Friday, October 29, 2010

My favorite KDE Plasma desktop themes

I have noticed some interest in finding out more about how I customize my KDE desktops lately, so I thought I would put together a brief article on an element that I consider quite important to make a KDE desktop look beautiful: Plasma desktop themes.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, plasma desktop themes deal with anything from the menu panel to dialogs, widgets, etc. Each one of those themes has different properties, colors, textures and levels of transparency that artists tweak. Choosing the right theme will play an important role in creating a beautiful desktop, specially if many widgets are visible on the desktop.

Today I am going to share my favorite plasma themes along with some recommendations on how to get the most out of their qualities.

G-REMIX

A nice whitey theme with lots of transparency, it is perfect for plain dark backgrounds. It is important to understand that widgets with high levels of transparency don't get along well with busy backgrounds, specially if there is a lot going on below the widget itself. The combination of both usually results in overcrowded desktops that users quickly grow tired of.

The idea is to combine backgrounds and widgets so each complements the strengths of the other. In this case, the background is mostly plain, showing different tones of gray over a subtly textured surface. As can be seen, the dark background helps widgets stand out and their text is legible. On the other hand, the center of the background is busier, so it makes sense to leave it clean so the artist work can truly shine.


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KALEBAN

A dark theme this time. Transparency levels are less exaggerated, which provides more room to play around with different backgrounds. Having said so, the default KDE background works out perfect this time. It is not particularly busy, but it is bright enough to make those widgets get their share of limelight.


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H2O

This one I am using as I type these lines, very cool theme indeed. Transparency levels are taken to the extreme and the shining widgets do convey a bit of a "liquid" nature to them. Once again, the same concepts that applied for the Air theme are good for this one. If anything, it is even more important to make sure that nothing below the widgets gets in the way of making text legible.

This theme's weak spot is also its strength. The extreme transparency that makes it look amazing, also makes certain dialogs impossible to read when a white background is below them. The problem is that does happen quite often when you are running applications such as Internet browsers, which predominantly get white or very clear web pages.


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T-BLACK

Back to dark tones for this one, we see that transparency levels are once again under manageable levels. The concepts that applied for Kaleban apply here as well. In fact, the screenshot below is a good example of a colorful and somewhat busy background working out very well in combination with this Plasma theme.


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AIR

The default KDE theme is also a great example of a beautiful whitish theme. Having said so, it's transparency levels are lower than H2O and G-Remix, so we have more room for experimentation with backgrounds. This time around I chose a busier background which still is pretty homogeneous in color.


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PLAY AROUND WITH THEM!

KDE is a great environment to play with from a Look&Feel standpoint. The combinations available are almost endless, so just play around with them and have fun at it. In the meantime, I hope you liked my (current) favorite themes and that the recommendations I shared help you get busy with your own creations.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Linux Mint 10 Review

Linux Mint 10, codenamed "Julia", is almost here. I have downloaded the release candidate that went live a few days back and put it to the test. I will be sharing my thoughts and findings in this article, but before you continue reading, I recommend you check my Linux Mint 9 REVIEW and Ubuntu 10.10 REVIEW, which should provide some background to better understand what this Linux Mint 10 release has to offer.

WHAT'S NEW

When Linux distro releases happen, it is sometimes difficult to find out which new features made it into that specific release. In some cases, there really is no other way to find out but to go through the project change log and try to decipher what has changed and how many of those changes will actually have a noticeable impact on end user experience.

Linux Mint 10 release notes are the complete opposite, and I have to say that I am very thankful for that. The Linux Mint team has released an extremely clear and easy to understand LIST OF NEW FEATURES, which I recommend reading. In any case, I will provide a summary along with my opinions below.

New Looks

Linux Mint 10 represents a noticeable change in terms of Look&Feel. When previous releases used and abused of green colors and themes, this time out things are more balanced, with some sleek grey and metallic textures here and there. My first impression is that this is a change for the better, a desktop environment that I will not grow tired of quickly, as often was the case with Mint in the past.

The default icon theme is a customization of Faenza, which is both good and bad news. On the one hand, Faenza is a great theme, a definite community favorite. Its diverse colorful nature helps evening tones out. On the other hand, it is mixed with some custom Mint icons, which do heavily rely on green tones and don't really fit that well.


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Linux Mint is a great distro with lots of following, so just reusing someone else's icon theme doesn't sound like such a great idea. While I appreciate this is an improvement over past icon themes, I would love to see a Mint icon set as good in quality as Faenza. I believe that would be another step forward in establishing Mint as an independent distro, not so much an Ubuntu derivative that relies on community resources.


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Controls and Window borders have also been polished and they look great. Wallpapers were created by community artists this time around, but they retain the top quality that was already there in Linux Mint 9.


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All in all, Linux Mint 10 Look&Feel changes are mostly for the better, but there is a bit of an unfinished feel to it. It's easy to tell the departure from green tones was intentional, but at the same time, it feels somewhat incomplete. It's like there was a desire to step away from old looks, but also lack of confidence in leaving behind what has been the signature style of this distro for so long.

Welcome Screen

The welcome screen has received some nice additions and a cool face lift. As is the case with the new Mint menu (covered in detail in the next section), this new welcome screen also displays a nice brushed metallic texture.

In terms of information, there is more and it's better organised into categories. Unfortunately, this welcome screen suffers from the same problem as its predecessors: Most of the information is not stored locally, so a working Internet connection is required to get to it.


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Considering that connecting to the Internet may not be straight forward for anybody using Linux for the first time (wireless card detection and/or configuration problems are not uncommon) and the fact that most of this information is made of html files, I think it should be part of the LiveCD, at least a reduced version covering the basics. It would be easy to throw a message so that users understand that such documentation is not actively maintained after the release date and that they should refer to the complete and up-to-date online documentation eventually.

Mint Menu

This is one of those elements that can truly make a difference from a user experience point of view. The Linux Mint menu has kept some nice momentum over the last releases, continuously developing and evolving into a very powerful and eye-catching part of the desktop. The latest features introduced for this release are nothing short of amazing.


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There are some nice new features that the Mint developers have included so that the menu integration with the GNOME environment is tighter. That should allow community artists to develop themes that are menu-specific. A good example of such customization is the brushed metallic texture in the default Linux Mint 10 Mint Menu.

The menu customization options are now more flexible than ever before. For example, users can now change the size of icons in pretty much any category, which has some interesting side effects. Making the System and Places icons grow provides more room which can be used to stick more entries in the Favorites section, as shown below.


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The search feature in the menu has been heavily improved, becoming a very powerful tool. For example, the menu is "aware" of the packages available for installation, so users can actually search for them straight from its search field. In the example below I searched for "chromium".


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Clicking on the menu to continue the process brought the following message:


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Once installed, Chromium is highlighted as a new addition to the set of installed applications... Now, how cool is that?!

Personally, I have to say that I found the highlighting of new installed applications a bit too subtle. I think it should be more extreme, more easily noticeable, perhaps even displaying a dialog next to the new entry.


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This search feature is not limited to installable packages only, though. Users can search for pretty much anything, and the menu is smart enough to tell whether the search term fits a package name or not. If it does not, users may decide to search for the term on Google, Wikipedia, etc.


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The Linux Mint menu is without a doubt one of the most impressive features in Mint 10. It is growing more powerful and with the new style features, it shouldn't take long before we see some creative designs by community members.

Software & Update Manager

Back when Linux Mint 9 was released, its Software Manager was an awesome feature. It was the first to enable commentaries, scoring, an improved navigation model and other interesting features. Come Linux Mint 10, developers were less ambitious and probably decided to solidify those features instead of adding new ones. As a result, the most notorious update is the addition of categories, which should make navigation easier, but doesn't make for an exciting update.

The Linux Mint 10 Update Manager has not changed much either, just got some minor cosmetic changes, such as the size of the update packages about to be installed. On top of that, it is now possible to disable updates for packages if the user so desires.

FINAL WORDS

Linux Mint 10 is a good release that builds upon great features from both Ubuntu 10.10 and Linux Mint 9. The new features are not an example of aggressive development, but still provide enough enhancements to justify an upgrade/installation. In fact, I would still recommend Linux Mint 10 to those Mint users who can't be bothered to upgrade, if only to enjoy the latest Ubuntu, Kernel and GNOME updates and features.

Enjoy!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Banshee scream

Back when I started writing articles in this blog, Songbird was one of the applications that I covered. In my opinion, it was the best Audio player available in the GNOME desktop manager. Unfortunately, the Songbird Linux project was cut and since then I had not really found any proper alternative, so I was just settling down with Audacious.

Come Ubuntu 10.10, I had the opportunity to try Banshee 1.8.0, which was getting rave reviews and I have to say I am impressed.

INSTALLATION

Banshee is not part of the Ubuntu repositories by default, at least not the latest version, so users will need to add the banshee PPA available and then install from there. In addition, there are a couple extensions that I find very much worth installing, so putting together a quick and simple script may help with the whole installation process.
#!/bin/bash

# Install the Banshee PPA
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:banshee-team/ppa

# Update sources, install Banshee and a couple extensions
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get -y install banshee banshee-extension-soundmenu banshee-extension-lyrics
You could always copy and paste these commands separately, but I find it easier to run them as part of a simple script. Should you want to follow the script route, simply copy the code above and paste it into a text document, then save it as banshee_install.sh. To execute it, provide it with execution permissions from file properties or by running the following command:

chmod 774 banshee_install.sh

Once done, the script would be ready for execution.

LISTENING TO THE BANSHEE SCREAM

Banshee includes some neat features, but it lacks others that are part of other Linux audio players. For example, a beats per minute (BPM) scanner allows for full library scanning in the background, which is a very nice thingy for us musicians. On the other hand, it misses the Lyrics applet that is so much a part of Amarok by now, or the Ubuntu system tray integration that is now native in Rhythmbox.

Note that keeping the BPM analyzer on by default will impact the application performance. I recommend you run it once to analyze your library completely, which will take a while, then disable it.


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Luckily, as can be seen on the screenshot below, Banshee can make up for it through some neat extensions. If you used the script I provided above, you would be adding the panel integration and the lyrics applet features. It should be noted that both features are disabled by default after they are installed, so manual activation is required from Banshee preferences menu.


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The lyrics extension may perhaps feel a bit "unnatural" if you are used to Songbird or Amarok because it is not part of the default interface, but a popup window instead. This could trip some users, who may wonder where that lyrics applet is. Once the feature is understood, though, it is extremely easy to use, and perhaps even welcome that the interface is not overcrowded by it.


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The star extension, though, is that integration with the Ubuntu sound menu from the panel system tray. I find this a great piece of functionality because I can close Banshee, keep it running in the background and control it from the sound menu, as opposed to having another system tray icon there that is not consistent with the over all Look&Feel. Below is a picture of how the sound menu integration works.



IT IS A LOUD SCREAM

I am happy to say that I have found a favorite GNOME audio player in Banshee 1.8.0. It is not perfect and still lacks in some areas (the album cover feature is not flexible at all, light years behind what Amarok is offering, for example), but it is definitely great and can pull off some nice tricks of its own.

If you have not tried Banshee 1.8.0 yet, I very much recommend you do.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A look at Ubuntu Tweak 0.57

For those who don't know, Ubuntu Tweak is a simple yet powerful application to (ahem, you guessed it) tweak Ubuntu. The project is a very active one, constantly getting updates and new features. In fact, version 0.57 was very recently released and it does more than ever in a compact and user friendly interface.

INSTALLATION

Users can install Ubuntu Tweak by DOWNLOADING the application from the project official website and double clicking on the .deb file. Installation in Ubuntu 10.10 through a PPA is also available, and it is the approach I would recommend. If you choose that route, follow these simple steps:

1.- Open a terminal window and enter the following command:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:tualatrix/ppa

2.- Once the PPA is added, update your sources:

sudo apt-get update

3.- Now proceed to install Ubuntu Tweak:

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-tweak

LET'S ROCK UBUNTU

Once Ubuntu Tweak is installed in our system, the application launcher is stored under Applications > System Tools. A nice splash screen welcomes users as Ubuntu Tweak starts up.


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In my opinion, Ubuntu Tweak's most interesting feature is that it allows users to modify settings that are otherwise hidden or not easily accessible. If you are not the CLI hacker type, if you are not comfortable using gconf-editor or if you simply wish there was a more complete and comprehensive GUI configuration editor in Ubuntu, you might have found what you were looking for.


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As can be seen in the screenshot above, the main interface is made of two applets, a category menu on the left and a main applet that displays details for each of those categories in the center-right. There are too many categories to cover, so I won't go on about each one of them in detail, just concentrate on a few that I consider particularly relevant.


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Perhaps not that critical now that the Ubuntu Software Center has become such a powerful and user friendly tool, but back when synaptic was the main GUI software manager, Ubuntu Tweak's application management was probably making life a lot easier. Even today some users may appreciate the "one-does-everything" approach in Ubuntu Tweak.


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Adding software sources to /etc/apt/sources.list could be a pain if you were not familiar with the CLI (although things have vastly improved since the introduction of PPAs). The source editor in Ubuntu Tweak should simplify this task significantly.


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Come Ubuntu 9.10, tweaking GDM themes became a lot more difficult and restricted. Luckily, as shown on the screenshot above, Ubuntu Tweak provides some flexibility through a very straight forward interface. Changing the wallpaper and/or session login icon is a piece of cake now!


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Similarly, things like configuring the icons that are displayed on the desktop is real simple with Ubuntu Tweak.


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One of the features that I find attractive is the ability to backup your configuration settings. This allows users to restore a previous backup should anything go wrong. In addition, it is possible to restore to distro default levels.


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Another setting I love is the ability to control the display brightness when running on battery. This feature is one I really miss when moving from KDE to GNOME, so finding it in Ubuntu Tweak was a sweet surprise.

ALL IN ALL

I am sure you noticed I kept this introduction to Ubuntu Tweak (very) high level, but I think it should suffice to give you an idea of what it does and what it is capable of. If you like using the CLI, this application may not be of interest to you, but if you feel right at home using the GUI and need a more powerful and complete configuration editor in Ubuntu, make sure you give Ubuntu Tweak a go.

Note that Ubuntu Tweak should run smoothly on any Ubuntu derivative, such as Linux Mint.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

KDE versus GNOME

Open source software is intended, among many other things, as a means to not restrict freedom. Freedom to change, tweak, use, copy and distribute at will. This freedom is a great concept in my opinion, but it naturally brings an unexpected side effect with it: WAR!! (...Alright, alright, that's way too dramatic, must have been watching Fox News way too much lately.)

Jokes aside, there are lots of battles inside the community. Which packaging system is best, which Linux distro is faster, which audio player, video player, boot process, splash screen... You name a category and there surely will be arguments about which solution is best.

One of the most popular (and passionate) "battles" out there is the one about which desktop manager is best for Linux, which often naturally gravitates to the two most popular options, KDE and GNOME. I have been using both for a while, so I want to put together an article comparing both in detail as they stand today, KDE SC 4.5.2 versus GNOME 2.32.0.

Before I do that, though, I'd like to get a feel for what YOU think, so I created a new poll. Please vote from the applet at the top right of this page.

NOTE: I know there are many other window managers out there and some may feel I should have added more options to the poll. Once again, this is just to get a feel for what people think of KDE and GNOME today.

Thanks!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Linux Mint Debian

On the first week of September the Linux Mint developers finally released their Debian based distro. Linux Mint Debian is a rolling release that, in their words, "promises to be faster, more responsive and less reliant on upstream components". Indeed, the biggest change here is moving from the traditional Ubuntu base Mint has historically used, to a Debian one. This is a move many members of the community were waiting for and received with open arms, certainly a welcome addition to the already large Linux Mint catalog.

SO DIFFERENT?

To begin with, I think it is important to understand what the main changes are and what they mean, as well as the impact they have. That should help readers decide whether this is the right choice for them or not.

Rolling Distribution - For those who don't know, a rolling distribution is one that is continuously getting all kinds of updates, as opposed to the traditional release-freeze approach. In other words, Ubuntu releases every six months, almost completely freezing each release until the next one comes along. Such approach may be frustrating for those who want to get the latest software, because they need to wait six months, but also for those who require top stability, because they are somewhat forced to reinstall/upgrade if they want to enjoy new features.

In the case of Linux Mint Debian, users should install once, and wait for updates to arrive. In my opinion, this is a great future for those wanting stability. Administrators can easily control and test updates before applying them to their supported computers, while they will surely appreciate not having to think of reinstallations/upgrades that often. For those interested in cutting edge software, a rolling approach should theoretically be perfect, but I doubt this is the answer. Taking the conservative approach Debian is famous for, I don't think this is one to compete with Fedora or PCLinuxOS.

Note that downloading and applying fixes as they come is actually less reliable than standard Ubuntu based Linux Mint releases. Updates may not be completely stable, but in turn, fixes should come quicker. Think of this before you install Linux Mint Debian, for you will need to be careful before applying updates, as well as be ready to work around them. That will require some dpkg and apt know how.

Compatibility - This one is a major deviation, for Linux Mint Debian is actually NOT Ubuntu compatible. It is 100% Debian compatible, though.

Once again, this is good and bad, depending on your needs. A home desktop user will probably enjoy Ubuntu compatibility, for lots of application developers out there think of Ubuntu when they package their Linux versions. On the other hand, being totally compatible with Debian will prove beneficial for those interested in such compatibility. In other words, if you are a network administrator using Debian servers, you may benefit from having clients that are 100% compatible yet they sport the same user friendly interface Linux Mint has become famous for.

Rough edges - Debian is less refined than Ubuntu and, consequently, Linux Mint Debian is less refined than standard Linux Mint. Having said so, I have to say the Mint developers have done a great job taming the beast. Once you log in into a new session, it is really hard to spot any difference, it really looks and feels the same as Mint 9. In fact, the application catalog is almost exactly the same, including codecs and tweaks so users can pretty much "plug and play".

Things change ever so slightly when you start scratching the surface, though. Users will notice minor changes in the main menu categories, less GUI customization options and a somewhat different feel here and there. It does feel Linux Mint, but at the same time, it feels like something else.

Quicker and more responsive - I have tested Linux Mint Debian in a virtual box instance, just like I did with Ubuntu 10.10 RC a couple weeks ago. Assigning the same resources to both, I have to say I have not noticed any significant different in performance or responsiveness. Having said so, I tend to find Linux Mint slower than Ubuntu, so perhaps Linux Mint Debian is faster than Linux Mint standard. I am not so sure about it being faster than Ubuntu, though.

It is important to note that Ubuntu 10.10 is on 2.6.35.x Kernel series and on GNOME 2.32. Linux Mint Debian, even after a complete update, is still on 2.6.32.x Kernel series and on GNOME 2.30. That significant difference is, in my opinion, giving Ubuntu (and probably Linux Mint 10) the edge in performance and responsiveness for now.

INSTALLATION

Linux Mint developers worked out the Linux Mint Debian Live installer from scratch. Having used the awesome Ubuntu 10.10 installer just days ago, it does feel rough in comparison. In fact, this is probably the step part will feel less Linux Mint of all.


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Installation menus are not as "pretty", they are less informative and the overall feel is less user friendly. Having said so, there is nothing terribly complicated here and even users with little experience should be able to get through the installation.


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Linux Mint Debian is well beyond the 700MB size mark, so you will need to burn the ISO image into a DVD.


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Once the installation is complete, the usual reboot is required and the fun starts.

BOOT PROCESS AND FIRST STEPS

The boot process is another area where it is easy to notice that "roughness" I was referring to before. Most of it is CLI, quite different from the almost completely silent boot process in standard Mint. Once we get to the GDM login screen, things go back to normal and from here on, it is quite difficult to tell the difference.


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As you can see from the screenshot above, the Linux Mint Debian desktop looks very familiar for any Linux Mint user. The Mint Menu looks identical, and so does the Mint update application. The Software Manager also makes it with few, if any, cosmetic changes.


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The software catalog is also familiar, including VLC, SMPlayer, Rhythmbox, Pidgin, Firefox, Thunderbird, GIMP and the full OpenOffice suite among others. The "System Tools" menu category does include some interesting applications that are not in the standard Linux Mint 9 release, such as the power statistics program


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IS IT FOR YOU?

As those screenshots show, once inside a desktop session, things are pretty much as one would expect in a standard Linux Mint session. Of course, some may favor Linux Mint Debian because of its rolling release nature and perhaps because its lack of upstream issues (the infamous Ubuntu video issues in the last few releases should not apply here). On the other hand, those who favor a very polished and user friendly interface, a more aggressive approach in incorporating current software and don't want to miss on applications developed for Ubuntu exclusively, should probably stick with standard Linux Mint.

Personally, I believe this is a nice departure from the original Linux Mint approach, a step that provides a wider catalog for Linux Mint users and yet another move towards making the Mint project less Ubuntu dependent. Would I use it? Well, not really, but that's just because it does not really fit my needs.

If you think Linux Mint Debian features are what you were looking for, give it a go and roll with it.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Help support Amarok!

Amarok is THE KDE audio player, a wonderful application that has grown enormously in the last few years. It is clearly a favorite among Linux users and surely we would all like to see it grow better even faster. Roktober is an initiative that Amarok developers put in place so that they can get some help with the inevitable expenses a project of such size requires.



As a high level preview of what's to come, Amarok developers already shared some of the upcoming features/enhancements:

For Amarok 2.4 (planned for early 2011) and upcoming releases we have planned:

* transcoding, so you can transfer files to your media device in the right format
* UPnP support
* Playdar integration
* spectrum analyzer
* completing the Amarok handbook
* many more exciting features and improvements!


If you enjoy Amarok and would like to see it get better and better, think about helping the project via a donation. There are Paypal and Google Checkout links available for your convenience.

Go ahead and add your two cents!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

10 Reasons to Install Ubuntu 10.10

It's been a few days since I installed Ubuntu 10.10 and my initial good impressions have not only been confirmed, but exceeded. In my PREVIEW and REVIEW articles I covered some concepts and features that I considered innovative, surprising or simply welcome. Today I want to present 10 reasons why this release is totally worth it installing.

EASIER AND MORE CONSISTENT THAN EVER

One of the things that stands out as soon as you start installing Maverick is how much attention to detail went into putting everything together. The installation process is compact and more flexible, including features such as "on the fly" package update, all presented in a clear and accessible way.

Everything looks consistent throughout the installation, but also as you start the system for the first time. The new splash screen is simple yet elegant, the GDM theme and the desktop also provide that consistent feel, a solid branding vibe. Help/Warning messages, application dialogs, panel integration (ME menu, Rhythmbox controls, battery discharge messages, etc.) You name it, everything feels tightly integrated. In fact, as some other reviews have pointed out, Ubuntu pulls some tricks off that not even Windows or Mac can claim, and that's a big achievement considering how mature those alternative GUIs are.

UTOUCH 1.0

Still not mature enough, but I think it is great that a multitouch framework is available in Ubuntu. Beyond the user perspective, looking at it from a developer point of view, it is great that this feature is there and can be tested, which can spawn new ideas for enhanced interfaces, perhaps even games.

Note that you can only use this feature if your device screen supports it.

OPENCL GPU HARDWARE ACCELERATION

Now, this one is a winner. Ever felt that your Compiz effects were sluggish, not smooth enough? I have been experiencing that for ages, specially when other somewhat resource consuming applications were on (Firefox comes to mind). Anything from turning to a different face of the cube to displaying the desktop wall would not feel totally smooth, but it does now.

Compiz and any other applications using 3D rendering are definitely benefiting from this new feature. Essentially, anything that could use a push from the GPU is now getting it, and that's a big plus for me. As a simple example, I installed Google Earth and it worked faster and smoother than ever, effortlessly rendering the earth, buildings, etc.

The overall feel is that my computer suddenly turned way more powerful!

AIN'T IT CUTE?

After reading many of the reviews out there, I feel this may be the very first Ubuntu release that has achieved wide consensus about its looks. From what I have read so far, the general opinion is that it looks great, and I could not agree more.

The new set of wallpapers is the best Ubuntu has got to date. Not only they are all very high quality pictures, but there is a nice balance in tones, colors and themes. Ubuntu 10.04 was very biased towards floral wallpapers, not diverse enough, but that is clearly not the case this time.

The Radiance and Ambiance window and control themes have been polished further and they both look great. The color palette is pleasant to the eye and there is nothing exaggerated or extravagant to them.

AIN'T IT CUTE? (REVISITED)

Let's not forget about the new set of Ubuntu fonts, which look awesome and contribute heavily towards a stronger branding vibe.

All in all, aside from an icon theme of similar quality missing (which is easily fixed), I believe Ubuntu looks as good if not better than other popular OS alternatives out there.

There was one thing that made it very clear for me: When I showed Ubuntu to friends, coworkers or family, I used to heavily customize my desktop in advance. My desktop usually had little or nothing to do with the default, for I changed window, icon, control themes, wallpapers and fonts. This time around, I was showing Ubuntu 10.10 with one single customization, the Faenza icon theme. Everything else was default, and that speaks volumes, in my opinion.

LIFE WITHOUT AN AC CHARGER

I mostly use portable computers, laptops and tablets, and I have suffered from Linux poor power management for ages. In this case, Ubuntu 10.10 comes with much improved power management features out of the box. Of course, it could be argued that a lot of that is coming from the latest GNOME and Kernel features, but again, Ubuntu provides a really nice and complete package.

In my case, I am getting an average 20-30% longer battery life than before!

PEDAL TO THE METAL

Ubuntu has steadily improved their boot times for a while now and Maverick is no exception. Aside from boot and shutdown times, though, there is a true improvement overall. In recent times I have been talking about how quickly and efficiently KDE was catching up. KDE SC 4.5 series is definitely faster and more responsive, even to the point that it felt faster than older versions of GNOME.

This time around, though, I think the tide turned back towards GNOME and Ubuntu being faster. Overall responsiveness is truly amazing, even when opening slow applications such as OpenOffice.

SOFTWARE CENTER

The software center new features are truly impressive. Installation in the background works smoother now and the new "Featured" and "What's new" sections work amazingly well as non intrusive ways of presenting the huge catalog of applications available to users. I have found myself discovering really interesting applications thanks to this little feature!.

On a different note, the software center provides tighter desktop integration. Downloading a ".deb" file now and double clicking on it will start the software center so the installation can be managed in the same way as if you were downloading it from repositories. This is effectively substituting GDebi for good, which I think makes very good sense, but it also provides greater flexibility to Canonical developers to handle installation of such files and raising the potential security threats that may come from carelessly doing so.

APPLICATION DELIGHT

Unless you are into continuously adding PPA's and getting overnight compilations of your favorite apps, chances are you are stuck with the versions that were part of whatever Ubuntu release you are on. I tend not to get too picky about that, but Ubuntu 10.10 brings some very interesting updates to its repositories and default installation:

Evolution 2.30.3 allows native Gmail calendar and contacts integration out of the box, no hacks required.

OpenOffice 3.2.1 provides the latest features and enhancements available in this wonderful office productivity suite.

VLC 1.1.4 brings up to date features from this incredible video player.

GNOME 2.32.0 and all the applications part of this fabulous desktop manager (Brasero, Gedit, Gnome Terminal, etc) get current enhancements and a few new features.

There are many other examples, including a short but high quality collection of games, with many great titles available from the repositories... I am guilty of playing Chromium a lot lately! ;-)

GET SOCIAL

I have to admit that the "social desktop" idea was not one I initially liked, but it is true that it may be a blessing for many people out there. I don't spend significant amounts of time posting on Twitter or Facebook, so I don't find the tight integration Ubuntu brings that useful. People who do spend time on social networks, though, probably think this is the best thing since sliced bread.

BEST EVER

I truly think this is the best Ubuntu release ever, and that, right there, is a good reason to upgrade/install. If you love Ubuntu, you are in for a treat, and if you have never tried it, there has not been a better time to do so.

FREE AS IN FREEDOM AND FREE AS IN BEER

Not relevant by any means in comparison with other Linux distros or previous Ubuntu releases, but it is good to remind ourselves that this incredibly good piece of software is available at no cost, and that you can literally tweak it and modify it as much as you want, no restrictions. Becoming part of the community is a natural move and a great experience. Once you see the incredible effort so many people are putting into this project and how they welcome you, regardless of your knowledge/experience, it truly is something.

Yes, that's more than ten reasons, but you know...

UBUNTU 10.10 GOES UP TO ELEVEN! (ah, Spinal Tap...)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat Final Review

As planned, Ubuntu 10.10 (codenamed "Maverick Meerkat") was released yesterday, October 10th, 2010. Canonical usually releases closer to month end, but in this case it was a good opportunity to make it coincide with such a significant date. Ubuntu 10.10 was released on 10/10/10.

Before I go on with this review, I strongly encourage you to read my Ubuntu 10.10 Beta PREVIEW ARTICLE, which does cover many concepts that won't be repeated here. It should also help to better understand this release and its new features.

INSTALLATION

Canonical has done an incredible job improving this critical part of their distro, which is leaps and bounds easier to follow, but also better looking and overall faster.

I personally believe that Linux installation is already quite complicated as is for people who know little about computers (downloading an ISO image, correctly burning it into a CD, MD5 sum checks, start from the LiveCD... Lots of new stuff for newbies), so any initiative that simplifies the actual installation will definitely be appreciated. In addition, the installation is quite key, kind of like a business card, an introduction of a product. If those few first steps are cluttered, unclear or downright difficult, very few people will actually make an effort to get through them.

Luckily, Ubuntu 10.10 installation is an example, in my opinion, of how a Linux distro installation should go. It is clear, concise, provides information where it matters and simplifies the technical jargon when it is not required.


Click on image to enlarge

The installation welcomes the user with a simple selection screen. Here we can choose the installation language and whether we want to install or try the product. Canonical has maintained this approach for many releases now, and while it is comfortable and less time consuming, I think it is safer to enforce booting from the LiveCD first. Such approach gives a good opportunity to spot any errors or lack of hardware support before installing, which can save lots of frustration down the line. For the purpose of this article, I will continue straight onto the installation process, but I very much encourage everybody to try Ubuntu FIRST!


Click on image to enlarge

As displayed on the screenshot above, minimum requirements and instructions are provided in an easy and clear manner. In addition, the user can choose whether to download updates during the installation (perfect when connected via ethernet cable and straight to the Internet, perhaps not such a good idea otherwise). Moreover, we are given an option to install certain proprietary codecs, such as the MP3 one. I find this flexibility is also key to make life easier to end users. Canonical maintains their commitment to Open Source software, but at the same time the user can follow a different path without the need to go over countless forums to find how to do it.


Click on image to enlarge

I intentionally omitted several screenshots of steps that don't really bring anything new. The one above I included because I think is a great example of presenting something potentially complicated like hard disk partitioning, in an extremely clear and to the point manner. This step should not intimidate anybody anymore. The next screen takes the same concept even further.


Click on image to enlarge

Once we have set up all the initial requirements for the installation, it will start and provide end users with additional information thanks to a nice and convenient slideshow. One of its new features allows end users to navigate through those slides at will. The two arrows located at the left and right ends of the screen help skip or go back to a specific slide when needed. Additionally, users are shown examples of software that is included in the default installation, along with examples of software that is not, but is also supported. A nice example is Firefox, which is included, but then Google Chrome and the Flash plugin are offered as software easily obtainable through the Ubuntu Software Center. On a different note, that same screenshot below shows the progress bar at the bottom, which provides updates for package updates download an installation.


Click on image to enlarge

As a whole, the new installation procedure in Ubuntu 10.10 is an example of hitting the nail on the head. A great idea which has been polished to the point where it is fully mature now, solid, informative and easy to follow.

Congratulations to the guys at Canonical for a very impressive piece of work!

LOOK&FEEL, USER EXPERIENCE

As expected, not much has changed here since the Beta. An important element, though, has seen a proper face lifting. I am talking about the default wallpaper, which in my opinion, looks decent for the first time since Canonical came with the new colors.


Click on image to enlarge

Another nice addition are the new Ubuntu fonts, which look very nice. Along with the refinements to the official Ambiance and Radiance themes and the new high quality set of wallpapers, they make Ubuntu look better than ever. As I already mentioned on the preview, a proper icon theme is dearly missed, but the good news is that Canonical are already working on it. (While they're at it, though, I recommend using the Faenza icon theme. It integrates perfectly and enhances the Ubuntu 10.10 visual experience significantly.)


Click on image to enlarge

From the user experience perspective, I believe Ubuntu 10.10 is a polished version of its predecessor, Ubuntu 10.04. The same elements that felt rushed in six months ago feel now settled and matured, like they make better sense. Even the social desktop, which I am not fan of, feels more natural now.

It is not easy to point out specific examples, but I think everything in Maverick Meerkat feels more solid and well rounded. In other words, I don't think new users will ever feel the need to go to the command line because the GUI feels incomplete or not powerful enough. I think that is a sign of maturity that Ubuntu developers should be very proud of.

Taking everything into account, The Ubuntu 10.10 visual and usage experience is the best ever in my opinion.

FIXING SOFTWARE!

The selection of software installed by default in Ubuntu 10.10 is not that brilliant. In fact, I think this has been a recurring theme in recent releases and it only seems to get worse release after release. Fortunately, should it be necessary (I doubt new users would need to), the superb Ubuntu Software Center will make it easy to remove and install whatever we want.

In my case, I am a bit too lazy to go step by step unistalling packages to install others afterwards, so I created a simple script to handle this little issue. The script is very simple and should be easy to follow reading the comments included.

#!/bin/bash
# 24/09/10 - Script to remove unwanted software from Ubuntu...
# ...and install software that is not available in the default install

# Update sources first...
sudo apt-get update 

# Uncomment line right below in case you want to run a full dist-upgrade first
# sudo apt-get -y dist-upgrade

# Remove Tomboy, Shotwell, Empathy, Evolution, Gwibber, Pitivi, Rhythmbox
sudo apt-get -y remove tomboy shotwell empathy evolution gwibber pitivi rhythmbox

# Install gimp, Chromium, VLC, Audacious, Pidgin, Geany
sudo apt-get -y install gimp chromium-browser vlc audacious pidgin geany

If you want to run this script, simply copy and paste the code into a text file and save it as UbuntuAddRemove.sh. Open a virtual terminal and cd to wherever you saved the file. Run it typing bash UbuntuAddRemove.sh

IMPORTANT NOTE: This script will remove and install the packages specified. Make sure you change it so it fits your needs/preferences.

THE FINAL VERDICT

Ubuntu 10.10 is a great release, probably the best I have used to date. The many changes and new features that were rushed into Ubuntu 10.04 (and perhaps didn't make all that sense in the realm of an LTS release) feel solid and polished now. The new additions that are part of Maverick are all great ideas and the whole product looks better than ever.

Some have said that Ubuntu 10.10 is a "skip-over" release, but I feel quite the opposite. I believe Ubuntu 10.10 is what Ubuntu 10.04 should have been, so why settle with less? Unless you are a business and need the stability, I think you will surely enjoy the new stuff and be able to cope with a new install (which incidentally runs faster than ever). Note that there are some interesting and powerful new features, such as GPU HARDWARE ACCELERATION and MULTITOUCH SUPPORT, among many others.

If you like Ubuntu, Maverick Meerkat should put a smile on your face.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Moovida Melancholy

If you own any modern gaming console (like PS3 or XBOX360), you probably have experienced their media center power. Those things do a lot more than gaming, allowing users to browse the web, local collections of pictures, videos, music and even other media from external streaming servers.

Before developers decided to make a (questionable in my opinion) turn for the 2.x series, Moovida was both an original and powerful media center. Sporting a somewhat unique UI, great Look & Feel design and a user friendly interface, Moovida easily fit as a full blown living room media center. All you had to do was connect your PC to a TV and a proper stereo and you were in for a treat. Unfortunately, that's all gone with 2.x series, a sad Banshee clone (which is not even supported for Linux anymore... yet, they say).

Anyways, despite this article title, let's avoid getting too melancholic here. After all, Moovida 1.09 is very much alive and available in many Linux distros repositories. In case you don't know about it or have never used it, I put together a quick video showing this really cool media center in action on my computer. As usual, the video is pretty good quality, so I recommend watching it at 720p resolution and full screen mode.


For best results, watch video in 720p resolution and full screen

MOOVIDA IS GREAT FOR...

As you may have noticed from this video, Moovida goes straight into full screen mode, providing a very nice and immersive experience... and a bit of a problem on the side.

Basically, this kind of interface is great for media center use, in your living room TV, for example. In such case, one would launch Moovida and remote control it from a comfortable couch, caring only for media contents being displayed through a single application. What if, on the other hand, you want to use Moovida as a standard media player in your computer? Well, as it turns out, that's not such a good idea. A full screen interface that is not meant to work in the background is not that good for standard computer use. In other words, this is not the typical music player you can dock while you continue working on something else. Even switching to a different application can be difficult. Having said so, you may exit full screen mode clicking escape and minimize Moovida, but then again that's kinda defeating the purpose.

Long story short, as it usually happens with most applications, Moovida is great as long as it is being used for what it was designed to do. Problem is, few people keep a PC exclusively for media center usage, and perhaps that's why the project developers decided to switch to a more traditional concept.

GIVE IT A TRY

If you have not already, give Moovida a shot and enjoy its many cool features. It can play almost anything out there (plenty of codecs!) and its interface is as good as it gets. Despite its limitations for day to day use, Moovida is an extremely good application!

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

KDE SC 4.5.2 released

Just two days ago the guys at KDE released the latest monthly update to the KDE SC 4.5.x series. As usual, KDE SC 4.5.2 is mostly a bugfix release, but this time around it includes some neat enhancements. Here is a list of highlights (from KDE.ORG):

4.5.2 brings a number of improvements:

- KSharedDataCache, the new performance tool has seen scalability and performance improvements.
- Performance of loading icons has been improved by better use of the new shared data cache.
- The display of tooltips in Dolphin has been fixed in certain cases where it would display outdated previews.
- KWin and especially its compositing manager has seen some optimizations and bugfixes for specific filters.



Click on image to enlarge.

You can further read about these and other enhancements and bugfixes from the OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT and the (almost) complete CHANGE LOG for this release.

As a PCLinuxOS user I got these updates even before the release announcement went live (now, ain´t that sweet). If you are using KDE SC 4.5 series I very much encourage you to update to 4.5.2. It should bring stability and performance without any impact otherwise.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Easiest GUI programming with KDIALOG

If you are using a somewhat modern version of KDE, chances are the impressive kdialog application is already part of your system. This apparently harmless program has got some quite impressive moves and can provide the 'ilusion' of visual programming. In fact, if you thought bash scripting was limited to that boring terminal, you are in for a ride.

KDIALOG

kdialog is an application that provides a framework of messages and prompts that can be triggered from the command line. It is similar to zenity under GNOME, but more powerful and flexible.

As a quick example, let's create your typical "hello world!" message using kdialog. Open a virtual terminal window and type the following command (Using single quotes here is important to avoid any kind of expansion).

kdialog --msgbox 'Hello World!'


Click on image to enlarge.

Now, that doesn't look very useful, does it? A command that can trigger a GUI message? What for? Well, the good news is that we can use the many interactive options kdialog provides, get input from the user and build our script around it. By doing so, we would be able to write simple GUI "applications".

LET'S BUILD A SIMPLE MENU...

For the purpose of this article, I created a very short script that builds a simple menu and triggers certain specific actions based on the user's input. Note that this script is only an example, designed to show a bit of what kdialog is capable of.

The idea is to present the user with a simple welcome popup. If the user chooses to continue, s/he will be offered a few options to choose from. Each option will then trigger an action. Should the user choose to exit, a goodbye message will show up.


Click on image to enlarge.

The menu above is clearly too simplistic but remember this is only an example. Just be creative and find options that make sense for you.

WHAT ABOUT THE SCRIPT?

I have entered the code from this simple script below, so you can review it and be sure it's harmless.
#!/bin/bash
# Simple script to play with kdialog options

function AppMenu () {
# Display menu and interact based on the user's input
   
var2="$(kdialog --menu "Please, choose from one of the options below:" 1 'Open a File' 2 'Listen to Music' 3 'Watch Videos')"
    
if [[ $? -eq 0 ]]; then
  # If the user did not cancel, find out what s/he chosed
  case $var2 in
    1)
      # open an open file dialog
      kdialog --getopenfilename /home/shred;;
    2)
      # open Amarok 
      amarok &;;
    3)
      # Open the video file the user picked up with VNC
      var3="$(kdialog --getopenfilename /home/shred/Videos)"
      if [[ $var3 ]]; then
        vlc "$var3" &
      fi     
      ;;
  esac
else
  # Show the text message in file 'text_message.txt' 
  # Note that text_message.txt should be under the same location as the script!
  kdialog --textbox text_message.txt
fi

return; }

# Main Program 
# Welcome the user, allow for early exit if not interested
kdialog --title "Welcome to Switchbox" --yesno "Welcome to Switchbox, the script that will let you choose what to do.  \nPlease, click OK to Continue or CANCEL to exit"

# If the user decided to continue, present a menu
if [[ $? -ne 1 ]]; then
  AppMenu
fi

If you want to see how this script works (remember you should be using KDE or at the very least have KDialog installed) simply copy the script text below and paste it into a new text file (which you may create using kwrite, gedit or whatever your favorite editor is). Save that file as KDialog.sh. Right click on the file you just saved and go to Properties > Permissions tab. Click on Advanced Permissions button and tick all three options for user. Once done, simply double click on the script icon to run it.

CREATIVITY AND FUN

Surely this script is far from being an example of optimum coding, but my aim was mainly to show that with a bit of creativity, kdialog can help push our scripts a long way. The idea is that scripts don't necessarily have to be restricted to the command line. As long as the functionality and interactivity is not extremely complex, we should be able to handle most of it using kdialog. Ultimately, this would allow us to have users with absolutely no understanding or interest in technology running a script and not being intimidated by it, perhaps not even knowing they are indeed running a script.

Once again, find the right use for you and have fun!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Marvel of Marble

Marble is one of the initiatives that are part of the KDE Education project. This application provides several different "skins" to a 3D rendering of the Earth, ranging from temperature maps to very detailed street maps based off OPENSTREET MAPS.

Up until recently, I knew very little about this cool application, so I want to share a bit about it today. The project has its own SITE including plenty of information about Marble both for users and developers. I encourage you to take a quick look, the site is well designed and includes lots of interesting stuff.

I wanted to put together a quick demo, a short video highlighting just a few Marble features. Note that I only used a couple of the many "skins" available, but each of those views would display information specific to it. In this case I only used the satellite view and the openstreet view.

NOTE: The video was recorded with decent quality, so I recommend watching it with 720p resolution and in full screen mode.



Marble is a great application which provides lots of interesting information. From planning an upcoming trip to beholding the Earth at night, there are lots of things we can do with it. It is lots of fun, if only for just being able to rotate the planet at will. ;-)

Many might be thinking about Google Earth as a similar, probably more popular application that offers similar features, and they wouldn't be far from the truth. Of course, there are differences in what each offers, but most importantly, Marble is and encourages the use of open source software and maps.

Give it a go and have fun!

Friday, October 1, 2010

KDE Insights: Past, Present and Future

The guys at the German site IKHAYA have done a great job putting together a very interesting interview with one of the inner minds at KDE, Aaron Seigo.

I found these articles particularly interesting because one rarely finds pieces of information so insightful about a particular technology, specially if they come from the masterminds behind the project.

As the title says, Aaron goes on to discuss the past, present and future of KDE, covering lots of ground in the process. Some concepts that Aaron covers include:

- Evolution from KDE 3.X to 4.X.
- Plasma desktop.
- KDE mobile technologies.
- Social desktop.
- Kontact and Akhonadi.


I very much recommend reading this interview. Even if you are an experienced KDE user, I believe you will find something new and interesting here. The interview is split in two parts:

PART 1

PART 2

Happy reading!