Friday, April 30, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx: Final Review

Ubuntu 10.04 was officially released yesterday, April 29th 2010. I was curious to see if my initial impressions when reviewing the Beta were accurate, so I went ahead and tested it. On top of that, I wanted to find out how much improvement actually took place on this final version. Therefore, I want to use this article as an update to my initial REVIEW, as well as to capture my final thoughts on Ubuntu 10.04.

Note that I will not go over concepts that were already covered in that initial review.

INSTALLATION

Except for some translations that were not finished when the Beta was released and are obviously now, I have not noticed any difference in the installation process. As I said in my initial review, I like that the old text menus have been substituted by a good looking graphical and friendly interface.

Ubuntu allows the end user to start the installation before they actually try the product by booting from the LiveCD. While that is certainly convenient, I personally would like to see more information about the risks of not trying to boot from the LiveCD first, or perhaps simply a recommendation to do so. I believe that such approach would save lots of frustration in the long run.

BOOT PROCESS

Here's where the weird stuff started. As I completed the installation and was asked to remove the LiveCD, I received an error message. I thought the installation was over, so it probably meant nothing. I forced the computer to shut down and booted again, this time from my brand new 10.04 installation. I was curious to see how the splash screen looked now that it was supposed to be done. Instead, all I got was some command line interface boot, no splash screen to be found. Since I installed Ubuntu 10.04, I have booted about 10 times, and the splash screen has never showed up. I find that puzzling because it does show up when I shut down the computer... Oh, well.

Once the boot process was over, I finally got the GUI, in the form of the login screen. Let me stop right here to make a comment about the Wallpapers and backgrounds provided by Canonical.

I love having an OS that is responsive and I am never in favor of adding excessive animations or eyecandy that may get in the way of optimum performance, but there has to be a bit of balance. The default wallpaper included with Lucid is terrible in quality, badly compressed. The Karmic splash screen was criticized for the same reason, but at least it looked decent under 1280x800 (It did look bad on higher resolutions). I honestly thought the wallpaper included in Ubuntu 10.04 Beta was unfinished and imagined a higher quality version would be included as the final release went live. Wrong.

Personally, I believe this is an area Canonical should have put more effort on. A high quality wallpaper makes a tremendous contribution towards a great looking desktop, which is the first impression a new user will get. That first impression is VERY important, which is something Apple and Microsoft understood completely. As a result, Mac OS and Windows 7 have nailed down this piece perfectly, with very impressive and professional wallpaper sets. To make matters worse, the announcement of a fully revamped branding naturally raises the expectation for higher quality and more professional looks, which result in disappointment when that is not the case. On a different note, I find it a bit dull that almost half of the preinstalled wallpapers are flower pictures.


Lucid wallpapers lack the quality to be expected in Ubuntu.

After logging in for the first time, the desktop would not load. All I had was the wallpaper for around a minute, and then the usual upper and lower panels appeared, but showing the "Raleigh" window and control themes, instead of the Ubuntu 10.04 default. After a reboot, the desktop finally loaded normally, allowing me to continue my review.


Ubuntu 10.04 desktop with one of the default wallpapers, Cairo Dock & FFW icon theme.

SOME INTERESTING NEW FEATURES

As could be expected, Ubuntu 10.04 incorporates some new features, applications and branding. I already described some of those features in that first review, but here are some others I found this time around:

Branding

Aside from the new set of wallpapers, GNOME terminal gets a new profile, sporting the new branding colors.


The new profile color set in GNOME terminal.

The Software center branding looks a bit more refined, and it definitely improves when installing a different icon set.


The Ubuntu 10.04 Software Center.

Despite Canonical's intentions to make the Software Center the one stop for all things software, Synaptic Package Manager and the Update Manager still made it to the Administration menu. In my opinion, the Software Center is still far from being in a position to take over such responsibilities. The concept is good, and it is extremely user friendly for the packages it finds, but I feel it is still not mature enough. As an example, trying to find the Android fonts proved so difficult that I ended up using the terminal.

Starting Firefox takes us to the default search engine, which is back to Google after a brief switch to Yahoo!. This default search page looks much better than any previous one, clean and stylish.


Firefox 3.6.3 showing the default Google search page.

Rhythmbox

The default Ubuntu audio player also gets some enhancements. I found particularly interesting that it detected the lack of an MP3 decoder and offered a very straightforward way of downloading it automatically.


RhythmBox nice MP3 download feature.

Simply clicking in the designated button started the installation of the MP3 decoder, as shown below.


The MP3 decoder download process was easy and quick.

Once ready, I was pleasantly surprised to see Rhythmbox so tightly integrated with the UbuntuOne music store. There has been some controversy about including something so business oriented inside an open source OS, but I personally think it is OK. If you are not interested, simply pass on it, there is no obligation, but those who use it will surely help in providing Canonical the financial support the company needs. In my opinion, this is as good a way as any to add one's two cents so that Ubuntu's future is safe.


Rhythmbox and the UbuntuOne Music store.

Games

They say less is more, and I think that holds true when it comes to games included in Linux distros. I have always thought too many games are included, most of them lacking the quality to make it to a serious desktop OS. The Ubuntu developers seem to have thought alike, and I was pleasantly surprised to see only 6 games available this time, most of which are among my favorites.


A smaller but better game selection made it into Ubuntu 10.04.

About and documentation

Looking into the "About Ubuntu" section was interesting, as it also incorporates the new branding, proving a good piece of documentation to get any new user started on basic Ubuntu and Linux concepts


The About Ubuntu section looks cleaner and more professional than ever.

ROCK SOLID?

As I mentioned already, and differently to what I found when testing Beta and RC releases, this final release of Ubuntu was not exactly rock solid nor working flawlessly. I have tested several different Ubuntu releases in the past and since Ubuntu 8.10, I have always installed new releases on the same couple of laptops right after release date. I am fully aware of the risks implied, even willing to accept some sloppiness, but I have to say I felt disappointed after testing this final release of Ubuntu 10.04.

On the one hand, I find it difficult to explain that the exact same pieces of hardware (HP Compaq NX7400 and HP Compaq 6910p) that worked flawlessly with the Beta and Release candidate now seem to have problems on something as basic as the boot process. On the other hand, this is a Long Term Release, which is supposed to be more solid, more backward compatible and more mature and polished, which is simply not the case.

Back when Karmic was released, I couldn't relate to those who reported issues. It worked smoothly for me, but I could understand that the effort Canonical had put in place to incorporate so many new features would involve risks. In fact, many of us in the community thought all of those seemingly unfinished new elements would settle down and mature in time for Lucid. Sadly, I can't help but feel the opposite.

SUMMING ALL UP

My overall feel is that this release was somewhat disappointing. Here's a summary or reasons why:

- Some basic functionality that was working just days ago on the Release Candidate does not today on the same hardware.

- There is a bit of an overall "sloppiness" feel to Ubuntu 10.04 so far, which is specially significant given its LTS quality.

- The new branding is far from complete with wallpapers, icons and window themes having an "in the works" feel to them.

- Some new features, such as the infamous window minimize, maximize and close buttons shift to the left are difficult to explain. I know they can easily be moved back to the right, but what value adds a modification like this one if a vast majority of users will override it?

- I can't really understand the addition of PiTiVi, when GIMP was an application with a much wider user base. The argument Canonical used was that GIMP took too much space from the Live CD and was an application for professional use, but so is PiTiVi.

Don't get me wrong, there are many good things about Ubuntu 10.04, some of which I have discussed in my two reviews, but I guess the expectation was sky high and the delivery is not that big a step forward. I very much appreciate the efforts Canonical and its developers have put in place when creating this last release of Ubuntu, but more than ever before Ubuntu 10.04 feels like a middle step towards the more significant improvement we all want to see in Ubuntu.

As far as I am concerned, Ubuntu 10.04 is not a release I plan to use. I am very comfortable with my current Jaunty and Karmic installations and don't feel the Lucid Lynx has anything to offer that would justify upgrading. That's solely the result of my personal setup, needs and taste, so please do test and use Ubuntu 10.04 if you like it. For those interested in installing it, though, my advice would be to allow some weeks, perhaps a month or two, so the initial bugs can be fully fixed by the developers.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: Here's a very interesting ARTICLE covering some Ubuntu 10.04 bugs.

Thanks, William!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Getting started with Ubuntu 10.04 Manual

I just wanted to briefly mention the incredible work the guys at UBUNTU-MANUAL.ORG have done to put together this fabulous manual and publish it right when the official release should take place (today!).


The Ubuntu Manual portal

I have not read the manual in full, but have glanced over several sections and I believe this is a very good step forward to providing improved and thorough documentation to new comers. I specially liked the clarity and honesty in some sections, specifically when setting the right expectations around what Ubuntu does best.

Let's now spread the word and make sure people get a chance to read this so that their Ubuntu experience is the best possible!

Download the manual HERE.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

MacPup Opera 2.0 Review

Today I want to talk about a distro that is not among the most popular ones, but may be of interest for some with certain specific needs: MacPup Opera, which just released its 2.0 version.

CUTE LITTLE PUPPY

As can be inferred from its name, MacPup Opera is based off Puppy Linux, a small and convenient Linux flavor whose main features include:

- Small size, which makes it loadable into RAM memory, thus making it lightning fast.

- A "cut to the chase" approach involving minimal setup options so you can concentrate on what matters.

- Easy to carry in inexpensive 2GB or less USB pendrives.

You can read more about this project and its main features HERE.

ENLIGHTEN ME

MacPup Opera 2.0 sports an up to date version of the aclaimed Enlightenment Desktop, which may just be a good reason to give this distro a try. Enlightenment is very different to GNOME, KDE or Xfce, definitely worth checking out.


The Enlightenment MacPup Opera desktop.

Note that I didn't customize anything, this is exactly what you get after the installation. The enlightenment desktop has lots of potential, as demonstrated in this VIDEO.

My personal take on the Enlightenment window manager? Well, I feel its quite impressive at a glance, but wears out very quickly in my opinion. I think e17 was very much in the fight with the "big ones" back when it was released, but now it looks aged and obsolete. KDE and GNOME have maintained a very fast development and improvement pace, which is supported by a large community of developers. In turn, Enlightenment can only count on a much smaller community of developers and users, and it shows.

It should be noted, though, that the Enlightenment project is more than a window manager. You can learn more about it on its OFFICIAL SITE

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

The third MacPup Opera main component, which also makes it to its name, is the Opera web browser. There is an alternate version (MacPup Foxy) which uses Firefox, but since I hardly use Opera, I thought it would be more interesting for me to test drive this flavor.


The Opera browser is tightly integrated and works very well.

I have to say that I have tried Opera in several occasions, this being the last one. In the last three years, I have tried it once every few months, when a new release was out. Release 10 got me most interested, with expectations sky high, but it was a bit of a let down. Trying this latest version (10.10) was once again a disappointment. Don't get me wrong, Opera does many things very well, and I personally find it useful that it includes a simple yet convenient email client. Having said so, my main interest is around internet browsing, and that's where I feel it falls short compared to other popular Linux internet browsers, such as Firefox or Chromium.

Nevertheless, if you are an Opera fan, you will find it runs smoothly and fast in MacPup Opera.

PERFORMANCE

As already mentioned before, MacPup Opera's small size makes it the perfect candidate to be loaded into memory. Let's backtrack a bit, though, and explain how this works for those who have never tried it.

The idea is the same as in most other Linux distro releases. First step starts when downloading the ISO image, which you would later burn into a CD. Insert the LiveCD and boot from it and the first thing you find is a nice graphical menu which allows for two choices. You can either copy MacPup Opera into RAM memory, which is the default option, or simply boot from the CD.

Copying into RAM means exactly that, the whole operating system is loaded into RAM memory, which is easily doable due to its tiny size.


GIMP can't load any faster!

As you can imagine, once the copy process is over, things get as fast as they get. Menus load in an instant, applications open just as you click them... Definitely worth checking out, it even has a funny effect. GIMP loads so fast it will make you smile!

The benefits are quickly noticeable, but there is an obvious downside as well. When booting from a CD and loading the OS into RAM, we have no storage support, which means whatever customization (a wireless profile setting, for example) or piece of work (saving a file) will be lost as soon as you shutdown. As a result, MacPup is great for carrying around, perhaps even boot on machines with no hard drive, but not that suited for work that requires local storage. If you wanted to use MacPup to that effect, I recommend setting it up in a USB pendrive, which you can use as storage. Loading a stored wireless profile, for example, is very simple that way.

Note that if you accidentaly lose power when working from RAM, all your work will be gone!

EASE OF USE

All that performance gain and small size come at a prize. The interface and applications are very (maybe too) simplistic, at times bound to command line type interfaces. For example, the resource monitor is pretty much a terminal window with top command preloaded. Think of it as running the following command in your favorite distro:

xterm -e top

The Rox file manager does what it is supposed to do, and does it fast, but the looks are archaic at best.


The ROX file manager fits perfectly in MacPup Opera

That same overall feel is a constant throughout. All in all, I can't say this is a distro for first timers. For example, creating a wireless connection is not difficult and can be achieved entirely from the GUI, but let's just say there are many things that are too big a departure from "Windows ways" to be easily digested by a new user. For more experienced users, though, MacPup may be a fresh alternative to your main distro.


The exit dialog in MacPup Opera 2.0

CUT TO THE CHASE

If you have been using Linux for some time and have a clear understanding of how you will benefit from what MacPup Opera has to offer, then you will likely get a kick out of it. If you simply want to find out more about it or the Enlightenment window manager, by all means give it a go, you only have one CD-R to lose.

I personally believe there are many areas in which MacPup Opera 2.0 can be an extremely handy distro, just understand this is probably not best suited for main desktop use.

NOTE: If you like Enlightenment and want to use it as your main desktop window manager, you can install it in Ubuntu and many other distros. If anybody is interested in learning how to do this, let me know and I will write an article about it.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 23, 2010

PCLinuxOS 2010 Review

In the last couple of years I have tested many Linux distros. I was never a diehard fan of any of them, kept an open mind and was willing to simply use the one that best fit my needs. Fedora, Mandriva, OpenSuSE, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Debian and others have been put to the test at some point or another. PCLinuxOS was one of the few popular ones I had not tested. Being based off Mandriva, I was assuming it would be similar to the Linux Mint - Ubuntu case, so no surprises expected. After all, I had tested several Mandriva releases, so what could be that interesting about PCLinuxOS? Now, let me tell you... boy, was I wrong!

Not since I tested Ubuntu for the first time have I been so excited and pleased with any Linux distro release. That says a lot, because back then I was using Linux for the first time after years of using Windows almost exclusively, so there was a lot of being in awe due to being a "first timer". After then, no matter what distro I tried, I always felt there was something missing and that kept pulling me back to Ubuntu, which was best balanced in my opinion. After a couple days using PCLinuxOS 2010 I must say that such 1st place in the ranking may change.


The PCLinuxOS 2010 desktop.

FEATURES

The PCLinuxOS 2010 list of FEATURES is very impressive. Nothing surprising there, all feature lists are when any new release comes out. That's probably why testing a release after reading such lists may result in a bit of a letdown, for the end result usually never matches the expectation. This time around it was pretty much the opposite, which is very significant considering I tested Ubuntu 10.04 just days ago.

Kernel 2.6.32.11-bfs for maximum desktop performance: Right there. I installed PCLinuxOS 2010 on a pendrive, the same I had Fedora12 on, and the performance improvement is sick! I can't even notice any drag when comparing it to actual installations on proper magnetic hard drives. Quite honestly, it is the first time KDE feels as responsive as GNOME.

Full KDE4.4.2 Desktop: Awesome integration. This is by far the best implementation of the KDE desktop I have ever experienced. The developers have customized things where it matters, providing a much easier and intuitive interface.


The KDE Control Center looks great and is easier to understand

PCLinuxOS 2010 Branding: Most applications have been tweaked so they use consistent branding, which looks great and feels tight and professional. In addition, the 120dpi font resolution makes KDE look sharper than ever.


Amarok splash screen with PCLinuxOS branding


PCLinuxOS 2010 Control Center splash screen branding

Mandriva on steroids: The Mandriva control center has been revamped, focusing on what matters. For example, the software center is not included, but managed separately via Synaptic. PCLinuxOS developers have made a very good job at keeping the best features found in Mandriva, making up for those which are not that great using different tools.

Enhanced hardware support: Video, Wireless and printer support is great, with many proprietary drivers already installed. In my case, having installed on a pendrive, I can boot from several different computers. I found no hardware detection issues. (Note this does not mean all hardware is supported. As usual, make sure your hardware is recognized successfully when you boot from the LiveCD)


My Vodafone USB 3G modem working flawlessly after a couple simple steps.


Network Manager wireless list display.

Help and documentation: One element that should be highlighted is the impressive effort the developers have put into providing proper and meaningful feedback and help to the end user. I encountered several very helpful prompt messages, which I consider key for first time Linux users. On that same note, tools like AddLocale, Repository speed test and GetOpenOffice allow users to complete some of the most popular "things to do after installing..." easily and clearly, no use of the CLI required.

INSTALLATION

PCLinuxOS is one of those distros that enforce booting from the LiveCD before one can install. Once the desktop is loaded, installation may be triggered by double clicking a launcher if the user so desires. When I started using Linux I thought this was an unnecessary hassle. I liked Ubuntu's approach better, which enables installation straight from the LiveCD menu. I now believe the PCLinuxOS approach is best. By forcing the user to boot the LiveCD, there are higher chances that any potential hardware incompatibility is spotted before the installation takes place.

APPLICATIONS, CODECS & DRIVERS

The catalog of applications available by default in PCLinuxOS 2010 is great, almost feels like I chose it myself! I suppose KDE purists will not be very happy to see Firefox, Thunderbird or Pidgin as default Internet browser, email and IM client defaults, but I couldn't be happier. They just saved me a bunch of time uninstalling and installing.

Open Source advocates may also dislike the fact that PCLinuxOS 2010 includes a bunch of proprietary drivers, but for new users this is a blessing. I personally see reasons to support both approaches.

Firefox is preinstalled, sporting the latest version, 3.6.3. I was a Firefox advocate for a long time, but have lately been using Chromium more and more. In my experience, the speed difference was too significant to be romantic about it. All that said, I am amazed at how responsive and quick Firefox is under PCLinuxOS 2010. I am typing these lines from it and have no plans to install any other browser.


Firefox performs much better than expected under PCLinuxOS 2010.

Thunderbird is also preinstalled in its latest version. I have not used this new version much myself, but it probably is more current and powerful than Evolution or Kmail. With email clients, though, it mainly goes down to personal preference, so I won't go on about it.

YES! Dropbox is installed by default. This was a BIG plus for me, as I had been unable to find a convenient way to install it under KDE. It is a breeze under PCLinuxOS, just need to enter the username and password, no exiting the session or anything like that required.


Dropbox perfectly integrated in KDE!

Adobe Flash plugin, MP3, DVD playback, Most popular video codecs, JAVA and Compiz effects are all setup and ready to use and enjoy from the get go. In addition, KTorrent, K3B, Amarok or GIMP are examples of some other pre-installed applications available under PCLinuxOS 2010. All of them are at their latest or very up to date versions.


Dolphin is no exception, faster than ever before!

TAKE IT EASY

I want to take a bit of time to talk about a number of tools that I feel are great in making life easy for end users: Repository Speed Test, Add Locale and GetOpenOffice.

Repository Speed Test runs a check on all the repository servers available and recommends the optimum setup. If the end user agrees, the application automatically applies the corresponding changes to the sources list file. When done, it starts Synaptic so software can be downloaded. I particularly liked the information messages provided throughout. They were clearly explaining what was happening as a backup copy of sources.list was automatically taken before actually committing the changes.


Repository Speed Test makes managing software sources a piece of cake.

Similarly, Add Locale easily makes all the necessary adjustments to add and setup languages. In fact, I often had issues installing Spanish language in KDE implemenations from Fedora, OpenSuSE and even Mandriva. It was doable, of course, but not as straightforward as in GNOME distros like Ubuntu. Even when I managed to get it to work, not all applications would display the right language settings. With Add Locale it was a breeze and once again the information messages were spot on.


AddLocale in action.

Finaly, GetOpenOffice is nothing short of amazing. When you run it for the first time, the tool asks for the language you want to install, then downloads and installs the packages and menus automatically. If run again, the application detects there is a previous installation and prompts the user if s/he wants to reinstall or uninstall. Nitpicking a bit, I would say I liked how progress is shown through a terminal like interface, but I guess standard users couldn't care less. I think it would look even better if a GUI progress bar was displayed, allowing for such minute detail monitoring as an optional feature.


GetOpenOffice rocks. If there is an existing installation, it displays the options available.

NOTE: I am aware not all these tools have been developed by/for PCLinuxOS, but it is how well they have been selected and integrated that made a very positive impression on me.

All in all, I think all three applications are a very nice step forward towards making the Linux desktop experience accessible to anybody. In fact, to be completely honest, PCLinuxOS 2010 is the first distro that I feel is ready for "The year of the Linux desktop" challenge. It is powerful yet clear and simple. There are some areas that could use some polishing, but it is a huge step in the right direction. Provided the hardware is fully supported, as has been the case on all five machines I have tested it on, I really feel anyone can enjoy PCLinuxOS 2010!

NETWORKING & SECURITY

PCLinuxOS 2010 also provides a very clear and comprehensive GUI interface to setup the firewall. As expected, iptables policies are set to accept by default, but no ports are listening. In the GUI interface this translates to showing the firewall as disabled (the actual option displays "no firewall"). Enabling the firewall is as simply as un-ticking that option.


Firewall setup doesn't get any easier than this.

The network manager is the same used in Mandriva, not awfully fast, but quite solid. Once again, it provides a friendly interface, which among other things, allows for wireless scan refresh (one of the main weaknesses in the GNOME network manager applet as of today). On top of that, I was very pleased to see that my Vodafone HUAWEI USB 3G modem was recognised on the fly, successfully setup in a couple steps and working right away (screenshots under the FEATURES section above)

WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

As you probably expect at this point, I absolutely recommend PCLinuxOS 2010. I have been using it for only a couple days, but I have the feeling that it is the best Linux release I have tested in years.

PCLinuxOS 2010 is excellent for any kind of user, but probably most recommended for new comers. It brings down the need for CLI typing to almost zero. In my case, I actually have only opened Konsole because I like it, not because there was no other choice.

Don't take my word for it, DOWNLOAD it and give it a try! You will not be disappointed.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When a songbird's out, "atunes" in.

Songbird is an opensource project focused on building a cross-platform audio station. Linux was at the heart of the project, but as you may know, the company behind the project recently decided to drop its support. There was an OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT, which had a significant apology sound to it. I understand why they would feel sorry, for the Linux community has not only embraced their application, but also taken a significant role in its development and improvement.

Ultimately, it seems the company has decided to take the easy way out, betting on the (supposedly) winning horses: Windows and Mac. In my humble opinion, they have made the wrong move here. Not only will they not get the same support from those communities, but they will face a much more fierce competition. After all, how feasible is it for an iTunes clone to beat iTunes under its own terms? Why would Windows and Mac users switch to Songbird, when it has the same or less features and is ridiculously slow? (The Linux version is OK, but on Windows, performance is terrible). In short, I think the financial reasons that have surely been the driver behind this decision may not be as safe a bet as they might have thought.

In all fairness, I have to say that Songbird still provides Linux support, albeit unofficially. On top of that, further Linux development is still possible if the community gets involved. All in all, the future of the project looks rather dark at this point. The good news is that there are several very good audio players available for Linux.

NEVER FEAR, aTUNES IS HERE

One of those players is aTunes, another iTunes clone, in this case developed under Java. The current version, 2.0, was just released a few days ago and looks and works great.


The default aTunes interface sports a nice balance between looks and functionality

aTunes' Java nature sure does not add lightning fast responsiveness, but it is not that bad either. Opening the application takes roughly as long as any other audio station I have tried (Amarok, Songbird, iTunes, etc.). Other operations, such as loading the music library, lyrics or album covers, are actually pretty quick, certainly quicker than they were in Songbird.

I personally liked the many skins available from scratch. Many look & feel combinations are just a few clicks away. Interestingly enough, there is one which offers very good integration with the current GNOME theme in use, which is nice considering the application is Java based.

INSTALLATION

Unfortunately, aTunes is one of those applications that is not available from the Ubuntu repositories. The project is serious though, and the download from its official site very much safe. We Ubuntu users can download and install through a conveniently packaged .DEB file.


The official aTunes website makes downloading very easy.

Downloading the package is just two clicks away. As with many other opensource projects, aTunes installation files reside under sourceforge.net.


Download from the .DEB package link, as highlighted here.

Once the package is fully downloaded, you can either install from the GUI by double clicking on it, or with this simple terminal command:

dpkg -i atunes_2.0.0.deb*

* Note that the command above must be executed as root.

THE FUTURE

We Linux users have a good variety of audio players to choose from. Even if Songbird was effectively no longer one of those options, there are many other good ones, which continue improving release after release. aTunes is one of them, so give it a try and see how you like it.

Enjoy!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

First Contact Review: Ubuntu 10.04 Beta2

I recently downloaded Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Linx Beta2 for testing. I love what I am seeing, so I want to share some of my initial impressions on what seems to be a release that could mark a milestone in Ubuntu's history.

BOOT PROCESS

This second beta shows most of the latest branding updates. I think the Canonical staff pulled off the right moves on this one. Ubuntu looks sleeker, more modern and with an even more professional look.


A simple yet good looking screen welcomes as the boot process starts.

The new branding has been tightly integrated from square one. A screen showing the new Ubuntu logo transitions into a simple implementation of the usual progress bar splash screen, which I have omitted due to the low resolution in my virtual machine. I must admit I liked the Karmic concept better, that shiny bar moving left to right and back, but this idea looks good as well. Overall, no plain text messages are displayed, which gives a nice, friendly feel to the boot process.

INSTALLATION

At last, the ugly text messages that were part of the start of the LiveCD installation are finally gone for good. The LiveCD now loads a graphical interface with a more familiar and friendly look. As expected, we can choose if we want to boot from the LiveCD or run the installation wizard. The good old language preference menu now looks a lot better integrated.


A simple yet good looking screen welcomes as the boot process starts.

The next few steps look very similar to what we have seen in previous versions, showing the usual keyboard language, time zone selection, etc., only using the new window theme and styles.


Ubuntu quickly detected the right time zone settings automatically.

As soon as the usual initial parameters are set (time zone, language, detault user account, etc.), the actual installation starts, showing a very nice set of slides, fully taking advantage of the new branding and design.


The new wizard slides look amazing.

The installation slides display highlights of Ubuntu's main features.


As the progress moves forward, the slides introduce the user to Ubuntu.

Evolution, Firefox, Ubuntu One, OpenOffice and F-Spot, among others, are presented as the installation moves forward.


Empathy, Gwibber and the rest of the social features are also highlighted.

Ubuntu 10.04 will aim at taking the social integration even further than it was in Karmic Koala. As such, Empathy and Gwibber are highlighted during the installation process.

A very interesting feature, which I have found for the first time in 10.04, is that the installation process takes care of those updates we usually had to do once the installation was completed. As you can see from the screenshots above and below, package download progress is displayed and we can see dpkg in action, installing packages. As a result, I recommend having a working ethernet network connection plugged in when installing Ubuntu from now on.


Accessibility is once again a priority in Ubuntu 10.04.

Another element that gets an introduction during this process is the Ubuntu software center. After it made its debut on Ubuntu 9.10, it has been improved further in this yet to be released version. However, even if it was initially aimed at taking all installation and update functionality, this Beta2 still has the Synaptic package manager in its usual location under System > Administration menu.


The Ubuntu Software Center is highlighted in the installation slides.

LET'S USE IT!

Once installation finishes, we are asked to reboot and remove the LiveCD. After a couple cosmetic changes, the Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Linx desktop looks like this:


A nice clean desktop. We can see the social integration in the upper right menus.

Firefox is once again the default Internet browser in Ubuntu 10.04. In this case, version 3.6.3 is on board. Interestingly, Yahoo is still used as the default search engine. This is a bit of a surprise, as Canonical recently revealed it would go back to Google. I guess that change will be effective before going live anyways.


Firefox 3.6.3 is preinstalled.

Setting up empathy is easy and quick. It provides a simple integration for an impressive list of protocols, all accessible through an easy to use interface. From Google Talk to Sametime or MSN messenger, it's all there.

I believe the deep integration of social networking protocols is a great feature, specially for those who normally use several of them, as I do. Native support for my Tweets, MSN, Yahoo chat and Google Talk chats makes it amazingly convenient to stay in touch with my friends and people I follow. From a professional standpoint, it too adds to productivity, as it saves precious time, disk space, and the hassle of having to install and setup several applications.


Empathy supports an impressive number of protocols.

Aside from the already expected OpenOffice suite, which is now on version 3.2, Lucid Linx includes a new video editing tool, PiTiVi. This is a very nice companion to RhythmBox, which takes care of the audio reproduction bit.


RhythmBox, Totem & PiTiVi will cover your video and audio needs.

As mentioned already, the Ubuntu Software Center has been further improved on this version. The initial menu makes it very easy to find applications, clearly splitting them into categories. I like how this application is progressing, but it seems to me it is still not mature enough to take all installation and update responsibilities yet. I hope they keep Synaptic available for now!


The Ubuntu Software Center in all its glory.

AVAILABLE SOON!

Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Linx will be released in less than two weeks, and is looking amazing so far. I truly believe this version will make a milestone in Ubuntu's history. There is a very significant improvement in terms of functionality, but it is the branding, style and improvements to the GUI that I think will make the difference. If anything, I only miss a proper default icon theme. The Human theme has been around forever, it looks aged and low quality now. I think Canonical should invest in creating a more professionally looking icon theme, which should make the actual branding and style upgrade complete.

Ubuntu always shined as one of the Linux distros that made itself easily accessible to any kind of users. In my opinion, Ubuntu 10.04 only improves further in the right direction. If it manages to make a significant improvement in terms of hardware support and backwards compatibility, it will be best positioned to become a huge success.

I definitely recommend installing and using Ubuntu 10.04 once it is released, you will be pleasantly surprised!

(NOTE: Due to the limited amount of testing resources, installing a Linux distro right after release date is not recommended for new or inexperienced users, as some bugs may still be pending resolution. If it is your first Linux installation ever, make sure you boot from the LiveCD before you install. Such approach will help you in understanding if Ubuntu supports all your hardware.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A couple more screenshots

Alright, mid April feels like as good a time as any to share a couple screenshots from my desktops. Both of them belong to Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala installations:


A nice modern sleek look with shiny black panel and menus

I usually like to set up my desktops as clean as possible. In order to do so, I try to keep a balance between the desktop wallpaper and the icons on top. If the background is a busy picture, I try to keep it simple with icons, keeping their number to a handful. I also try to choose icons which stand out, mostly trying to find nice contrasts in colors. The screenshot above is a nice example of such balance.


A nice look at nature that feels fresh and relaxing

Once again, the screenshot above shows that balance I was talking about before. The background is busy already, so I kept it clean and grouped icons at the bottom, where they can stand out a bit more. The Magog White icon theme fits perfectly on the top panel.

Enjoy!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A word (or two) about Linux desktop security

When I wrote my Windows 7 vs. Ubuntu 10.04 Beta ARTICLE several days ago, I rated Ubuntu higher than Windows in terms of security. In hindsight, I think I was perhaps assuming certain bits and pieces, as well as maybe not thoroughly explaining why I thought that was the case.

Thanks to some of the posts from readers, I started thinking I should cover this subject in more depth. Moreover, I could see that there were certain areas that were lacking consensus, even among very skilled and knowledgeable people. Since then, I have been doing some research on certain things I was not 100% clear on, as well as carefully thinking about those potentially weak spots certain posts were raising. I would like to use this article to share my views on this subject.

First off, even if some posts claimed to expose irrefutable facts, I have to say I believe there no such thing, for all arguments were ultimately linked to personal opinions. In fact, the biggest disagreements came from different interpretations of three main questions:

- What is standard home desktop usage?
- What threats pose a risk to the Linux home desktop?
- What is currently missing security wise?


Answers to these questions did eventually shape another answer to yet another key question:

- What should end users do to close the gap?

Before I move on and share my own point of view, I would like to list a few things that may provide some context:

- There seems to be a tendency to interconect our data across an ever increasing amount of devices. Smartphones, iPods and the like, iPad and similar devices, netbooks... The list goes on and on.

- The media through which we interchange data is also changing and evolving very quickly. 3G (many countries have already incorporated 3.5G and a few already offer 4G), ADSL, Cable, High speed internet, etc.

- The evolution towards a cloud computing model keeps reducing the scope of the traditional home desktop as the primary means of storing data for the average user. Certain services, like Dropbox, offer users a cheap solution to keep data safe and available from different sources and locations.

- Corporations store critical data that may be a target for third parties for many reasons, thus justifying the huge investments they put in place to keep it private and safe. When they implement desktop security practices, they do so in a controlled environment, where each link of the chain gets just as much attention as the desktop.

- A home desktop OS should sport a balance between many features, among which security is just one. It is unreasonable to expect a standard user to spend hours partitioning a drive so that optimum security is achieved when, for all we know, s/he may never store anything worth securing.

What this means to me:

- The home desktop is not the only, maybe not even the main device whose security should concern us. In fact, we can make our desktop more secure than fort knox, but that means nothing if we don't encrypt our wireless connection, or if we have mobile devices with bluetooth fully open, or if our 3G connection is compromised, etc.

- In my opinion, trying to draw any comparisons between corporate and home desktop security is beyond the point. It is unreasonable to expect a standard user will have the ability or even the possibility to implement a fully secure environment.

On a different note, corporations implement security policies in accordance to the criticality of their information, which is directly related to how much of a target that information may become. I think those are concerns the average Joe does not share for obvious reasons.

- Security must be balanced with other elements that are equally important for the end user, such as ease of use.

With all that said, let me share my perspective on...

LINUX DESKTOP SECURITY

Since Windows is currently the most popular home desktop operating system, and whether we like it or not, the standard by which most keep judging the Linux desktop, I will continue to draw comparisons to the Microsoft OS. After all, it was this very comparison that created all the noise.

FIREWALL

If you have read about the Linux desktop firewall on forums, or even in the posts from this blog, chances are you probably are confused about it. I know I was.

The most popular Linux desktops include a firewall from the get go, that much is clear, but there was little consensus on whether it was enabled or disabled by default. Things may vary slightly depending on the distro, but here's how it goes in Ubuntu:

The firewall policies are all set to ACCEPT by default, which effectively means all ports are open. However, none of them is listening, so in practical terms, they are all closed.


Zenmap's intense scan found no open ports in my Ubuntu 9.04 desktop.

As you can see from the screenshot above, a scan on one of my machines shows no ports are open by default, which is the result of having no ports listening. However, if I installed a mail server, a MySQL server, or maybe even just a printer, that would open one or more ports. That could be a potential threat, but if you are behind a router, as I am, you should be perfectly safe as long as you don't forward any port(s).

The best thing you could do, though, is install one of the visual interfaces available. GUFW and Firestarter are both available from pretty much any Linux distro repository and install very easily. When they are first setup during installation, a default configuration is put in place that should keep things very much secure (policies default to DROP). It is important to understand that once those rules have been setup, you should not need to run GUFW or firestarter all the time to stay safe. In fact, you should not need to run them unless you want to modify any of the rules or monitor IPTABLES activity.

Long story short, if you are using Ubuntu at home and you are behind a router, you are pretty much safe from attacks with the default setup. Having said so, I would still recommend installing one of the visual interfaces available. As far as I know, the Windows installation does include firewall support and is enabled by default, so I believe both are pretty even on this one.

If anything, I think Linux distros should make an effort to provide better information about this subject as part of the desktop experience, so the end user can understand the level of protection provided, the risks (if any), etc.

VIRUSES

As we have seen in a previous ARTICLE, Linux is virus free. Now, I consider this a critical element and was surprised to see some posts claiming that all you need as a Windows user to be safe is to "install an antivirus".

Just like with pretty much anything in computing, the subject of viruses and antivirus software can get as deep and complex as you want to make it, so I will stick with a few concepts I consider relevant to our home desktop security discussion:

- Even if Windows users are asked to install an antivirus, it is still very much down to user choice. I have heard people I know say that they are not paying $30 a year for an antivirus. They either end up downloading a pirate copy (which may very well be infected already, be a trojan, etc.), downloading one of the few free antivirus applications available, or simply installing no antivirus at all.

- I recently heard a radio interview with a senior member of one of the leading Antivirus developing companies and he was claiming they were finding a significant number of malware entities created every day. Here is a quote from Wikipedia's entry for computer virus:

"The Sophos Company experts say about 40,000 computer viruses are now known to exist, with about 200 new computer viruses being released into the Internet each month"

Now, I think it is clear that such estimations are based on what these companies actually detect, which is not necessarily the grand total. In addition, that rate of detection varies depending on the quality of the antivirus at hand. My experience is that standard users tend to like better those antivirus applications which offer an easy to use interface, are not overly intrusive and don't add too much drag to overall performance. Quite honestly, I am yet to find a Windows user who consciously makes an effort to research antivirus benchmarking and buys the most effective antivirus based solely on security. My point being, if only 1% of viruses is not detected that means hundreds of thousands of users have absolutely no protection against 2 new viruses every month. That is assuming each and every Windows user has a current and valid antivirus license, which is no trivial assumption.

This is a significant advantage Linux desktop users can benefit from.

ROOTKITS, TROJANS AND SOCIAL ENGINEERING

Both rootkits and trojans require user interaction to be effective. In other words, for any of these pieces of malware to have significant impact in the system, a user must be tricked into taking a number of technical steps potentially involving administrative access. This concept, along with that of an extremely fragmented packaging system and that of a fairly small community have helped in keeping Linux as safe as it has been so far.

Let's not misinterpret what that means or rest on our laurels. Linux is far from being immune to this kind of attack. Here are some recommendations that should keep you fairly safe.

1.- Do not download or execute scripts from any untrusted source. This is a bit of a tough one, as the Linux community has a history of sharing scripts, putting together tutorials which new comers blindly execute without asking, etc. Certain scripts can be obtained from trustworthy sources, but as a rule of thumb, do not run anything you don't fully understand.

2.- Stick to official repositories when installing applications. If you can't afford to do so because you are using a distro with a limited catalog of applications available, then consider using a different one. Arch Linux is a distro with an immense amount of applications available from its official repositories. The same applies if your distro of choice is too conservative when adding new releases of applications. Fedora is a good example of a distro that does a very good job at making new versions of applications available very quickly.

Obviously, I am not asking you to move to a different distro just because of a few extra repository sources. However, if your current distro of choice forces you to keep a large sources.list file, you should consider switching to a different one. As always, use common sense and stay away from repositories you have no solid reasons to trust.

3.- Avoid downloading and installing applications from .DEB or .RPM packages as much as possible. If you follow the recommendation from item 2 above, then you are not likely to use this installation method much, but I still think it is worth stressing out. Don't get me wrong, many software vendors do package their software using this method and sometimes it is the only way for users to get an up to date version. OpenOffice, Dropbox, Skype and VirtualBox are examples of software that can be safely downloaded and installed this way.

Once again, use common sense and stay away from packages that are not easily distinguishable as trustworthy.

4.- Do not run any untrusted launcher. Both GNOME and KDE allow launchers to be executed with a simple double click, even if they do not have executable rights. To be fair, I have to say that both of them raise warning messages, but I still believe this poses a real threat. Best thing you can do is to never run any launcher that was not originated by your own machine processes.

5.- Make it a habit to use a standard user profile (as opposed to an administror one). Different distros handle it differently, but many grant admin rights (read sudo access) to the account that is created on installation. Ubuntu is a good example.

If you are using a Linux distro which provides default sudo access, I recommend you create an alternative user account for day to day activities. Think about it: Browsing the web, listening to music, watching movies, playing games, etc., all doable without admin privileges. Why risk it unnecessarily?

CONCLUSION

All things considered, I still believe that Linux desktop security is superior to that of Windows in a home environment. Here's why:

- The default firewall setup offers a very safe configuration off the bat.

- The software repository model is safer.

- Viruses are no concern.

- Social engineering is definitely a threat, but following a few simple guidelines should keep it safe.

Some have raised a very valid concern about the lack of reactive security in the Linux Desktop. Unlike Windows users, we have nothing to fix or even detect the situation once security is compromised. While I agree with such concerns, in my opinion all that means is that Linux users need to approach security differently to Windows users. Windows users have grown accostumed to a reactive model. They have a wide variety of tools to detect a security threat and kill it. The key to Linux desktop security is to take a proactive approach: Preventing over healing.

To me, it boils down to this: Linux desktop users are safe as long as they follow a few best practices, which is more than what Windows users can say today, even with the help of an antivirus. In addition, in the event of security being compromised, the severity of damage is generally much more limited.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Useful command line little tricks (part 5)

Today I want to cover command line search applications. These applications are interesting and useful, and as you shall find out, incredibly powerful!

LOCATE

Sometimes regarded as "the easy way" to search from the Linux command line, locate does exactly as one would expect: it returns the location of a given file/folder. In my opinion, its biggest advantage is that it is fairly simple to use, and very quick! To see a simple example, let's try to locate jpg files (images) in our computer. In order to do so, run the following command:

locate *.jpg

Wow! That was fast, huh!? Locate returned all jpg files in your drive in an instant. If you are used to how Windows searches from the GUI, this probably felt like the speed of light!

OK, that was good, but how about locating something less straight forward, maybe an obscure filename that may not be as common as jpeg files? For example, say you have been experiencing issues with your X session and need to check the Xorg logs:

locate Xorg

Once again, a list showing absolute paths to all files containing the word "Xorg" is returned. As correctly pointed out by the locate command, Xorg logs reside under the /var/log folder.

You probably noticed that those results were once again returned very quickly. This is the case because locate does not actually search your drive, but a database of its own. The downside to this approach, though, is that the locate database is updated only so often. That means that if you created a file just some seconds ago, locate will most likely not find it, for it needs to index it first. Having said so, you can manually update that database at any given moment, just running the following command (as root or using sudo):

updatedb

For those who don't particularly like using the command line interface, I have put together a very simple script you can use to get the benefits from this command without actually having to interact with the shell every time you do use locate.

NOTE: As usual, this is aimed at Ubuntu users, but it should work on any GNOME distro. As for KDE distros, you can use kdialog with just a few minor changes.

First off, open gedit or any other text editor of your choice, then copy and paste the text below on a new text document:

#!/bin/sh

zenity --info --text "$(locate "$(zenity --entry)")"


Once done, save the file as "search" under your home folder, which should be the default saving location anyways.

Now, close gedit and browse your home folder to ensure the search script was successfully created. Bingo! The file is there, all we need to do now is grant it executable rights, so it can be run from a desktop launcher. Simply open a terminal and run the following command:

chmod 744 search

That's it, you can close the terminal window now.

Let's create a launcher in a location of our choice. For the purpose of this example, I chose the desktop.

First, right click on your desktop and add a new launcher.


I created a launcher and pointed it to my "search" script

Obviously, you can customize the icon, launcher name, comments, etc. Once you are done, simply close that window and double click on your newly created launcher. If everything went as expected, you should get a popup prompt, like this one:


Using our previous example, I am searching for "Xorg"

Enter your search term and click OK. The result will come back very quickly, as shown below:


The results from our search!

As you can imagine, this is a very simple script which lacks the flexibility of using locate straight from the command line. Having said so, you can obviously modify the script I provided and add certain parameters to the locate command so that it fits your needs better.

FIND

We just saw locate is a very interesting command with some powerful features, albeit limited for the kind of power we would expect from the command line. We are going to quickly see some examples of that power though, through the use of the find command.

Unlike locate, find is not very intuitive. In my opinion, not even the help included with this command is really that helpful for beginners, so it takes a while before you grasp how things go. Essentially, the main thing to understand about find is that, unlike locate, it does not expect a file or folder name as input. The input for find is made of search criteria, which can be very diverse, thus making it very powerful.

To show how find works, let's just use an example, namely the same one we tried with locate.

find "/" -type f -name "*.jpg"

Note that find will default to the path you are at, as opposed to locate, which covered the whole tree structure. Because of that, we pass / (the root of the folder structure) as the first parameter. Then, we specify that the element we are after is of type "file". As a last step, we provide a pattern for the name to match.

Some of the criteria we can use includes: creation date, modification date, owner, group, type, name, readable, writable, executable, size and many, many more! Therefore, we can go from "search for any file with .jpg extension" type search to "find me any element under root of type file which belongs to user A, group B, that is a month or older, was modified in the last 5 days, has writable permissions and .jpg extension, or maybe one that was created in the last 5 minutes, has .log extension and is empty. Once you find any of those, delete them". Wow!! Now try achieving that from the GUI, it would take forever!

Let's see how this works:

The find command includes three main elements: tests, operators and actions.

Tests

This is the only element we have seen in examples so far. When we pass find a specific type, name, a group or a user, we are essentially passing tests. Let's try an example that shows a bit more of find's real power using tests:

find -type d -empty -mtime +30

The command above returns empty folders which have not been modified in the last 30 days. A variation of this command may help us find opportunities for cleaning up our home folder.

find -type f -size +20M -user A -executable

This would find files with execution rights, size 20MB or larger, which belong to user A.

find -mindepth 2 -maxdepth 3 -type f | wc -l

This would return how many files there are inside the folders stored in your home folder.

Options

As you probably realized from the tests we have just seen, they cover a lot of ground. However, sometimes these tests may fall short and you may need even more flexibility. Let's see some examples:

find \( -maxdepth 1 -type f -size +20M \) -or \( -maxdepth 1 -type d -empty \)

Alright, so we are now finding files of size 20MB or larger, or empty folders, both of which must live in our home folder directly. Note that we are escaping (adding "\" in front of) parenthesis to avoid that the shell interprets them.

Options allow us to add logic to our find structures. In other words, we can construct tests further, making them more complex and powerful.

find -size +20M -not \( \( -user A \) -or \( -user B \) \)

The command above would return files 20MB or larger which do not belong to neither user A nor B.

Actions

That's all very nice, we can search based on almost any criterium we can think of, but what if we could actually act upon what we find? That would make find a number of magnitudes more powerful!

As it turns out, find does allow us to action upon our search results. There are some actions predefined, and a way to create our own actions. Let's see some examples:

find -type f -size +20M -user A -executable -delete

This would delete files that match the corresponding test.
(Warning: Use delete with caution!)

find -name "*config*" -ls

This runs the equivalent to "ls -dils" over the output find returned.

Now, I will create my own customized action for the final example:

find -mtime +30 -size +10M -type f -name "*.mp3" -exec xmms '{}' ';'

This neat command would find mp3 files 10MB or larger, which have not been modified in the last 30 days, then play them with XMMS (Winamp clone) sequentially. (NOTE: special characters or bad file naming could keep XMMS from playing).

In this case, I am not going to share a way to run find from the GUI because it would really defeat its purpose. While locate is fairly straight forward and limited, find provides so many options that only an equally powerful visual interface would provide a decent match. Creating such interface is certainly beyond the scope of this article.

SUMMING UP...

As with pretty much anything we have covered in this section, creativity is key to get the most from the commands at our disposal. The find command is probably one of the clearest examples of that, for it allows us to cover lots of ground with a single line of code.

I would like to encourage you to give find a try. It is a bit cumbersome initially, but once you get around its logic and learn some of its most common options, you will find yourself smiling at what you have achieved with it! In addition, please note the examples I used may not make much sense or add much value, it is the power and flexibility of find I wanted to convey.

Good luck and have fun!