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

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Why I’m using Ubuntu now

June 23, 2010

Well, the main reason is because trying out different Linux distributions is so much fun, isn’t it? There was nothing really wrong with Fedora, in fact it did a lot of things right, but I wanted to configure my file server with a lightweight environment and then leave it alone. I’ve spent too much time on that thing already.

Firstly, I replaced Ubuntu with Arch and LXDE, to see if I could get it working with anything else than Ubuntu. I’ve installed Arch probably 50 times before, but this time I couldn’t get the keyboard layout right in X. Hal should take care of that, and yet it didn’t. Also, the screen resolution was way off, and I couldn’t get the nouveau drivers configured, while the chipset was too old for the regular nvidia driver. Exit Arch.

I remembered I had that Fedorea XFCE spin lying around, and I tried that along with Chris Smart’s tips. I got the thunar shares plugin configured, but the share didn’t show up. Using the Samba tool both Windows 7 and my Fedora desktop could SEE the share, but failed to mount it. Both gave an error that the share didn’t seem to exist.

Finally, I slapped regular Ubuntu on the server, and shared both a folder and the printer, which worked immediately. Again, I don’t know how Ubuntu does it, but it does it right. Afterwards I uninstalled things I didn’t need like OpenOffice etc, installed Lubuntu-desktop, and finally got a compromise I’m reasonably happy with. I’d still prefer it if I knew what was actually happening there, but for the moment things work so I’ll leave them alone.

Now, because my (L)Ubuntu cross-breed worked well on the server, because Fedora had one or two niggling problems (it saw two shared printers, but only printed to one and cups crashed if I tried to use the other, and Nautilus and the panels apparently had crashed the day before), and mainly because I hadn’t installed the final version of Ubuntu yet, I installed it on my main desktop.

As always, installing and using Ubuntu is a very agreeable experience. As with Fedora, all hardware worked out of the box, and installing extra codecs and suchlike was a bit easier. It doesn’t look as sleek as Fedora, but it doesn’t look bad either. A bit heavy for a theme called “Light”, but otherwise okay. I do think the focus on looks is a good thing, and I must admit that picture of a PC that runs Ubuntu looks very good.

There was a bit of confusion the first time I had to use the Close-Minimise-Maximise buttons the the top left corner, but it’s something you soon get used to, so I left them there. I didn’t enable the nvidia drivers…I don’t care for desktop effects anyway.

I know I said Ubuntu wasn’t for me a couple of months ago, but I also said things change rapidly…and in fact, there’s still an Arch + LXDE partition on my hard drive, where I have Virtualbox installed so I can study for those Window7 exams…

San


How does Ubuntu do it?

June 15, 2010

I have an old PC that serves as a file and print server (see what I did there?). It holds a 120 GB disk drive, divided in an NTFS partion, and two others for root and swap.

It used to run Ubuntu 9.04. I had tried to install Arch and a lightweight DE (my boy sometimes likes to use the PC for games), but I couldn’t figure out the Samba settings back then, so I just slapped Ubuntu on it, mounted the ntfs partition, rightclick, share, be advised that a change to smb.conf is needed (in the [global] section), adjusting smb.conf, done. It worked very well, but the OS was aging a bit, and of course a full GNOME desktop was overkill for something that essentially just needed Samba, a browser and some games.

Because of my recent infatuation with Fedora, I tried using that, with XFCE. The experience was frustrating, to say the least. Installing Samba is no problem. Neither is adding a share via the Samba config tool. Nor opening the firewall to allow Samba traffic. However, although the share could be seen on the client PCs (one Fedora, one Windows 7), it could not be mounted. It failed in Nautilus, using the fstab, mounting it manually…nothing worked. The error was something along the lines of “share doesn’t exist”. Trying to edit smb.conf manually didn’t work. Using Ubuntu’s smb.conf, which I had backed up, didn’t work.

Sharing the printer worked beautifully though.

Trying Fedora GNOME didn’t do it either. Then I tried Ubuntu server, and installed ubuntu-desktop on top of it.

Which is an insane thing to do if you just need a file server.

I’m again stuck with a full-blown Ubuntu desktop, full of goodies I don’t need and running much slower than I could make it run. But here’s the maddening part, it works. Right-click folder, share, adjusting smb.conf, done. Even worse, I can’t find any reference to my share in smb.conf ! If I knew where the right config is saved, I could simply copy/paste it to a leaner system, but now I can’t.

Curse you Ubuntu! Curse you for making my life so easy and so difficult at the same time!

San

PS: Obviously, any help would be appreciated…


Mono? Enough already!

July 14, 2009

Shut up about Mono! Or Banshee. Or anything Mono related. Please!

It’s not like anybody is saying anything new either. I’ve read two-page blog posts which contained no information about Mono whatsoever, and instead replaced content with vague allegations about patents, Microsoft, followed by yells of FREEDOM! Think Braveheart here.

As far as I know, Mono is open source, and released under the GPL. As far as I know, Mono has been included in Ubuntu for three years now. Why are people yelling about it now? Because it became the latest internet hype, that’s why.

What’s the problem anyway? I’ve read something about “leaving us open to Microsoft patent attacks”. If that’s indeed the case, Microsoft has been keeping it well-honed sueing instincts in check surprisingly well these past three years.
And who’s “us” anyway? If Microsoft sues the distributions which include Mono by default (which I don’t believe for a second they will), I’m sure Ubuntu can handle it. If “us” is the end-user…ah, that means that all you Mono-raving rabbits in the US don’t install the resticted modules either? I’m sure you all buy your codecs at Fluendo and your entire music collection ends in .ogg.

And I just bitched an entire blog post about how I dislike people who use the internet for bitching. Drat.

San


CrunchBang Linux 8.10.02: A review

July 2, 2009

As I become more knowledgable about Linux, the thought has crossed my mind to create my own distribution. However, I’ll readily admit I’m not the most technical user, but at least I’m getting to a point where I could give it a try. Using Ubuntu as the base would probably be easiest, starting from a minimal install, and using my favoruite window manager: Openbox. It wouldn’t be a minimalist or leightweight distribution, just one that provided almost all of the functionality and none of the bloat.

Well, someone beat me to it, and that someone is Philip Newborough. Not only did he steal my idea by thinking of it first, he also did a much better job than I could ever have done. The distribution is called CrunchBang Linux, and inbetween the endless muddy rocks of Ubuntu derivates, CrunchBang is a rare gem.

LiveCD

The LiveCD does not offer the familiar IsoLinux menu of Ubuntu, but keeps it text based. That means you can’t immediately choose your language and keyboard layout at boot, which becomes a bit of an issue later. Otherwise, the progress meter is very familiar, and throws you into a sparse, dark looking desktop. There’s no background to speak of, just a sign that reads (you guessed it) “#! CrunchBang Linux”, some information about your system and a list of keyboard shortcuts (nice touch) on the right, and a completely dark panel at the bottom. That’s all, but don’t get thrown by the minimalist looks.
The first thing I did was right-clicking the desktop, which opens the Openbox menu. Now, in a default Openbox installation, the menu is next to useless, providing a list of applications which may or may not be installed on your system. That’s why I’m very careful to always have a backup of my menu.xml, which is the configuration file: I simply don’t want to go through all that work again.
Well, if I thought my menu configuration was a lot of work, I was dead wrong. Crunchbang’s menu is a doorway to your entire system, but with a well thought-out layout which keeps it from being overlarge and eating a lot of screen estate. It provides easy, direct links to some default applications, like “Web browser” or “Terminal”, but also provides the usual categories of “Internet”, “Office”, “Graphics”, and so on. It’s worth pointing out that CrunchBang comes with a bigger list of applications than a default Ubuntu install, but we’ll look into that later. The most interesting part of the menu is at the bottom: since Crunchbang doesn’t come with GNOME, it doesn’t have the GNOME configuration tools. Instead, there’s an interesting selection of configuration utilities which nearly provide the same functionality. Nearly, but not quite, and this is probably the area where a GNOME or KDE user would need a little adjustment time. In the end, all the important functions are there, save one: choosing the keyboard layout. Again, as you can’t pick your layout at boot, this can be a bit of a bother, as the default choice is the UK layout. I changed it by using the setxkbmap command, but I wonder why it isn’t somewhere in the menu. It couldn’t have been that hard to include it? In any case, that was the only tiny hiccup after an otherwise very impressive first experience. The only thing left was taking a screenshot (already mapped to PrintScrn!), and install it on my hard disk.

Crunch Bang: Live CD

Crunch Bang: Live CD

Installation

CrunchBang has an entry for the installation in its menu, and this is where the distribution shows it’s heritage: the installer is Ubuntu’s all-familiar Ubiquity. It also shows its age, since (as he name suggests) CrunchBang 8.10.02 is not based on Ubuntu’s latest release (Jaunty), but on the one before that (Intrepid). Among other things, that means you can’t install CrunchBang on an ext4 partition. A bit of a shame, since that would have boosted the performance even more. As mentioned in CrunchBang’s last newsletter, a new version is in the works, and there’s even a little sneak peek of the new theme there. For now, however, it’s a bit behind the curve. The install itself didn’t take much time, ten to fifteen minutes.
After first boot, another familiar sight. The Restricted Device Manager pops up and asks me if I want to install the proprietary driver. I always thought this feature was one of the best things of Ubuntu, one of the easiest ways to deal with this (necessary) free software hurdle, and it’s good that CrunchBang has it too.
In other words, the whole install was uneventful, and that’s the way it should be.

Configuration

Pleasant surprise: the codec installer doesn’t pop-up, because they’re already installed. However, not everything is perfect here. Videos are opened in VLC, which is fine, but mp3s in Audacity, which is an audio editor, not an audio player. I installed Audacious, a GTK xmms clone, which is much better suited to that particular task. Another oddity is that Firefox comes equipped with plugins for Flash and Java, but not for video files. A VLC plugin is avaiblable, but not installed by default…and it isn’t that good anyway, because it doesn’t play QuickTime files. I feel a combination of mplayer and the gecko-mediaplayer plugin would have been the better choice here.

When I started adjusting the software selection a a bit, removing some applications here, installing some others there, Openbox showed one of it’s few limitations. The menu doesn’t get updated by default, you have to do that by hand. It’s not very difficult using OBMenu (Preferences > Openbox Config > GUI Menu Editor), but it’s an extra task you don’t have to bother with in a DE. To perform all that software shuffling, I used aptitude, but Synaptic is available from the menu.

As is customary in an Ubuntu based distribution, I didn’t have to do much post-install configuration. Aside from the details I mentioned, everything worked as intended.

Look and Feel

Ah, this is an interesting part. According to the website, one of the best things about CrunchBang is that it isn’t brown. I’m sure that many would agree, but instead CrunchBang is pitch black. Now, black is popular among Openbox users, but I’ve never been a fan of it. As far as black themes go, these is one of the better ones, with a nice balance between grey, dark grey and black, and the dev has gone through the trouble of creating his own Openbox and GTK theme, which fit together beautifully. Still, when checkboxes consist of a black tick on a dark grey square, I can confidently say that sometimes you can have too much darkness on your desktop. The icon theme is Tango, which is okay, but not isn’t very inspired.

CrunchBang is the new black

CrunchBang is the new black

In other words, it looks good but I have trouble using it. No harm done, as looks are easily changed. I experimented with orange and blue desktops before, so this time I decided to go over the top and go red. I used Shiki-Wine as the GTK theme, gnome-wine for the icons and arc-wine as the background. Openbox didn’t have a theme that went with that so I created my own. This is the result:

Paint the town red

Paint the town red

Of course you could argue that I sissy-fied a perfectly manly desktop, but this is more to my tastes 🙂 I still have to get a conky bar up there, and add the calendar I’m fond of, but that’s easily done.

When it comes to software selection, CrunchBang is a mix of lightweight and traditional applications. Part of LXDE is installed, most notably the file manager PCManFM, LXpanel and LXappearance, the theme and icon chooser. It also comes with a healthy dose of terminal applications, like rtorrent, irssi and naim, and uses Terminator for the terminal. OpenOffice isn’t installed, but Abiword and Gnumeric are. Claws is also an unusual choice for the email-client. The rest is pretty standard fare: Firefox, Rhythmbox, Deluge, The Gimp, Skype… The full application list can be found on the website, and it’s pretty obvious that omitting GNOME and OpenOffice left a lot of room for other great software.
As a result though, CrunchBang really can’t be called a “lightweight” distribution. It’ll run faster and use less resources than standard Ubuntu because it doesn’t have to run GNOME, but we’re not talking huge margins here.

Conclusion

Despite the use of Openbox and some lightweight alternatives to popular applications, CrunchBang isn’t a competitor for distributions like Puppy, DamnSmall or Slitaz. It’s not designed to be as small or run as fast as possible. I think that what Philip Newborough was trying to do here was simply create an Ubuntu that was more to his liking, sacrificing a bit of the ease of GNOME for the speed and versatility of Openbox, and including more of his favourite applications. When I look at the positive comments about CrunchBang I’ve been seeing everywhere, I can only conclude that he filled a real niche in the distribution list.
In my opinion, CrunchBang comes very close to my beloved Arch. It’s a very easy way to end up with a nice Openbox system, while retaining the easy install and hardware configuration of Ubuntu. The only major drawback I can see is that the current release is still based on Intrepid, which makes the software selection a bit outdated. Other than that, it’s simply one of the best distributions out there.

San


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.

San


Definitive Ubuntu 8.10 artwork

October 22, 2008

I decided to beat the rush and install the Beta of Ubuntu 8.10 this evening, because you just know that when it’s officially released, the servers will be slow.
At first I was greeted with the Beta artwork, which I found slightly disappointing, as have others before me.

A massive update (over 400 MB) changed some things though. The NewHuman theme has been renamed DarkRoom, but I don’t really see other changes, apart from the name.

The dark, but non-default, DarkRoom theme

The dark, but non-default, DarkRoom theme

Another change is the title in Grub, which changes from “Ubuntu Intrepid (development branch)” to “Ubuntu 8.10”, the official name of the upcoming release. It’s not a big change of course, but it does indicate that there aren’t any major changes left before the official release.

But the biggest, and most pleasant change for me was the default wallpaper, which was a boring brown swirl of balls (seriously), and now looks like this:

The new, fantastic Intrepid Ibex wallpaper

The new, fantastic Intrepid Ibex wallpaper

It looks like a fairly rough wall, with an almost prehistoric painting of an Ibex on the left, which despite the sketchiness of the drawing almost seems to sparkle with life. While it isn’t the drastic, new look that was promised for 8.10, it’s definitely a step up from the artwork of the alpha and beta releases.

San