Thursday, March 31, 2011

POLL: Firefox 4.0 vs Chrome/ium under Linux

Now that Firefox 4 has been available long enough to get an actual taste of its capabilities, I think it is a good moment to check out where it stands. Personally, I have to admit I have been positively surprised by the obvious improvement I have seen over the Betas. Back in testing days, I knew about the new features that were being implemented, most notably a faster rendering engine (Gecko 2.0), tabs groups and synchronization, but none of them seemed to be working that well. I think I was not alone in thinking Firefox 4.0 was coming late and would not live up to its expectations. Boy, was I wrong.

In my experience, judging by the posts and comments I read and hear, it seems both Firefox and Google Chrome/Chromium are the top choices for Internet browsers in Linux. Firefox was probably comfortably leading not that long ago, but because of the continuous delays in the development of version 4.0, the obvious limitations in version 3.6.x and the ferocious Chrome/ium improvement rate, many users have already made the switch. At this moment, I believe Firefox is still probably the king, but certainly no longer leading that comfortably.

SO, WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT THEM?

The aim of this article is to serve as an introduction for the poll that I will keep open for some weeks, but in order to provide a bit more context and discussion material, I would like to share what I consider good about both browsers. I will discuss the not so good bits in the next section.

Firefox 4.0


Click on image to enlarge.

  • Great Integration in Linux Systems. System application defaults are recognized and most often used correctly. The Java plugin, onboard audio/video players or PDF readers, to name just a few, all work as expected. On a different note, but also important, Firefox can look completely native in both GNOME and KDE.

  • True Commitment. Along the same lines, Mozilla has demonstrated true interest in delivering to the Linux community, keeping their Linux releases almost completely aligned with the Windows ones.

  • Lightning Fast. The new Gecko 2.0 engine has proven its worth. I no longer notice any difference in speed when browsing with Firefox or Chrome/ium. They react differently, Firefox apparently waiting a bit longer to load web pages contents, but displaying them almost entirely when they are loaded. Chrome/ium seems to start displaying stuff as soon as it gets it, but then takes just as long to display the whole thing.

  • Extensive Extension Catalog. Firefox was the first to implement extensions massively and it played a significant role in its success. Most of the extensions available have been migrated and made available for Firefox 4.0 by now.

  • Extreme Customization Flexibility. Anything from the thousands of great themes available to the more recently released "personas" screams custom. One can get Firefox to look radically different from the default theme. Personas and Themes are kept once downloaded, so it is extremely easy to switch back to that favorite theme you haven't used in a while.


    Click on image to enlarge.

  • Tab Groups. Not a feature that I use a lot, but I am sure it will be a blessing for some. I have to admit I like how Opera implemented this idea better, though.

  • Save or Run. Maybe a minor thing for others, but I love how Firefox allows me to save or run/display contents when I click on a download link. Most of the time I have no interest in keeping stuff that I only want to read/watch/listen to once.

  • Simplify to your liking. There is a tendency lately to oversimplify interfaces, strip them down to the core basics. I definitely agree in that I don't like clutter and bloat, but sometimes stripping down can get too far. Not with Firefox, though, I think Mozilla has done a great job in finding the right balance, removing bloat while keeping functionality and flexibility pretty much untouched.

Chrome/ium


Click on image to enlarge.

  • Web App Store and Web Apps. Ever since Google released the Google Chrome Web Store, I have thought that it was the best thing about this browser. Granted, most Cloud apps can run on any browser, but the great interface in the browser and the store itself are a master move by Google.


    Click on image to enlarge.

    While it is disappointing to see that some apps are nothing more than glorified bookmarks, there are some interesting projects going on which provide deep levels of integration with Google accounts and APIs. While this is not necessarily exclusive to Chrome/ium, integration is as native as it gets. (It is amazing what one can do by simply signing up for a Gmail account!!)

  • Fast Development Pace. Everything about this project is smoking fast, development being no exception, which means support for new technologies/standards is often made available earlier than in other browsers.

  • Quick Browsing. Probably the most popular feature in Chrome/ium, browsing speed has been the motto ever since the project took its first steps. The WebKit project certainly adds to that.

  • Extensive Extension Catalog. Following the trend started by Firefox, Chrome/ium now offers a large set of extensions as well. While the Firefox catalog is probably larger and richer, Chrome/ium extensions offer unbeatable integration with Google services, which is a big plus for anybody using them.

  • Web Standards. Probably the only browser that can claim a 100% score in Acid3 tests.

  • Google Love. Google is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The endless list of services and applications available gets even better when one closes the loop with the enhanced integration offered by its own products. Chrome/ium users will always benefit from such integration, as they are part of the loop to begin with. The Chrome/ium extension that provides connection to one's Android device is a good example.


ALRIGHT, WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT THEM?

Firefox 4.0

  • Not Google. Hardly a Firefox problem, but in the same way iOS users will always sorely miss the native integration Android users get for anything and everything Google, Firefox users may find it annoying to have to miss on some of those features.

  • Fat bottomed. Much improved in version 4.0, but Firefox is still a bit lazy when starting up for the first time in a given session.

  • Sloppy Synch. Yes, it's mostly fixed now (quite a headache during Beta testing) but the synch feature still lacks in certain areas. For example, I like to keep my bookmark bar pretty crowded with icons (see Firefox screenshot above), but I find it frustrating that those icons are not transferred as part of the synch. In other words, when I start a new Firefox 4.0 session on a new computer, I can't see those icons until each one of the sites linked is loaded. In other words, I am forced to click on every bookmark and wait until every icon is downloaded if I want to see them all!

    Aside from that, I can't say I am a fan of the way synch was designed in Firefox. Yes, it's probably designed with more than one device kind in mind (Firefox 4.0 mobile has just been released), but it still feels cumbersome when compared with Chrome/ium's design.

  • Web Standards. While the latest updates have got Firefox to an impressive 97% in the Acid3 test, it still misses out in some areas.

  • Independent tabs? One feature that was much missed in previous versions of Firefox and that was meant to debut for Firefox 4.0, but is still missing. Unlike Chrome/ium and other modern browsers, which generate a separate process for each tab, Firefox 4.0 and all its tabs still work as a single one. In other words, a non-responding tab could still potentially knock it down. Having said so, while this may sound like a significant flaw, it really isn't, not in my experience, at least. I spend lots of time browsing the Web with both Chrome/ium and Firefox and so far I can't say such feature has made much of a difference. I very rarely stumble across a non-responding page, but when I do, it often knocks down Chrome/ium as well, even if that is supposedly not meant to happen.

Chrome/ium

  • Poor Linux integration Probably the thing that bugs me most when using Chrome/ium in Linux is its poor integration. Not only it is almost impossible to make it look native, specially on KDE, but better integration with the system settings and applications is a big miss.

  • Lack of commitment Even if Google is massively taking advantage of Linux and its free (as in beer and as in freedom) nature, they don't seem to be too concerned with providing great support for the Linux community. In fact, the Google Chrome version of Linux is constantly suffering from lack of features when compared to its Windows relative.

  • The simpler the better? Undoubtedly the Chromium project has changed the way we think and interact with a web browser. With a very simplified structure, Chrome/ium appealed to lots of people who were tired of using overcomplicated and bloated browsers. Having said so, it kind of bugs me that I have no input in the features that get thrown away. I would rather have them in there and be able to disable those I don't use.

  • Poor themes. Theming in Chrome/ium feels like a "forced" feature, one that was not part of the project requirements to start with but had to be introduced later on. I am not sure if that is the case, but Chrome/ium themes are somewhat poor, limited to a mere background change. While this may appeal to some, it's clear the level of customization is nowhere near that of Firefox.

  • Save it or Save it?. Yes, probably just a personal thing, but I hate that I am forced to download files (ie. zip, tar, torrent, etc), then double click on them to start the corresponding application.

  • No customization history. This one I plain don't understand. Download a new theme and you lose the one you were using... What tha...?


SO WHAT'S YOUR CHOICE?

I have listed some of the things I like and dislike about both these browsers, but let me make myself clear: I consider both top quality material.

When I started testing Firefox 4 Beta, I felt I could put an end to using two browsers in Linux. Firefox offered the better integration and stability, but Chromium was the main option for casual browsing due to its superior speed. That idea has materialized now that Firefox 4.0 is available. Today I keep my Firefox instances in synch, get the most out of its superb system integration and stability, enjoy its awesome browsing speed and have fun customizing the heck out of it. Yes, Firefox 4.0 is my Internet browser of choice in Linux (I am sticking to Google Chrome on Windows, though).

Let me know what your choice is (for Linux!) by voting on the Poll at the top right of this page.

Thanks!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Test Chrome OS on VirtualBox

Chrome OS, The Cloud-computing-oriented operating system by Google is quickly progressing and maturing towards a soon to come final official release. Many of us have heard about it, but testing it is actually not that easy... Until several days ago, that is.

The great HEXXEH (THANKS!!) has done it again, improving his great Chromium OS project even further by providing virtual machine nightly compilations. If you have tried to install Chromium OS in the past, chances are you did so in a USB drive and then tried to run it on your PC. That was a great way to test-drive the stable version available, Chromium OS Flow, but the problem is that it is quite old, pretty obsolete at this stage. On the other hand, the nightly compilations, while more up to date, lack decent hardware support... Dead end? Not anymore!



Hexxeh has made available some virtual machine images, one for VirtualBox, which I will test here, and another one for VMware. The great thing about these images is that they no longer depend on your hardware to run smoothly, so you can download the latest nightly build knowing that it will run, period. In addition, it is convenient that a USB drive is no longer needed, thus providing more flexibility and a chance to test those nightly builds frequently to keep up with the ongoing development pace.

DOWNLOAD AND TEST

In order to download one of those nightly builds, simply access Hexxeh's SITE and get one of the latest compilations (obviously, the most current is recommended). Depending on your virtual software of choice, you should choose either VirtualBox or VMware links.



Both options are extremely simple to use, but I will discuss the VirtualBox one, since it is the one I am using.

  1. Essentially, once you click on the download link, simply save the tar.gz file at a location of your choice.
  2. Extract the file content, which is a VirtualBox virtual disk file, wherever you see fit (your home folder is probably most convenient).
  3. Open VirtualBox and create a new virtual machine (I used the generic Linux 2.6 profile).
  4. When prompted to create/use an existing hard disk, choose the latter, then select the .vdi file you downloaded on step 1.
  5. ChromeOS is apparently quite a resource eater as it stands today, so allow 2GB of RAM.

Once done, start your Virtual Machine, you should see an extremely simple, three-step installation setup. It very simply runs you through some minimalistic instructions to select your Google account, the network interface, etc. Since we are using a virtual machine, just leave the connection settings alone, they should pick up whatever your hosting PC uses (as long as your machine has a working connection, of course).

With everything in place, the login screen continues the minimalistic tradition, as can be seen below. The account that was created during the first access is set as owner, but Guest access is permitted.


Click on Image to enlarge.

Chrome OS is essentially just the Chrome browser with just a few extra options that provide the most basic system management features. I will concentrate on those, as I am sure almost everybody knows about the browser features already.

The screen below shows the user administration tab, which is again extremely basic. The only noteworthy feature is the ability to block certain users from logging in, one that I am not sure I understand given the Cloud Computing orientation of this OS.


Click on Image to enlarge.

It is easy to see these nightly builds are bleeding edge. The Chromium version is 12.0.711!!


Click on Image to enlarge.

Another example of an extremely stripped down interface is the Internet tab, which provides the basics for network connection management.


Click on Image to enlarge.

Chrome OS should be released as preinstalled software that comes along with devices specifically designed to provide optimum performance and tailor-made features. We can see below that the OS provides a bit of hardware tweaking, specifically for the mouse pad sensibility.


Click on Image to enlarge.

The Personal Stuff tab is where we can tweak/enable personal information, such as an account specific picture or the awesome sync feature.


Click on Image to enlarge.

So there you have it, an incredibly simple and convenient way to test/try ChromeOS before it goes live in the next few weeks/months.

THE FUTURE OF COMPUTING?

Chrome OS is an elusive concept, one that many (myself included initially) fail to understand. Not surprisingly, all you get once you login is a browser tab which allows you to browse the Internet... So what's the big deal?

Well, after spending quite a lot of time wandering the Chrome OS Web Store myself and getting to know and understand some of the applications available, I came to the realization that this concept could very well be the future of computing, at least for standard users. The amount, variety and power of some of the applications available is unbelievable given their online nature, which is why standard users will not miss a thing once they get past that starting learning curve. Storage, music, movies and all kind of collaborative tools are literally one click away. Games are improving by the minute, and with the latest WebGL and HTML5 technologies, I am sure we are about to see some impressive titles become available in the next months or years.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and one argument that has been raised as a concern here is that the computing model that is being proposed is extremely simplified and prone to privacy conflicts. I personally agree with the privacy bit to a certain extent, but it would be foolish to deny that at this stage I am already using tons of Cloud-based applications/services, so I have been assuming that risk for some time now. I disagree with the simplified part, though, because if there is one thing the new wave of smartphones and tablets are showing us is that end users want it simple. And yes, it is likely that power users may choose to keep machines that provide more processing power and richer features, but I am convinced Chrome OS and the Cloud capabilities it "sponsors" can cover the needs of most people out there.

Give it a go and let me know what you think!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Woohoo!... 100 followers!

It was only a few months back that this blog turned ONE YEAR OLD. Back then I mentioned that the number of followers was 67 and growing... Well, to be completely honest, I was already surprised that it had achieved such number, and that comment about it growing was more a desire than a conviction.

Today, I am so happy that not long since then The Linux Experience has achieved 100 followers! I know, I know, it may not be an impressive figure compared to other sites out there, but it means a lot to me.



I want to say THANK YOU to those 100 loyal followers and everyone who's taking time to stop by and read and/or reply to my articles!!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Install Firefox 4.0 Stable from PPA

At long last, Firefox 4.0 is now officially with us. It's been a long while, a ton of Alphas, Betas and any other Greek character you can think of, but it is now ready for everybody to enjoy... So why wait?

Given that Firefox is hugely popular and that there are lots of posts about this recent release and its installation already available, I wasn't thinking of posting about it. However, and probably as a result of such information overkill, I realized the whole installation business was starting to get confusing, specially if one was trying to install Firefox from a PPA in Ubuntu or any of its derivatives.

For those of us who were trying/testing Firefox 4 Beta, PPAs proved to be a very convenient solution. They get all the fresh updates and getting the latest Beta was as easy as running a regular system update. Nothing is perfect, though, and the use of a daily PPA is no exception. In this type of PPAs activity is frantic, so the amount of updates users get from them can get annoying. Aside from that, because this daily PPA was good for all Mozilla's products, chances are you won't be able to keep Thunderbird stable, but have to install and use Shredder instead, the development branch.

Well, if you struggled with any of those little (or perhaps not so little) annoyances, you will surely love to hear that Firefox 4.0 is now available at the Mozilla stable PPA for both Ubuntu 10.10, Ubuntu 10.04 and derivatives.

Before proceeding with its installation, though, I would recommend removing any previous Firefox installation, specially if they are not stable ones. Along the same lines, it would be smart to disable or remove the Mozilla daily PPA in cause it was in use, just to prevent any potential conflicts or a messy setup in the long run. Once ready to install, just follow these simple instructions:

Open a terminal and add the Mozilla stable PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:mozillateam/firefox-stable

Now update and install:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install firefox

Note that, by adding the Mozilla stable PPA, you will also have access to other stable releases, such as Thunderbird 3.1.

Now go ahead and have fun with Firefox 4.0. The reviews I have read so far seem to confirm it is a huge improvement over previous releases, and while start up times are still a bit slow, browsing speed is getting pretty damn close to Google Chrome/Chromium's, albeit with a much better Linux integration!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Get the WEBUPD8 PPA!

I am sure some of you probably know about this already, but I still want to share it because this is one of those things that is bringing constant joy to my Linux desktops lately: The WEBUPD8 PPA and WEBUPD8 themes PPA.

The great ANDREW and team are actively maintaining these Webupd8.org PPA, packaging and adding great GTK themes, interesting applications, icon themes and a lot of desktop candy that we all use and love. To give you an example, I have downloaded the latest Faenza 0.90 updates, the amazing Wow GTK theme and many more, all of which make my desktop sleek and beautiful.

Updates are constantly happening at breakneck pace, so much so that sometimes it's hard to follow what is going on, which sweet apps or themes are waiting for you to download. Andrew has put together a sleek blog that works as a change log. Yeah, you guessed it: PPA.WEBUPD8.ORG.


Click on image to go to http://ppa.webupd8.org/

WANT SOME?

I very much encourage you to take a quick look through Andrew's blog. If you like what you see, just follow these simple steps to add this PPA to your software sources:

- The Webupd8 PPA holds many interesting applications that users may not easily find in their official repositories. To add it, open a terminal and enter the following command:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:nilarimogard/webupd8

- The Webupd8 Themes PPA includes lots of great window decoration and control themes, icons and other kinds of eyecandy. Once again, open a terminal and enter the following command:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/themes

In both cases you will need to update your sources before you can download anything:

sudo apt-get update

To install apps and/or themes, simply follow the method you feel more comfortable with. Package names are always part of each one of the updates published. Now, download stuff, enhance and beautify your desktop, and if you get a chance, say "Thanks!" to Andrew and his team for the fabulous work they are putting together.

Have fun!

NOTE: In case anybody didn't notice, this post is only good for Ubuntu and its derivatives.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Install Linux on an external USB Hard Drive

In my recent OpenSUSE 11.4 REVIEW, I briefly mentioned that I install Linux distros on external USB drives. I received some feedback from people who wanted to know more about this, so I decided to put together a quick tutorial to show how I do it. First off, let me explain a little bit what the goal is here, and what benefits may come from it.

When you test as many distros as I do, you either have a huge array of testing machines (which would be ideal, but way too expensive), a huge Hard Drive and tons of patience to deal with Virtual Machines, or you simply buy some external USB hard drives and get on with it. In my case, I want to be able to test stuff or install many flavors of Linux with flexibility, but hopefully not spending a fortune, so installing on USBs is the way to go for me.

I think that testing on a VM is a pain for many reasons:

  • Managing virtual drives is painstakingly slow.
  • Creating and removing virtual drives like crazy is not good for file system health, certainly not a good way to keep the hard drive defragmented.
  • Most distros I have tried require extra drivers to be able to correctly configure my monitor and other pieces of hardware.
  • If things go wrong, you are never 100% sure if it is something in the VM that is causing that error.
  • More importantly, VMs are great to get at quick look at a distro, but not for reviews. More specifically, if you are interested in finding how that specific distro does in terms of hardware management, VMs just don't cut it.


Installing on an external USB drive, specially if that drive has good throughput (fast read/write speed), is as close as it gets to installing on an internal drive. Sure, USB drives and buses are slower, but buying the right one can get you pretty close to real life responsiveness. Unfortunately, USB drives with fast input/output are the most expensive ones... Oh, well, nothing is truly perfect.

Another great thing about installing on a USB drive is that you can turn a single PC into many. In other words, if you have one PC and want to use several different OS, either you partition your drive, with the risks and limitations involved in doing so, or you stick to a single OS, which is what most people do. Installing different OS on different USB drives allows users to experience truly different OS on the same machine.

This approach is also great to introduce people to Linux progressively. Instead of trying to get rid of their current Windows installation (not recommended), you can simply give away a USB drive with an installation of your favorite distro. That way, they can go back to Windows whenever they need to and learn Linux at their own pace. Needless to say, this eliminates potential frustration in the long run, but also risks of losing personal data/settings when moving from Windows to Linux.

Similarly, if you travel with your company PC, chances are you are stuck in an airport or a hotel with a corporate build. You cannot install the applications you want, anything personal is a no go and performance is crazy slow due to trillions of security policies nobody understands. Guess what? You can plug in your Linux USB drive and use that same hardware to run your own distro of choice, which does exactly what you want it to do, how you want it to do it. Oh, yes, and it modifies absolutely nothing on the company Hard Drive, so you won't get into trouble.

These are just examples of a few applications I have noticed so far, but I am sure you will put it in use for your own wicked ends. Alright, let's see how this simple but neat trick goes about.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While the steps that follow are simple and represent very low risk, they could result in permanent hardware damage if you don't know what you are doing. Use this tutorial at your own risk!

STEP BY STEP TUTORIAL



Meet my HP NX7400 Notebook, my main distro testing workhorse. Yes, it is old, heavy and ugly, but it is as Linux friendly as it gets. I consider it a perfect starting point for installations because hardware support in Linux is sometimes a bit elusive, so I think it's always smart to stick to devices you know and trust. Getting the last thing in the market is not necessarily a good idea, and you can end up banging your head against the wall when you don't get past GRUB.

Now, for the purpose of this tutorial, let's say that step 1 is removing the laptop battery, as shown below. This is extremely simple, just turn your laptop upside down and find how it works (usually just a matter of sliding a couple parts to get it out).



The main reason behind removing the battery is that we want to make sure we lower the risks of static electricity screwing up our hardware. If you are doing this on a desktop, make sure you unplug your PC before you try to disconnect your internal hard drive.

Once the battery is out, it's time to remove the hard drive cover and extract the hard drive, as shown below. A small screwdriver often comes in handy for this task. When you are done, put your hard drive inside an anti-static bag and away from any magnetic source (stereo speakers, for instance). Now, put the cover back in place and restore the battery to its original position. Even with the battery on, I recommend running installations with AC power on, just because most installation wizards don't give you any clue about your battery charge levels. An installation broken due to power loss is most probably a corrupt one.



Your computer lacks any boot media now, so it's time to insert your LiveCD/DVD/USB and boot from it. This may require a bit of BIOS tweaking to modify the boot order. I personally like to keep USB first, then optical drives. If you are not using any other boot source, configure your internal hard drive to be third in the chain.

In my experience, LiveUSBs and the tools to build them up are still anything but reliable, so I always like to keep a few RW-DVDs around. More and more distros are leaning towards LiveDVDs so they don't need to deal with space limitations in CDs, which is another reason why RW-DVDs are the way to go. After all, a DVD can accomodate both a LiveCD and LiveDVD ISO. Last but not least, the RW bit is important, because (assuming you have a RW-DVD burner) you can reuse a single DVD many times, thus saving time and money.



Now, boot from your LiveDVD and let it load the installation wizard. In my case, because I am using my trusty NX7400, I almost always jump straight into installation. I am confident that hardware recognition will not be an issue, but if you are not certain, it's always a good idea to start a session from your Live media and make sure that hardware management is not an issue.

Before you start the installation piece itself, make sure you plug in your USB drive. When it comes to USB drives, if you want good performance in the long run, I would recommend spending a bit more and getting a model with speedy I/O. In addition, if you want to use whatever you install for anything other than mere testing, I would say anything below 16GB falls short.

In order to be able to set up your USB drive for subsequent installations, it is a good idea to keep a LiveCD around with some sort of partition utility (I would recommend Parted Magic specifically). This comes in handy when you need to fix any issues with partitions, create new ones or delete existing ones, or even recover your system under some extreme failure.



Everything is in order now, so simply go ahead an proceed with your installation. Your USB drive should appear as /dev/sda1 and selecting the option "use the entire disk" for the installation is probably best.



That is all there is to it, really. Once again shut down your box, remove your battery and put your internal hard drive back on. Then, restart your system and boot from your USB hard drive. You'll probably notice that most day to day activities are very responsive, and sometimes you may find it hard to believe that a USB drive is all there is behind the scenes. Having said so, some other activities like running updates can take significantly longer than they would on your standard internal hard drive. Because of that, my recommendation would be to keep your system as up to date as possible by updating often.

Good luck and let me know if you have any questions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OpenSUSE 11.4 Review

Released just a few days ago, the latest incarnation of OpenSUSE is now with us. OpenSUSE 11.4 is a strong release, at least theoretically, but how does it really do? Step in and find for yourself.

INSTALLATION & MEDIA

One welcome thing outside of testing the distro itself is the official ANNOUNCEMENT, which is so informative and detailed that I feel should be an example for other distro builders out there. Once you are ready to download, there are a few media formats available, ranging from the full blown 4.7GB LiveDVD image (the one I downloaded and will review below) to less complete options, certainly better suited for slower connections.

The installation process is not that much different to what we have seen in previous releases, which is not necessarily a bad thing. OpenSUSE was one of the first to bring forward a beautiful GUI installation wizard, and at this stage, it is a mature and solid product which works great. If anything, I wish it incorporated some of the latest enhancements and ideas we have seen in Ubuntu, like the ability to download updates during the installation.

Installing OpenSUSE 11.4 from the LiveDVD, users can choose the desktop manager to be installed, KDE being the default option. I installed GNOME first, more than anything because I was curious to learn more about GNOME Shell, but I didn't really had a chance to test it. OpenSUSE 11.4 is built on GNOME 2.32.2.1, an up to date version of the current stable environment. GNOME Shell is available, but reading through the documentation, I learnt it has already become obsolete due to the current frantic development pace. GNOME Shell aside, my only comment about OpenSUSE GNOME would be that KDE is the default and it shows. In other words, it's easy to tell when a release does a good job at implementing one desktop manager or another and when they simply offer it as an option. In this case, GNOME is clearly plan B.

After browsing around for fun, I removed GNOME and off I went to get KDE installed. I have to admit I was interested to see if OpenSUSE would incorporate the recently released KDE 4.6.1, but that was not the case. I think that is unfortunate, because KDE 4.6.0 was a major release bringing in lots of changes and inevitably some bugs, so it would have been nice to get the most relevant fixes from those March KDE updates already. If KDE 4.6.1 was not available when the production release was frozen, a method to download it as one of the first main updates could have been enabled for user convenience. I hope it happens eventually.

The installation process went by and took quite some time, but I guess that's reasonable when using such a big sized LiveDVD. In both my GNOME and KDE installation attempts, everything worked smoothly and no errors were found.

(NOTE: An interesting little fact for some, I was able to install OpenSUSE 11.4 on an external USB hard drive. That in itself would not be worth mentioning, but after getting repeated errors when trying to do the same thing with Pardus 2011, I thought I would bring it up.)

THE DESKTOP

The KDM login theme is consistent with the installation wizzard branding. It's not busy, but it doesn't look oversimplified either. The same applies to the desktop, which sports an elegant wallpaper made of vertical stripes, adding an original twist to the SUSE logo. I personally love this wallpaper and have kept it as is.


Click on image to enlarge.

Other than the wallpaper, the overall look and feel is pretty standard for a KDE desktop. The OpenSUSE community have created a custom Air theme specific for their distro, but fonts, controls and icons are all the usual.

One thing I quickly realised is that OpenSUSE is a good implementation of KDE 4.6.0. My previous experience was under Kubuntu 10.10, and well, I wasn't too impressed. KWin effects now run very smoothly, seemingly not impacting system performance in a noticeable way. In fact, the overall performance is good, with menus and applications feeling quick and responsive.


Click on image to enlarge.

My testing with OpenSUSE 11.4 also marked the first time I tried Faenza on KDE, and I must admit I love it. I am not entirely sure why, but I always considered Faenza a GNOME icon theme by definition. Having said so, it works out well under KDE as well, changing the already familiar KDE style in a refreshing and original way... It's a subtle change, but it added some new excitement to using the KDE desktop!

Good old YaST2 is in charge for most things configuration. Similar to the Mandriva Control Center, YaST2 owns software management duties, but also anything from user account management to Kernel settings, Novell AppArmor settings or Firewall configuration, to name just a few. As is the case with the Mandriva Control Center, the YaST2 interface does not look native inside KDE, giving it a bit of a rusty vibe. All in all, it does what it is supposed to do, albeit with some quirky overlaps with KDE's own System Settings.

To summarize, OpenSUSE 11.4 provides a reasonably good looking and performing KDE 4.6.0 desktop. Looks could be improved and perhaps the amount of customization could be more significant, but I have to say my first impressions were quite positive.

APPLICATIONS

Out of the box, OpenSUSE users get quite a big application catalog in KDE. There is nothing revolutionary here, but there are some interesting picks. Firefox 4.0 comes in its Beta12 suit. LibreOffice 3.3.1 takes over as the office suite of choice, continuing a trend that most Linux distros are already following. Amarok, Kmail, Ksnapshot, digiKam, Marble, GwenView and many other typical KDE choices are available, but also a few more "obscure" options, like LinPhone.


Click on image to enlarge.

Installing applications is simple(ish) with YaST2, but it is strange that very common applications still require the addition of extra repositories. For example, I was unable to install Chromium browser from the standard repositories. Fortunately, once I added the contrib ones, it was simple and I got a very up to date version, which was welcome!


Click on image to enlarge.

In case you face this issue, here's how to add the contrib repositories:

1.- From the main menu, go to Applications > System > Configuration > Add/Remove Software. Open the Configuration menu > Repositories..., then add the following URL as a new entry:

http://download.opensuse.org/repositories/openSUSE:/11.4:/Contrib/standard/

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to download other popular applications (Skype comes to mind) from YaST and was forced to download it from the application's own Website. In fact, installing Skype was one of the many problems I faced when testing OpenSUSE 11.4. I will discuss them in detail in the following section.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES...

Let me be clear here: I can't recall testing a major distro release with as many issues as OpenSUSE 11.4. Hardware support problems, application installation issues, lack of stability and consistency... It's taken me many hours just to get some basic things working.

When I found out about the OpenSUSE 11.4 release, there were two main things that sparked my interest. First, I wanted to test the new 2.6.37.x Kernel series because of its supposedly enhanced hardware support, specifically the new Broadcom wireless drivers. On the hardware support department, I was also interested in checking whether this new Kernel would be able to cope with current Intel HD graphics cards while maintaining support for older models (something older Kernel versions not always managed successfully). Second was my interest on GNOME Shell, as already mentioned.

I originally installed OpenSUSE 11.4 on an external USB hard drive successfully from an HP nx7400, an old but trusty notebook which is usually a starting point for me because of its Linux-friendly hardware. No hardware support issues appeared, as I was expecting, but the great thing about installing on a USB hard drive is that I can simply plug it on any other tablet or laptop and get to test that hardware.

A Wireless Odyssey

My next target was my HP2740p tablet, whose Broadcom B4312 wireless network card and Intel HD graphics card always required a bit of extra work to get going. On the good news department, the graphics card worked flawlessly out of the box. Unfortunately, when it came to the wireless device, that was far from being the case. It seems the new Kernel series provides the open source B43 driver by default, which gets some functionality working, but not all. Scanning for wireless networks worked OK, but I wouldn't get a lasting connection, it would disconnect right after connecting. I wasn't that surprised, to be honest, because that is exactly the same behavior I get in Ubuntu with that same driver.

To provide a bit of context here, after installing and booting Ubuntu 10.10 for the first time on the same machine, it only takes a couple minutes before it notices the wireless card requires specific drivers. Ubuntu provides the open source Broadcom driver available as the primary option, but also the Broadcom STA proprietary one in case I need it. Long story short, it takes about 5 minutes to get it to work under Ubuntu, with little extra effort required from the end user. Unfortunately, that was far from being the case in OpenSUSE 11.4.

Because of my previous experience with Ubuntu, I knew installing the Broadcom STA wireless driver would get things going. After quite a long time Googling about it and finding a specific forum THREAD on the subject, I learned that installing the Pacman broadcom-wl-kmp-desktop driver was probably my best shot. Now, anyone who has ever had to overcome similar problems under Linux knows that there is a lot of hit and miss involved, for not all forum replies capture the right solutions. As a result, it took me a few hours and a lot of tries to get to the final solution.

Unfortunately, that final solution wouldn't be straightforward either. When I finally installed the apparently working drivers, I got my network card to be able to scan wireless networks again, only this time it would not connect to mine at all. Back to square one. I was scratching my head because I was running out of options. Using common sense, I thought it was very weird that my card was apparently behaving correctly but could not connect to my WPA2 encrypted wireless network, and then it hit me: "Could encryption be the problem here?." Off I went to investigate once more, and once again, I found other people experimenting similar behavior in forums. I again found workarounds, but they were specific to the B43 driver, not the Wl I was using.

I decided to test on an open (not encrypted) wireless network, just to see if encryption had anything to do with it. As I was expecting, OpenSUSE 11.4 successfully connected with that open wireless network, which was good news because it was the first time I could get a working wireless connection. However, I had no clue about fixing the encryption issue, so I decided I would try again on my encrypted network, hopeful that I would maybe spot something that could lead me to the final solution.

Long story short, after having tried on an open network, connection on an encrypted network worked as well without me changing anything else. The screenshot below shows proof, but how and why it started working all of a sudden, I have no idea. Bizarre!



Installing RPMs (or banging my head against the keyboard)

I finally got my wireless problems out of the way, time to continue testing hardware and applications. My 2740p has an integrated webcam and internal mic, which I often test through Skype. I therefore downloaded the corresponding RPM from the Skype Website and proceeded to install... Little did I know that I was about to get stuck with another problem.


Click on image to enlarge.

The screenshot above shows the error message I got when trying to install any downloaded RPMs. As they say, Google is your friend, so I started searching again, and again I was not the only one with the problem. Apparently, this issue is caused by a conflict with the PK_TMP_DIR repository, which already exists in YaST. I removed it and the installation finally completed successfully.

Skype Wars too

So, I finally had Skype installed, time to open it up... Open the main menu, click on the Skype icon... Nothing happens. "I probably didn't really click properly, let's try again...", I said to myself, but again, nothing happened. "Argh!!!." Investigation was on again, so I opened skype from the command line, just to check if an error message would show up, and indeed one did.

skype: error while loading shared libraries: libpng12.so.0: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

At this stage, Google is my brother, certainly closer than a friend... Anyways, I searched for this error and found that the Skype package was missing some dependencies and that installing libpng12-0 was required, which proved to be correct because it fixed my problem.


Click on image to enlarge.

At last, Skype was running and the webcam was apparently working. Unfortunately, the internal mic was not, rendering the application pretty much useless... Oh, well! (To be fair, the internal mic was successfully configured and working on my HP 2730p).

FINAL VERDICT

Leaving stability issues aside, which are somewhat expected so soon after release date, OpenSUSE 11.4 is not a bad release. The KDE 4.6 implementation is stable and responsive, and all applications on board work well. Unfortunately, issues as critical as not being able to install RPMs, having popular applications not running successfully, or missing hardware support when it actually worked on previous versions, may become show stoppers for standard (non-expert) users.

If you like OpenSUSE, I would suggest waiting a few months before downloading/installing. I think many fixes should already be on their way to hopefully provide its great foundation with some much needed reliability.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

VLC Unleashed

"VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and
framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVD, Audio CD,
VCD, and various streaming protocols."
I would add quite a bit more to that definition from VideoLAN's Official VLC website (screenshot below), but I understand it would not be politically correct for them to do so. Indeed, VLC is an amazingly powerful and dynamic media player, a favorite for many I can count myself amongst, but also a raw diamond with lot more to it than what meets the eye.


Click on image to enlarge.

SCRATCHING BELOW THE SURFACE

If you are like me, chances are you use VLC exclusively as a video player, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. After all, VLC blossomed into a full blown multimedia player from a video player embryo. Even more importantly, it makes sense because VLC is, in my opinion, the best video player available in Linux. Having said so, if we scratch below the surface, we may find that we've been missing out on a lot of VLC's impressive features.

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

If you like themes and skins to customize your favorite applications, VLC offers a host of great skins that make it look radically (sometimes better) different. Here are a few examples I like to use:


Click on image to enlarge.


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These skins make VLC look a lot slicker, but they sometimes lack in functionality because they remove (or make access more difficult to) some of the advance (albeit less commonly used) features in VLC. Because of that, if you like to use all that VLC has to offer on a regular basis, it's probably best to stick to the default outfit.


Click on image to enlarge.

In order to enable skins, simply open VLC, click on the Tools menu > Preferences and select "Use custom skin" on the interface tab. When going from native to custom, you may need to restart VLC for the changes to take effect. Once you are on custom skin, you can easily change from one skin to another on the fly. The VLC Website offers a wide array of great looking skins for your delight, as well as instructions for each of the OS it supports. You can download VLC skins from HERE.

ADVANCED FEATURES

VLC provides some advanced features out of the box that allow for some impressive video manipulation on the fly. Having said so, let's start with the basics, which already cover a lot of ground.

- Play about anything you can think of: Starting with the Media menu, we can see that VLC can open a lot more things than your standard video player. From a network share to a single file, a folder, a DVD or a capturing device. It can even act as a streaming client. On top of that, it sports an amazing host of codecs providing support for even the most obscure media formats out there.

- Fine tuning: Even the basic set of controls provided allow for more control over what is being played than most other media players out there. Want to increase/decrease video playing speed? Tweak the audio EQ? Display subtitles? Manage your video queue with its powerful playlist? Piece of cake.

On top of those basic features, one can enable a few more advanced ones, which allow for some impressive tricks. To enable the advanced features, click on the View menu and tick the Advanced controls option. Once you do that, you will see that four new buttons appear on top of your standard controls, as shown below (I highlighted the advanced buttons):



From left to right, here's what we get:

- Record: This button allows us to record a portion of a video. Among other applications, this comes in handy when you want to easily extract a few highlight sections from an otherwise long video/movie.

- Snapshot: Want to take a few snapshots from your movie as some sort of a preview? Just click on this button a few times when you see fit!

- A to B loop: If you ask me, this feature alone is worth the price of admission. I play guitar myself, and whenever I want to transcribe a difficult solo from a live performance, this feature can save my day. Looping a specific section combined with the ability to lower its speed without modifying the pitch, can make the most difficult guitar solo look easy. Needless to say this is also extremely useful for watching over and over again that awesome fighting scene, a basketball dunk, a tennis smash... You get the drill.

- Frame by frame: This feature is also pretty cool if you want to take video playing flexibility to a whole new level. I don't use it much myself, but I guess it can be a good way to spot movie mistakes, for those who are into it!

EFFECTS GALORE

If all of the above was not enough, VLC offers a powerful and rich set of audio and video effects. Effects can be combined at will, so the end result is directly linked with creativity. Some video effects, like adjusting image contrast or brightness, are easy to understand and have a clear application. Others may be useful for specific purposes only (live public presentations come to mind). Then there are some that are downright strange, but all of them are lots of fun. To use VLC effects, click on the Tools menu > Effects & Filters. Here are some examples:


Click on image to enlarge.

The screenshot above shows the water effect in combination with color extraction.


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Want to go back to the eighties? The puzzle effect displayed above will certainly help.


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The gradient effect is awesome if you are in for some psychedelic vibe.


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Inverting colors is always fun.


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Double screen setup?... No problem, VLC can clone its output (and add custom text on screen!).

NOTE: The guy in this video I was using to demonstrate VLC effects is Andy James, an awesome guitarist from the UK.

All in all, the amount of effects VLC provides is amazing, and they all work great. In fact, I am amazed at how fast they are applied and how well they perform.

GO FOR IT!

Obviously, a few screenshots don't do justice to all that can be achieved with VLC. The best way to find out is to pick a video of your choice and go crazy with its advanced features and effects.

VLC is one of a few applications which can claim they do what they are supposed to do very well and then add a lot more on top without making matters more complicated. If you have not discovered it yet... what are you waiting for?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

...Read all about it!

You may have noticed that I am not posting as frequently as I used to, but let me clarify that's not a sign of this blog slowing down nor dying. Daddy duties are taking lots of time, plus these weeks before distro release craze begins in April are not the best for tests and reviews (most distros are still in Alpha state). Needless to say, distro releases are certainly not the only interesting pieces of news available, so I thought I'd put together an article highlighting some interesting things going on in Linux/Open source World.

HP TO SHIP PCs WITH WEBOS PREINSTALLED STARTING 2012

Linux based HP WebOS will finally get a real chance of development as HP confirmed it will ship alongside Windows starting next year. The idea is to provide a dual boot setup which should increase chances for this somewhat unknown OS to claim some attention from both users and developers. As its own name suggests, WebOS has a strong cloud orientation, and is a similar concept to Google's Chrome OS. Having said so, HP may be running late already as the number of applications in their store is a tiny 6000, nowhere near the numbers in Google's web store.

For us Linux users this should be nothing but good news, for WebOS should bring enhanced hardware support to the Linux Kernel for any and all HP models. Because such models use components that are also used by many other manufacturers, hardware support in Linux shall experience an improvement.

LINUX MINT 11: GNOME 3.0 YES, GNOME-SHELL NO

Clement Lefebvre recently confirmed that Linux Mint (as already known) will not be using Ubuntu 11.04 Unity. The interesting news is that it will be based on GNOME 3.0, but instead of using Gnome Shell, it will stick to the classic Gnome outfit we are used to.

DRAFTSIGHT RELEASED

AutoCad clone Draftsight has just been released, offering free downloads and nice support for Linux. Those interested in downloading, simply visit the application WEBSITE and download the packages that best suit your distro (Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuse, Mandriva and their corresponding derivatives available).

Here's a screenshot of Draftsight running on ZorinOS 4.


Click on image to enlarge.

FIREFOX 4.0 RC RELEASED

Yes, finally! Firefox 4.0 Release Candidate is out there and available for download, as stated on Mozilla's Blog OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT. Those of you who installed the Mozilla PPA to install Firefox Beta will get this latest Release Candidate, which promises better stability and performance, through a standard update.

NAUTILUS 3.0 SNEAK PEEK

Ok, this one is exciting. We finally get to see what Nautilus 3.0 will look like once it is finally released. This screenshot already shows how minimize and maximize buttons are no longer available, but also a heavily simplified, more elegant looking UI.


Click on image to enlarge.

UBUNTU NETBOOK EDITION NO MORE

So, after a brief and difficult life, Ubuntu Netbook Edition is officially history. Canonical stated on their BLOG that the upcoming Ubuntu release, featuring Unity as the default desktop manager, will cope with any device, from tablets, to netbooks, notebooks and desktops.

MEET ONEIRIC OCELOT

As most of you probably know by now, Ubuntu 11.10 code name has finally been chosen. Oneiric Ocelot is the quirky choice, as Mark Shuttleworth himself explains in his own BLOG.

On a different note, Mark also talked a little about Natty Narwhal, to be released some time next month:

"Natty is a stretch release: we set out to redefine the look and feel of the free desktop. We’ll need all the feedback we can get..."

I think it is smart to acknowledge the tremendous task of bringing Unity forward, but is that a hint at things going below expectations? Ever since the Unity move was announced, I always thought 11.04 would be a "skip release" for me. Don't get me wrong, I am actively testing Alphas and want to help make it the best release possible, but I am skeptic it can offer a true improvement over 10.10. Hope I am wrong!

FEDORA 15 ALPHA IS OUT

Fedora recently released their first alpha for their upcoming release, Fedora 15. If you read any of my recent Fedora reviews, you probably know I was less than excited with what they had to offer, but it seems this upcoming one may have more beef to it. I am excited to see important updates and additions on many fronts, not just those that developers would care about.

Here's a list of new features, straight from the distro's OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT.

  • Updated Desktop Environments. Fedora 15 will ship with GNOME 3, the next major version of the GNOME desktop. If you're interested in other experiences, KDE and Xfce will also be showcasing the latest and greatest in desktop technology from their respective projects.
  • System and session management. Previously available as a technology preview in F14, systemd makes its full-fledged debut in Fedora 15. systemd is a smarter, more efficient way of starting up and managing the background daemons relied on by services we all use every day - such as NetworkManager and PulseAudio.
  • Cloud. Looking to create appliances for use in the Cloud? BoxGrinder creates appliances (virtual machines) for various platforms (KVM, Xen, EC2) from simple plain text appliance definition files for various virtual platforms.
  • Updated programming languages and tools. Fedora 15 features new versions of Rails, OCaml, and Python. GDB and GCC have also been updated. (Fedora 15 was built with GCC 4.6.0, too!)
  • Productivity Applications. LibreOffice is filled with tools for everyday use, including word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.
  • Consistent Network Device Naming. Server management just got even easier. Fedora 15 uses BIOS-provided, non-arbitrarily given names for network ports, taking the burden off of system administrators.
  • Dynamic Firewall. Fedora 15 adds support for the optional firewall daemon, that provides a dynamic firewall management with a D-Bus interface.
  • Ecryptfs in Authconfig. Fedora 15 brings in improved support for eCryptfs, a stacked cryptographic filesystem for Linux. Starting with Fedora 15, authconfig can be used to automatically mount a private encrypted part of the home directory when a user logs in.
  • DNSSEC for workstations. NetworkManager now uses the BIND nameserver as a DNSSEC resolver. All received DNS responses are proved to be correct. If particular domain is signed and failed to validate then resolver returns SERFVAIL instead of invalidated response, which means something is wrong.
  • Go Green. Power Management improvements include the PowerTOP tool, which identifies the software components that make your computer use more energy than necessary while idle. Automatic tuning of power consumption and performance helps conserve on laptop battery usage, too!
  • Business Management tools. Tryton is a three-tier high-level general purpose application platform, providing solutions for accounting, invoicing, sale management, purchase management, analytic accounting, and inventory management.
  • New Package Suite Groups. The Graphics suite group has been renamed to the Design group, and the Robotics SIG has created the Robotics Package Suite, a collection of software that provides an out-of-the-box usable robotic simulation environment featuring a linear demo to introduce new users.
Still not a distro I would recommend to a standard user, but I am seeing some interesting steps forward. I am expecting to see the results of Ubuntu's Software Center migration to Package Kit, but since there is no comment about it, we may have to wait until Fedora 16 is out.

...And yes, there are lots more things going on right now, but I picked a few that I consider interesting.

Hope you did too!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Some Conky Favorites of mine

Conky is, as defined in its own WEBSITE, a "free, light-weight system monitor for X, that displays any information on your desktop. Conky is licensed under the GPL and runs on Linux and BSD." Doesn't sound all that exciting, right? Certainly, it is not the ultimate new discovery in computer technology, but for us Linux users is a neat solution to monitor our system resources straight from the desktop and a darn fine way to beautify it.

Conky itself is pretty ugly out of the box, but with the right theme, it can look awesome. More importantly, it gives users running X a nice alternative to the system monitors provided by the desktop manager of choice, which always tend to eat more resources than should be allowed for any system monitor. Granted, Conky is more resource hungry than top, but it saves users the hassle of actually having to open or switch to a terminal to run it. All in all, Conky runs on roughly 1% of my CPU and 0.2% of my memory, so it doesn't have any perceivable impact on my system performance. Just to give some background for comparison, gnome-system-monitor runs on average on more than 20% of CPU and 2% of memory on the same machine.

KEEP THE SYSTEM COOL WHILE LOOKING HOT

Today I want to show three of my favorite Conky themes, how they look on my desktops, as well as explain how to install them in a few simple steps. Configuration may require some command line activity, but I will try to keep it down to a minimum for the command line intimidated folks out there.

CONKY LUA

This wonderful Conky theme is one of the most complete out there in terms of the amount of information it displays. In addition, it is beautiful and comes with a number of themes that suit some of the most popular distros available, such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, etc. Here's how it looks on my current Zorin OS 4 desktop:


Click on image to enlarge.


As you can see, Conky LUA sports a pretty sleek design. Top to bottom, here's what we see:

  • Date & Time
  • Local Temperature
  • CPU Load
  • Memory Use
  • Swap Use
  • Disk Use
  • Network Traffic
  • System Up Time
  • A bit about processes
  • OS and Kernel versions

I am using the Debian color scheme here, but without the Debian logo, which would appear on top of the clock. If you want to see how this and other color schemes work, visit the Gnome-Look.org theme page HERE and click on the thumbnails on the side.

This page is also the right place to download and install Conky LUA, get installation instructions and keep up to date with the latest changes/modifications from the artist/developer. In fact, one can add comments, share feedback and even interact with the author to request new themes (whether that request will be actioned depends on the artist availability and interest, of course).

INSTALL CONKY FIRST!!

Conky LUA and all other themes presented here are just that, themes. They do nothing unless we install Conky first, so that will be our starting point. To install Conky, open your package manager of choice and search for the package conky-all, then proceed to install.

Alternatively, if you want to install from the command line, simply run the following command (assuming your distro uses apt-get as package manager):

sudo apt-get install conky-all

Once the installation completes, you can see Conky in action straight away. It will look bare-bones, but it will definitely work. To start conky from the GUI, use key combination alt-F2, type "conky" (minus the quotes, of course) and run.

To stop conky, simply kill its process. You can easily do so from your system process monitor or from the command line:

sudo killall conky

INSTALL AND CONFIGURE CONKY LUA

With Conky installed and operational, it's time to start installing and configuring some themes, starting with Conky LUA. The first step is to download the theme files from HERE.

If the download completed successfully, you should have 139024-Conky-lua.tar.gz with you now. Opening the file with your archive manager of choice will display a folder containing a number of compressed files inside, one per color scheme. Open the distro scheme you would like to use. Each scheme is made of three files: clock_rings.lua, conkyrc and the corresponding distro logo in PNG format.

1.- Start by creating a folder named .conky under your home folder.
2.- Once done, extract the PNG file into that folder.
3.- The next step is to create another folder, .lua, once again under your home directory (note that these folders may be hidden, so you may need to set your file manager of choice to display all files in order to be able to see them).
4.- Under .lua, create another folder, named scripts, and extract the file clock_rings.lua inside of it.
5.- Extract the file conkyrc, then rename it and add a dot in front of the name. In other words, the file name should end up being .conkyrc.
6.- The script is set to display the temperature for a particular area by default. In order to customize if for your own, first browse the site http://weather.noaa.gov and find your city 4 digit code. Now, open .conkyrc with your text editor of choice and replace the string "LQBK" with the 4 digit code for your city.
7.- You are done now! Simply start conky as already discussed and you will see Conky LUA adding some eyecandy to your desktop.

CONKY COLORS

Time to look into another favorite theme of mine, Conky Colors. This is more than just a theme, it is a powerful script that helps in automating the tweaking of Conky, offering several flavors and customization options. Here's how it looks on my Ubuntu 10.10 desktop:


Click on image to enlarge.


Conky Colors design (in this example using the elementary outfit) is another example of slickness at its best. Conky LUA showed loads of information, but Conky Colors takes that concept even further. In fact, the amount of information shown here is not the complete set that the script offers. Top to bottom, here's what we see:

  • CPU1 Load
  • CPU2 Load
  • CPU3 Load
  • CPU4 Load
  • Memory Use
  • Swap Use
  • Date & Time
  • Root Disk Use
  • Home Disk Use
  • Banshee Progress Dial
  • Wireless Info
  • Network Load

According to the developer Gnome-Look.org page HERE, there are three main outfits for Conky Colors: Default, Cairo and Board. Once again, click on the thumbnails on the side of that page for a preview. As was the case with Conky LUA, this Gnome-look.org page is also the right place to download and install Conky Colors. It is also the perfect place to get installation instructions, keep up to date with the latest changes/modifications and interact with the artist/developer and other members of the community who may be using that very same theme.

Because of its script nature, Conky Colors is more powerful and flexible than mere themes, but it is also a bit more complicated to set up. Don't let the installation section (following next) intimidate you, it does contain more CLI stuff, but most of it is plain copy-paste material!

INSTALL AND CONFIGURE CONKY COLORS

Before we can go ahead and install it, Conky Colors has some requirements that need to be in place for everything to run smoothly, packages that need to be installed and configured prior to Conky Colors first run. To complete the installation of the packages required, open your package manager of choice and install the following ones:

- aptitude
- python-statgrab
- ttf-droid
- hddtemp
- curl
- lm-sensor


Alternatively, you can do the same from the command line in one go:

sudo apt-get install aptitude python-statgrab ttf-droid hddtemp curl lm-sensors

Now, set the right privileges for hddtemp:

sudo chmod u+s /usr/sbin/hddtemp

Finally, run the following command answering YES to all questions, even the last one which defaults to NO.

sudo sensors-detect

As a last step, restart your session by logging out and then back in.

Once all that is complete, we need to download the theme files from HERE. Just click on the Conky Colors Source button. If the download completed successfully, you should have 92328-conky_colors-5.0b2-2.tar.gz with you already. Open the file with your archive manager of choice and extract the conky-colors folder to a location of your choice (your home folder is probably best). Now, follow these few simple steps:

1.- Open a terminal and access the conky-colors folder you just extracted.
2.- Type make and hit enter.
3.- Now, install Conky Colors by running sudo make install.
4.- Once done, run Conky Colors by entering conky-colors {options}.

To see all options available, you may type conky-colors --help. To give you an example, here's the set of options I use:

conky-colors --cairo --theme=elementary --cpu=4 --swap --clock=cairo --banshee=cairo --network --wireless --calendarm

The command above will generate the Conky customization of your choice. However, we still need to run Conky to see those settings come to life:

conky -c ~/.conkycolors/conkyrc &

Voila!

CONKY HUD

Let's now go back to simple with an easy to set up Conky theme, Conky HUD, which is shown below rocking my Moon OS desktop.


Click on image to enlarge.

The design is once again pretty sleek, but the interface is highly simplified, showing just a summary of the system monitoring information (albeit the most relevant bits for standard users).

From left to right we see:

  • Current Time
  • Memory Use
  • Disk Use
  • CPU Load

INSTALL AND CONFIGURE CONKY HUD

As usual, let's start by downloading this Conky theme from its Gnome-look.org PAGE. If the download completed successfully, you should have 137505-conky_HUD.zip with you. Open the file and extract conky_HUD.lua and conkyrc_HUD under .conky folder, which should be created in your home folder (create it yourself if it is not the case).

To start Conky HUD, run the following command:

conky -c ~/.conky/conkyrc_HUD &

RUNNING CONKY ON STARTUP

If you end up liking Conky, chances are you will want to see it there as part of a regular system boot up, without having to manually start it on every session. If that is the case, you can easily do that by creating a very simple bash script, as follows:

1.- Open your editor of choice and type the following:


#!/bin/bash

sleep 15
conky &


This little script would wait for 15 seconds before starting Conky, which is handy so that it doesn't get in the way of anything else loading for your new session. Now, if the Conky theme you are using is one of the ones we have discussed, which require more specific commands, the script should be modified as follows:

For Conky Colors

Instead of conky &, use conky -c ~/.conkycolors/conkyrc &

For Conky HUD

Instead of conky &, use conky -c ~/.conky/conkyrc_HUD &

2.- Save your script and grant it with execution privileges.

3.- Set the script to run as part of your Startup Applications.

CONKY LOVE

I have come to love Conky, even with its quirky, sometimes plain complicated configurations. I think a GUI application to handle these themes would be a blast, but for now, I simply enjoy having my system monitor beautifying my desktop.

Thanks for reading!

PS: Thanks to the great staff at WEBUPD8 for spotting and sharing these great Conky themes and obviously to the artists and developers who put them together!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Have fun browsing in 3D

Not long ago I shared some info about WebGL and how specifically Chromium and Google Chrome were going to implement it so that we could start to enjoy some cool web 3D rendering. Firefox and Safari are also starting to support WebGL, but the good news is that the newer Google Chrome and Chromium versions have this support enabled by default, no need to start the application with any specific flag.


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CHROME EXPERIMENTS is a very nice source to get a feel of groundbreaking web technology as it is continuously evolving. HTML5 stuff, CSS3 demos, some Javascript tests and of course, WebGL experiments are some of the things you may find in this site. One of the most mature and perhaps useful (I can see this take over the current Google images interface any time) experiments is the Picture Wall. I recorded a short video (with an excerpt from one of my songs as soundtrack!) to show how the whole thing works, it's pretty impressive!



Most of you probably heard about the Google Body Browser already. In case you haven't I recommend giving it a go, it's a lot of fun (and quite educational)!


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As you may see in some of these screenshots, the machine I ran these experiments on is on anything but powerful 3D rendering hardware. Having said so, some of these experiments can truly put your hardware to the test as they start to add more and more objects to render. The Field experiment below is a good example of that.


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Probably the most famous experiment, certainly the one that Google has used the most in their presentations, is The Fish Tank. You can modify how many fishes are to be rendered, change the camera view, etc.


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If you have not already, I recommend you take a quick tour through the Chrome Experiments website and enjoy some of those examples. I am sure you will find something that will make you smile in awe.