adjust the keyboard layout. It’s close to be-latin, but not quite. Some of the more exotic keys aren’t really where they’re supposed to be…

All in all, I love this little thing which I named Tinkerbell, so here’s some showing off:

Tinkerbell: Pseudo clean

Tinkerbell: Pseudo clean

Thunar and audacious. Stalonetray bottom right

Thunar and audacious. Stalonetray bottom right

San