Friday, January 28, 2011

KDE SC 4.6 Review

Hot off the oven, the latest from KDE was released just a few days ago. It builds on the greatly improved and reliable KDE 4.4 and 4.5 series and brings a number of exciting new features and enhancements, as well as a cool new look thanks to an impressive new wallpaper and much improved Kwin effects.


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KDE SC 4.6 brings a completely redesigned activities system. I have to say I have never used it (and honestly don't see it that useful), but it seems this new system is less complicated and more intuitive. On the other hand, one piece that has also got a new design from the ground up, one I do care about, is the Power Management configuration system.


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Settings have been split into two categories now: Global Settings and Power Profiles. Not that different to what was there before, but perhaps organised in a way that makes life easier for users. The Power Profiles piece is the one that has experienced the most relevant and evident changes, as depicted in the screenshot above. There is nothing revolutionary about the new interface, perhaps not even attractive, but it does what it is supposed to do.

There are many more new features/enhancements, such as improved program start-up notifications and a revamped Oxygen GTK theme that should allow for better integration of GTK apps (it's an improvement, but can't say I am impressed with this one, I still see applications that look out of place). Dolphin gets advanced filtering features and other applications from the KDE realm also get updates, such as Amarok, which is now on version 2.4.


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In my opinion, the most welcome changes come from Look&Feel and Kwin compositing, probably the changes users will notice first. The new wallpaper provides a new vibe to both the KDM theme and the desktop, quite an impact for such a simple change. The widget interface is similar to what we saw in KDE SC 4.5.x, but got a subtle face lift. There are some new widgets added to the mix as well.


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I wanted to save the best for last: Kwin effects are finally worth using! Ever since I started using KDE, I thought its effects were slow, limited and lacked the smoothness and flexibility of Compiz. As a result, I have alwasy tried to fit compiz in, probably not the best idea. This time around, though, Kwin effects look and behave great... it is the first time I decided to get rid of Compiz! Don't get me wrong, I still miss some Compiz features and effects, specially how you can tweak an effect in any imaginable way. I also miss how Compiz provides a much more flexible interface to create shortcuts you can call effects with, but like I said, this is the first time Kwin stands the comparison.


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A CRITICAL VIEW

Unfortunately, there are still things I dislike about KDE. First and foremost, I think the project is going down a path that can make it quickly become a thing of the past. Efforts continue to make an already thick client thicker, when the rest of the world is looking elsewhere, to the cloud, to be more specific. Projects like Marble or the work put into revamping Kontact (which incidentally had to be left out of KDE 4.6) seem redundant, tons of hours of work that will probably (and sadly) go unnoticed and used by a very small minority.

The way I see it, KDE is stretching way beyond its reach. Instead of using its growing community of developers to take on new projects, I believe they should concentrate all of those resources into creating a truly amazing desktop manager, one that is ready and relevant for the next ten years. I think it's about time we realize Windows is no longer the reference, because even Microsoft is falling behind in this race.

Computer Science has always been about adjusting to change quickly, and the cloud revolution, empowered by an ever growing market of smartphones and tablets, is only accelerating change. It will take no prisoners. It's time to realize efforts to create an ever more powerful client are essentially wasted time. Computing is no longer about productivity, social interaction and enhanced integration are just as important now. People want to see interfaces that are pretty and work efficiently, and they don't want to have to learn new stuff when what they use is already awesome. Honestly, can Kontact ever beat the integration Google is putting in place with all its applications and services? Can Marble ever hope to be better than Google Earth? Can KDE really develop a mobile device interface that is able to compete with iOS or Android? (Note that we are no longer competing against a proprietary monopoly based on closed technology, for many of Google's projects are open source and community supported)

I think the answer is clear. How long will it take for the project to realize many of its elements are already offside? Time will tell, but it is a shame to see so much potential not fully coming to fruition.

SUMMARY

Is KDE SC 4.6 a good release? It is indeed. It still bugs me that certain basic shortcomings, such as a proper icon theming system, are getting no love from developers and keep failing release after release, though. Other than that, there are some undeniable improvements and some exciting new features, so make sure you give it a go.

INSTALLATION ON KUBUNTU

Kubuntu users can easily upgrade their KDE desktop to SC 4.6.0 using the PPA available. Simply follow the following steps.

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

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:kubuntu-ppa/backports

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop

2.- The last step may or may not work (it did not for me), so you may need to run the following command:

sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Done!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Linux Kernel 2.6.38 brings very interesting features

Targeting a release around March/April, the latest Linux Kernel series, 2.6.38, brings some very interesting and exciting new features.

One element that has got quite some attention on the official ANNOUNCEMENT from Linus is the so called wonder patch, which is capable of redistributing CPU load to visibly speed up applications responsiveness. Another Linus Torvalds favorite is the SCHED_AUTOGROUP feature, as well as patches to improve the scalability of the VFS (Virtual File System).

On a different note, AMD's Bobcat processors will get enhanced support, and the DRM Radeon drivers will allow for 2D and 3D acceleration on the HD 62xx to 68xx models. Likewise, we will see experimental features for Fermi chips, including some early 3D support thanks to the Nouveau DRM driver. Support for Intel graphics cards will also improve, this time including better integration with Core-I CPU, which should help get the most from their power saving features. As I said, Linus Torvalds himself was excited about several of those changes, but he stressed out there was something for everyone, regardless of the area of interest.

Ubuntu 11.04 will apparently include 2.6.38 series, so having all these interesting features/enhancements along with the many that come from the much anticipated use of Unity, Banshee 2.0, etc., makes Natty Narwhal one of the most anticipated releases ever.

Can't wait!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tux Planet, an awesome source for Linux wallpapers

I recently stumbled with this great French site, which contains some of the most amazing Linux wallpapers I have found. Many Linux distributions are featured, including the usual suspects, like Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Fedora, but also some other distros that are perhaps not as popular yet, such as CrunchBang or Pardus.



I personally found some of the Ubuntu backgrounds particularly good looking, but there is interesting stuff for everyone, really. Another great thing is that the wallpapers uploaded are ridiculously good in quality. Picture resolution is usually off the charts, so even huge or even dual screen setup users should find something interesting.

Now, stop reading and go get those amazing LINUX WALLPAPERS!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Desktops for 2011

It's been a long while since I wrote an article sharing some of my current desktops. I thought the beginning of 2011 was a good time to show how some of my Linux desktops look like today.

UBUNTU (GNOME)


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This is the Ubuntu installation I got on my desktop PC, an HP7800. I like the elegant yet simple wallpaper, as well as the tone contrast the Orta GTK theme creates. I am quickly becoming a fan of Docky. I was a Cairo Dock user before, but Docky is more powerful, consistent, better integrated and, well, more Linux! (Cairo Dock was a bit too MacOS, in my opinion)


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KUBUNTU (KDE)


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Let's switch gears now into more of a KDE vibe. What can I say, sleek and shiny sits well with KDE, and this awesome Citröen prototype wallpaper simply does the trick. Because the wallpaper conveys a dark mood, I chose Air as the Plasma desktop theme, once again looking for a nice strong contrast. As far as widgets go, I decided to keep it clear, because the wallpaper is already busy enough.


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LINUX MINT (GNOME)


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Back to GNOME with my Linux Mint 10 laptop setup. I simply love this wallpaper, it brings some nice relaxing tones and a cool mood, but it's not too busy. The big Faenza icons simply fit beautifully, both on the desktop and on the big Mint Menu. The A New Hope GTK theme adds a bit more transparency and sleekness to the picture.


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PC LINUX OS (KDE)


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Last but not least, again under KDE, is my PCLinux OS installation, running in a tablet PC. The wallpaper looks fun, but it is also bringing some intense plain colors that provide lots of room for widgets to stand out. In fact, it was perfect for the transparent H2O Plasma theme to shine. As you probably noticed by now, I love transparent backgrounds for the terminal, and the same applies to many of the Emerald themes I use, like the one depicted here.


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IT'S ALL ABOUT CREATIVITY

Hope these few screenshots were easy on the eye and inspiring. One of the best things about Linux is that you can take your creativity to new heights, so be creative and let your desktop put a smile on your face!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

MoonOS 4 'Neake' Review

MoonOS, an Ubuntu based Linux distro, recently hit version 4, codenamed "Neake". This last release certainly marks a turning point for MoonOS, for it includes several drastic changes that set it appart from previous releases and even from other Linux distributions.


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ONCE IN A GREEN MOON

Out of the many changes that were introduced in this release, there are probably two that stand out and make the biggest difference:

- MoonOS now uses GNOME instead of Enlightenment. In my opinion, this is a smart move, one that probably made it easier to get the most of the latest Ubuntu features. Fortunately, Ubuntu 11.04 will still use GNOME (albeit as a backup to Unity), so I think MoonOS will again be able to easily get the most from that release. Come Ubuntu 11.10, though, things may get more complicated as the Canonical distro commits to Unity exclusively.

- MoonOS now uses its own file hierarchy. What does this mean? Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, they say:


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As one can see, the typical Linux folder structure was changed, following a less complex, more intuitive one, according to MoonOS developers. As a result, removable media is no longer mounted under /media, for example, but under Volumes. The home folder is gone, users folders now sit under Users. One has to wonder if changing this folder structure now will indeed simplify things or end up making them more complicated for those familiar with the old one. I guess we will have to wait and see.

Another interesting feature is being introduced with the AppShell framework, which allows ported packages to be run offline, in a way reminiscent to OSX-style apps. Unfortunately, this feature is still a bit immature and the number of applications currently available fairly small.

Other changes/features include the "the most popular 200 lines kernel patch to boost speed", an updated application catalog selection, productivity apps Docky and Synapse, and a very tasteful new Look&Feel.

FLY ME TO THE MOON

So what's it like using MoonOS? Well, a very pleasant experience, that's for sure. From the very moment you boot from the LiveCD/USB, you get a nice serious-distro vibe, like even the smallest details have been looked into. The Plymouth splash screen looks terrific and all the branding is spot on and consistent. The controls and window decoration themes look great, and although they are a bit limited to certain specific themes and color range, the wallpapers look good as well.

Faenza is the selected icon theme, but building on that "taking care of details" concept I mentioned before, it is not stock Faenza. It is not Faenza variants either. MoonOS uses the most tasteful and best integrated version of Faenza I have seen in a stock distro icon theme. In fact, icons that sometimes don't show up correctly their Faenza skin, like Dropbox or the weather notification area, work out perfectly here.



Nautilus elementary is the file manager of choice, perfectly fitting with the default control and window decoration themes. Droid fonts round it up for a very good looking desktop.


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MoonOS is one of those distros, like Linux Mint for instance, that includes all codecs you need and then some. In fact, it was the first distro to allow me to play Apple Quicktime contents as smoothly as they would play on a Windows machine with Quicktime installed. Certainly welcome.


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Docky and Synapse, both favorite applications of mine, come preinstalled, correctly setup and properly integrated. For example, Banshee's extension for the GNOME panel and the integration with Docky work out of the box.


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As for Synapse, everything worked smoothly and as expected, but I would have liked to see the Dictionary configured for local use. I know that's totally a personal thing, though.


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The rest of the application catalog is fairly standard, nothing surprising.

WORTH THE FLIGHT?

MoonOS is quite an impressive Ubuntu impersonation. I felt very comfortable using it and I have come to love its tasteful Look&Feel and customizations. If we add to that all the latest Kernel, GNOME and Ubuntu features and improvements, we have a very powerful and good looking desktop Linux distro. On the negative side, I miss a bit more character of its own, though, because even if it incorporates certain unique features, there is still too strong an Ubuntu smell all over the place. Certain areas feel like using Ubuntu with a few tweaks, so I hope more and more MoonOS specific features appear to consolidate this distro as a community favorite.

The potential is certainly there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chrome OS: Friend or Foe? (POLL results)

I recently published an ARTICLE about the soon to be released Google Chrome OS. On that article I discussed how I see Google Chrome OS in a great position to take the world by storm, relegating the "Is Linux ready to take over the desktop OS arena?" debate to a thing of the past.

Having said so, and certainly acknowledging the many good things it may bring back to Linux and its community, Google Chrome OS has been surrounded by some controversy lately. Such controversy was not only caused by the revolutionary cloud-based concept it is pushing forward, but also because there are question marks around the limitations in functionality and privacy it may bring with it. As a result, I wanted to get a feel of what others think on this matter, so I quickly put together a poll. Here are the results:


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Looking at these results, there is no clear tendency, but it seems Google Chrome OS didn't convince the Linux community. Most votes lean towards a negative impression, or even worse, lack of understanding or plain indifference.

I personally think such negativity is mostly caused by the drastic changes the Google Chrome OS model is proposing. After all, change is never easy and always faced with resistance. However, after using Google Chrome OS Web Store for some weeks now and witnessing what many of its apps are capable of, I must admit it is an attractive model indeed, one that I am sure will shake the foundations of what we understand as desktop computing today.

Thanks for reading and specially to all of you who voted!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Get your precious Plymouth splash screen back!

You may have experienced the strange behavior that Plymouth splash screens have in Ubuntu and many of its derivatives, specially on PCs with onboard Intel Graphics cards. I certainly have. Basically you get to see that gorgeous Plymouth splash screen in Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Linux Mint or MoonOS when you boot from the LiveCD, then install the OS and gone it is forever. All of a sudden you get a black screen between BIOS and the login screen. Not nice!


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Miss the sight of the screenshot above every time you boot? Worse yet, are your Plymouth themes not showing at all? Well, I did some research and there is a workaround to this problem.

WHY DOESN'T IT WORK?!

Plymouth is a very young piece of technology and it is still not as solid as one would desire. One of the most frequent problems is the one I described above, where you get a black screen with a blinking cursor instead of your shiny Plymouth splash screen.

Essentially, the root cause of this problem relates to graphics drivers loading slowly, too slowly for the system to wait for them. The file system is checked and loaded in a shorter time, thus allowing X to load, perhaps making it unreasonable to have to wait for those graphics drivers to load. After all, booting fast is one of the concepts that Ubuntu has pushed on the most lately.

But is it that unreasonable? Speed is indeed important, but an OS loading with a blank screen doesn't look too fancy, or even serious enough, so what should be more of a priority? In my case, I can almost always live without my Plymouth splash screens, because I favor speed. However, as I was recently testing MoonOS 4 (expect a full review soon) I must admit I missed the super cool splash screen during boot, so off I went to find a way to get it back... And there is one!

THE WORKAROUND

Now that we know what causes the problem, it may be easier to figure out a solution. In this case, we are simply going to force the system to wait for the graphics drivers to load, as follows:

  1. Open a virtual terminal and type the following command:

    sudo gedit /etc/initramfs-tools/conf.d/splash

    This file may not exist, so you may be creating it from scratch now.

  2. Enter the following content on the file you opened on the previous step:

    FRAMEBUFFER=y

  3. Close and save the file.

  4. Now, run the following command to commit the change:

    sudo update-initramfs -u

  5. Reboot and enjoy your Plymouth splash screen.

THAT'S ALL FOLKS!

Yes, it's that simple. The choice is up to you now, but from my experience, the delay this modification adds to the boot process duration is not that significant, so getting the best from both worlds may not be that difficult after all.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ushare made easier!

For those who don't know, USHARE is a free UPnP A/V & DLNA Media Server for Linux. If that didn't clarify much, it means it can convert your Linux PC into a streaming media center compatible with both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, among other devices.

Ushare configuration is not necessarily complicated, but it does require some CLI skills and is not that flexible. There are two main ways in which Ushare can be configured:

  1. AD-HOC: Opening a terminal window and running ushare with the correct parameters. For example:

    ushare --name=Ushare -D --dlna --interface=wlan0 --content=/shares2

    The line above creates a streaming session named "Ushare" as a daemon, using interface wlan0 and the PS3 streaming protocol, as well as sharing contents from the folder "/shares2".

  2. FIXED: Ushare uses a default configuration file, /etc/ushare.conf, which allows users to configure all parameters so they remain static and Ushare always streams the same media through the same protocol.

I personally find both methods flawed, either cumbersome or not flexible enough. I own both a PS3 and an Xbox 360, so I want the flexibility to easily select the streaming protocol on the fly. More over, it isn't necessarily the smartest thing to share a big folder full of media files, for it may complicate things and make indexing slower.

As a result, I thought it would be better if there was a GUI interface that simplified the creation of a Ushare streaming session on the fly and in a matter of seconds, allowing users to easily share the specific media they are interested on. Such interface would not only help unexperienced users that do not feel comfortable using the CLI, but it would also save time for more experienced users.

INTRODUCING UCT

To cope with the requirements above, I created UCT (Ushare Configuration Tool), a script that brings Ushare closer to the GUI and makes its configuration just a few clicks worth. An image is worth a thousand words, but in this case I recorded a video of UCT in action:



NOTE: I recommend watching this video fullscreen and in 720p resolution.

To further explain what is going on in this video, here's a step by step run through:

I first ran UCT from a desktop launcher. When the script starts up, it checked that Ushare was installed and that there were no previous active sessions running. It then proceeded to gather information about a few parameters so it can start a new streaming session, namely:

  • Network Interface: Defaults to wlan0, but a number of options are offered. If none of the options available fits the user setup, UCT cannot automate the creation of a session, so it quits. MANDATORY.
  • Session Name: Defaults to "Ushare", so the field can be left blank or skip this step entirely.
  • Device: Defaults to Playstation 3. MANDATORY.
  • Share: Select a folder to be shared. Note that subfolders inside the selected folder will be streamed as well. MANDATORY.

With all the necessary information, UCT started a streaming session. I opened a terminal so I could display the active daemon process running. After that, I ran UCT again, which in turn detected that a previous instance of Ushare was already active. As a result, it offered the user an option to shut it down, but because killing processes requires admin privileges, credentials must be entered.

INSTALL UCT

I hope you agree UCT simplifies using Ushare on a day to day basis, saving configuration time and adding flexibility. I am using it often and I am more comfortable streaming now than I ever have been. In the past there was always uncertainty about whether I typed the command correctly, but now it's just a few clicks and it's done.

Installing UCT is pretty simple, just follow these few steps:

  1. Download UCT.sh from HERE
  2. Store UCT.sh locally and grant it execute rights from the GUI. To do it from the CLI:

    chmod +x UCT.sh

  3. Create a launcher so that UCT can be started with a couple clicks from the GUI (optional).

That's all there is to it, really... other than having Ushare installed, of course! ;-)

A FEW THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:

- UCT does not provide an interface to modify the port Ushare uses for streaming, so it will need some manual tweaking if the default port used by the application is no good.

- It should be noted that firewalls can get in the way and prevent Ushare from streaming correctly, so the necessary exceptions will need to be managed by the user.

- I have tested UCT extensively and am confident it works solidly. Having said so, that applies to my hardware running Ubuntu 10.10, so (although unlikely) you may experience a different behavior under different hardware/distro combinations.


TRY, TEST, ENJOY... IMPROVE!

I created UCT for my own use, but of course I would be glad if it would help others as well. Therefore, I encourage everybody to give it a go and let me know their experience. Please report unexpected behavior or bugs... and if you enjoy using it, of course!

If you would like to improve UCT, I am perfectly fine with that, I would only ask you keep my name in the script credits.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Save The GIMP!

I recently learned that the fabulous GNU Image Manipulation Program is developed and maintained but only three main hackers!!!... There used to be another developer, but he's no longer available. To think that such an open source flagship is kept alive by so few people should help understand why the much anticipated single screen GIMP 2.8 has been delayed again.



From here I would like to ask you to help this project in whichever way you can. Spread the word, donate or offer your help as a developer. Whatever you do is certainly going to make a difference, so go for it! Remember that GIMP is available for Linux, Windows and Mac OS, so don't limit your efforts to the Linux/GNU community.

The GIMP HOME SITE Includes lots of information about this great application, but I also recommend checking some of the many GIMP example and tutorial videos available in YOUTUBE.

Should you want to donate, they support a number of methods, all of which are presented HERE.

Start the new year giving this awesome project a hand!