Sunday, November 29, 2009

Several things Linux


After a while without an entry, I was thinking I would write about a few things Linux that have been happening lately.

Google Chrome OS - Google knows how to make lots of noise with everything they put out there, and I am pretty sure it's got a lot a lot to do with their success story. Not to say that their products are not good, I think they mostly won over people because they were great, but noise is always good.

As far as I am concerned, I think Google is still trying to figure out what to do with Chrome OS. The presentation they put together some days ago was a bit of a strange thing. Usually, when Google presents something new, most people, professionals or not, tend to be amazed at that new great application or feature. Gmail, Google Maps, Waves... Lots of examples out there. However, the story was different this time around. The reaction was a bit mixed as nobody really understands a product that very much feels like a step backwards.

Indeed, Google Chrome does not offer anything that Android doesn't. If anything, it offers less. In fact, it's been so badly stripped out of functionality that it could be considered a browser with a few shortcuts around. Google will claim that you don't need anything else, as all you need is out there in the cloud, but I feel that concept is still not mature enough. Not having storing capability, not having any customization available or strong hardware dependencies are some of its biggest drawbacks now, the most obvious one being its extremely limited functionality as a standalone device.

In fact, spending a few hundred euros on a device that is useless unless connected is not something that most of us would like to do. However, I also believe that this model is very intrusive and really concerning from privacy standpoint. If you want to store any sensitive personal information, you have no choice but to do so on a remote machine owned by a corporation. Of course there are privacy agreements, but which company stands by them? Should we really move to a computing model that allows a third party to track each and every move we make in our PCs? I personally don't buy the idea.

Anyways, lots of doubts around this OS. Let's wait and see what Google makes out of it.

Linux based Smartphones:
November was a great month when it comes to Linux powered Smartphones. The motorola Droid and the Nokia N900 are probably the biggest announcements, but several other Android phones from different brands were announced. I think Android is very well positioned to take over this market, as it has made a very smart move by building an open OS that is available for many makers. Soon, the amount of people using Android phones will overtake that of iPhones, and it will quickly become the "standard" way we use such devices. I think other OS will keep niche markets, though.

In terms of the N900 and the Droid, I have read several reviews and they both seem to be closely matched. It seems the N900 has a better camera and keyboard, while the Droid seems to be more mature from a functionality standpoint. I have seen many reports from members of forums complaining that things are not smooth enough on the N900. This is specially bad considering its really high price tag and the fact that Maemo5 is actually considered somewhat of a middle step before Maemo6, which should be the unleashing of all its capabilities. A wrong start could easily build a bad name to this OS, and discourage people from giving Maemo6 a go. I think Nokia must be very careful now and respond quickly to any issues if the want to have any chances at competing against the iPhone and even the Droid.

In any case, it is good that Linux is becoming a standard for this type of devices. The amount of development around them will surely have a knock on effect on all kinds of elements Linux, from Server to desktop. In fact, Linux is becoming very popular on the Netbook market, reportedly holding 25% of the share of preinstalled devices, with Ubuntu leading the way.

So the end of 2009 seems to be bringing great news all around. My tests with Mandriva 2010, Fedora 12 and Ubuntu 9.10 have all been very positive, and I believe they are all great releases in their own right. So go get any of those Linux flavours and never look back! Choice is now better than ever!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The coming of Constantine: Fedora 12 first contact


I downloaded Fedora 12 yesterday, right after it came out. I have a laptop solely for testing distros, so I never have to worry about the risk implied in installing a new OS.

I just spent a few minutes installing Fedora 12, so I can´t provide a thorough review, that will come later. This is just about the first minutes with it.

I downloaded the ISO file from the release entry, using the torrent file (always recommended, as it will most probably be faster than the actual download, and you contribute to not overload the download mirrors).

Booting from the Live CD allows for a first preview of what you are in for. The initial screen is very similar to the one used in Leonidas. Once again, the booting process is very smooth, aesthetically tasty. The transition from one screen to the next is very smooth, no plain text screens in sight.

The installation wizard has not changed much since leonidas. It is not as professionally looking as the one in OpenSuSE, but looks good enough. The partition section seemed revamped, clearer and easier. just for the sake of trying, I wanted to use the encryption option on my hard drive. I wanted to compare how an encrypted machine would perform against a standard, non-encrypted one. Installation completed pretty quickly, with no errors nor warnings.

Upon restart, I was prompted to enter the passphrase I had chosen for the encryption process. The booting process didn´t feel slow whatsoever, I was very pleasantly surprised. I am not sure if it is down to the fact that it is a brand new installation, but Fedora booted very quickly, perhaps even quicker than my Karmic machine. Considering that my test machine is an old laptop, that was very impressive.

The login screen has been updated, and it was a pleasant surprise. Once you enter your credentials, another beautiful screen shows up, with a nice loading progress animation. Very good looks throughout.

Once in the desktop, it´s all the usual Fedora goodies, plus some more I am yet to find. Using Yum is always nice. I like the application. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and does it very well!

One of the things I love about Fedora is using the latest of every application. KDE 4.3.3 looks great and my feeling is that it keeps improving performance. The KDE desktop now feels almost as responsive as GNOME. GREAT!

All in all, I think Constantine is the best Fedora release ever. I still need more time to be able to confirm such a bold statement, but I think I am right!

Friday, November 13, 2009

OpenSuse 11.2 - First Contact

Hi again,

I downloaded Opensuse 11.2 yesterday, and was eager to check it out.

Using the LiveCD, you can either install directly or run the LiveCD "demo". I wanted to install, so I chose installation. I was very pleased with what I saw. I can say that the installation wizard that comes with Opensuse is by far the best I have seen in Linux. Very good looks, easy to understand, and conveying a very professional feel all over the place.

Not being an Opensuse fan myself, I was surprised. I entered all the necessary parameters and left the installation running. Unfortunately, all the hype was gone very soon, as the installation hung. I was very disappointed with this strange error, specially because the machine I was installing in had been running many different Linux distros in the past.

I then tried booting to LiveCD, hoping that I could install from the desktop shortcut available. Oddly enough, it worked that way.

My concern is that such errors are very critical, because a non-experienced user would have probably given up after the first try thinking that Linux is crap, a waste of time, and all the usual ranting. I hope my error was a one off, but I can't really tell, as I have not tried again. If it is an actual bug, people are going to get mad about it.

In any case, I have to say I am not feeling like I will be an Opensuse fan anytime soon. I don't particularly like the way it works, don't like Yast much, and many applications were outdated (come on, OpenOffice 3.0 and Amarok 2.1?).

Anyways, mostly subjective stuff, except for the outdated apps and the installation error, but I think I will stick to Ubuntu and Fedora.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Releases and User Responsibility

Hi all,

I thought I would type some lines about some noise coming out of recent reviews of Ubuntu. I have to say, though, that these concepts apply to all Linux distros out there.

It seems Karmic Koala is not having an easy landing, and many users are complaining of a bumpy ride as they upgrade or install this new version. I want to provide some simple suggestions to make that ride more confortable, but will also discuss what I consider is part of the responsibility of the community.

Some easy steps to make your transition to a new release easy and safe:

1.- "If it ain´t broken, don´t fix it"
: In other words, do not upgrade/install a new release unless it is necessary. Obviously, this does not apply if you are installing a new release just for fun, but if your machine is used for work/studying, and it contains applications and information that is important to you, then you need to think twice before upgrading.

If you positively know that a new release will bring more stability to your system, or perhaps detect hardware that your current release cannot, by all means go for it, but understand this is not a trivial sudo apt-get update thing.

2.- Do backup your data before you upgrade!: Lots of people just blindly trust an upgrade process, unaware of its complexities. Even Windows and Mac have a tough time with upgrade process (Just read about the nightmare it is upgrading Windows Vista into Windows 7). These processes involve quite some risk, so you should prepare yourself to recover your info in case anything goes wrong. Not only there are great applications for backing up your information, but you can also create a live CD with your current installation, so restoring it can be a piece of cake.

By the way, these activities are best practices anytime, not just when you are about to upgrade.

3.- Try to avoid upgrading!: If possible, try to run a clean installation instead of an upgrade. Like I just said, an upgrade process is always delicate and complicated, so avoid it if you can.

Another reason to avoid upgrades has to do with the very concept of moving to a new release. By definition, certain upgrades cannot be made effective. For example, if you upgrade from any previous release of Ubuntu to Karmic, you will not be able to enjoy GRUB2.

4.- Do NOT upgrade/install right after release date!: I know, I know, you´ve been hearing about that new release, about its promising enhancements and you just can´t wait... well, DO WAIT!.

Let´s be honest, the involvement in Alpha and Beta testing for most, if not all, releases is really below what is needed to guarantee a proper release stability. The only true testing time a Release gets happens after GoLive, so be sure you are ready for a bumpy ride if you decide to update on release day.

On average, I would recommend to install a new release about a month after release date.

Remember, you have a choice. If you decide to upgrade/install early on, please do not rant about how bad that particular release was, but help fix bugs instead.

5.- Smile!: A positive attitude will take you a long way. Remember we are a community, so unleashing your frustration with mindless rants won´t really help. In fact, it will probably create a lot of noise that really has nothing to do with the actual quality of a release.

After all, even if you had a small issue (very very few people actually have serious problems), you are getting a wonderful OS for free, so you might as well breath deeply a number of times before biting the hand that´s feeding you.

In summary, please do take a new release seriously. It is a step that involves risk and you should only take it if you know what you are doing and are willing to accept that risk.

In addition, all users in the community are directly responsible for the quality of any release. The more people who seriously apply for Alpha and Beta testing, the better off we will be, so I encourage everybody to do so in case you haven´t already.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mandriva 2010 Review - When the smoke clears


I thought I would type a little more now that I have had a chance to work a bit longer with Mandriva 2010. I want to try and keep it short this time!

My thoughts on the startup and shutdown processes have not changed. I believe they lack the progress I was expecting from them. The startup bit was a disappointment, as it is far from the smooth feeling they had been "advertising". The KDM login screen looks horrible, obsolete and amateur. I know most of these things can be tweaked or changed, but I was honestly expecting a lot more from this release on this subject. To be honest, Fedora 11 was already a very good example of the kind of smooth startup process Mandriva was going after, and that's what I was hoping to see on Mandriva 2010, only I guess we will need to wait a bit longer.

The overall experience on the desktop is OK. No more, no less. It is somewhat faster than 2009.1, but don't expect any radical improvement. Most of the system control applications that were there in previous releases return unchanged (at least I haven't noticed any change, so they must be subtle if they are there).

Once again, I was disappointed by the wireless network detection issue (read previous article). Sometimes you see people complain about new releases, when they are upgrading from a release 2 or 3 years old, and using a piece of hardware that is very obsolete. You can only think there was a big risk it went wrong... However, in my particular case, this was a machine that had no issues with Mandriva 2009.1, and it is barely two years old, so...

If anything, most of the enhancements that caught my attention are down to the work the KDE project is putting together. KDE 4.3.2 is a very nice step forward, definitely in the right direction. I am eager to see what 4.3.3 looks like, and very excited about 4.4...!

All in all, I would recommend those using Mandriva 2009 to stick to their current versions. Upgrading involves a risk, and there is not much to be gained from this release. If your only driver is getting your hands on new versions of applications or even on KDE 4.3.2, you can always do that from your current version, no need for upgrading.

In hindsight, I recall that Mandriva 2009 spring was quite an improvement on 2009, so perhaps it is 2010 spring that we should still wait for. I will probably stick to Fedora 12 Constatine, though.


Mandriva 2010 - First impressions PART 2

Hi again,

This is a continuation of PART 1 of my Mandriva 2010 review. If you are interested, please read the first installment first.

Now, let´s pick it up right where we left it.

When I got to the desktop, my first thoughts were more towards Karmic Koala than to Mandriva, and how Ubuntu have been taking giant steps to becoming an incredibly good distro. It´s difficult and not exactly fair to compare distros without taking into consideration several factors. However, I believe that overall user experience is an important element, and probably what most users will care about eventually.

Mandriva 2010 does not look like much of an improvement from 2009.1. It does feel slightly faster, but not in a noticeable way. Compared to my installation of Karmic, it feels slow and bloated. Icon and window themes are the same, and so are fonts. The Mandriva menu looks the same as well, more of a traditional "windows like" kind of menu, as opposed to the standard KDE menu. Completely a personal thing, but the default Mandriva themes, as well as the default wallpaper are ugly in my opinion. I quickly changed them and started using Oxygen theme. I then enabled compiz effects so I could use some emerald window themes (much nicer than any kwin theme, IMHO).

All in all, the desktop experience was a bit of a disappointment for me, as I expected quite an improvement, and it isn´t there, I think.

The problems started when I wanted to connect to my Wireless network. The usual check on network connections showed that wireless was down. ifconfig command didn´t even show wlan0, and ifconfig wlan0 up failed, showing a SIOCSIFFLAGS: The file or directory does not exist type error. That bit was very frustrating, as it´s been a while since I have had a similar problem. In fact, considering that this is the same machine where I installed Mandriva 2009.1, and it picked up the wireless network flawlessly back then, it almost felt like a step backwards.

In any case, the usual googling magic worked again, and I could find a solution. For those experiencing the same problem, here´s how to fix it (solution for Intel on chip wireless cards):

1.- Open up a virtual console.

2.- Run dmesg | grep firmware

3.- You should get lots of entries. Download firmware from based on the results you got from step 1.

4 .- You should download a compressed file containing few other files inside it. Just extract the one whose name is exactly the same as what you got in step one into /lib/firmware.

5.- Run ifconfig wlan0 up and that should bring up your wireless interface. Your network applet should now be detecting your wireless network among others in your area.

NOTE: You may need to perform some of these tasks as root or by running sudo.

Once the process was finished and I was connected to my wireless network, things were pretty smooth. I downloaded my favorite ttf-droid fonts and set them up, along with a few compiz and system shortcuts of my liking.

I gotta say the guys at KDE are doing a very good job at improving this desktop environment. I personally favor GNOME myself, but have to admit KDE is becoming a very nice piece of work.

Anyways, after more tweaking than initially expected, I got Mandriva working smoothly. It is an OK release, in my opinion. I was expecting a lot more from it, and considering how Fedora and OpenSuse come with very promising releases, Mandriva may be losing some ground to them very quickly.

Let´s wait and see.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mandriva 2010 - First impressions PART 1

Hi all,

End of October and beginning of november are always happy days for Linux lovers, as many of the most important distros will release their new versions. Ubuntu unleashed the Karmic Koala a few days ago, while Mandriva released its brand new 2010 version just two days ago. Fedora 12 and OpenSuse11.2 are right around the corner as well, so damn right, pretty exciting times!

I wanted to share my first impressions on Mandriva 2010, I just installed it yesterday.

As usual, I downloaded the Live CD (I like to use Mandriva KDE implementation) from their site and burned the ISO into a CD. Insert the CD and Voila, the installation kicks in. Actually, I should say that Mandriva is slightly different to how Ubuntu Live CD works. Whereas the former forces you to boot into the LiveCD before you can install from a shortcut in the desktop, the latter allows you to jump straight into installation. Initially I thought that Mandriva´s way, while more conservative, was probably better considering how many users are complaining about faulty installations of Karmic. I was thinking it would help to enforce all users to run the live CD and see how compatibility plays with their PCs before they do run the installation.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

When you run any LiveCD, you get the operating system loaded from the CD, changing absolutely nothing on your PC. That is a very nice feature for many reasons, but probably the most important is that you can see how the Kernel in that particular LiveCD likes your machine´s peripherals. For example, if the liveCD does not detect your Wifi card, you will surely have the same problem when you install. At least, that´s what the theory says.

However, I got the opposite. I could see my Wifi card perfectly detected when running the liveCD, only to find the firmware was missing after installation. That was a very low point in my opinion. But anyways, let´s backtrack a bit and go through the installation process.

Like I was saying, after running the liveCD, there is a neat icon on the desktop that will start the installation process. The usual wizzard comes alive and the installation was pretty smooth, with a visual partition editor that made live particularly simple (although I think it can still be improved, I don´t find it intuitive enough for a new user). The installation went fine and the usual final message came up. Remove the CD from its tray and restart the system.

Mandriva has a particular way of doing things, which is a bit of a love/hate thing for me. For example, this particular release had made a lot of noise about the use of Plymouth along with Grub2 for a very visual, smooth transitioning start. My expectations were high, obviously, expecting a very cool looking interface at the start. There´s no denying, the Grub2 menu is more appealing than Ubuntu´s, as it is somewhat visual. However, after you choose to start Mandriva, transitioning is anything but smooth, jumping straight into a plain text screen which shows several components loading. The next screen is a visual one, with a neat animation displaying loading progress. I think it would have made more sense to use this screen all through the startup process, not letting any plain text screens visible. In any case, this visual screen is no breakthrough, nothing about its artwork is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, it felt to me a bit like a step back, as I loved the artwork in 2009 spring, and this one felt like a poor version of that. Even poorer was the KDM screen. I really think it is about time Mandriva updates it, it really looks obsolete and low quality. Everything from the graphics to the fonts looks pretty amateur.

Before I go into the desktop, let´s cover one thing about Mandriva´s installation that I hate myself. Before you even get to the login screen, you are asked to enter Root´s and a master user´s credentials. That much is fine. What I hate is that you are asked to setup your network connections at that stage, which has NEVER worked for me. There is a wizzard which initially looks harmless, and it could be a good idea if the wizzard actually worked as it should. Invariably, all through the last three releases, it always fails to detect any of the available networks automatically, and then you can either enter your network´s information (SSID, Encryption, etc) manually or cancel the process. I personally think this is an epic failure. Any non-advanced user will be puzzled if asked to enter their network parameters manually ("Oh, wait, the guy who set up my router gave me that info... Where did I leave that paper?"). Eventually, even if you know your parameters, as I did, the wizzard couldn´t connect to the network. Why? Because the firmware was missing!...

I will cover the rest of that problem and my impressions on the desktop on part 2 of this review.

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala

Hi everyone,

I couldn´t resist. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu version, codenamed Karmic Koala, as soon as it was available, freed up one of my hard drive partitions and started installing the October version for 2009.

Because release time is always busy and frantic, I wanted to give it a few days before I shared any thoughts on this release. I have been using Karmic for about a week now, mostly applying updates, learning a bit about the latest changes, browsing and emailing intensively, and even doing some work with OpenOffice.

I want to try and share a user like experience, not so much technical details that you may or may not be interested in. As a result, let me start from the beginning, when clicking the power button.

I happen to have Karmic installed on a machine with triple boot, in which I have Ubuntu Jaunty and Ubuntu Studio 9.04. Despite my initial fears that Grub2 could create trouble when sharing booting duties with previous versions, it all went fine. As usual, right after BIOS start, I can see the typical menu showing my OS list, with three entries as expected. The only thing I can report here is that it was a bit of a letdown, as the menu is plain text as it used to be, and I was expecting more of a visual thing. In fact, it was strange not to have it, considering that other distros like Mandriva had that visual menu since 2009.1 release. I have the feeling Ubuntu developers overlooked this matter.

Anyways, no big deal, I chose the default entry, which was obviously assigned to Karmic, and off I went into Koala Land!. As soon as the loading starts, I was pleasantly surprised with the splash screens. Basically, there are no more plain text transitions, all you see are dark and very stylish graphics that give it a very professional vibe. Very, very cool.

Once the GDM screen comes, it is a simple one, but once again stylish and dark. I like the many options available at the bottom. The overall feeling is solid and professional.

After logging in, the transition is once more very smooth, no plain text screens. The first look at the desktop is impressive. There is a definite improvement over previous releases that is very obvious this time around. The new window and icon themes look very nice. There are lots of wallpapers available, all of which are very high quality. One thing I disliked, though, is that the menu has been rearranged, and I guess it took me a while to get used to the new distribution, I still like the way the menu was arranged in Jaunty (or in previous GNOME releases), but that is obviously very personal.

I could quickly realise functional improvements as well. For the first time since Intrepid (when I started using Ubuntu), Koala has fully detected my Draft N wireless card. No need for compat-wireless this time around. Other improvements that are very noticeable involve overall speed and responsiveness on pretty much everything. Even heavy applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice start faster than ever before. Nautilus is also clearly faster. The overall feeling is that of a very responsive desktop (specially when having to deal with a bloated WinXP one at work!)

Some applets, like the Sound manager have been reworked, and look much better. The network applet has been reworked as well, and looks better and simpler.

After all the noise around them, Rythmbox and empathy are the chosen ones when it comes to default audio player and IM applications. I have never been particularly attached to Pidgin or any application per se, so no big deal to me. Both do what they are supposed to do quite well, so no complaints here. In fact, I find it hard to understand why people complain about this, because it takes about a minute to have the applications of your choice installed in case you prefer others, so... The rest of the "usual suspects" are there and working fine. Evolution is handling email as usual, and as usual, it is doing it superbly.

I could also notice how some of the KDE applications have been updated in the Karmic repositories. As a result, K3B now shows its latest improvements and new QT4 face. Amarok 2.2 is also available, and working better than ever, in my opinion.

When shutdown time comes... Well, it comes and goes faster than you would expect. Startup times have been improved further for Karmic, but shutdown time is incredibly fast! Once again, transitions are very smooth and no plain text screens show up.

All in all, my Karmic experience has been very good so far. If you want to enjoy the latest from Canonical, do install/upgrade to the Koala. Having said so, it´s always wise to backup your data, as well as trying the live CD before installing. That should save you any potential unpleasant surprise!

Hope you enjoy Karmic as much as I currently am!