Friday, October 28, 2011

The mistery of Chakra Linux

As many of you probably noticed from recent articles of mine, I very much like what KDE is doing lately. As a result, it's sort of an obvious move for me to gravitate towards great KDE implementations. In that regard, Chakra is a very interesting one, not only because it is solely dedicated to KDE, but also because it is based on Arch Linux.

Unfortunately for me, I cannot even get Chakra to start working. I follow the instructions in their Wiki and think I am doing things right, but no joy. I am pretty certain it's all down to hardware support issues, but perhaps I am missing something, so I decided to post about it, describe what I am doing and see if someone can chime in and offer advice or a fix (plus I want to try a different approach, not the usual Forums/IRC).

Yesterday I went on and downloaded the latest release, Chakra 2011.10.26, from HERE. Since I have an assortment of machines, I usually am conservative and go for the 32bit release, chakra-2011.10.26-Edn-i686.iso in this case. Once downloaded, I successfully tested it under Virtualbox, being able to boot the ISO and navigate the Chakra desktop in my virtual machine. That told me the ISO was good, so it was time to create a LiveUSB. In order to do so, I go as follows:
  1. Enter a USB drive and format it as FAT32.
  2. Unmount it from a terminal:

    sudo umount /dev/sdb2

  3. Copy the ISO to the USB using dd:

    sudo dd if=chakra-2011.10.26-Edn-i686.iso of=/dev/sdb

  4. After a few minutes, the process finishes (apparently) successfully. I then test the newly created LiveUSB drive on my old trusty HP NX7400 and it works just fine, which in this case tells me the creation of the LiveUSB worked out well.
  5. Since I don't want to install Chakra on my 7400 because it is, well, old, I aim for the other more modern machines I use. When I plug the LiveUSB in and start up any of those machines, I get nothing but a frozen BIOS screen while the USB drive seems to keep reading and reading.

    The machines I use include: HP 5320m Elitebook, HP 6930p Elitebook, HP 2730p Elitebook and HP 2740p Elitebook (the former two are notebooks while the latter are tablets). All these four machines are very much Linux friendly and I have never experienced issues loading something as elementary as the boot manager.

Any ideas welcome!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cantarell, a new favorite font of mine

A couple days ago, I read that Sabayon had put together a very good GNOME 3.2 implementation (unfortunately, I read that from their own Sabayon 7 announcement, it actually isn't that good), which made me change my mind and give it a go before I had planned (before Fedora 16, that is).

I have to say I am impressed. GNOME 3.2 feels amazingly mature for such a young project, offering significant improvements in about every area. Having said so, several important features didn't work as expected (which I feel has more to do with Sabayon itself, to be honest), so I will not go into a detailed review until I have a chance to test Verne. I will talk about one thing that really caught my attention, though: Cantarell, the project's default font (Read more about it HERE)



In all honesty, I hadn't noticed this font much until testing GNOME 3.2, so I am not sure if it changed since the .0 release, or if font rendering has improved. Whatever it was, I am glad it happened, because Cantarell is a new favorite font of mine.



As you can see from the screenshots, Cantarell is stylish and beautiful, but most importantly, crisp and easy to read. With the help of the Faenza icon theme, it shines and helps make the GNOME desktop even prettier.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kubuntu 11.10 'Oneiric Ocelot' Review

Just a few days ago the latest from the X-buntu family went live, including Ubuntu Studio, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, and of course, Kubuntu. I was looking forward to playing around with it, specially since I had liked the previous release quite a bit. Kubuntu has indeed come quite far since I first tested it, back in 2008, from a KDE distro most people ditched as "not recommended" for Ubuntu users who wanted to take a look at KDE (me included), to a very decent contestant in a very tight fight for the K crown.

Kubuntu 11.10 incorporates many interesting features and new applications that make it extremely interesting. Here are some highlights:

- KDE 4.7.1 (4.7.2 available on the update repositories): The much anticipated Kontact 4.7 features, the exciting new OpenGL-ES and improved rendering effects, the enhancements in network manager, as well as fixes to Nepomuk, Dolphin, Amarok and many others, the latest from KDE is certainly exciting and worth checking.

- Muon package manager: Finally an up to date replacement to KPackageKit!

- Kernel 3.0 series

I guess it would be legitimate to claim most of those features/enhancements/fixes are not Kubuntu's but upstream, but the integration the Kubuntu developers put in place is critical, the factor that can make them fly or crash. Therefore, I will not try to limit this review to Kubuntu exclusive features, but look at the whole picture and see how it goes. Let's jump into it.

INSTALLATION AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Kubuntu sticks to good old LiveCDs ISO images, which means download times are short and convenient, which is welcome. Being so popular, it is standard for applications like UnetBootin, so creating a LiveUSB on a spare 1GB thumb drive takes just a few seconds.

After booting from the LiveUSB, we are given two options: Try or Install Kubuntu. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, I ALWAYS recommend trying first. It will give you a very good idea of where you stand in terms of hardware support and save lots of headaches in the long run.

The installation process in Kubuntu 11.10 is almost identical to that of 11.04, with one minor feature addition that allows for the installation of third party software (this time apparently including Wireless drivers) while the installation takes place. The lack of change is nothing but good news in this case, because the (K)ubuntu installation wizard is mature, solid, quick and pretty... about as good as it gets, really.

Booting for the first time is not that exciting, though, for no changes are apparent in this latest release. GRUB2, Plymouth, KDM and its splash screen all look exactly as they did in 11.04. One has to wait until reaching the desktop to see KDE 4.7.1 in action, as well as other new Oneric features. The overall feel is that Kubuntu 11.10 is somewhat more responsive than its predecessor, though.

DIVING DEEPER

The first welcome thing is that Kubuntu 11.10 managed to detect and correctly configure all the hardware onboard of my HP Probook 5320m, including its infamous Broadcom wireless card, webcam, etc. I am guessing Kernel 3.0 is to blame here, but having said so, Kubuntu 11.10 still incorporates its advanced features to help identify and solve hardware recognition issues, probably the best among KDE distros.

With wireless working right out of the box, it was time to get system updates (the 1st most important step to complete after installing a Linux distro). As expected, for I was installing one day after release date, there was nothing waiting for me. However, I was eager to get my hands on KDE 4.7.2, a recommended upgrade because it includes important Kontact and Nepomuk fixes, but also noticeable improvements on effects rendering (see my post on this HERE). In fact, for those interested, let me quickly go over the few steps I took to get my Kubuntu installation up to speed:

1.- Run a quick system update. You may do so using Muon or CLI:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

2.- Enable all repositories (main, universe, restricted, multiverse). Simply open Muon, Settings Menu > Configure Software Sources and tick all options once you authenticate as administrator. From the Other Software tab, click Canonical Partners as well.

3.- Change your Download Server. Depending on where you live, you may find it useful to choose a different server than the one set by default. It's a bit of trial an error, but if download times are reasonable, I would say there is no need to change anything. In case you have to, though, you can do so from the "Download from" picklist under Settings Menu > Configure Software. You can select "Other..." and find which server works out faster from your location.

4.- Add the Update repositories PPA. Simply run the following command from a terminal:

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

5.- Install codecs. You can do so by installing the restricted extra PPA. Just click HERE and complete the steps required.

6.- Update sources. You can easily do so from Muon or from CLI:

sudo apt-get update

7.- Upgrade to KDE 4.7.2. From a terminal, run:

sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

This may take a while!

After getting everything up to speed and very little tweaking, here's what my Oneiric Ocelot desktop looks like:


Click on image to enlarge

Hot stuff, huh? ;-)

ABOUT KDE 4.7.2

KDE continues to improve release after release. With the updated Oxygen icon set, it looks even better than before, so anybody can set up a beautiful desktop filled with gorgeous smooth effects after literally just a few clicks. Surprisingly, 4.7.2 also feels lighter, faster and more solid (even if 4.6.5 was already great), and the enhanced desktop effects truly make a difference. In fact, I think this is the first time I feel Kwin effects perform as smoothly as Compiz, which is quite something considering KDE users get the whole package natively inside Kwin, certainly a big plus.


Click on image to enlarge

Now, like I said, those effects are quite something, but there are lots of interesting things coming with this latest release. One of the most impressive ones is Kontact and the whole KDE PIM suite, which get significant updates.


Click on image to enlarge

To begin with, I loved the account creation wizard, which set up my Gmail account easily and quickly. Setting up the calendar and contacts was a bit harder than it would be on, say, Thunderbird, but Kontact provides better integration within the KDE environment, plus it provides other interesting features, such as the impressive Akreggator.


Click on image to enlarge

All in all, I am very impressed with Kontact as a whole, it is a mammoth application that covers a lot of ground, yet it does not feel particularly heavy. I have experienced a bit of a lack in stability here and there, but given I am testing so short after Kubuntu 11.10 was released, I cannot really complain.


Click on image to enlarge

Dolphin also got some changes, most noticeably, the removal of its top menu. I have no opinion on this change, don't really mind, specially because the menu can be brought back if the user so wants. Other than that, it continues to look amazingly good, but it is also fast and light, even more than Nautilus on GNOME 2.32, according to my testing. With the enhancements in Nepomuk (which will get even better come the next dot release, according to Sebastian Trueg), searching truly works great and allows for pretty complex queries from the GUI. In fact, Nepomuk and Strigi work better than ever in 4.7.2, with fast indexing and reasonable consumption of resources.


Click on image to enlarge

On the media department, Amarok 2.4.3 is on duty. I personally tend to gravitate to Clementine myself, but it's hard to deny Amarok's strengths... plus it's become much more responsive and feels lighter now. Dragon is the default video player, perhaps one of the weakest application choices. VLC took over pretty quickly as I began installing applications.


Click on image to enlarge

Internet browsing duties are managed by Rekonq, which is now two releases old. It is therefore a very young project, but very promising looking at how much improvement there was in just 6 months. Rekonq works great, is tightly intergrated, very fast and easy to use. On the down side of things, it's not as stable as the "big names" in the browsing business and lacks important features (automatic spell-checking for a start, but also cloud synchronization a la Chrome-ium/Firefox). In fact, I tend to think these projects are a bit of a waste of time myself, specially considering Mozilla Firefox is fully open source and, thanks to the OxygenGTK project, looks very much native in KDE. Why reinvent the wheel when there is already something available that is THAT good?


Click on image to enlarge

MUON SOFTWARE MANAGER

The brand new software manager suite in Kubuntu 11.10 well deserves a section of its own. Muon is an interesting departure from KPackageKit, and one that I personally very much welcome. As was the case with Rekonq, one could expect Muon to be slow, unstable or short in features, but it does a great job at providing a good looking and performing software manager to Kubuntu users.


Click on image to enlarge

Muon does many things incredibly well, such as:

- Performance. Start times are short, search results are very fast and even application information comes back very quickly. In that sense Muon does much better than old brother's Ubuntu Software Center.

- Information. Not only does Muon provide ratings on applications, it also includes add-on suggestions should the application support them.

- Keep Track. One can easily follow up the installation activity thanks to its interesting History feature.


Click on image to enlarge

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised with Muon. I expected an immature application, but I guess the decision from its main developer to skip Kubuntu 11.04 was nothing but right. I hope Muon continues to be actively developed and improved, for if that is to happen, Kubuntu users will have a software manager that will lead the bunch in the KDE World for a long, long time.

THAT GOOD? REALLY?

As is the case in any release, Kubuntu 11.10 was not free of issues, and I have seen a few crashes here and there, most of which were "one-offs". One issue that I cannot get around of is related to the main menu "edit applications" feature, which allows for customization of application shortcuts, descriptions and icons system wide. I have noticed that, whenever I change an application icon, not only does the change not work, but it will make the application entry disappear from the "edit applications" menu, forcing me to reset to system menu. This is annoying because I love to tweak things and change some of my favorite apps icons, but it can hardly be considered a major thing. Besides, the first month is usually busy bug-fixing time on all releases, so I am sure things will get further polished as we go along.

Kubuntu also suffers from the huge notoriety of its older brother, and the fact that it inherits bits and pieces from a project that is VERY GTK oriented. As such, I was disappointed not to find qt-recordmydesktop, which forces users to have to put up with the GTK interface of this good screencast application. Moreover, and even if Oxygen-GTK is supposed to work for GTK applications, all of them look like crap on Kubuntu 11.10. Anything from GIMP to LibreOffice looks like something was broken.

Still, Oneiric Ocelot it is the most solid Kubuntu release I have used to date. It excels in hardware management, successfully setting up all devices on board, as well as dealing with historically "sensible" features, such as suspend and hibernate modes. I have used it non-stop since I got it, going into sleep mode and then waking the machine up numerous times, and not only did it work perfectly, but Wireless connection always resumed flawlessly (and fast!). Installing my HP 2600n printer was a breeze, literally plugged it in and got confirmation of successful configuration after 20 seconds.



In fact, I dual boot on my HP5320m with Windows7, and in so many ways Kubuntu simply blows it out of the water. In boot times it is around 40% faster, but also faster overall in day to day desktop activities. Similarly, hardware support is simply more convenient (even with the Windows 7 license on board being HP tweaked, it took several minutes to download an install my printer drivers), unless talking about a specific device which is not supported by the Kernel. The only bit Kubuntu (and Linux in general) still misses is better power management, a category in which Windows simply rocks thanks to its optimized proprietary drivers.

GO GET IT!

So there you have it, an awesome Kubuntu release that I recommend to all kinds of users.

Download, install and have fun!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Big SELinux improvements to land on Fedora 16

Fedora is a distribution that I am slowly appreciating more and more as I keep using it. Sure, it´s not as polished for home users as other alternatives out there, but it is a great product nonetheless, and once one gets confortable using it, it is a solid and reliable partner. Having said so, I still believe there are significant areas of improvement, such as the already mentioned lack of polish for home users, but also other things, such as performance levels that are not up there with its competition. I am excited to see this performance piece addressed prior to the Fedora 16 release, including promising enhancements in systemd, the complete removal of HAL, but probably most importantly, some much needed improvements in SELinux.

Testing on those improvements has thrown impressive results with significant cuts on boot times as well as applications start up times (for those that rely or interact with SELinux, that is). Dan Walsh has put together an ARTICLE on this, which I recommend reading in full in case you want to get better understanding of what this changes are and what their impact may be. If you are only interested in a high level summary including those impressive figures, though, here it is:

POLICY SIZE

Fedora 15 machine SELinux Policy size (compare the allow and dontaudit values):

$ seinfo
Statistics for policy file: /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.24
Policy Version & Type: v.24 (binary, mls)
Allow: 282444
Dontaudit: 184516


Fedora 16 machine SELinux Policy size:

$ seinfo
Statistics for policy file: /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.26
Policy Version & Type: v.26 (binary, mls)
Allow: 88242
Dontaudit: 11302


BOOT TIMES

Boot times showed similar improvements. Before the change was implemented:

Jul 28 06:39:29 tlondon systemd[1]: Startup finished in 3s 336ms 755us (kernel) + 11s 625ms 240us (initrd) + 28s 189ms 914us (userspace) = 43s 151ms 909us.

Now with the change in place:

Jul 29 06:00:41 tlondon systemd[1]: Startup finished in 1s 844ms 542us (kernel) + 4s 999ms 977us (initrd) + 29s 239ms 766us (userspace) = 36s 84ms 285us.

6.5 seconds faster!.

KERNEL MEMORY

Finally, another interesting piece is a much reduced use of resources. Below you can see the Kernel memory consumption in a Red Hat 6 machine (without these improvements):

RHEL 6

# du -s /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.24
6004 /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.24

Now, Fedora 16 with the changes implemented.

# du -s /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.26
2156 /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.26

CAN´T WAIT!

If these results remain consistent when the final version is released, and if they sit on top of the improvements brought by systemd changes and HAL removal, I think we are in for the fastest Fedora experience ever!

Bring it on already!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Make KDE feel like home for the Firefox

Yes, pretty much anybody using KDE probably agrees that Firefox sticks out inside the K desktop like a drop of milk on black coffee. It is a superb browser and the quick development pace Mozilla has adopted is only making it better in a much faster fashion, but looks are also very important, aren't they?

How about making Firefox look like a native KDE app? Check out the screenshot below!


Click on image to enlarge.

Alright, if you want to achieve the same results, it is actually quite simple. The screenshot above shows Firefox 7 using Oxygen KDE 3.5.1, which you can download from HERE. Once the .xpi file is downloaded, drag and drop it to Firefox Add-ons manager screen and it will get installed. A restart of the application is then required for the new theme to become active.

Thanks to KDE BLOG for sharing this!