Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The joy of installing hardware in Linux

Linux is often regarded as a great operating system, specially in the server arena. When it comes to home use, though, there are still several weak spots, hardware management and support being one of the most important. In fact, I have raised this as a concern when I have addressed Linux weaknesses in the past. Today, though, I want to write about the bright side of Linux hardware management and support.

IS THERE A BRIGHT SIDE?

Contrary to what many believe, Linux hardware support is superb, which is not the same as saying it supports every single hardware part or device under the sun. This is a key concept that has been misinterpreted (and misused at times).

The great thing about Linux hardware support is that once drivers are natively supported by the kernel, that's when we can actually experiment what truly "plug and play" is all about. Let me share some examples.

TRUST WIRELESS MOUSE

A couple days ago I bought a Trust wireless mouse in an attempt to reduce the massive amount of cables I carry in my bag. I picked it up, opened up the box and there it was, the usual CD with drivers for Windows7, Vista and XP.



Me, I just connected the batteries, turned the mouse on and started clicking away. I tested it under PCLinuxOS 2010, Linux Mint 9 and Ubuntu 9.10, all with the same perfect result.

HP LASERJET 2600N

This nice laser printer is Linux friendly. Simply connecting it to any of the USB ports in a few of my laptops (once again Linux Mint 9, PCLinuxOS 2010 and Ubuntu 9.10) got the installation going, which completed in just a few seconds. In all three cases I was asked if I wanted to download the HP proprietary drivers that would provide some enhanced controls over certain specific functionality. Cool beans.



LOGITECH C250 WEBCAM

Same story this time, opened the box, plugged the webcam in and... Voila! No CD installation, no downloads, no boring-resource-eating proprietary software from Logitech or whoever, just my webcam working straight away.



PERIPHERALS NO MORE

Alright, yes, as you can see, there is a large array of peripherals that will work superbly out of the box on your Linux machine, these are just a few examples. How about the hardware that's inside your computer, though? That's usually a bit difficult to tell, specially if your computer is tailor made and not a popular model from a well-known brand.

I have used many different HP Models along the years, including:

HP Elitebook 6930p (Notebook)
HP Compaq 6910p (Notebook)
HP 2710p (Tablet)
HP 2730p (Tablet)
HP 2740p (Tablet, fully supported now on Ubuntu 10.10)
HP Compaq NX7400 (Notebook)
HP Compaq DC7800 (Minitower)

I mostly use HP hardware, but rest assured that many other major brands will work just as good.

I have used all the models listed above with an array of Linux distros, always getting extremely good results from the get go. In fact, other than very minor problems, I have never experienced a truly serious hardware support problem in Linux.

HOW DOES IT COMPARE?

If you come from a Windows background, you know that almost every manufacturer out there will release products along with drivers for the Microsoft OS. That kind of support is what is missing in Linux. Having said so, like I said before, installing devices in Windows can be a pain. You are usually forced to either install the manufacturer software with the included CD or download that same software from the web, which usually takes time and may end up installing loads of stuff you hardly want. I personally will take the Linux approach any day of the week.

Windows hardware support in general has been somewhat limited historically. A simple test is truly clarifying: Try to reinstall Windows on an OEM machine with a standard Windows CD, not the one that was provided by the manufacturer. You'll see that most devices are very limited in functionality, while others simply do not work... even if the machine was designed for the Microsoft OS! Windows 7 has certainly improved in this area, drastically reducing the amount of devices that actually require an installation, but it suffers from backwards compatibility issues.

How about Mac OS? Well, as often happens with Apple products, everything goes well as long as you do as Mr. Jobs tells you to. In that regard, Apple engineers know exactly which hardware a certain version of Mac OS will run under, which allows them to optimize the software. Having said so, if you ever feel too happy and need something truly depressive, try installing Mac OS on any PC.

Jokes aside, taking everything into account, Linux does very well in terms of hardware support. It only takes a bit experience and research to stick to natively supported hardware, and under those circumstances, Linux is tough to beat.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

While I understand that in practical terms Linux hardware support may feel like a huge fiasco to some, it really isn't. In fact, it does very well. Having said so, It does not support everything, so if you are expecting a smooth installation on every single PC combination you try, think again.

With Google on your side, it only takes a couple minutes to find out if a specific device works under Linux. Be sure to research a bit before you go out and buy and you'll be happy as a clam.

NOTE: Along the lines of this article, I found a useful GUIDE that provides good advice on how to buy a new laptop that is fully ready for Linux. This guide is very thorough, you may not need to research with that level of detail, but it sure will prove useful in case you are thinking of buying a new laptop.

Monday, September 27, 2010

POLL RESULTS: Best Browser for Linux

FIREFOX WINS!

Now that the "Best Internet Browser for Linux" Poll is over, one of the clearest conclusions is that Mozilla's Firefox is still regarded highest by most Linux users. This was a pleasant surprise, for I thought most would blindly switch to the "only-speed-matters" alternatives. In fact, I think this is good news for the fox because it is still receiving important user support, even during a phase when it has been significantly behind on important areas, such as process independence and speed and overall responsiveness. Considering the enhancements that are in store for Firefox 4, it should only get better from here.

Internet BrowserVotes
Mozilla Firefox128
Google Chrome49
Opera35
Chromium30
SwiftFox6
SeaMonkey6
IE through WINE4
Epiphany4
Konqueror3

Following Firefox from a long distance is Google Chrome. This young browser is growing up very fast, but still lacking in certain areas, such as security and overall stability. Opera makes it to a surprising (at least to me) third position. It seems version 10 and its subsequent updates have made an impact on Linux users. Chromium follows closely, apparently not getting the same amount of love as its Google cousin.

From that point on, the rest are options with minimal support, SeaMonkey and Swiftfox both gathering 6 votes while Epiphany and Internet Explorer through WINE get 4 votes each. I have to say I am surprised that IE got any votes at all. It is slow and reportedly not secure, and I think that can only get worse through WINE, but still some people appreciate it.


Click on image to enlarge

Konqueror comes last with just three votes. I know many consider Konqueror a favorite, specially as a file browser, but I think it is about time it disappears. Dolphin has taken over as the default file browser and while some might find it useful to keep Konqueror as well, I just think it is confusing. In my opinion, Konqueror should not be part of the default KDE installation, but available from the repositories for anybody who wants to install it.

Thanks for reading and voting!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

KDE will soon run even faster! (QT 4.7 released)

Nokia announced yesterday the release of QT 4.7, which comes with very interesting new features, the most notable of which is probably speed.



The official ANNOUNCEMENT goes into specifics and clarifies which areas will be most benefited from this improvement. Here's an excerpt:

"Improved performance, quicker apps

Qt 4.7 includes significant performance improvements that make applications and user interfaces run faster and smoother. Examples of these improvements include:

- New hardware accelerated compositing in QtWebkit has accelerated QtWebkit animation rendering by 31% over Qt 4.6.0, resulting in “snappier” user interfaces.
- In benchmark tests of popular websites, Facebook pages scrolled up to 67% faster, and other, less complicated pages scrolled on average 350% faster* due to significant scrolling speed improvements in QtWebkit.
- The new QStaticText class makes text render more than twice as fast as in Qt 4.6.
- The QPainter engine makes it possible to draw particle systems more efficiently in OpenGL."


This is particularly exciting, because the late improvements in performance that could be experienced in recent KDE releases came partially from QT enhancements. If these figures work as expected, perhaps we will start feeling their benefits as soon as KDE 4.6, which is planned for release next March.

Once again, the future looks bright for KDE and its users!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Amarok 2.3.2 "Moonlight" released

Man, do I love it when PCLinuxOS repositories bring the latest applications releases as soon as they are live (which is always the case, by the way). Amarok 2.3.2 "Moonlight" was released just yesterday, and here it is!


Click on image to enlarge.

You can quickly check out the official RELEASE ANNOUNCEMENT for specifics on new features and fixes. Below are some highlights:

- Amarok 2.3.2 is now fully compatible with the latest KDE SC 4.5. Apparently, some important bugs in recent releases were caused by this lack of compatibility.

- Dynamic Collection has received fixes and should now work better with external hard drives and USB mass storage devices.

- The Last.fm internet service now works without using KWallet.

- A new Quick guide, which you can find HERE.

AMA-ROCKS!

When I started using Linux, Amarok was a favorite among audio players for many, but I couldn't agree after trying it out. I was using Ubuntu back then, which made its use a bit awkward, to say the least. On top of downloading a huge chunk of KDE libraries, Amarok felt out of place inside a GNOME environment. The biggest problem, though, was that Amarok was in a difficult moment from a technical standpoint. Adjusting the platform to the brand new KDE4 base was taking lots of resources and complicating things enormously. As a result, the application was somewhat buggy, slow and cluttered.

Things have taken a significant turn now. KDE has improved by leaps and bounds, and Amarok has followed suit. This last release improves even further and the result is a superb audio player that has little or no competition within the KDE realm.

Totally recommended!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The wonders of Digikam

Originally started by photographers who wanted to "view, manage, edit, enhance, organize, tag, and share photographs under Linux systems", the Digikam project has come a long way. The Digikam application is currently an advanced digital photo manager for Linux, Windows, and Mac-OSX.

DIGIKAM 1.4.0

The current live version of Digikam is already quite powerful, undoubtedly my favorite photograph manager under KDE, and arguably in Linux. In fact, now that big distros like Ubuntu and Fedora (GNOME) have decided to drop F-Spot in favor of Shotwell (still not as mature and feature rich), Digikam may become more popular.


Click on image to enlarge.

The screenshots published along with this article come from my PCLinuxOS 2010 machine, which includes Digikam as the default photograph manager and Gwenview, another fabulous application as the default picture viewer. As I have already discussed on some past PCLinuxOS reviews, the project developers made a strong effort to tightly integrate all applications. One of the elements that is most evident in that integration is the splash screens that appear when applications start up. As we can see from the screenshot above, Digikam is no exception.

DOWNLOADING PICTURES FROM A NIKON S210

As soon as I plug my Nikon S210 in, PCLinuxOS recognizes the device as a photograph source and offers Digikam as the default manager to start the download. Once the application loads, it reads the picture collection available on the camera and provides a nice interface to select which images to download.


Click on image to enlarge.

With the picture selection taken care of, Digikam asks for a location to download those pictures to. We can choose the default that was created the first time the application ran or create a new one.


Click on image to enlarge.

The pictures are downloaded into the desired location successfully and then presented on screen. The user may then decide to view them separately, as a slideshow, etc.


Click on image to enlarge.

DIGIKAM 2.0

As I am sure you can tell, this is simply a very high level introduction to Digikam. I consider it an impressive application with loads of features and very much encourage that you give it a try. Having said so, there is already news about the soon to come Digikam 2.0, the next production version of this high quality photograph manager.

At the moment, I don't have lots of information about exactly which features will make it into version 2.0, but some very interesting hints appear in this KDE blog ENTRY. The highlights include face detection and recognition by Aditya Bhatt, geotagging features by Gabriel Voicu and non-destructive image editing and versioning by Martin Klapetek.

I don't know about you, but I consider those very interesting and exciting additions which I am eager to try as soon as a fresh Digikam 2.0 release goes public. In the meantime, once again make sure you give Digikam 1.4.0 a go.

Thanks for reading!

VMWARE to acquire SUSE Linux?

SUSE (and OpenSUSE) Linux fans may have a reason or two of concern. Recent news raised speculation around a potential buyout from VMWARE. When an operation like this happens, it usually is concerning for us OpenSource fans, for it is difficult to foresee what will really happen with the software we use and love.

Will SUSE still receive enough support to continue to excel among Linux distros? Will it undergo a major reorganization and lose its edge? How will the community project OpenSUSE continue if that happened? All difficult to answer questions for now, I am afraid.

Read the brief news from the following LINK.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Preview: GIMP 2.8

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a powerful and versatile graphics manipulation application that is available for many different OS. GIMP is a standard in Linux, usually part of the standard image on most desktop distros. It is clearly one of the most popular applications in the Linux application catalog, mostly down to its outstanding quality, power and flexibility.

Sometimes compared to the market standard, Adobe Photoshop, GIMP offers a huge catalog of tools and effects that allow for deep and complex image tweaking. Some say it is not yet as powerful as Photoshop, but it seems it can get extremely close with the addition of certain plugins. In fact, it will certainly get even better with the soon to come new stable version, GIMP 2.8.

At the moment, GIMP 2.8 is still in the works. The current development version, GIMP 2.7.1 was recently released (July 3rd), and already shows many of the new features that will make GIMP 2.8 a big step forward. The LIST of UI changes is pretty impressive, here are some highlights:

- Single Window Mode. An old favorite request from the user community. The current stable GIMP version interface is made of a main window, where images are loaded, and a couple floating windows containing tools, brushes, layers, etc. This behavior can get annoying, specially if your display is medium or small size, which is the case in most portable devices. GIMP 2.7.1 already supports this feature, but still does not allow for this configuration to be the default.

- Save vs. Export. Once again a concept that could be confusing for Photoshop users, the current stable version of GIMP users a single Save menu entry, which then exports or saves depending on the targeted image format. GIMP 2.8 will split the two. Saving will only apply to GIMP's own format ".xcf".

- Layer Grouping. GIMP 2.8 will include this new feature, as well as a more logical and clear way to handle layers, a critical functionality in GIMP.

- Rotating Brushes. This cool feature will also be part of the next stable GIMP release, as well as a more powerful brush dynamics engine.

- UI Language Management. Changing the language of the UI will be easier and more intuitive in GIMP 2.8.

For a full list of features, refer to the NEWS file.

IMAGES AND WORDS

As usual, pictures, or even a video in this case, really help in showcasing these new features. The video very clearly explains some of the highlights I already discussed, with practical examples. It is a very high quality video, so I recommend (as the video author does) watching it full screen with 720p resolution. Enjoy.


Watch this video full screen with 720p resolution!


Thanks for reading/watching!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fun with mouse pointer themes

One of the things I love most about Linux is that it encourages freedom and creativity, at every level. When looking at that concept from the GUI perspective, it translates, among other things, in that the end user can customize pretty much about anything.

Up until recently, I had not really played around with mouse cursor themes at all. I thought it was like Windows in the old days, where the most you could get was a different color, perhaps a cursor providing a 3D "illusion" Look&Feel to it. I couldn't have been more wrong, really. I was actually pleasantly surprised when I found what Linux cursor themes can do!

I recorded a video with the RecordMyDesktop application (totally recommended) to showcase what these impressive cursor themes can do. The video shows 3 of my favorites, but there are many more available.



If you want to download and install these or other cursor themes available, just follow these simple instructions (specific to KDE in this case, but very similar to what should be done under GNOME):

1.- Go to KDE-LOOK.org and browse the X11 mouse theme CATEGORY (Order here by highest rated, descending).

2.- Download whichever theme you like (previews are usually very helpful to get an idea about how each cursor state looks like). Make sure the file you are about to download has ".tar.gz" extension. If the file extension is ".zip", make sure you find a ".tar.gz" inside of it.

3.- Open the KDE Control Center and brose to Hardware > Input Devices > Mouse.

4.- Access the second tab, "Cursor Theme".

5.- Click on the "Install Theme" button, then browse to the location where you saved the theme you downloaded on step 2. Select the file and install it.

6.- Select the new theme from the list and apply changes.

Voila! You have a shiny cool new mouse cursor.

Once again, note that cursor themes work just as well under GNOME and they can easily be downloaded from GNOME-LOOK.org.

KDE CONTROLS QUESTION

Talking specifically about KDE Look&Feel changes, though, I have been trying to add some new controls (buttons, scrollbars, progress bars, etc.) themes, but haven't found a way to do it from the GUI.

Please add a comment with instructions if you know a way to achieve this from the GUI.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

POLL: Best Internet Browser for Linux

Along the lines of my last article about the differences between Google Chrome and Chromium browsers, I thought I'd check which browser is currently a favorite among Linux users.

So, wait no more, go ahead and vote on the poll applet at the top right of this page.

Thanks for voting!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is Chromium the same as Google Chrome?



For some time now I have been using both Google Chrome and Chromium browsers alongside Firefox, Chromium often being the natural choice in Linux while Google Chrome would make it into my work Windows box. I had heard many different arguments as to why it would be best to use one or the other, but I never truly understood what the difference was between them. Considering the Chromium project is open source and feeling close to home in a Linux environment, I thought finding the differences between them would make a good topic for an article.

So, are they the same? Is one browser better than the other for the standard Linux desktop user? Let's start by clarifying what each of them is (excerpts from Wikipedia):

Google Chrome is a web browser developed by Google that uses the WebKit layout engine and application framework.

Chromium is the name given to the open source project and the browser source code released and maintained by the Chromium Project, which results in releases of Google Chrome. Chromium is a project, making all releases developmental, with Chrome being the official release.


These definitions already clarify things a bit, but mostly from a theoretical stand point. What is the actual difference for the Linux desktop user when installing one or the other? To answer this question, there is a convenient comparison table put together by Google in the following PAGE. I will highlight the main differences below:

- Chromium does not support crash reporting nor user metrics, while Google Chrome does. This is obviously no biggie.

- Google Chrome includes H.264, AAC, MP3, Vorbis and Theora plugins by default. Chromium only the last two, which are open source formats. Depending on your needs, this may or may not be an issue.

- Google Chrome includes Adobe Flash plugin by default, while Chromium does not. It can easily get it through a manual download, though.

- Google Chrome includes Adobe PDF support. Under Linux, Chromium should integrate with the on board PDF interpreter (Evince under GNOME, Okular under KDE, etc.)

The rest of differences are mostly minor, perhaps with the exception that Chromium receives less quality assurance testing and its compilations may vary depending on the distro of choice. Some distros release nightly builds that have not been tested.

Long story short, the Linux desktop user should find little to no difference between both browsers. Chromium has quickly become better integrated on the Linux environment, though, and because many distros are building their own custom compilations and adding it to their repositories, it should be most convenient. On top of that, Chromium encourages the use of open source software, which is no small detail.

Which one you choose is up to you, but I would encourage using Chromium if you are a Linux user.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

POLL RESULTS: Your favorite Ubuntu so far?

Hot off the oven, here are the poll results! This time around, I was trying to find out if there are specific Ubuntu releases that have done a particularly outstanding job or if there is steady evolution and improvement. The results clearly point to the latter.

It seems (as I expected) that Ubuntu 8.04 was indeed a very good release. I had often read in forums that many people had stuck with it for years, and I thought there had to be more about it than just the fact it was a long term support release. I believe that 2008 was also a turning point for Ubuntu, perhaps a year when adoption rates were particularly high, which would also explain why so many people consider this specific release so good (there is a saying in my country, "that who hits first, hits twice"). Here is the votes count.

VersionReleased onCodenameVotes
Ubuntu 10.04April 2010Lucid Lynx128
Ubuntu 9.10October 2009Karmic Koala36
Ubuntu 9.04April 2009Jaunty Jackalope16
Ubuntu 8.10October 2008Intrepid Ibex14
Ubuntu 8.04April 2008Hardy Heron18
Previous ReleasesOctober 2004-2007Several8

Ubuntu 8.04 aside, though, it is clear Ubuntu shows continuous user acceptance growth with each of the last releases. In fact, the last release, Ubuntu 10.04, gets more votes than all other releases combined.


Click on image to enlarge

This is good news and I believe it proves that all the negative comments each release gets when it comes out are mostly related to isolated personal issues. That doesn't necessarily mean that each release is better in every aspect than its predecessor, but I think there is an underlying evolution that is undeniable.

As I pointed out on my recent PREVIEW, Ubuntu 10.10 aims high, and I believe it's well positioned to be the best Ubuntu release to date. Let the evolution continue!

Thanks for reading. Special thanks to those who voted in this poll.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Preview: Ubuntu 10.10 Beta

Just a few days ago Canonical released Ubuntu 10.10 Beta, a development release that should go live sometime late October. I downloaded it, gave it a try and I have to say I am quite impressed with what I saw. Here's a brief preview (don't want to spoil all the fun) that I will complete when I write a full review once the final release is available.

FIRST STEPS

As usual, I downloaded the ISO and tried to create a LiveUSB to test and install from. Unfortunately, not really sure why, I wasn't able to successfully make it happen. I tried with two different USB drives and also with both Unetbootin and Ubuntu LiveUSB creator, but nothing worked out. I had to burn the ISO image into a CD and take it from there.

As soon as I booted from the LiveCD, I was impressed by the new installation wizard and menus. They were top quality already on Ubuntu 10.04, but they have been deeply reworked and not only they now look better than ever, they also are the most intuitive and easy to follow I have seen so far. Among many interesting things, the wizard ran a quick check and realized I was not plugged neither to an AC socket nor to an ethernet network cable, both of which it recommended for an optimum installation.

I am not going to cover this portion in depth because I find it exciting and very interesting, and I want to make it justice when I write my final review (I did see some wording and formatting issues that are normal in a Beta state). Having said so, I must say this is by far the best Linux LiveCD/Installation wizard I have seen. I was truly surprised and really felt (probably for the first time since I am using Linux) that this portion was 100% ready for any kind of user, with or without any Linux knowledge.

On a different note, I also noticed the installation went by really quickly, which was also welcome. After the usual reboot after the installation completes, I got to the login page. I was a little disappointed to see a GDM theme that looks almost identical to that of Ubuntu 10.04. I am not sure if it will be updated before going live, but I think it should be, because it feels a bit out of place when compared to the rest of the experience. Needless to say, this is definitely no biggie, just a personal thing.

ONTO THE DESKTOP

The default desktop is an improved, better looking version of what we saw in Ubuntu 10.04. The two new themes that made their debut when the Lynx was born (Ambiance and Radiance) have been tweaked and polished, and now they look great.


Click on image to enlarge.

While Ubuntu 10.10 defaults to Ambiance, I think it looks better with Radiance. Ironically, changing the fonts to Liberation Sans gave my desktop a bit of a MacOS vibe to it.


Click on image to enlarge.

As you can see from the screenshots above, which only include Ubuntu's own themes, fonts and application GUIs, things look better than ever. The one thing that is still not up there, and looks more and more out of place with every release, is the default icon theme. Fortunately, Canonical has already identified the need for a great icon theme and they are working on it. While they are at it, I recommend downloding the Faenza theme from GNOME-LOOK, which not only looks amazing, it also feels tailor made.


Click on image to enlarge.

Wallpapers were also a bit disappointing back in 10.04, at least from my point of view. I think that was probably shared by some because they have been renewed almost entirely, and the quality is now top notch.


Click on image to enlarge.

Whereas Look&Feel was a bit of a miss in Ubuntu 10.04, I think it has improved dramatically in Maverick Meerkat. This is probably the first Ubuntu release that allowed me to build a desktop I was totally satisfied with after just a couple tweaks. Congratulations to the corresponding Canonical team, they have done an amazing job!

SOFTWARE CATALOG AND MANAGEMENT

Yes, it looks awesome, but how does it do when it comes to applications and software management? Pretty well, I must say.

Starting with software management, we get the usual suspects: The Ubuntu Software Manager, Synaptic Package manager and the Update Manager. The last two made it almost unchanged, but the Software Manager got a deep rework and it now looks astonishing and sports an intuitive and very well designed interface.


Click on image to enlarge.

The screenshot below shows the "home screen", what we get when starting the Software Center. I wanted to install GIMP, which I would have usually searched for, but wanted to give the category browsing feature a try. I clicked on "Graphics" and I here is what I got.


Click on image to enlarge.

I then went into "Painting and Editing" and selected GIMP from the list. Clicking on "More info" took me to the following screen.


Click on image to enlarge.

Installation is transparent and happens in the background. I believe this feature is perfect for users that are not interested in what is going on behind the scenes. For the technical curious, Synaptic provides more detail, and one can always use apt-get from the command line.

The application catalog is still not something I would underline as an Ubuntu strength. I think the late decisions they have made on this department were wrong, but given how easy it is to manage software from the Software Center now, I don't see this as a major issue by any means.

The game selection has been reduced to a handful of titles, which I agree with. Back in the day, twenty useless games surrounded a couple worth it, and it didn't really make much sense.

On the Graphics department Shotwell makes its debut, which means F-Spot had to go. I have never liked F-Spot much, but I can't say I understand this change, for Shotwell does almost the same things, only not as well. Yes, F-Spot relies on mono, but so does Tomboy and it is still here.

As for Internet applications, Firefox continues to make it as the default browser, now in version 3.6.9. Gwibber, Empathy, Transmission and Evolution complete the pack. Office duties continue to be handled by OpenOffice, now on version 3.2.1. Sound and Video include Brasero, Totem, Pitivi (I still don't get this one, specially when OpenShot is available) and RhythmBox.

SNAP!

In the few days I have been using it (installed it on a SanDisk Cruzer 16 GB USB drive), I realised that Ubuntu 10.10 feels fast, snappier than 10.04. Opening applications, displaying icons, menus, opening several applications together... It all feels quick and light, even on applications such as Firefox or any of OpenOffice titles, that historically took forever to open.

FINAL WORDS

Just like Ubuntu 10.04 threw me off (too many changes rushed into a release that felt unfinished and unstable, which was specially concerning given its LTS nature), Ubuntu 10.10 got me excited and hungry for more. I think most of the changes that were introduced for Lucid Lynx are now mature and make more sense, even things like the window button position shift (alright, maybe not this one) or the "Social Desktop".

There are still some rough edges in terms of Look&Feel (default icon theme, GDM theme), but the improvement is obvious. The application catalog is still not my favorite, but customizing it to one's liking should take less than an hour total. The installation wizard enhancements are excellent and I believe will set the standard other Linux distros will look up to. Last but not least, the Software Center is finally coming to life and it excels, right up there with Linux Mint's (which Canonical got so much from).

All in all, Ubuntu 10.10 raised the bar again. I personally believe that it's biggest accomplishment is that it makes the "Ubuntu: Linux for human beings" motto full justice.

I did skip Ubuntu 10.04, but they can already sign me in for a heavy dose of Maverick Meerkat!

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

No Gaming in Linux? Try Starcraft 2!!!

One of the first things I tell everyone who's considering moving to Linux is that gaming is not one of its strengths. Rightly so, the vast majority of games available are designed for Windows systems, built over Microsoft technology, definitely not meant for Linux. Having said so, things are changing very rapidly and although it is still a bit of hit and miss sometimes, Linux users can nowadays enjoy most Windows games.



Just a few days ago I found that Starcraft II, the brand new sequel of the popular Blizzard franchise, works in Linux. Some hardware configurations may need a bit of tweaking, but several users claim they could play it out of the box (using WINE, of course). Needless to say, there are still many rough edges before Linux can claim decent support for Windows games, but the mere thought of Starcraft II, a complex and bleeding edge technology game, being playable in Linux just weeks after its release already shows how much things are improving.

A BIT ABOUT WINE

WINE is an acronym which stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. This already says a lot about it, for emulation is often considered an element that heavily degrades performance. WINE adds a compatibility layer on UNIX based systems so they can run Windows applications. While the addition of such layer usually results in some performance degradation, there is no CPU emulation here, so a machine properly setup (using optimum drivers) may sometimes run Windows software faster than a native Windows machine would.

To learn more about WINE, the project and the community behind it, I recommend visiting WINE HQ. The About section is particularly relevant and the "Common Myths about WINE" piece is very interesting.

WINE 1.2 was a big step forward, bringing nice bits of new functionality and fixing old issues. More importantly, the current development version, WINE 1.3.1, brings many more interesting new features. Here's a list of highlights:

- Support for drag & drop between X11 and OLE.
- New ipconfig.exe builtin tool.
- Support for favorites in builtin Internet Explorer.
- Beginnings of a shell Explorer control.
- A number of DirectDraw code cleanups.
- Improvements to the calendar control.
- Various bug fixes.


The list of applications successfully supported is ever growing. There is a useful database that keeps track of them, with user testimonies and suggested issue resolution suggestions. Here's the LINK.

A GOOD MIGRATION AID

The constant evolution of WINE allows for more and more Windows applications to be run under Linux, which may be critical to guarantee a smooth transition from Windows based applications to their native Linux counterparts. I believe this concept of transition is an important one which many do not pay attention to, and that often results in problems in the long run.

As already mentioned, WINE is a compatibility layer, which should allow you to run Windows applications on Linux systems. Please understand, however, that if WINE is being used in a business environment to port old applications as part of a transition, it should be just that, a middle step towards a full conversion to Linux native applications.

As a simple example, let's say a company that wants to migrate their computers from Windows to Linux keeps documentation that was originally put together in MS Office, but Open Office doesn't cut it as an instant replacement. They could potentially use WINE to install MS Office on those Linux boxes, but it should only be used to optimize compatibility with that old documentation. All current and future documentation should be created on a fully compatible Linux Office suit, like OpenOffice. Such approach would simplify matters and guarantee that the amount of documentation that requires MS Office is constantly decreasing as it becomes obsolete. At some point, all relevant documentation would be fully compatible with Linux software and the transition would have been completed smoothly.

Long story short, WINE is a great tool, but I would not recommend relying on it for too long, at least not in a corporate environment. If that is the intention, I would say staying on Windows is the better answer. The best long term solution for a potential transition to Linux is to embrace its technology instead of using it to emulate another OS.

GAMES ARE DIFFERENT

The whole concept of stability and long term solutions is inherently business specific. A home user that is hooked on game playing does not really care about it, and s/he better not, for the market imposes a frantic pace of hardware upgrades to keep up with the latest games. In such environment, WINE may be the perfect solution for a Linux user who does not want to give up on her/his Windows games.

A quick glance at the Top 25 WINE Applications LIST tells us that most WINE users are interested in gaming (23 of those 25 records are games!). Not only that, but it also tells us that many of the current blockbuster games work under Linux using the WINE layer, and they work great.

FASTER EVOLUTION, BETTER INTEGRATION

WINE is taking big steps forward with each release, improving its integration in Linux systems while increasing the catalog of supported applications at the same time. On top of that, certain distros have realized how important WINE is for their user community and have made an effort to integrate it more tightly.

Ubuntu is a good example, having made changes in the last two releases to make WINE feel "right at home". Canonical wanted to help get the WINE interface feel less alien in a Linux environment. Among other things, they made an effort so that WINE applications appear on the main menu as standard ones, as opposed to keeping them all under the WINE menu.

THAT'S ALL VERY NICE, BUT HOW ABOUT STARCRAFT 2?

Back to the game that started this article, Starcraft 2 is arguably the best strategy game ever released on PC, certainly one of the most popular. In just a few weeks, this sequel has already sold over 3 million copies and has a legion of fans all over the world.

In this very interesting BLOG ARTICLE, Jeff Hoogland explains how he managed to get Starcraft 2 to work on his box by either using WINE 1.2 or Crossover 9.1.

If you have never used WINE for gaming before and want to give it a go prior to actually purchasing Starcraft 2, I would encourage trying any other old game you may keep with you. I have been playing Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War for years and they both work perfectly.

Note that it is critical that you are using good drivers for WINE to work best.

Happy Linux gaming!