Wednesday, June 30, 2010

KDE SC 4.4.5 released

Several months ago I put together a REVIEW on PCLinuxOS 2010. Those of you who read it know that I love this distro and that showed in my review. I was thoroughly pleased and surprised with all of its features and found very little weak spots.

PCLinuxOS 2010.1 continues to surprise me time and again, specially with its great and incredibly fast updates. KDE SC 4.4.4 upgrade took place a couple days before the KDE.ORG site posted that it was available. Today they have managed to do it yet again with KDE SC 4.4.5, and once again, there is still no news on the matter.


My current KDE SC 4.4.5 desktop

KDE SC 4.4.5

Because there is no official announcement about KDE SC 4.4.5 just yet, I have to assume this is another bugfix release for KDE SC 4.4 series. However, I did notice some new interesting features that I wanted to show you here.


The battery indicator has been integrated in the system tray in KDE SC 4.4.5

As you can see on the screenshot above, the system tray now acomodates two new items: the battery indicator and the device manager. I know there are people who argue that the KDE system tray is overcrowded, I have been there myself at some point. Having said so, I think I like these changes because they help free space from other areas.


The devices manager has also been added to the system tray.

I usually work with tablets or laptops, so battery indication is an important piece of information for me. As a result, I had to add the corresponding widget to either the panel or the desktop. I personally like the former option, so that widget was taking panel space already. Similarly, I had the device manager widget added to my panel and that one is also gone now. Furthermore, both icons are smaller in size now, therefore taking less space than the did before.


The devices manager in action.

The one thing I still don't like is that the system tray icons still look cheap, low resolution. I think this would have been a good time to renew those icons and set something up to par with some of the best icon themes out there.

Note that there may well be other new features as part of this release, but because there is no official release announcement yet, I am only covering here the couple that stood out for me.

BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD

A while back I talked about KDE and how I thought it was growing more mature, appealing and an overall better desktop manager. That trend has been maintained since and there seems to be no stopping it. KDE SC is becoming and incredibly good and attractive desktop environment and the old claims that it was slow or resource eating are no longer founded. Moreover, the QT improvements easily translate into KDE and the end result is a better performing and functional product... Can't wait for KDE 4.5!!

Thanks for reading

Monday, June 28, 2010

Poll Results: What's in your 2014 Linux Desktop?

After a few weeks open, the survey I created to find out which things people want to see implemented for the future Linux desktop is finally closed. The results are very interesting, as can be seen in the table below.

CATEGORY VOTES
Enhanced hardware support 72 (70%)
Better Audio and Video tools 60 (58%)
Faster boot/shutdown 49 (48%)
Wine: Full Windows app support 48 (47%)
New and enhanced XORG 47 (46%)
Ease of use (GUI, Wizards, etc) 43 (42%)
Better Gaming 43 (42%)
Include proprietary software 42 (41%)
Long Term Support 36 (35%)
4G Internet everywhere support 32 (31%)
Better Desktop FX 27 (26%)
Single Packaging 23 (22%)
1 year cycle release 23 (22%)
Almost no applications preinstalled 23 (22%)
2 years release cycle 19 (18%)
Internet driven (ala Google Chrome) 15 (14%)
6 months release cycle 14 (13%)
Tons of applications preinstalled 14 (13%)
100% open source 14 (13%)
Native Social Integration 8 (7%)
Other 8 (7%)

As expected, hardware support is one of the elements that most people identify as an area of improvement. Better audio and video tools comes second, which I found surprising myself, for I thought other items would be regarded higher. From there things get a lot tighter, with faster boot up/shut down coming third and better Windows support from Wine coming fourth.

One thing I forgot about, though, was better power management. My laptops batteries last noticeably less with Linux than they do with Windows, specially with Windows 7. I know there is constant and steady improvement in this area, which is why I hope to see Linux managing power better in a few years time.

All things considered, the good news is that most things identified here are already widely considered as areas of improvement. They will surely get better shortly, certainly before 2014! XORG is undergoing a complete revamp, Wine is constantly growing more powerful and solid and most distros already are making efforts to boot faster. In addition, certain distros like Linux Mint or Pardus are doing an extremely good job at removing difficulty and making Linux more accessible to everyone.

The list goes on and on... The future is looking bright!

Thanks for reading and specially to those who voted.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Audio Recording in Linux: An Introduction [PART 2]

Several days ago I wrote the first PART of a series of articles I am putting together on Audio/Music recording in Linux. The idea was to provide a high level introduction on the topic, so that those interested can get a feel of what Linux has to offer on this department.

This article series is not a tutorial by any means, just an overview of the few audio recording tools I use in Linux.

UBUNTU STUDIO

On the previous article I talked about Ubuntu Studio, a twist on the Canonical distro aimed at Photo, Video and Audio production. Today I want to talk about it in a bit more detail, explaining some of its basic features.

Note that I am using Ubuntu Studio 9.04, so there will be some discrepancies if you download the current Ubuntu Studio 10.04.

As you can probably imagine, anybody who's comfortable using Ubuntu, will be using Ubuntu Studio. The basics are exactly the same, so anybody familiar with the former will only need to learn his/her way with the applications included.


Ubuntu Studio 9.04 desktop

Ubuntu Studio does sport some signature looks, though. Custom icon and window themes, controls and wallpapers make for a style that is a clear departure from its parent distro.


Ubuntu Studio includes some high quality wallpapers.

As I mentioned on the previous article, Ubuntu Studio is optimised for Audio, Video and Photo edition. Such optimization means that certain elements are different, such as the Kernel, which is real time. It also translates into a huge catalog of applications for both video and audio edition. In my case, I only installed Audio applications, which is something that can be chosen during the installation process.


The audio application catalog is rich in Ubuntu Studio.

Within the long list of applications aimed at audio edition, there are several that stand out, both in terms of quality and usefulness. Ardour, Hydrogen, Jack, Jamin, Audacity are great examples of tools that can help both the amateur and the professional music producer reach their goals.

JACK AUDIO SERVER

One of the most interesting and relevant audio applications in Linux is the JACK audio server. JACK does many things but probably the most important one is connecting and synchronizing applications among each other.


The JACK audio server default interface, with the messages and status windows on.

Starting from the main window, we see several buttons for each of the main JACK features. The START and STOP buttons do, as expected, start and stop the JACK server. The Exit and Setup buttons are pretty self explanatory as well. The Status button presents a small console showing the current status of the server. The Messages button shows a text window displaying logs in real time. The Connections button is probably the one that I use most often, though.


The JACK connections screen.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the connections screen shows how the different applications are connected to each other. In this example, each of the individual drum instruments is connected to a single Ardour mono audio track. However, the JACK server connections are more than just a simple patch bay, for they enable synchronization among applications that are supported by the audio server. In other words, once the Hydrogen drum machine and Ardour are connected through JACK, hitting the play button on one will automatically trigger the same on the other(s). Similarly, hitting on the record button in Ardour would trigger the reproduction of the sequence programmed in Hydrogen. In fact, that's exactly how I record my drum tracks.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Ubuntu Studio is a distro that should make life easier for all people interested in Audio, Video or Photo edition. Including a vast array of specialized applications, it is the perfect choice for anybody from professionals to those who just want to toy with the incredible applications included.

The JACK audio server is the foundation on which many of the other audio applications build their capabilities. On the next and final article of these series, I will cover both the Hydrogen sequencing machine and the Ardour digital audio workstation.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Preview: OpenSUSE 11.3 Release Candidate 1

Just a few days ago the OpenSUSE developers released the first release candidate of the soon to be available OpenSUSE 11.3. We are still about a month from that final release, so I decided to check it out and find out how it stands when compared to other 2010 releases.

INSTALLATION

As usual, I downloaded the LiveCD ISO image, this time in the KDE flavor. I am not sure why, I guess I have always heard good things about the OpenSUSE KDE implementation, which naturally led me to it. I have to say that I have not tested the GNOME version, so my conclusions in this preview may not apply to it.

Booting from the LiveCD is a visually pleasant experience. There is a professional vibe to the whole installation process, which is filled with eyecandy and a tight and consistent branding style all around.


OpenSUSE's warm welcome message.

That professional vibe is maintained as you start the installation itself, whose very first step involves accepting the general terms of the GPL license agreement. One interesting element that should be noted here is that we can choose the installation language, which is a nice feature for non native English speakers. Unfortunately, judging by the Spanish translations, they are imcomplete. I saw several important messages displayed in English, but I am assuming translations are still in the works for this release.


GPL license agreement.

Following the usual steps that pretty much every distro follows, we are asked to set the time zone settings.


What a cool little World map...

The installation wizard then runs a check for installation media and suggests an optimum partition arrangement for the new system. I had Mandriva previously installed and OpenSUSE successfully detected that previous installation, then suggested the best way to work around it for its installation to take place. I found the suggested automatic settings to be exactly what I needed, very convenient. I haven't tested this tool under different configurations (a drive with no partitions, with only one partition, etc.), so I am not sure if it will always be spot on, but it worked great for me. If anything, I think the amount of information provided was perhaps too much for someone who's using Linux for the first time or simply does not know much about computers. Something more generic, like "the whole disk space will be utilized for the new installation" with a "more details" button available for the curious would probably make more sense, I think.


Automatic disk partition scheme suggested, which was spot on.

The next step involves the creation of users and offers plenty of flexibility. We can choose whether to create the default account as admin or not, enforce logging in or not, etc.


A flexible and handy user creation screen.

As a final step before the actual installation starts, a summary of the choices made throughout the process is presented for us. I was happy with it, so I continued on and had the installation run.


The installation completed successfully.

There is no fancy slide show here, no introduction to OpenSUSE and certainly no pretty pictures. Apart from the progress bar and some text messages, there is not much here that would be interesting for anybody but "techies". I believe that's a bit of a shame, as it would have provided a nice well-rounded feel to the whole installation process.

All in all, OpenSUSE's installation process is very good, offering a friendly interface that feels consistent and attractive throughout. It is exactly because of that that I miss a bit more work to make it even more accessible for all kinds of users and to provide a more visually appealing introduction to this distro while the installation is running in the background. To that effect, I believe OpenSUSE's installation process is slightly behind Ubuntu's and Pardus', which are particularly polished.

AUTOCONFIGURATION

Once the installation finishes, we are asked to reboot the machine. As is the case in other distros, a bit of extra configuration is still awaiting us as we first boot. OpenSUSE deems this process "Autoconfiguration", and its name is self explanatory. If a network connection is available (recommended), the autoconfiguration tool will use it to download updates, extra configuration files required, etc.


A bit of extra configuration takes place on the first boot.

Once complete, we are presented with the default login screen, where we can enter our credentials before starting a new session. The KDM theme is consistent with the overall branding, which is welcome, but perhaps a bit too simplistic for my taste.


The default KDM them in OpenSUSE 11.3.

DESKTOP

The OpenSUSE 11.3 desktop is once again consistent with the distro branding. Using the default wallpaper, an ongoing theme through the installation, splash screen and KDM theme, it provides a familiar vibe throughout.


The OpenSUSE 11.3 KDE desktop after the first login.

A large window appears right in the middle of the screen, attracting our attention as it presents information, documentation and an introduction to KDE. A welcome effort, which should help those using OpenSUSE/KDE for the first time, but I think it falls short. The first problem is that most of the contents are online, almost immediately rendering this welcome screen useless unless there is a working network connection (something most Linux distros keep on taking for granted, not sure why!). The second problem is that the contents are limited and mostly text-based. This one feels like the typical window that most users will close without even looking at it, which is a shame. One thing I liked, though, is that this window is easily accessible any time from the desktop "OpenSUSE" launcher, so users can go back to its contents if they need to.

Surprisingly, KDE SC is still on version 4.4.3. Considering KDE SC 4.4.4 is out since about 3 weeks ago, and the fact that it is simply a bugfix version, I am not sure why it is not included. This release candidate is probably a frozen compilation already, which means KDE SC 4.4.3 will still be there by the time OpenSUSE 11.3 goes live, roughly a month from now. Yes, I know, KDE SC 4.4.4 will probably be available from the repositories, but still feels too conservative an approach in my opinion.


OpenSUSE 11.3 sports KDE 4.4.3 SC.

That conservative approach on KDE SC is contrasting with a risky one, involving the Internet browser choice: Firefox 3.6.4pre. Frankly, I don't really understand it. KDE SC 4.4.4 is a safe bet, while including such unfinished version for Internet browsing duties could cause problems to users (compatibility issues with existing Firefox addons, certain websites not working as expected, etc.).


Firefox 3.6.4pre is the default web browser.

That's about as risky as it gets, though, with most other applications included sporting older and stable versions. Amarok 2.30, for instance, is part of this release, even if 2.31 was released at the end of May.

LOOK & FEEL

The KDE desktop in OpenSUSE does not feel terribly customized. There is only one wallpaper available to choose from, no custom OpenSUSE icon set or window borders, etc. Having said so, the desktop conveys a feeling that its panels, icons, menus and application catalog have been carefully put together.


An OpenSUSE custom theme included for the desktop panel, but that was about it.

When I browse the main menu in other KDE distros, I almost always feel like too many applications are included, some of which look obsolete or discontinued. On the contrary, the OpenSUSE menu contains less applications under each category, and it is hard to find one that looks out of place. The right icons are used throughout, providing a nice and consistent feel as I browse through the main menu categories.

There are some application splash screens that have been customized to the distro branding, but because they are just a few, they actually give the distro a bit of an unfinished feel. I guess this could be an ongoing effort that could be finished by the time the distro goes live. I certainly hope so, because I loved the custom splash screens.


I like the custom application splash screens, which will hopefully make it to all applications.

Acknowledging that this is just the first Release Candidate, it does feel as if OpenSUSE is not as mature in terms of Look&Feel as other distros like Pardus, Linux Mint or PCLinuxOS. It does provide a good looking and consistent KDE desktop experience, though, that should please most users.

SYSTEM ADMINISTRATION: YaST

OpenSUSE includes a wonderful tool for system administration: YaST. Mandriva users will probably feel it shares the same principles as their control center, and rightly so. On the left hand side, a list of categories to choose from. On the right, the main applet including the bulk of tools/applications to manage language settings, security, privacy, users, etc.


YaST plays the system management tool role in OpenSUSE.

For instance, we can configure the firewall from this screen, simply double clicking on the corresponding icon. The firewall interface is not the easiest or most intuitive I have seen, but it did alright.


Firewall setup screen, accessible from YaST.

The one thing I didn't like about YaST is probably its interface. Mandriva have refined the category menu concept further in that clicking on one determines what is displayed on the main applet, as opposed to displaying everything all the time, which is what happens in OpenSUSE. In fact, clicking on a category in OpenSUSE simply highlights a group of applications/tools on the main applet, which is not really that clarifying.

In summary, I think YaST is a good tool, but I think it could benefit from a bit of polishing its interface.

SOFTWARE MANAGEMENT

OpenSUSE also includes its own software management tool, which should ease things up for those not command line inclined.


OpenSUSE's software management tool.

I personally liked the interface provided, but I have to admit it is far from being as sleek as that of, say, Linux Mint 9.

On a different note, an update manager applet is locked on the system tray, automatically informing the user that updates are available for download.


The update manager didn't really work as expected.

Unfortunately, it didn't really work as expected for me. I used it once, applied an update, but then the tool kept on saying that that same update was still pending. I am not really sure if this was a one off issue, perhaps related to the current release candidate nature of the distro.

APPLICATION CATALOG

OpenSUSE 11.3 is certainly not a distro that will be remembered for having lots of applications preinstalled. I am sure some people will like that approach, while some others will probably miss a richer application selection out of the box. I believe the OpenSUSE developers cleverly picked some key applications, so I don't see any critical misses here, perhaps with the exception of a proper free video player (Caffeine?... Really?). OpenOffice, Firefox, Amarok and GIMP are just about a few of the applications included in OpenSUSE 11.3.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

OpenSUSE 11.3 already feels like a solid release at its current RC1 state. It provides a solid and friendly installation experience, a good KDE implementation and a carefully picked set of preinstalled applications. There are obviously some areas that could benefit from polishing, but something tells me we will probably have to wait for a future release before that happens.

As usual, I will write my final thoughts when the final release is eventually out, but for now I hope this preview gives you an idea of what OpenSUSE 11.3 has to offer.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Audio Recording in Linux: An Introduction [PART 1]

Today I want to start a series of articles about Music and Audio production under Linux, discussing the tools available for the working musician and demonstrating that Windows or Mac are not the only options out there. There are several awesome tools available for those of us interested in recording music with our favorite OS.

If you are coming from a different OS or simply are starting up with audio/music recording, there are number of things you must take into account before you set up your system and start buying audio recording gear.

HARDWARE

Assuming that your computer hardware is fully supported by Linux, the next most important thing is to find audio recording hardware that is also compatible. Probably the most important one is that which interacts with your computer: a good sound card.

There is a huge variety of sound cards in the market, from cheap yet convenient kits to fully professional workhorses. Your needs will dictate which type of model you should go after. For example, an important criteria is whether you will be recording many tracks at once, only a few, or maybe only one at a time. There are obviously many other important things to keep in mind, such as the sampling rate capabilities, the quality of the AD/DA converters, etc., but those are maybe more relevant for the expert music producer.

Unfortunately for us Linux users, the main filter comes from the existing limitations in hardware support. For example, soundcards using firewire or USB ports are usually more problematic than PCI ones. Long story short, it is important that you do some research and make sure that whatever device you have in mind, Linux supports it. On top of that, it is also important that your recording software can manage that soundcard efficiently.

In this article I will be talking about Ardour as the main recording tool, so here are some examples of sound cards that I know work very well with Ardour and are natively supported in Linux:

- M-AUDIO Delta series, Models 1010, 1010LT, 66 and 44. These soundcards offer reasonable quality at very afordable prices. Perfect for starters that want to set up a small yet capable home studio or for solo musicians for whom multitracking is no big deal. I own a Delta 1010LT myself and I am quite happy with it.

- RME Hammerfall HDSP, Models 9632 and 9652. Another set of cards that are widely used among Linux users, offering higher quality, higher price tags, but still certainly affordable. One thing to keep in mind is that, while M-AUDIO Delta series usually include their own mic preamps, RME's don't, so you will need an extra device that covers that part.

Note that many other soundcards will probably be supported, but I am listing here those I have seen other Ardour users provide good feedback on. The ALSA project site does provide a list of preferred soundcards, which you can find HERE.

Another very important element for recording is a decent pair of speakers. Once again, there are hundreds of options available in the market, so pick whichever best fits your needs. My only recommendation is that you buy active speakers (unless you buy or already have a poweramp, passive monitors will not work) with a minimum of 50 watt power. Even if you are unlikely to get the most out of that power at home, believe me, the headroom is always welcome. Moreover, you will never be forced to push your speakers to their limit.

NOTE: When using your speakers, make sure you turn them on LAST in the boot order, and shut them down FIRST. In other words, start your computer and only turn on your monitors when you have logged in. Then, as you are about to close your session, shut them down first. That will avoid any cracks and pops that would surely damage your speakers.

So now you have a soundcard that can record and reproduce audio, and a set of speakers that can rock pretty loud, what else? If your soundcard does not include mic preams (as is the case with RME models), you need to get a mic preamplifier. Once again, there are lots of options out there, from very cheap solid state models to incredibly expensive tube ones. Whatever you decide, my recommendation would be that you buy tubes. They warm up the tone and make it sound less "digital". Finally, in order to capture sounds, you will need a microphone. The list of options available is once again endless, so your choice should be based on the instrument you plan to record and on your budget, of course.

As you can imagine, there will surely be other bits and pieces of recording gear required, such as mic stands, cables, etc. Those go beyond the scope of this article, so consult your music shop in case you are not sure about what you need.

DISTROS

The next important thing when starting up is to find out which distro would best cover audio recording basics. For the most part, if your soundcard is supported, good and current ALSA support is all you need to get going. Having said so, there is always a certain amount of manual tweaking required to get things really up and running. If you are a musician who simply wants to get going with audio recording in Linux, avoiding excessive manual tweaking, I recommend the following:

1.- Dedicated partition and installation. I consider it important to keep an isolated environment for my recording stuff. By doing so, I avoid mixing my day to day activities with my recording work, keeping the latter clean and fit by the time I hit the red button. If you can't get any free space for a new partition or don't feel confortable with partition management, I recommend buying a secondary drive (SATA drives are incredibly cheap nowadays) for the task.

2.- Allocate lots of space. Be sure to allow lots of disk space for your partition. I would say 100GB is the minimum you should aim for, but more is probably better. Keep in mind that audio files are very heavy, specially if recording at very high rates. If you add to that the fact that Ardour keeps unused sources, you could end up eating up your drive or partition very quickly. It is better to have excessive disk space than to have less than enough, which would most likely force you to start over.

3.- Use a specialized distro. Now that you have a location solely dedicated to audio recording, why not use a distro that has been designed for it? There are several options, Ubuntu Studio being one of the most popular ones and the one I will be presenting here.

UBUNTU STUDIO

Ubuntu Studio builds on the great Ubuntu foundations to create a distro with very specific goals in mind: Audio, video and photo manipulation. The installation of Ubuntu Studio is, as could be expected, fairly similar to what users get in standard Ubuntu. Please visit the project SITE to find out more about it. You will find screenshots, plenty of information and the downloadable ISO images, of course. To install Ubuntu Studio, burn the ISO into a DVD and run the installation by booting from the Live DVD. The instructions on screen should easily get you through the process.

Once installed, UbuntuStudio provides its own custom Look&Feel, iconset, wallpapers and window borders. The application catalog is huge, including all sorts of packages related with multimedia authoring and edition. As could be expected, GNOME is the desktop manager and most of the standard Ubuntu practices apply in Ubuntu Studio just fine. Software installation is managed from the Software Center or from Synaptic, Software updates are handled by the Update manager, etc. In other words, an Ubuntu user should feel right at home using Ubuntu Studio.

FIRST STEPS WITH UBUNTU STUDIO

Before we can start recording, there are a number of things we need to configure in our newly installed Ubuntu Studio instance.

1.- Ensure your user is part of the Audio group: Simply go to System menu > Administration > Users and Groups and check the Audio group properties. If your user is not part of the group, add it.

2.- Edit the securitylimits.conf file: Open a terminal and type the following command:

sudo gedit /etc/securitylimits.conf

Append the following at the end of the file:

@audio - rtprio 99
@audio - nice -19
@audio - memlock unlimited

3.- Save, exit and reboot.

TO BE CONTINUED...

All should now be ready to start using our audio recording applications, which I will cover in future installments of these series. In the next one, I will discuss a bit more about Ubuntu Studio basic navigation and applications and the JACK audio server. The Hydrogen drum machine and finally Ardour, the fabulous open source digital audio workstation, will play main roles in successive parts.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Comparison: Best 2010 Linux desktop for begginers

April and October are usually months that feel like Christmas for Linux enthusiasts. Around those periods is when many of the major Linux distros meet their 6 month development windows and end up releasing a new version of their work. During the last two months I have been busy testing many of those new releases, which would usually result in review articles published here.

Out of the many distros released, I have always concentrated on ease of use as one of the most important features I look for in a distro. In addition, I consider most Linux desktop releases (at least the main distros) to be fairly similar. In other words, in terms of features, functionality and power, things are fairly leveled, so I like distros that ease up access to those features.

Recently I have reviewed three distros that stood out in terms of ease of use, documentation and user aids: Linux Mint 9, Pardus 2009.2 and PCLinuxOS 2010. I will now run a head to head comparison (Thanks Sebert for the idea) to hopefully help you make up your mind on which one best fits your needs.

Note that since I have already reviewed all three distros, always including plenty of screenshots, I will not be including many on this comparison. Please reffer to my reviews in case you want to see any of these distros in action:

Linux Mint 9 REVIEW
Pardus 2009.2 PREVIEW and FINAL REVIEW
PCLinux 2010 REVIEW and REVIEW UPDATE

CATEGORIES

It is obviously very difficult to provide meaningful conclusions when comparing Linux distros of this quality, for they all are great in their own right. In order to set some points of reference, I will use the following categories for this comparison:

- Installation
- Hardware Support
- Network setup
- Preconfiguration
- Multimedia

Note that the scores provided only apply to the criteria I have used and do not represent a general depiction of the actual performance of that specific distro, just a reference for the purpose of this article.

Enough with the talking already, let´s move on to the comparison...

INSTALLATION

In this section I will be looking at the following criteria:

- Information: Is the installation process providing documentation that is good enough in terms of clarity and quantity?
- Look&Feel: Is it interesting and pleasant to the eye or will scare people off?
- International support: Does it support multiple languages?
- Speed: How many coffees long?

(Scores go from 1 to 5)

PCLinuxOS 2010

Probably the least fancy of the three, PCLinux2010 installation is clear and to the point, with nothing unexpected or out of place. The information provided is probably enough, but it would be nice to provide some more background on certain steps that may be new to non-Linux savvy users. Things could also be better when it comes to Look&Feel, specially because there is no set of slides available to introduce the user to his/her new operating system. Unfortunately, the installation for PCLinuxOS 2010 is only provided in English, which could represent a problem for people who don't know the language. PCLinux2010 does well in terms of speed, installing faster than any of the other two distros in this comparison.



- Information:
- Look&Feel:
- International support:
- Speed:

TOTAL SCORE:



3
3
1
5

12/20


Pardus 2009.2

As you may have already read when I reviewed this Pardus release, I simply love its installation wizard. It is thorough and exhaustive in terms of information and it looks fantastic. Being a Turkish project, the default installation ISO is in Turkish, but the international one is offered only in English. A bit slower than PCLinuxOS's, Pardus installation is still very reasonable... and due to how good it looks, you may end up not having any coffees!



- Information:
- Look&Feel:
- International support:
- Speed:

TOTAL SCORE:



5
5
2
4

16/20


Linux Mint 9

As could be expected, Linux Mint's installation wizard inherits pretty much every aspect from Ubuntu's. As a result, we find a clear and informative installation process which actually provides multilanguage support. The set of slides that are provided while the installation is running is informative and interesting, which is fortunate, as this is the slowest of the three. I must say, though, that the timing differences among all three were minimal, none taking too long.



- Information:
- Look&Feel:
- International support:
- Speed:

TOTAL SCORE:



4
4
5
3

16/20


And the winner is: Linux Mint 9 being a extremely close second, this one has to go to Pardus 2009.2. It is the strongest effort and 100% original work by its developers.

HARDWARE SUPPORT

This is probably the most difficult item to judge. Only by testing a significant amount of computers and devices under each distro would we be able to understand which one provides the most complete support. I will try with my limited resources anyways.

In this section I will be looking at the following criteria:

- New HP 2740p support: Can it handle this new computer?
- Test Tour: HP Compaq 6910p, HP 2730p, HP NX7400, HP 6930p
- Printing support: HP Laserjet 2600N
- Webcam support: Skype test with Creative PD1170, Logitech C250

(Scores go from 1 to 5)

PCLinuxOS 2010

I am still to find a computer this edition of PCLinuxOS 2010 does not support. I am sure there are, but it comes loaded with all kinds of opensource and proprietary drivers. Out of the three distros in this comparison, it is the only one that can actually get the HP 2740p to work, albeit with no 3D acceleration support. In fact, it went as far as to be able to get the onboard webcam to work. In addition, it did excellent on all four other HP computers, as well as recognizing and installing the right drivers for the Laser printer to work (even without a network connection!). Unfortunately, it failed to get the Creative webcam to work, which was probably its only miss, as it got the Logitech to work instantaneously.


PCLinuxOS 2010 even got the HP 2740p onboard webcam right!




- New HP 2740p support:
- Test Tour:
- Printing support:
- Webcam support:

TOTAL SCORE:




4
5
5
4

18/20


Pardus 2009.2

Probably the weakest of the three, Pardus still provides very good hardware support. It did fail in getting the 2740p tablet to work, unable to correctly configure its video display. However, It did very well on the Test tour, successfully running on all four PCs and recognizing all of their hardware on the fly. Unfortunately, it failed again on the printing test, unable to print even after apparently setting up the right driver. As for the webcams test, it successfully configured the Logitech for video, but failed to pass on the audio microphone on board to Skype. Unsurprisingly, it also failed in recognizing the Creative webcam.




- New HP 2740p support:
- Test Tour:
- Printing support:
- Webcam support:

TOTAL SCORE:




1
5
2
3

11/20


Linux Mint 9

Once again, the Ubuntu inheritance proves to be a strong ally, as Linux Mint 9 passed this hardware recognition test with flying colors. Having said so, just like Pardus 2009.2, it couldn't handle the 2740p video display. The tour test was a breeze and so was the printing one. Once again, the Creative webcam proved tough to deal with (definitely not a Linux friendly device, I think), while the Logitech was instantly recognized and configured successfully.


Mint printer setup was a breeze.




- New HP 2740p support:
- Test Tour:
- Printing support:
- Webcam support:

TOTAL SCORE:




1
5
5
4

15/20


And the winner is: PCLinux2010 gets a well deserved first position on this one.

NETWORK SETUP

Having access to the Internet has become such mandatory requirement that I wanted to dedicate a specific section to this topic. Acknowledging that ethernet connections are simple and almost always work from the get go, I will concentrate on wireless and 3G.

In this section I will be looking at the following criteria:

- First configuration steps: How easy is it to connect to a wireless network?
- Facing difficulties: Is it intuitive enough to work around issues easily?
- 3G networks: Are they supported and do they work (using a USB Huawei E172)?

(Scores go from 1 to 5)

PCLinuxOS 2010

PCLinuxOS 2010 uses a network interface very similar (if not the same) to Mandriva's. When accessing the desktop for the first time, users will see the network applet on the system tray. A simply click will bring up the Network manager, which shows the ethernet and wireless sections by default (I don't have computers with 3G modems on them, but I suppose a third section would appear in such case). Simply expanding the wireless section shows a list with all wireless networks in range. Configuring one is simple, as is rescanning to get a fresh list.

Once users get the vibe of the PCLinuxOS network manager, working around problems is somewhat simple. The ability to rescan for wireless networks is certainly welcome, and there is a nice consistency to how each type of network is displayed in the same way. In other words, before you even plug in a 3G modem, you expect how that new connection interface will look like.

PCLinuxOS 2010 correctly recognized and configured my 3G modem, allowing me to browse the web easily and from pretty much anywhere.


PCLinuxOS 2010 rocking my USB 3G modem.




- First configuration steps:
- Facing difficulties:
- 3G networks:

TOTAL SCORE:




4
4
5

13/15


Pardus 2009.2

The Pardus network interface is a bit unique, presenting a singular approach based around profiles. Unlike the other two distros in this comparison, Pardus does not allow users to use the networking devices until they have created a profile for them. For example, if you plug an ethernet cable to a Pardus machine, it will not work until an ethernet profile is set up. Fortunately, creating profiles is fairly simple, but I feel this approach could be confusing for new comers. It also has a bit of an archaic vibe, as it requires manual intervention for something that most operating systems handle automatically nowadays.

Once the profile approach is understood, though, it makes things fairly simple. Like PCLinuxOS, this approach provides consistency that can eventually simplify things for users in the long run. Unfortunately, Pardus 2009.2 only offers (at least in my installation) two types of profiles: Ethernet and wireless. Mobile broadband is nowhere to be found.




- First configuration steps:
- Facing difficulties:
- 3G networks:

TOTAL SCORE:




2
4
1

7/15


Linux Mint 9

As should be expected by now, Linux Mint 9 network interface is the same as the one found in Ubuntu 10.04. The interface is, in my opinion, the simplest of the three. When the user logs in for the first time, a convenient notification informs the user that there are wireless networks in range. Simply clicking on the networking system tray icon displays all networks in range and we can choose the one we want to connect to.

Unfortunately, the Mint network applet does not include a button to rescan or refresh the list of wireless networks, which can be very useful at times. Other than that, as expected with such simple interface, working around problems is usually easy enough. Linux Mint 9 correctly recognized and configured my 3G modem as well.


Linux Mint 9 network applet showing a mobile broadband connection.




- First configuration steps:
- Facing difficulties:
- 3G networks:

TOTAL SCORE:




5
4
5

14/15


And the winner is: Linux Mint 9 is probably the most intuitive and easy to work with, offering native support for mobile broadband devices.

PRECONFIGURATION

In this section I will be looking at the following criteria:

- Introduction: Tours, startkits, etc.
- Out-of-the-box-iness: Is it ready to rock out of the box?
- Styles, Themes and overall looks: Easy to get a decent looking desktop?
- Extra effort quantity: Lots to do before it's ready? (less is better)
- Extra effort quality: How easy or difficult is that? (the easier the better)

(Scores go from 1 to 5)

PCLinuxOS 2010

PCLinuxOS 2010 does not provide any introduction tours per se when you log in for the first time, but does a very smart job at aiming users in the right direction, so they can set up their computers easily and quickly. The set of launchers on the default desktop includes tools such as the language configuration, OpenOffice installation, Firewall setup and others. However, and while there are some worthy efforts in providing convenient explanations when performing any of those steps, it is mostly assumed that the user knows his/her way around the KDE environment.

Once again, PCLinuxOS 2010 comes loaded with pretty much anything you need to get going. Plenty of codecs for both video and audio are offered out of the box, so users will be able to skip the usual Firefox Flash plugin installation, for example. While OpenOffice is not included, the GetOpenOffice application is so good that it certainly makes up for it. In fact, I think the PCLinuxOS 2010 developers have done such a good job that I cannot see users installing much after logging in for the first time. If something extra is required, the great Synaptic package manager (albeit in a somewhat raw state) is at hand to get it for us.

PCLinuxOS 2010 is a bit poor when it comes to style, though. It does not offer many wallpapers, icon or window themes of its own, so users are likely to have to search the web for them before the desktop can trully look stunning.




- Introduction:
- Out-of-the-box-iness:
- Styles, Themes and overall looks:
- Extra effort quantity:
- Extra effort quality:

TOTAL SCORE:




3
5
3
5
3

19/25


Pardus 2009.2

Once again, Pardus excels on this department, offering a wonderful introductory application called Kaptan. In an enjoyable, easy to follow and truly tightly branded wizard, Kaptan will get any user to complete those initial configuration steps in a few clicks. Unfortunately, users will have a hard time trying to find Kaptan after that first run. I personally believe Kaptan should be easily accessible from the panel or as a desktop shortcut, so users that are not KDE savvy can use it anytime they want.

Like PCLinuxOS, Pardus 2009.2 comes fully loaded with all kinds of codecs and a very complete and thorough application catalog, so I see very little need for any extra work. If required, though, Pardus 2009.2 includes its own package manager, which is simple to use, but maybe not as easy to find for someone who's using Linux for the first time.

In terms of branding, icon and window themes and wallpapers, Pardus 2009.2 does a wonderful job. Aside from the usual KDE default wallpapers, users will find some Pardus ones, apparently authored by Turkish artists. The default icon theme is original and a very welcome and fresh departure from the typical Oxygen KDE vibe.


The fabulous Kaptan wizard.




- Introduction:
- Out-of-the-box-iness:
- Styles, Themes and overall looks:
- Extra effort quantity:
- Extra effort quality:

TOTAL SCORE:




5
5
4
4
4

22/25


Linux Mint 9

Linux Mint offers a simplistic yet useful menu when the user first logs in. Describing the new features, known bugs and even including links to the Official user guide and various tutorials, Mint 9 users should have no problems getting up to speed with their new system. The main limitation to this approach, though, is that it is Internet dependent. On top of that, and while lots of interesting concepts are available through the documents provided, how many users will actually read the user manual? I think something easier and more visual is missing so that those using Mint for the very first time can easily get going.

Linux Mint 9 is also very well prepared to provide the end user a seamless experience out of the box. Once again, I feel little need for any extras, but the fantastic Mint Software Center should easily satisfy them. In fact, I feel this is the best package manager of the three.

One other area that Linux Mint 9 excels at is Look&Feel, as it comes with many original wallpapers, icons and window themes included. Getting your desktop some impressive looks is just a couple clicks away!




- Introduction:
- Out-of-the-box-iness:
- Styles, Themes and overall looks:
- Extra effort quantity:
- Extra effort quality:

TOTAL SCORE:




3
5
5
4
5

22/25


And the winner is: Tight again, but Pardus 2009.2 wins partially due to Kaptan, its great introductory wizard.

MULTIMEDIA

In this section I will be looking at the following criteria:

- Web based media: Flash, quicktime, etc.
- DVD playback: Players installed and ease of use.
- Music playback: Players installed and ease of use.

(Scores go from 1 to 5)

PCLinuxOS 2010

As mentioned already, PCLinuxOS 2010 does include plenty of codecs from the get go, so browsing the web is smooth and all media is displayed out of the box. Apple trailers videos play well as do all Flash based sites, like myspace, youtube, gametrailers, etc.

Reproducing a DVD is easy and intuitive. SMPlayer comes preinstalled and listed within the actions available when a DVD is inserted. Playback is usually smooth, although I did find some DVDs that would not play correctly. In terms of music, Amarok handles duties and does it superbly, as could be expected from such great audio player.




- Web based media:
- DVD playback:
- Music playback:

TOTAL SCORE:




5
3
5

13/15


Pardus 2009.2

Pardus also makes things simple for online media, thanks to the many codecs preinstalled in out of the box. Flash, quicktime and all other formats I tried were working perfectly with no extra effort required from the user.

DVD playback was not as good, unfortunately. Even if Pardus comes with a large number of video players, none seemed to be able to handle playback as smoothly as the other two distros do. Not surprisingly, Dragon player was a massive failure, but MPlayer and SMPlayer didn't do much better. Gnome Mplayer was doing best in my tests, but still not up to the quality that could be expected in a distro like Pardus. Amarok is once again the main audio player, but some other options are available, like Jukebox.




- Web based media:
- DVD playback:
- Music playback:

TOTAL SCORE:




5
2
5

12/15


Linux Mint 9

Just like the other two, Linux Mint 9 comes fully prepared to tackle any web based media reproduction. Once again, my tests on the most popular formats all rendered positive results.

DVD playback is certainly simple and works great in Linux Mint 9. It played successfully all DVDs I tried, offering the easiest and most intuitive interface. Music playback is managed by Rhythmbox, which is a fine player for the GNOME desktop.


DVD playback proved particularly simple on Linux Mint 9.




- Web based media:
- DVD playback:
- Music playback:

TOTAL SCORE:




5
4
5

14/15


And the winner is: Linux Mint 9 excels on this department, so it gets a well deserved first position.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There you have it, a close comparison between these three fabulous Linux distros, resulting in very evenly matched scores. I personally love all three, each having its own character, strengths, but also weaknesses. Having said so, looking strictly for which one offers the smoothest and most intuitive experience, I would probably have to say that Linux Mint 9 is the winner in my opinion.

Hopefully this comparison will help you make your choice based on your own needs and taste. I am pretty sure any of the choices is a sure winner.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

POLL: What's in your 2014 Linux desktop?

I have been testing and reviewing many different Linux distros releases in the past three months and it is quite interesting to see where each is concentrating its development efforts. Ubuntu proposed a number of ideas, one of which involved a desktop that natively integrates all kind of social interaction tools. Pardus presented an even more polished installation process, as well as many different initiatives to make the Linux desktop easy for everyone. So did PCLinuxOS, as well as including an extended set of supported hardware. Fedora 13 offered parallel support for Python 2.x and 3.x. The list goes on and on...

Anyways, as I was reviewing each of them, I started to see which development paths appeal more to me and which I find less interesting. It got me thinking about what kinds of things I would like to see in my Linux desktop in a number of years and now I want to know your thoughts as well. I have created a Poll, which you can see on the right, and the question is:

If you could manage development efforts for the Linux desktop, what would your Linux desktop have in four years time?

Please let me know your thoughts!

Thanks

GnoMenu: A nice new menu for Gnome

I have recently tried the GnoMenu application, which provides a new and different menu to the Gnome desktop manager. It has plenty of options available, so you can customize almost about any aspect to your liking. GnoMenu personally reminds me of the KDE menu a little bit.


The favorites tab includes any application of your choice

The menu default configuration includes seven tabs, five on the left and two on the bottom. On the left we see:

Favorites
Applications
Computer
Web shortcuts
Shutdown


On the bottom:

Recently opened documents
Recently used applications



The applications menu feels similar to the KDE Menu.

The applications menu reminds me to the KDE one in that subcategories are displayed on the same menu, as opposed to displaying submenus for each of them. If you want a certain application to be added to the Favorites section, simply right click on it and add it.


The computer section.

I personally like the menu looks quite a bit. In all honesty, it feels a bit slow, but nothing too serious.


Shutdown, restart, etc.

If you want to use GnoMenu, all you have to do is follow the installation instructions in HERE. Once installed, simply follow the usual steps to add widgets and choose the GnoMenu one.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chromium default Browser for UNE 10.10

EDIT: My apologies! This article is not accurate, the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. Chromium will be the default for UNE 10.10 (Ubuntu Netbook Edition), not the standard edition.

It seems Canonical keeps on making changes to their default installation, as has been the case in their latest releases. Empathy replaced Pidgin, GIMP was gone, PiTiVi and Gwibber were included... It appears Firefox is about to become the next casualty in that list.

I personally like Chromium, it is a very fast browser, but if I think about it twice, that's about it. There are still security concerns, a big gap towards natively integrating it into Linux desktop managers, and certain sites just plain do not work with it. In fact, some of those concerns are considered in a BLUEPRINT that has been published on LaunchPad.

I must admit I used Chromium quite intensively some months ago. It pretty much replaced Firefox entirely on my Ubuntu 9.10 machines, as I was a bit bugged with it being slow. However, after some months I started noticing Chromium also had its share of shortcomings. Eventually, when I installed PCLinuxOS 2010, I realised Firefox 3.6.3 was much faster, but just as solid and secure as always. Not long after, I reverted back to Firefox in all my installations. As a side note, I have installed Firefox 3.7pre from Mozilla's development repositories and I have to say it is even quicker.

Long story short, I think Canonical is once again making the wrong turn here. Chromium is still a very young project, not mature enough yet. With Firefox 4 right around the corner, which should close the gap to "modern" browsers in terms of speed and tab process isolation, I find this decision more difficult to justify than ever before.

Firefox will surely remain available in the repositories, so there will be an open door for everyone who, like me, is more comfortable using it. My concern is that Canonical is apparently sacrificing some of its original values, like security and reliability, in favor of the "flavor of the month". I didn't understand the excessive push on social interaction tools and now I don't understand getting rid of an Internet browser which has been their flagship for so long, which is also an industry standard. Do they think popular is better? Hard to tell, but with all the bugs pending fixing, I find it funny that they actually waste a second thinking of replacing the Internet browser.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Final Review: Pardus 2009.2

Not long ago I wrote an ARTICLE on Pardus 2009.2 Release Candidate, which I used as a preview for the latest release of this Turkey based Linux distro. As I mentioned then, that release candidate was very well rounded, so the preview already had a bit of review feel to it. I have now installed the final version and today I would like to share my final thoughts on this very interesting distro.

NO SURPRISES

As expected, there was not much in this final release that has changed from the release candidate. Pardus still sports a wonderful installation process, great desktop aids for new users (Kaptan is a fantastic introductory tool) and an overall fabulous KDE integration. In fact, as I already covered some of those areas already, let's now see some new things I found after I had more time to put the final release down to good use.

Boot up and shutdown

The boot up process is very well designed, almost exclusively displaying a graphical interface. In terms of speed, it is not one of the fastest out there, but it's fast enough. The shutdown process does show some text based screens, but is also predominantly GUI based. Once again, nothing out of the ordinary in terms of speed.

Overall, the boot up and shutdown processes in Pardus are a pleasant and tasty experience, reasonable in terms of speed.

Standard desktop usage

When I tested it the first time, the Pardus 2009.2 desktop felt great, working smoothly with no unexpected behaviors. Once I had more time to work with it, I started to find some strange things going on.


My current Pardus 2009.2 desktop

The lack of Compiz effects was a bit of a let down. I am aware that KWIN effects are available, but in my opinion, they are nowhere near what Compiz achieves in terms of variety, flexibility and power. In fact, starting KWIN effects ended up messing with my screen resolution, so I decided to use my desktop without effects. This is no big problem per se, desktop effects are mostly a nice to have, but I must admit I love using them.

On a different note, I started customizing my desktop, changing icons, setting up launchers, etc. One of the things I like to do is to set up custom keyboard shortcuts for my favorite applications. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get those custom shortcuts to work, even if I was setting them up in the same way I successfully had in PCLinuxOS 2010, Fedora 13 KDE, etc. In fact, it's because I have been using these shortcuts for a while in other KDE distros that I find it difficult to consider this a KDE problem.

All in all, Pardus 2009.2 provides a nice, solid and smooth desktop experience. I did find some minor rough edges that could benefit from a little polishing, though.

Performance

Like I said already, Pardus is a great KDE implementation. What I mean by that is that the work the developers have done seems to complement the KDE desktop, not get in its way. It definitely does not feel like it is adding any overhead, so performance feels snappy all around.

Pardus 2009.2 benefits from implementing the latest KDE and QT releases (KDE SC 4.4.4 and Qt 4.6.2), both of which are noticeably more solid and better performing than previous releases.


Pardus 2009.2 brings you the latest and greatest, KDE SC 4.4.4 and QT 4.6.2 included

In terms of standard desktop usage, Pardus feels quick, almost as much as PCLinuxOS 2010. Opening applications is fairly quick, there is no noticeable lag when opening menus, or even when handling many open applications at once. All in all, I am pretty sure Pardus 2009.2 would meet expectations from almost any kind of user in terms of performance.

Hardware management

I have installed Pardus 2009.2 on a USB drive and have tested it on a number of laptops/tablets. In general, it did pretty well, recognizing all pieces of hardware on the fly. On the other hand, it was not able to manage the Intel HD video card in my HP2740p, but I must admit almost no other distro did.

I wanted to run a quick printing test on my HP 2600N laser printer. As expected, Pardus did a good job at finding the right model automatically, and registered a new default printer for that specific model. Unfortunately, the printing tests didn't work, apparently because "hpcups" failed. The printing problem aside, other tests on different laptops, tablets and even a couple webcam models were seamless and working fine out of the box. It almost feels as if the printing problem was a weird one off, but I can't really tell, as that's the only printer I can test with.

Pardus Hardware support feels rich and robust in general, and should be able to cope with any standard user need.

Applications and repositories

As I mentioned on my preview, Pardus 2009.2 does include a very rich application catalog. It is not only rich and diverse, but I personally find it right as well. Many of the applications included are "blockbusters" in the Linux universe today, so I believe most users should find their needs covered out of the box. In fact, there are so many applications that I think a new user who wouldn't know about them could eventually get lost.


My favorite Linux CD burning tool, K3B is preinstalled in Pardus 2009.2


The great GIMP also made it into Pardus 2009.2

After a few days of use, I found that such rich catalog of preinstalled applications could be the result of the evident limitations in Pardus repositories. I used both the package manager GUI tool as well as PiSi, both simple to use and working reasonably well, but the amount of applications available was disappointingly low.


The package manager is fine, but very few applications available to choose from.

Taking into account the large application catalog already included on the Pardus 2009.2 installation, I think many users should be just fine, even with the limitations in its repositories. If you are the kind of user who likes to investigate and try different applications all the time, or if you simply do not like the set of preinstalled applications in Pardus 2009.2, you should think twice before using it as your main distro.

Security

As expected, Pardus incorporates all security enhancements from KDE SC 4.4.4, but also includes a remarkably good Firewall interface. Not only is it the easiest and most clear I have used in Linux, but it also works very well.

Pardus 2009.2 sports the great security features that are standard in Linux. Including a great firewall graphical tool, it rates slightly above average. If anything, I would only recommend putting a launcher on the desktop as part of the default installation. That would work as a convenient reminder for anybody to start the firewall. An alternative method would involve adding an extra step in the Kaptan wizard so users start the firewall as part of those initial configuration.

NOTE: Remember that the firewall is "dormant" in desktop Linux after installation. It is essentially not working by default, but it is not listening on any ports either, so Linux desktop users are fairly secure out of the box. However, it is good practice to start the firewall anyways so that the right policies are set up.

FINAL THOUGHTS

When I found about Pardus some weeks ago, I was surprised to find a distro which is not among the most popular ones, but an impressive piece of work nevertheless. I personally believe the Pardus developers have a very good understanding of their users needs, specially those users who may not have any experience in Linux or KDE. I think they have done a superb job at removing "obstacles" where it matters, joining other great distributions like PCLinuxOS 2010 or Linux Mint 9 in making the Linux desktop more accessible than ever.

Pardus 2009.2 is obviously not perfect, though. I found several minor things that could use some polishing, but the main shortcoming comes from its limited repository support. This is probably only impacting home users, for corporations and state facilities would most likely lock application installation anyways, but still a significant obstacle towards Pardus evolution.

When all is said and done, I still consider Pardus 2009.2 a very good release and distro. I hope it will quickly get the community support it deserves, which should help it evolve faster and better.

If you haven't already, DOWNLOAD Pardus 2009.2 (International version, unless you are from Turkey, of course) and have some fun!

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The curious case of Linux hardware support

Through the few years I have been using Linux, I have barely had any problems with hardware not being supported or working incorrectly. I have almost exclusively used HP corporate hardware, never using anything too "bleeding edge". This was probably down to luck initially, slowly becoming part of my "best practices" as I learned more about Linux.

Lately, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an HP 2740p Tablet, which hit the market not long ago. I was definitely interested in giving it a try, mostly because it had a solid state drive, but also to find out how Linux would cope with its hardware. Let's just say my experience was far from the smooth trip I had planned, so I thought I'd share some of the things I did to overcome those problems. I hope some of my ideas may help others in case they face a similar situation.

PROBLEMS START

When I first had a chance to test the 2740p, I used the two USB drives I usually carry with me, holding Ubuntu 9.10 and PCLinuxOS 2010 respectively, and booted from them. I could not see any evident problems, so I assumed it would be just another Linux "friendly" box.

When I got home, I tested the same things again and it didn't take long before I found some problems. PCLinuxOS 2010 was working well for the most part, but had problems with 3D rendering, effectively resulting in Compiz not being available. Ubuntu 9.10 was working fine in terms of graphics, even with 3D effects fully functional, but would not recognize the Wireless card.

My initial thought was that Ubuntu 10.04, specially because of its LTS nature, would be better and more complete in terms of hardware support, so I went ahead and tested it. Surprisingly enough, not even with the latest updates did I get it to work. I could hear login sounds and the usual Ubuntu session start tune, but the screen was pitch black. Linux Mint 9 and Pardus 2009.2 were suffering from the same problems.

As you can imagine, I was puzzled to see Ubuntu 9.10 supporting a video card that Ubuntu 10.04 did not support. What's that supposed to mean!?

KNOW YOUR HARDWARE

It was clear to me that most Linux distros were not dealing with the hardware successfully. I therefore had to try and find out which hardware exactly I was dealing with, so I could find more information online. The LSHW command is invaluable in this regard.

lshw

The command above would list all hardware available in your machine. It is usually a good idea to pipe it to a file, so we can reference it later.

lshw > hardware.txt

Similarly, you can apply filters to limit the output of this command. In this case, I was interested in the display and network information. Here's the command I used:

lshw -C display && lshw -C network

Here's the output I got:
*-network
       description: Wireless interface
       product: BCM4312 802.11b/g
       vendor: Broadcom Corporation
       physical id: 0
       bus info: pci@0000:43:00.0
       logical name: eth2
       version: 01
       serial: 78:e4:00:68:5e:20
       width: 64 bits
       clock: 33MHz
       capabilities: bus_master cap_list ethernet physical wireless
       configuration: broadcast=yes driver=wl0 driverversion=5.10.91.9 ip=192.168.128.109 latency=0 multicast=yes wireless=IEEE 802.11
       resources: irq:19 memory:d0500000-d0503fff
  *-display
       description: VGA compatible controller
       product: Arrandale Integrated Graphics Controller
       vendor: Intel Corporation
       physical id: 2
       bus info: pci@0000:00:02.0
       version: 12
       width: 64 bits
       clock: 33MHz
       capabilities: bus_master cap_list rom
       configuration: driver=i915 latency=0
       resources: irq:34 memory:d0000000-d03fffff memory:c0000000-cfffffff(prefetchable) ioport:5050(size=8)
As you can see, the hardware that was giving me a headache was:

Intel HD Arrandale Integrated Graphics Controller
Broadcom BCM4312 Wireless card


KNOW YOUR DISTROS

Before going into full blown driver hunting, it is interesting to scan a few distros and see what kind of hardware support each one provides. A few CD-Rs is all it takes, but because the 2740p has no local CD drive, I had to create a few LiveUSBs instead.

As I already mentioned, none of the following distros did the job in this case:

PCLinuxOS 2010
Ubuntu 9.10
Ubuntu 10.04
Linux Mint 9
Pardus 2009.2
Fedora 13


My options were very limited, but my best bets were Ubuntu 9.10 and PCLinuxOS 2010.

GOOGLE IS YOUR FRIEND

I decided to go with Ubuntu 9.10. The main reason is that Ubuntu is far more popular than PCLinuxOS, so getting information from forums or even finding some kind of hardware support was more likely. In this case, it was about finding a way to get support for my Broadcom wireless card.

Simply searching for the specific card model on Google was enough to get some interesting information from forums. I found some relevant tutorials to get some Windows drivers to work using Ndiswrapper and even some Broadcom hybrid drivers available from their official website. I thought I had a better chance of getting things to work using those hybrid drivers, so I downloaded them and off I went.

UBUNTU TO THE RESCUE

I finally set up an Ubuntu 9.10 LiveUSB, installed it on the machine and completed all updates using an ethernet connection. As I was getting ready to reboot the machine, Ubuntu automatically found that certain hardware required proprietary drivers to work (How cool is that?). It ended up being quite simple, as it did it all automatically. I only had to download the drivers recommended by Ubuntu and recycle the machine.

THE AFTERMATH

On and off, I spent about two days testing different things until I found a viable solution. This is specially annoying when I see that the video card in this machine was supported in the second to last Ubuntu release, but is not in any of the latest major Linux releases, with the exception of PCLinuxOS 2010. Not even Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (with its supposedly enhanced hardware support) nor Fedora 13 (theoretically including cutting edge video drivers and XORG changes) could even get the screen to blink.

The Kernel compilation policy is criticized sometimes for this apparent "stepping back" behavior. I personally believe that it is mostly positive and that Linux hardware support takes massive steps forward with every release, but those few steps back are certainly regrettable and hopefully will no longer take place in the future.

I am now typing these lines from this fully functional HP 2740p with Ubuntu 9.10 on top. I hope this article did actually shed some light on the thought process behind troubleshooting around lack of hardware support in Linux. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that Linux users need to keep an eye and prevent "injuries" before they happen. If you are thinking of buying a new PC and want to install Linux on it, the best way to troubleshoot potential problems is to be sure they won't happen. In other words, do some research to confirm others are running Linux on it with no problems, or test before you buy, if possible.

Good Luck and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Preview: Pardus 2009.2 Release Candidate

The release of Linux Pardus 2009.2 is near so I wanted to give the Beta a run and see what's new before I actually get my hands on the final release a few days/weeks from now. Unfortunately, the link to the beta from DISTROWATCH was broken. In all fairness, that link is broken on the Pardus official WEBSITE as well. I kept looking and was lucky enough to find a link to the Release Candidate, which actually makes more sense for a fair preview article. In fact, this RC is so complete that this almost feels like a review!

For those interested, you can download the Pardus 2009.2 release candidate from HERE.

INSTALLATION

At 915MB, the ISO image is larger for 2009.2, no longer fitting a CD. I tested it on both Virtual and real machines. To be honest, I did very little testing on the virtual machine, for I liked Pardus 2009.2 so much I wanted to get Pardus installed on "proper" media straight away.

Let me start by saying that the Pardus installation is BY FAR the best I have seen in any Linux distro, probably even better than that of some OS you have to pay quite some money for. From the very first screen, it feels pleasant, interesting, informative and thoroughly well put together.


Nice GUI menu to start the installation of Pardus.

Note that this is not a LiveCD, so starting the OS from the installation media is not an option. This is unfortunate, because I very much like how LiveCDs provide a nice testing environment which give the end user invaluable information on how Linux deals with his/her hardware. Having said so, I think it is likely that Pardus will make some LiveCD media available as part of the main release.


Let's start by accepting the GPL License.

The installation starts by presenting us with a GPL acceptance screen. Not many Linux distros include this screen, at least not as clearly, but I think all should. Not only does it do justice to the GPL/GNU nature of Linux, but it also conveys a serious, professional vibe to it.


Did that ISO download work OK?.

One nice feature available before starting the installation is checking the MD5 sum. This is an interesting thing that is also not common. Usually, MD5 sums are provided so you can check before burning a CD that the ISO integrity was not compromised during download/copy. I am pretty sure lots of people don't bother doing that check, though, so I think this is a convenient feature.


YES! The MD5 sum check was successful.

Once the integrity of the installation media has been confirmed, it is time to start the installation. As usual, one of the first steps is to set up the keyboard distribution.


Select your keyboard distribution before the installation starts.

Next, it is time for the time zone configuration. Most Linux distros show a world map and allow you to choose your own time zone. Pardus has a slightly different approach which is also nice and simple.


Time Zone configuration is extremely simple as expected.

Note that the installation provides very simple yet effective navigation through its several screens. You can go back and forth at pretty much any moment. Should you choose to exit, that's also possible at any point in time by clicking the lower left button.


Time to set up a user to start sessions with.

The next step takes us into user administration. As expected, Pardus requires a standard user account to be used by default. Interestingly enough, Pardus provides some very welcome flexibility here, as we are able to set this default account up with or without admin privileges. On the next screen, we will be asked to set the superuser password.


A particularly simple and clear approach to partitioning.

Pardus also provides a simple yet effective screen for setting up/manipulating partitions. Once we complete that step, we get the usual report confirming our choices before the installation actually starts.


Are we happy with our choices?.

As I continued on, the installation wizard kept on surprising me with its top notch quality. I was particularly pleased to see nice informative dialogs, explaining what was being installed at each moment, with a brief description of that particular package. Needless to say, branding and Look&Feel remained consistent and tasty throughout. In fact, this was probably the first time I found an installation process interesting enough to keep my attention. Usually I leave it running as soon as the automatic installation piece starts, but I found this one so appealing I actually stuck around to see what was going on.


The installation process rocks...


Wait a minute, the installation process rocks hard...


All along the installation you get nice and interesting screens like this one.


Done deal!.

I have included just a few screenshots here, hopefully enough to give you a feel of how good this installation wizard actually is. It is truly the best I have seen in Linux, an installation process that certainly doesn't get in the way but helps the end user instead. I believe all major Linux distros should make an effort to adopt such high standards in their installations. Not only do I consider it a must in 2010, but it would also open the doors to many people who are currently feeling intimidated by some complicated installation processes... After all, Linux should be about freedom, so why limit it to skilled users?

THE PARDUS DESKTOP

After booting up our fresh Pardus installation, we continue to get tasty and beatiful splash and login screens. The KDE implementation is tightly integrated with the Pardus branding, which is apparent throughout the boot up and shutdown processes. This results in a nice solid and professional feel to the whole experience.


The Login screen in Pardus.

After such a pleasant installation, I was curious to see if the same quality levels would be maintained on an actual desktop session. Let's find out.

Kaptan

As we start a session for the first time, we are welcome by a very nice introductory tool called "Kaptan". This application concentrates most of the basic desktop configuration in one spot, making it extremely simple, even for Linux/KDE first timers.


The Kaptan gives us a warm welcome to Pardus!.

The Kaptan is awesome, a tool that should be an example of how to introduce a user to a new operating system or window manager.


Mouse basic settings.


Color themes.


Set up the menu layout.


Choose your favorite wallpaper!


Set up your network connections here.


Package management introduction.


Let's have fun now!

As you can see, Kaptan is a thorough yet easy. Like the wonderful installation wizard, it provides an extremely simple and accessible introduction that should make learning enjoyable.

Pardus KDE Integration and implementation

Consistent with what we have seen so far, the KDE implementation of Pardus is one of the best I have seen. I'd say both Pardus and PCLinuxOS are right up there as the best customizations of the KDE desktop I have tried.


KDE is tightly integrated from the get go.

The panel, the main menu and the overall look&feel are unique compared to other distros. The effort put in place by the Pardus developers definitely paid off.

Like PCLinuxOS 2010, Pardus also provides custom splash screens to all its applications, once again making it all feel tight and consistent.


Most applications sport custom splash screens that convey a consistent branding feel.


The OpenOffice splash screen.

All in all, I personally love the Pardus KDE desktop. I did find some areas that are not 100% polished, but nothing worth discussing.

APPLICATION CATALOG

As you can probably imagine given the size of the Pardus ISO image, the application catalog included is abundant, but I also find it interesting and filled with many great choices.


Pardus includes a rich and powerful set of preinstalled applications.

OpenOffice 3.2, Firefox 3.6.3, Amarok 2.30, Mplayer, GIMP, DigiKam, Blogilo, Ktorrent, Google Gadgets and a long etcetera make up the rich application selection in Pardus. I personally miss Dropbox, which is a bit of a pain to install under KDE, so I very much appreciate when it comes preinstalled. That should not take anything away from the many and great applications preinstalled in Pardus though.


Amarok 2.30 on top of KDE SC 4.4.3.

SYSTEM TOOLS

One element worth mentioning is the extremely simple Firewall GUI interface, which makes it easy and quick to get it up and running.


Can firewall configuration get any easier?.

Most of the system settings can be set up through the KDE system preferences, but I found some other applications which may confuse first timers. For example, there was an application apparently designed for system configuration, but I found that changing the system language with it had no effect, so I had to revert back to the KDE system preferences. Once again, nothing too concerning, I just found it odd.


Nice GUI for lshw command, perfect for those not too command line inclined.

Among other tools, I found a cool graphical interface for the lshw command. It's nothing too fancy, but definitely good for those who may feel intimidated by the command line. The KDE partition tool was also included.


Easily manage your partitions with this powerful tool.

CAN'T WAIT!

So there you have it, hope this preview provided a nice introduction for what's to come when the final release goes live. When that happens, I will post an update and take more of a review point of view, discussing performance, functionality, hardware compatibility, media support, "bugginess" or lack of it, etc.

Some time ago I compared Ubuntu 10.04 and Windows 7. Back then I stated that Windows 7 made things very simple at the expense of diversity and choice. In other words, everything was intuitive because options were very limited and mostly predefined by developers. I was essentially justifying that Ubuntu's arguably more complicated interface was the result of its great flexibility and freedom. PCLinuxOS 2010, Linux Mint 9 and specially Pardus 2009.2 have demonstrated that a much better job can be done in making the Linux desktop accessible to anyone without compromising its power.

I personally am thoroughly impressed by this release candidate... Can't wait to get my hands on the Final release!

I very much recommend giving Pardus 2009.2 a try when it comes out.

Thanks for reading and have fun!