Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What´s new in KDE SC 4.10

the KDE project released the first Beta for KDE SC 4.10, which will be released to the public sometime early next year. After KDE SC 4.9, a conservative (in a good way) release whose main target was stability, 4.10 takes us back to the more standard KDE release type, rich in new features.

The complete list of features and changes is LONG, so I will only list a number of highlights here (from the Official dot.kde.org ANNOUNCEMENT):

  • Qt Quick in Plasma Workspaces -- Qt Quick is continuing to make its way into the Plasma Workspaces. Plasma Quick, KDE's extensions on top of QtQuick allow deeper integration with the system and more powerful apps and Plasma components. Plasma Containments can now be written in QtQuick. Various Plasma widgets have been rewritten in QtQuick, notably the system tray, pager, notifications, lock & logout, weather and weather station, comic strip and calculator plasmoids. Many performance, quality and usability improvements make Plasma Desktop and Netbook workspaces easier to use.
  • New Screen Locker -- A new screen locking mechanism based on QtQuick brings more flexibility and security to Plasma Desktop.
  • Animated Wallpapers -- Thanks to a new QtQuick-based wallpaper engine, animated wallpapers are now much easier to create.
  • Improved Zooming in Okular -- A technique called tiled rendering allows Okular to zoom in much further while reducing memory consumption. Okular Active, the touch-friendly version of the powerful document reader is now a KDE Application.
  • Faster indexing -- Improvements in the Nepomuk semantic engine allow faster indexing of files. The new Tags kioslave allows users to browse their files by tags in any KDE-powered application.
  • Color Correction -- Gwenview, KDE's smart image viewer, and Plasma's Window Manager now support color correction and can be adjusted to the color profile of different monitors, allowing for more natural representation of photos and graphics.
  • Notifications -- Plasma's notifications are now rendered using QtQuick. Notifications themselves, especially concerning power management, have been cleaned up.
  • New Print Manager -- Setup of printers and monitoring jobs was improved thanks to a new implementation of the Print Manager.
  • Kate Improvements -- KDE's Advanced Text Editor received multiple improvements regarding user feedback. It is now extensible using Python plugins.

I left out some other things that were highlighted in the KDE announcement that I don't consider that relevant myself. On the other hand, though, there are some features that went by unmentioned that got my attention, specially around the Kwin area. For instance, a change has been merged to get the window menu inside the window decoration, which should make things look much cleaner. I don´t like how the separation between the decoration and the window is made evident sometimes when using wobbly windows, so here´s hope that this change will fix that. Martin Graesslin himself merged another interesting one thanks to which decorations inform the compositor about their transparency, a change that should provide more consistent looks when windows are maximized. Finally, I read not long ago from Martin again that they were looking at the translucency effect. This effect comes enabled by default when dragging windows, and surprisingly they realized it was hungry on resources and heavy on the system. The plan is for that effect to get fixed in KDE SC 4.10 as well.

There are many more things in the works. In fact, looking at the complete list of features, it almost feels concerning that there are so many incomplete items at this stage, specially given the Beta stage we're at. I wonder if all those targeted goals will actually make it into KDE SC 4.10. We´ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Linux Mint 14 "Nadia" released

As it is usually the case, not long after an Ubuntu release, there comes a new Linux Mint release. This time around, we get release 14 and probably the most interesting Linux Mint release to date.

Since its inception, Linux Mint started as a "tamed" Ubuntu, a visually appealing take on Ubuntu with all the nerdy stuff taken care of (codecs installed, full support for all kinds of media, a more relevant application selection, etc.) As it gradually evolved, Mint started to deviate more and more from Ubuntu, very much becoming an entity of its own, which is what we see today.

I have not tested Mint 14 yet, but I plan to soon. Those who have read earlier reviews from me probably know I am not a fan, but I am interested to see what this new release is all about, mostly because there seem to be many appealing new features. To take a quick look at what's new, please visit the official New Features ANNOUNCEMENT page.

After I read that announcement, I must admit I had mixed feelings. It is clear that Mint is developing fast and it is exciting to see Cinnamon grow at such an amazing pace, but it is sad to see yet another Linux project reinventing the wheel. Workspaces? Notification applet? A shy take on activities? Much deeper customization?... This is all KDE!... Why on earth do we need another take on the same idea when it already works (and looks) better on KDE? Like I said before, I have to try it for real before I decide about Mint 14, but I would be hugely disappointed if it ends up being a watered down version of KDE on MATE.

At the end of the day, I can only imagine what KDE would be like if all the resources and talent from the Linux Mint project actually joined in and a hybrid, much improved project, came out as a result. It is obvious that the Mint developers have talent and push hard to make their ideas come to life, but even more important, they also have more of a pragmatic approach that would fit in perfectly in KDE to simplify things and make them more practical.

...Of course, this is all daydreaming, good thing it is free!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Kubuntu & Xubuntu 12.10 upgrade from 12.04?

Just wanted to throw a quick note here after testing Kubuntu and Xubuntu 12.10 for a few days now. My original plan was to put together a review, but after using them I have noticed so little change from the previous LTE release that I am not sure I would have enough to talk about.

In both cases, all we are seeing are DM updates for the most part. Yes, Xubuntu does include some improvements to LightDM and a few Look&Feel (welcome) changes, but the biggest thing in both cases is a rebase to the latest KDE SC and XFCE versions.

Kubuntu 12.04 allows users to upgrade to KDE SC 4.9 through its Kubuntu backports (which are packaged and updated extremely well and fast) and there are similar workarounds in Xubuntu should a user absolutely need the latest from XFCE. The same applies to applications, thanks to the abundance of PPAs in the Ubuntu universe. Long story short, there is nothing in either case that should lure anybody away from the safety and stability of an LTS release, at least not in my opinion.

In all honesty, after all the news about Blue Systems hiring employees to work on Kubuntu, I was expecting 12.10 to be a big jump in every sense, specially around every area specific to the distro (LightDM by default and an official theme, updated splash screen, more significant Muon updates and features, etc.) Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, so much so that I will be waiting to next release cycle to decide whether I jump off the LTS wagon.

NOTE: For those not using Xubuntu and Kubuntu, or using older versions, I would recommend the installation of the 12.04 LTE release. 12.10 is by no means a bad release in either case, but I think its LTE counterpart is more worth it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Interesting features coming to Fedora 18

After a number of delays in its early stages, the upcoming Fedora release should be available somewhere around December. After the very (in my opinion and experience, that is) amazing and successful Beefy Miracle, Fedora 18 has a tough challenge ahead, specially if it wants to top its predecessor.

I was curious to see what's in store for Spherical Cow (yes, I know, awesome codename) and I must admit I am surprised at the number of interesting things that will hopefully make it to our computers some time at the end of this year. The things I am listing here are a very short list of personal highlights, please see the full list HERE.

  • Changes in default firewall: Seems like firewalld will at last become the default solution come Fedora 18. This was a bit confusing in the past because it was suggested that this change would have been complete by Fedora 17. Nevertheless, a welcome update that should add flexibility and ease of use in an important area.
  • GNOME 3.6 & KDE SC 4.9: Rebase to the latest from both desktop managers. As a side bonus, XFCE 4.10 is also included.
  • MATE Desktop: Now, this is an interesting one... The flagship GNOME Shell distribution bringing MATE (GNOME 2.x fork) with it? I won't read much into it, but I am glad to see Fedora being so flexible and supportive of its user community requests. Kudos!
  • Anaconda revisited: Yes, the Fedora official installer wizard will get a UI revamp. This was much needed and tipped for a Beefy Miracle release by some. I guess it was not ready then, but seems to be now. Bring it on!
  • Update to RPM 4.10: Now, this is one of those critical ones that users will not necessarily notice, but should bring improved performance and stability with it, specially around the software management area. YUM is already quite faster than it used to be, but any improvement is certainly welcome.
  • Active Directory: "Fedora should be able to be used on an Active Directory domain (or other kerberos realms, such as IPA) out of the box. It should be easy to configure domain logins on a Fedora machine, and then it should be intuitive and uneventful to login with those credentials." A must in the corporate realm.
  • Secure Boot: This is an interesting feature that should make Fedora 18 fully compatible with Windows 8 machines.

There are obviously many more cool features coming with Spherical Cow, including further progress in systemd migration, updating Liberation fonts to version 2.0 and many more. I recently posted that Fedora 17 KDE is currently my favorite KDE (and GNOME) distro and will certainly be looking for this upcoming release as a nice Christmas present.

Aside from specifics, I must say I like the approach Fedora is taking lately. Back in Fedora 15 and 16 releases, I was a bit disappointed to see most new features and updates concentrate around administrator and developer areas of interest. It felt like Fedora was a specialist distro only. I am happy to see Fedora expanding and concentrating on standard user areas of interest as well.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dolphin 2.1 and non-resizable places panel icons

Those who have tested or used KDE SC 4.9 will probably be very happy to have upgraded. In my experience, it is the most stable and high-performance KDE desktop I have ever used, even after only one bugfix release. Nothing is perfect, though, and while there is little to complain about here, I must admit I am one of those bugged by the new places panel on Dolphin.

In case you don't know, the masterminds behind Dolphin decided to remove the auto-resize functionality from the panel, a very neat and unique feature that would change the icons size depending on the width allowed to the panel. I always thought that was a great feature, because it allowed me to get the most of Dolphin on different machines with different screen sizes. As it currently is, Dolphin looks a bit ridiculous on my 22 inch display. With so much screen real state, one can easily make the places panel wider and get the most of the gorgeous Oxygen icon theme, all without any significant impact in terms of functionality.

Apparently, some people thought this behavior made no sense and actually made things worse, so it was logged as bug. The Dolphin developers probably felt the same, because they accepted it and changed the behavior to small folders that cannot be resized in any way, as shown below:


Click on image to enlarge

Here's an older version of Dolphin for comparison. The places panel on the left is expanded and its icons are automatically resized to the biggest possible size.


Click on image to enlarge

It seems that lots of people actually found the lost feature as cool as I did and have complained that it is now missing. The good news is that KDE developers will review this behavior and allow resizing back into Dolphin places panel come KDE SC 4.10. Here's the official line from one of them:

"It is planned to make the icon size configurable via the context menu in the future, but this is not possible during the 4.9.x cycle because of the string freeze. Some people will probably ask if we could bring the automatic resizing from KDE <= 4.8 back. I know that many users liked this feature, but others perceived it as a bug. I believe that an option to set the icon size using the context menu will suit everyone."

So there you have it, if you were missing the resizing feature, it will be back (sort of) come KDE SC 4.10. I wonder if auto-resize will ever make it back, but in the meantime, I am happy that some flexibility will be there for Dolphin users in this area.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Another awesome OpenShot update!

Openshot is, in my non-expert opinion, the best overall video editor in Linux. There might be other alternatives with more features on paper, but the lack of stability and/or ease of use often goes hand to hand with those few extra features. Openshot is a very good compromise of both, albeit including some pretty amazing tricks of its own. In practical terms, it can probably fit a very wide population of users and help them fully cover their video editing needs.

The good news is that another upgrade has been published by its awesome developers, once again including some pretty impressive features, but also much welcome bugfixes and improvements in stability.

As they usually say, an image is worth a thousand words... I always wonder how many words a nice video like the one below is worth?

OpenShot 1.4.3 Released! from Jonathan Thomas on Vimeo.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Remember Vivaldi and Plasma Active?

Aaron Seigo, one of the masterminds behind KDE in recent years decided not long ago that it was time for a change. He envisioned an end to end project for an entirely open source experience, from hardware to OS and GUI, a project in which all ends would be tightly tied together. The end user would be in control all the way, using Linux on a fully open sourced device and with PLASMA ACTIVE taking GUI duties. Certainly a noble idea that got lots of people interested earlier in the year, but sadly one that has slowly lost momentum.

WHERE DID IT GO!?

I was one of those pre-ordering the device, but after a few weeks during which things were happening at a reasonable pace, it all went pitch black and quiet. It's been months during which information has been scarce at best, most often made of personal blog posts by Aaron.

THIS POST from Mr. Seigo does a very good job at summing up what happened in recent weeks and months, and why we are still waiting for a release date. I guess anybody, even without the technical understanding can get an idea of just how challenging the work these guys are doing must be.

THE OPEN SOURCE SYNDROME

Despite all those challenges, I must admit I am disappointed at how things have unfolded. I understand all the setbacks, but I simply think there is a big gap here in terms of focus, both business and customer-wise.

Creating a free, open-source, I-code-when-time-allows piece of software is one thing, a realm in which things like understanding that those behind the project are volunteers and can only do so much does fly most of the time. When the project is about a device that has a price tag, the story changes dramatically. However, when it comes to this project, I have the feeling it suffers from that same open source approach, when it really should not.

When the intent is to sell the end result of a project, one has to be extremely conscious about raising the right expectations and delivering accordingly. If that does not happen, at the very least, a very proactive and transparent communication must take place. To this day, the MAKE PLAY LIVE site has not been updated, and having to chase Aaron to his blog to find out what happened is simply unacceptable customer service.

ALREADY AN OBSOLETE IDEA?

The idea of an entirely open source tablet is certainly appealing, but the competition is fierce, specially as months pass and Vivaldi is still in the works. When it was first announced, the specs, price tag and even the format and screen resolution were relevant and interesting. However, the technology World moves incredibly fast and Vivaldi might already be obsolete, even before being released.

With contenders like Google releasing things like the Google Nexus 7, sporting an extremely optimized Android system sitting on top of very powerful hardware, all for just $199, Vivaldi simply pales in comparison. Let's not forget that Android is Linux too, but unlike the Vivaldi project, it is backed by a zillion users, apps, services, etc. Given the same price tag, who would favor a Vivaldi tablet, clearly less powerful in specs and with software that is still very much in development? (The video below shows the new notifications system in Plasma Active, which certainly looks similar to Android's, only more primitive).



WHO WILL BUY IT?

The answer is not entirely clear, I can imagine many reasons why an entirely open sourced project like this one would be attractive, probably more on the hardware side, but I can't see regular end users at the customer end, not anymore. The amount of alternatives grows by the minute, with very appealing combinations of hardware and software like the already mentioned Google Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD, etc., all at extremely competitive prices.

The amount of services, applications, support, not to mention the incredible marketing power behind giants like Google and Amazon, all pose strong challenges to Vivaldi. Unfortunately, the strongest ones come within the project itself. First off, the hardware specs are already rusty, but they can hopefully get updated before release date. Even if they are, though, the software is still very immature compared to the competition, plus the amount of applications, services, stores, etc., are insignificant.

Despite all challenges, though, Vivaldi can break the ice for bigger things to come. All the hard work behind it surely is not wasted time and, even if it does not live up to its original expectations, maybe it can play the role of the first move, the first step towards the introduction of fully open sourced devices in the market.

WILL I BUY IT?

While I can certainly see myself supporting a project of this kind in the future, I must admit I was disenchanted by how things were managed in this case. I understand the enormous complexity of what they are trying to achieve with Vivaldi, but my feeling is that the project leaders didn't. It is alright to go through a learning curve, even if it is steep, but it is a must to assess risks correctly and set the right expectations with your customers, specially in a market as competitive as the tablet one. Unexpected turns are everywhere, shit happens all the time, and that is precisely why a project aiming at selling a device cannot go silent for months, leaving potential customers in the dark, save for a few posts in Aaron's personal blog (come on, really?...).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kwin continues to improve

As I am waiting to get my KDE SC 4.9.1 upgrade on my Chakra box (don't want to write a review based on a KDE SC .0 release), I was pleased to find another Martin Gräßlin blog post about Kwin improvements. We have seen several such improvements lately, the one dealing with Kwin effects which took place as we were reaching KDE SC 4.8 likely being the most significant and obvious to the user. 4.9 incorporates further changes, the most evident being wobbly windows, which shows dramatic improvement over previous releases.

The good news is that such improvements are not stopping, and Martin has shared recently how he's implemented some changes that will improve the translucency effect performance among others. This is great, because translucency is usually a default in KDE implementations, so if it was causing a performance impact, as Martin hints, then a fix will be widely welcome.

Some of the improvements Martin talks about will be implemented as soon as KDE SC 4.9.2. Others will have to wait until 4.10. Regardless of whether those improvements are 1 or 5 months away, they are certainly welcome and will continue to add further polish to KDE as whole.

Martin's article is a bit technical, but those interested in reading the full story can find it HERE.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My favorite Android Apps

After months enjoying my Android Smartphone, I was thinking it is a good time to share which apps I love and use most. In order to try to avoid becoming another one of those "apps of the week" clones, I will concentrate solely on Android exclusive apps and this article will just be a one off. So without further ado, let's get to it!



High end Android phones are at the forefront of technology. Leading the race with awesome, big screens, multi-core CPUs and huge amounts of RAM, these beasts unsurprisingly tend to be energy hungry. The end result is that, even if the newer devices and Android versions are offering battery life that surpasses that of smartphones half as big and powerful, you may find yourself eating your battery entirely in less than a day. Juice Defender is the perfect choice to change this. I have consistently been getting an average of more than twice my standard battery life by using it. These days it is strange for me to recharge my phone before 48+ hours of standard use. A must have.



An iPhone user's wet dream, AirDroid makes managing your phone simple and enjoyable. Forget cables, software or license dependencies and constantly being forced to use and update software you didn't want in the first place. AirDroid only requires a Wifi connection your phone and computer share and any Internet browser of your choice. After that, anything from sending messages from your computer to easily viewing the contents of your phone, remaining battery life, available phone and SD card storage or up/downloading files is easy and fast. Can't afford to miss it!



If you are a music lover as I am and want the power of your smartphone to take its music player closer to what desktop computer music players are, PlayerPro is for you. If you have ever wrestled with iTunes, you surely know the pain of finding/updating album artwork so it looks decent on your device, specially for bands that are not very popular. Similarly, something as simple as wanting to read lyrics to a song requires a process that is anything but intuitive. PlayerPro removes all these barriers while adding top notch features. Updating album artwork from your device is as easy as it gets, just tap and hold, find the artwork from any of the sources provided (Internet likely being the main one) and update it, simple as that. Same applies to lyrics, which can be viewed and/or downloaded with just a couple taps. A powerful EQ and FX suite, Artist and Album info/reviews and even the ability to play video are the icing on the cake for this incredible music player. As good as it gets.



Still in Beta stages but already very solid, VLC comes to Android to stay, always a good thing. The most powerful Video Player out there will soon rock our Android devices at full throttle, how's that for good news.



Once again sorely missed in iOS soil, a file manager like ES File Explorer can truly make a difference. With a very intuitive interface (albeit a bit too non-natively looking for my taste), one can do all kinds of file management tasks, including multiple-select ones. An ace.



There are many situations in day to day activities that will require your phone to be set to mute or vibrate only. Shush makes this as easy as it gets. Simply lower your phone's volume and the app will pop (even from the lock screen), asking you how long the phone should be put on mute/vibrate. The phone will automatically go back to normal status after the selected time completes.



An entire set of tools in your hands. From a metal detector (!) to a compass, several levels, rulers, sound meter, vibrometer and even distance, width and height measurements, Smart Tools has it all. In fact, I believe it should actually be named something like Magic Tools, it truly is amazing that it can do what it does.



Last but certainly not least, Swiftkey is one of my all time favorite Android apps. Making the most of Android's open spirit, Swiftkey replaces the stock keyboard of your smartphone and takes things to a whole new level. Android 4.1 has made a huge step forward in the same direction, but I still believe Swiftkey is several steps ahead (and miles away from any alternative outside of Android). After a few minutes getting used to it, you will never look back!

As is always the case with these lists, there are many more awesome apps that I have not listed here. These are just a few I use often and find amazing myself, so please feel free to post your own favorites in the comments section.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Back from Holidays!

Yes, officially back in the game after a much deserved holiday. Playing with Chakra now to get a taste of it and of KDE SC 4.9... Review coming soon!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

KDE SC 4.9 available now!

KDE SC 4.9 is in now, timely arriving to its summer date. This release is dedicated to the memory of one of the project's contributors, Claire Lotion:

"This release is dedicated to the memory of KDE contributor Claire Lotion. Claire's vibrant personality and enthusiasm were an inspiration to many in our community, and her pioneering work on the format, scope and frequency of our developer meetings changed the way we go about implementing our mission today. Through these and other activities she left a notable mark on the software we are able to release to you today, and we are grateful for and humbled by her efforts."

KDE SC 4.9 has a strong focus on quality and stability, always a very welcome initiative on any project. In the case of KDE, this is particularly relevant, because it consistently receives negative feedback around a much improved but still shaky foundation:

"The KDE Quality Team was set up earlier this year with a goal to improve the general levels of quality and stability in KDE software. Special attention was given to identifying and fixing regressions from previous releases. This was a top priority because it ensures improvement with each release.

The Team also set up a more rigorous testing process for releases starting with beta versions. New testing volunteers received training; and several testing intensive days were held. Rather than traditional exploratory testing, testers were assigned to focus on specific areas that had changed since previous releases. For several critical components, full testing checklists were developed and used. The team found many important issues early and worked with developers to make sure they were fixed. The Team itself reported over 160 bugs with the beta and RC releases, many of which have now been fixed. Other beta and RC users added considerably to the number of bugs reported. These efforts are important because they allow developers to concentrate on fixing issues."


KDE SC 4.9 is being labeled "best release ever" by its creators, but it may be so in a "quiet" kind of way. While the improvements are there, they are not of the very explicit kind that we are used to (ie, lots of new features). Instead, we should get a much more stable release, one that has received lots of attention to detail, bug-fixing and stability... Benefits that should be "felt", rather than "seen". Personally, I can't wait to get it, it is exactly what I wanted for a long time!

To get a bit into specifics, here's a bit of a summary of what the Official ANNOUNCEMENT had to say:

KDE SC 4.9 incorporates substantial improvements to core elements in Workspaces, such as KWin, Dolphin and Activities. The latter seems to continue its trend to give us more isolation for each activity, this time around allowing files to be activity-specific, thus making the whole concept a lot more attractive and useful. Activity encryption for private tasks is now possible. Dolphin is empowered with more powerful metadata management, as well as versioning capabilities thanks to the Mercurial plugin. KWin incorporates a revamped and improved Task switcher section and better performance for wobbly windows (yay!). Last but not least, Konsole now allows searching for words using KDE Web shortcuts, as well as changing directories from the UI.

In terms of application changes, the most significant fix belongs in Okular, which is now capable of saving and printing annotations in an PDF. Okular becomes even more powerful and is probably the best document viewer available. Kopete also gets a bit of attention (strange, now that KDE seems to be pushing KDE Telepathy one would expect Kopete to be left aside, but I guess any improvement is always welcome).

The idea is that the whole of KDE has been analyzed, scrutinized, then stabilized and improved, which is as good as it gets, if you ask me. How far those improvements have got and whether this is the stable KDE SC we all want remains to be seen, but I can only applaud this effort from the KDE community. Bravo!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Another way to contribute... Maps!

The World of open source software is a vast canvas where everyone can paint. In fact, it is so vast that the easiest thing is to get lost in it and not even know where or how to start contributing. However, if the idea is to put in some effort to help others, there are many projects out there that make it extremely easy to help and efforts are quickly and easily rewarded as one can see the result of one's contribution straightaway. Some are not necessarily 100% open source, though, but if they are open enough that we all highly benefit from them, well, who cares?

In this case, I am talking about Google Map Maker, a powerful and intuitive tool that allows everyone to contribute and keep adding information to the already amazing Google Maps. As demonstrated on the short video below, Map Maker is an online tool that allows users to map anything from a dog park to a winery... to an entire city, all with just a few clicks.



Why Google Maps when there are other alternatives out there, you may ask? Well, aside from the fact it is probably the most widely used solution out there (thus making contributions immediately more relevant and helpful to others), it is also the solution available to all Android devices, so it is a way to help Linux users!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

KDE SC 4.9 is almost here!

A recent post discussing upcoming KDE SC 4.9 release parties made an interesting remark about the nature of the latest from KDE camp. I must admit that, unlike in other recent releases, I haven't been able to find your usual list of exciting new features and that remark may help in clarifying why:

"KDE 4 on it’s ninth reincarnation will arrive at 1st August, making it the stablest, solidiest, snnapiest and quickiest of them all. A HUGE effort was put on polishness, more bugs were squished than I can count, and things got fast, I mean, Really Fast."

Is this KDE SC release what many of us had been asking for, a halt on throwing in new features like there's no tomorrow to get the basics right once and for all? I certainly hope so and, even if polish does not make it perfect, the effort to concentrate on stability and performance is certainly welcome!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean... and more!

The latest version of Google Android was presented just days ago and, being an Ice Cream Sandwich user myself, I have to admit I am excited with what I have seen so far. It seems some people were expecting another game changer, though, another revolution, but the move to build on and continue to expand and improve ICS awesome features is just right, in my opinion.

Google has been criticized heavily because of a lack of stability in their environment, a lack of consistency, which was caused by the rapid growth and development rate. However, with essentially the most advanced set of features on a mobile device, Google decided to get the most of what is good while improving the rest. This also means that developers will have a chance to continue to polish their applications and make revenue out of them without headaches for many months to come. Moreover, while ICS adoption was still SLOW in the first half of 2012, it seems to be gaining momentum quickly and many signs point to a dramatic increase of Android 4.x devices before the end of the year. Most manufacturers have made significant progress in this regard (Samsung FINALLY managed to get it ready for their Galaxy SII users, while many Motorola, Sony and HTC users are getting their updates now), but the addition of very successful devices like the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III should also help renew the Android playground.

...WAIT, A NEW RELEASE AND IT IS NOT JELLY BEAN?

Excitement around Jelly Bean features is logically building up and lots of users wonder when they will get them, but it strikes me as odd that many awesome new things are happening in the background that are somewhat making little or no noise, things that are almost important enough to be considered a release by themselves. This is perhaps due to the fact that Google are not as good as Apple in selling what they offer, or maybe they just don´t want to be, who knows...

In the recent presentation of Apple's iOS 6, we saw a bunch of new features, some OS related, some others very much app related, like the switch to a new Apple Maps system. In fact, looking at the official feature LIST, most new features are actually application specific. In contrast, Google presented Jelly Bean today and limited their presentation to features that are mostly OS specific, leaving others (still very important ones) a bit on the side. However, most Android users received very important upgrades during Google I/O, things that, had they been iOS devices, would be on the front cover of every tech source today. Here´s a short list:

  • Google Chrome leaves Beta and becomes default: Certain improvements in terms of stability and performance made it into what is already the best browser in the Android Ecosystem. It has also become the default in Jelly Bean.
  • Offline Maps: Yes, Google Maps for Android now supports offline maps, an awesome feature which will provide guidance even in places where there is no signal. It is also an amazing thing if you are planning a trip offshore and don't want to be killed by the ridiculous data roaming prices. Forget those paper maps which look like a bed sheet folded a thousand times, all you need is your phone. The fact that the app provides an estimate of the storage space the offline map will use before downloading it is an added plus, so users may choose whether they want to download it over data network or WiFi.
  • Google Earth 3D Maps: Yes, what was presented as the ultimate Wow element by Apple in recent weeks, to hit iPhone devices "sometime in Autumn", is already available for Google Android users. The service is limited to a few big cities (with more to come in coming weeks) and only works on devices with multiple core CPUs (Apple 3D maps will only work on the iPhone 4S and up), but still, it is quite a nice feature and works very well. I will be the first to admit that it is a gimmick more than anything else, though, so in a sense it feels good that Google does not make such a big fuzz out of it.
  • Street View enhancements: I am still surprised that Apple would pull its users out of Google Maps without having an alternative for Street View. In my opinion, it is leaps and bounds more useful than any 3D view, and a feature that is very much part of how I guide myself inside the city when using a map. In this upgrade it has received stability and performance enhancements, as well as the awesome Compass mode.
  • Google+ properly dressed for tablets: This update for Android brings some performance and stability changes, but most significant is the new Tablet specific UI. The mobile phone UI has also been redesigned and it looks a lot better than it used to. Google+ events and full Google Calendar integration were also presented as new features, both immediately available to all Android users.
  • Google Play improvements: Again, a quiet update, but a significant one. Google Play My Apps section now allows users to both update and uninstall apps, which means Android users can do pretty much all there is to software management without even pulling their device out of their pocket/purse. No cables, no specific PC required, no Wifi, just access to the Internet. In addition, the list of installed applications only shows those currently on the device, with others that have been installed/uninstalled at some point being listed on a different section.

I own an HTC One X and have enjoyed these updates and more (Google Currents and others) for several days now. The changes are significant and, in the hands of other more aggressive marketeers, they would have probably got a pseudo-release status. The real release was Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean", though, and it was rightfully getting all the attention.

ANDROID 4.1 "JELLY BEAN"

Yes, Google I/O set the stage for the actual new Android release, version 4.1. Even if it was deemed "a dot release", it is still impressive and packed with features, which probably justifies why all of those impressive updates went by somewhat unnoticed. Now, I could put together a list of features and try to explain them, but I surely wouldn't do as good a job as Google themselves, so check out what's new in Jelly Bean HERE.

Aside from the great results obtained by project butter (which should finally put to bed those dumb arguments claiming the iPhone was better solely because its interface was "more fluid"), I believe the most amazing new feature is Google Voice search and Google Now, which together will give Siri more than a headache. Here are a couple videos, the first one showing a comparison between the two and the second one putting Google Voice to the test:





So contrary to what some people say (can't never be satisfied, can they?) Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is quite an impressive release with tons of surprises. Instead of throwing a bunch of gimmicks out there for the sake of getting a standing ovation (although I must admit some features are definitely impressive), I love how Google has decided to essentially stay on the same version 4 infrastructure while polishing rough edges and improving the product all around. If we add that to the application and Google Play updates that have been released as part of Google I/O, the Android experience for Jelly Bean users will surely be incredible!

NOTE: Please note Android 4.1 has not been officially released yet, so take demonstrations as just that for now.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

200 Followers... THANK YOU!

Just a quick note to express my gratitude to all of you following my blog in any way, shape or form. I am extremely thankful for all the support I get from you, all of the comments and feedback. Thank you!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Google Earth and Maps revealed

As we have come to expect from any Apple announcement, the recent presentation of iOS 6 features has made an awful lot of noise. One of the changes that I found interesting (and crazy, if you ask me) was that Google Maps was no longer going to be the default map service on Apple devices starting with iOS 6.

When I heard this news, I didn't think it was such a deal. I must admit I didn't understand the depth and complexity of Google Maps service and how far much it has developed in the few years it's been available. Luckily, Google released a video that shows a bit of history, how the service continues to evolve, how it can be of help in ways way more significant than getting directions and how we all can help improve it through Map Maker. It is a lengthy video, but I believe it is one of the most interesting ones I have seen in a long time, very much worth watching:



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fedora 17 Review (KDE & GNOME)

A few weeks have passed since it was released and since then, I have been using Fedora 17 'Beefy Miracle', both in its KDE and GNOME disguise, almost exclusively. It is therefore time to share my impressions... Does it really fit a miraculous outfit? Read on and find out...

DOWNLOAD AND INSTALLATION

Fedora continues to honor the CD size limit with its ISO images, which is a choice I appreciate. Images of such size obviously take shorter to download, plus users have a number of alternatives to burn them into. On top of that, sticking to CD size forces distro builders to limit the amount of default software included, something I favor myself because I know what I want in my installation, don't necessarily need every piece of open source software under the sun.

After my Fedora 16 FIASCO, I didn't even allowed Fedora to run the guided installation for me. Instead, I manually chose a partition setup of my own. Problems with Anaconda defaulting to GPT disk labels was part of why I took that approach, but also the fact that I wanted Fedora 17 KDE and GNOME to sit on the same box, so the partition layout needed a bit of customization. Long story short, installing in this fashion went smooth and I found no issues. GRUB2 was successfully set up automatically after the installation, conveniently displaying both installations at boot. As a side note, I can confirm that the rumors I heard about the Anaconda UI getting a revamp for Fedora 17 turned out to be just that, rumors. Anaconda is as ugly as ever and it feels rusty and obsolete when compared to other installation wizards, specially Ubuntu's. It does get the job done, of course, but I feel there is vast room for improvement here.

FIRST LOGIN AND IMPRESSIONS

After the usual Fedora Plymouth splash screen, which remains unchanged after several releases, we get to the respective GDM and KDM login screens, both of which are fitted with Fedora 17 default wallpaper. GNOME seems to have the edge here, presenting a more modern looking login screen that incorporates animations, shows the list of users available in the system and feels more intuitive and easy to use overall.

The default desktops look alright. Fedora artists continue to deliver, in this case taking a less obvious interpretation of the distro code name than they had previously, which is welcome. "Beefy Miracle" is a funny nickname, but any obvious interpretation of it would go horribly wrong as a default desktop theme, so artists looked somewhere else and threw in some fireworks, as shown below in KDE and then GNOME flavors:


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Aside from those wallpapers, though, and the KDM and KDE splash themes, Fedora looks are pretty much stock in both DEs. Luckily for us users, there are tons of great things in this release to talk about, other than looks.

The first thing I found in both cases, maybe not that all surprising on release day, was a bit of a shaky vibe to them. Both felt a bit unstable, lagging and freezing temporarily several times. All problems went away after downloading system updates, though, and when the smoke cleared, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall stability, performance and the superb hardware recognition in Fedora 17. Everything in my computer was correctly configured automatically, no need for extra drivers or any manual configuration, and that includes Wireless, sound and webcam.

Fedora developers have indeed done a superb job at putting together this release. It is powerful, full of features and edgy software, plus it maintains the rate of improvement that started a couple releases ago. SELinux is less intrusive than ever and it can hardly be noticed in terms of performance, but it feels good to know it is there. Talking security, Fedora 17 incorporates a new Firewall setup, which allows for changes to be applied on the fly. Sweet, gotta love the extra security, specially when it is easy to work with.

All of these improvements and more are there in Fedora 17, which makes for a very robust and worth trying distro. In a sense, I think Fedora had to up their game, specially after witnessing the huge step forward Precise Pengolin has represented for Ubuntu. The way I see it, Beefy Miracle represents a similar step in the right direction, even if I still see room for polishing rough edges.

THE GNOME SIDE

Even if KDE is getting lots of love by Fedora developers, GNOME is probably their baby, so we should expect a great (if not the best) implementation of both GNOME 3 and GNOME Shell. Fedora 17 does not disappoint, and with the help of all the latest improvements in GNOME 3.4, it excels at what it does. Long gone are the days where GNOME Shell was lacking flexibility or was hardly customizable. After just three releases since GNOME3 went live, the potential in the design architecture of GNOME Shell has not only brought tons of extensions and themes, but also made it easy for forks like Cinnamon to exist and evolve very quickly.


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The screenshot above is my default desktop, which hopefully shows how beautiful GNOME Shell can get with just a couple touches here and there. In this case, the Faenza Icon Theme gets along well with the Elementary shell theme, both accompanied by a nice wallpaper. If you hate those chaotic desktops with a million icons on them, GNOME Shell can help, I love how clean it looks, it truly helps to focus on the task at hand.


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Notifications are equally not intrusive, which comes particularly handy when one is working and something disruptive like a chat window appears. In GNOME Shell, that comes up as a very discrete notification, which in addition can be used to reply if so the user wants. Sweet.

With the help of extensions, which allow for pretty much any missed functionality to come back, and some of the latest GNOME 3.4 brilliant additions, Fedora 17 is simple yet powerful. I particularly love the Online Accounts feature, which provides perfect integration with my Google cloud stuff in one simple step. The system calendar in the panel shows my Google Calendar meetings and events, the Contacts application displays all of my Google Contacts correctly and most importantly, it works as it should both ways. If I create a meeting on Evolution, it will update correctly on my Google Calendar. Unfortunately, support for Google Tasks does not seem to be implemented yet.

There was a lot of talk about GNOME Shell making things difficult (by that I think people simply mean "different"), but that is truly not the case. Using the good old Ctrl+Alt+Del key combination will bring the shutdown dialog. Clicking on the hardware shutdown button or closing the lid will suspend the system, as one would expect, so all the bashing around having to hold the Alt key to shut down the system is pointless in my opinion.


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Key combinations come in handy, and once one gets the grasp of the shell, it is difficult to find something that can work faster or more efficiently. For instance, let's say a user wants to open system settings but doesn't know the actual application name. Likely to come from a Windows background, such user could think of using the term "Control Center" to find system settings... Well, all it takes is just one single keystroke on the meta key to open the Activities menu, type "control" and voila!, system settings shows up in the search results. Of course, if a user has no idea of what the name of the app is, s/he can browse them all or filter them by category, just like they would on a standard menu. Another great feature is that, thanks again to the great online accounts app, the shell search is capable of searching through contacts, even online docs stored in Google Drive.


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GNOME Shell is, in my opinion, a great desktop manager. What people most commonly complain about (i.e., lack of flexibility and features) simply represents the learning curve that is there in every single UI in existence, as well as maybe denial of what the project was set to achieve with the shell. I believe the biggest problem in the adoption of GNOME Shell came from users who were incorrectly assuming it was GNOME Classic with a face lift. GNOME Shell represents a new paradigm in desktop management, one that brilliantly overcomes many of the burdens users have found for decades, while at the same time presenting an interface that finds a good balance between the needs of a touch interface and the traditional mouse and keyboard. Once again, as with any other UI, it takes a bit of effort to learn its quirks, but once passed that point, it excels in many ways. It should be obvious, though, that it will never be able to do something it was purposedly designed not to. In other words, the lack of customization options and emphasis on eye-candy are not shortcomings, but rather features of a UI whose target is to make things simple and stay out of the way so that users can concentrate on being as productive as possible.

Fedora is indeed empowered by many of the great features in GNOME Shell, but it also suffers from some of its shortcomings. In my opinion, the biggest one is very inflexible and poor energy saving, which is critical on portable devices.


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Out of the area of influence of the DE, Fedora 17 GNOME has also some strengths and weaknesses. I find it particularly falls short in the GUI software management area, thanks to a rather poor software manager. Users coming from more sophisticated alternatives, such as the Ubuntu or Linux Mint's Software Center (actually, about anything one can think of is fancier than gpk-application), will feel like they traveled back in time. The natural tendency then is to rely on the wonderful yum package manager, but that obviously implies command line usage, immediately making Fedora GNOME an advanced user distro in this department. On the bright side, though, yum runs faster than ever now, I am impressed!

I briefly mentioned about improvements in SELinux and Firewall setup, both of which are welcome, but I guess I would expect their UIs to get a bit more love, at least be ported to GNOME3. The firewall one specifically, even with its own wizard for beginners, is quite un-intuitive. For instance, the confirmation that the firewall is running is a small text string at the bottom left corner of the window, which appears to have been designed for users to miss it.

Fortunately, Fedora 17 GNOME shortcomings are few and, perhaps with the exception of power management, shouldn't be too hard to work around. In any case, they should be compensated by the fact that users will be using a very robust and secure distro with a great implementation of GNOME3.4. Software is very up to date and, with the help of RPM fusion, also very safe, for almost anything users will ever need can be downloaded from the repos. Last but not least, Fedora 17 brings its users GIMP 2.8 by default!


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THE KDE SIDE

I had not reviewed GNOME 3.4 yet, and that's why I went into detail (somewhat) above. However, I have already DISCUSSED KDE SC 4.8, including its shortcomings, so I will concentrate on what is unique to the Fedora 17 implementation here.

The first thing I realized is that Fedora 17 may as well be the purest KDE experience there is out there. Unlike Kubuntu 12.04, which failed to deliver its promise to include Telepathy and Calligra by default, Fedora managed to do it, even sticking to Konqueror as the default web browser.


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The whole KDE PIM and Semantic Desktop suite of apps are also included, as do many of the most popular names in the KDE application catalog, including Marble. Now, this "pure KDE spirit" is not necessarily good or better than a different approach, but I guess it can be considered a feature for those seeking a desktop clear of any significant GNOME influence.

Unlike its GNOME cousin, the KDE implementation of Fedora 17 does a much better job at GUI software management thanks to Apper. Software updates are correctly and timely notified and clicking on them works as expected (heard that, Muon?), which is something many distros don't get quite right.



Clicking on the notification icon will bring, as should be expected, the list of updates, which can then be easily applied.


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Installing applications is also very convenient and intuitive, looking good at the same time. In case you didn't notice, yes, that's Java 1.7.0 that is available in the Fedora repos. One strange behavior is that the icon set in Apper categories does not seem to pick Oxygen icons, using the default GNOME counterparts used by default in Fedora GNOME, which obviously doesn't help it look better.


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Users get notified when applications have been installed and can run them straight from the installation dialog.


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THE BEST KDE IMPLEMENTATION... NOT!

Software management has indeed improved in Fedora 17 KDE, but the biggest improvement, at least apparently, revolved around KDE PIM and the Semantic desktop. Fedora 17 was the first KDE distro I had ever used which managed to run (almost) all of those components successfully without eating my machine CPU in the process. For the first time ever, thanks to the google-akonadi libraries, I was able to get all of my Google contacts, meetings, tasks and mail working in Akonadi and for the first time, it was all apparently working without a struggle. Unfortunately, it was not to last.


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The screenshot above shows how it was all working without putting any significant stress on my machine. However, after shutting down my machine and booting the day after, it all went back to the usual horror story. I was getting 15%-20% CPU usage from Akonadi alone, which considering my machine is a quad-core Intel i5, is A LOT. Aside from gmail IMAP and SMTP, all other components stopped working and no longer synched, they were just apparently trying to synch forever.

Unfortunately, that was not all, because I kept getting crashes on virtuoso-t every 2-3 minutes. A few more minutes passed and I just decided to shut all of it down, Nepomuk, Akonadi, etc. Fedora 17 looked like the ultimate KDE implementation, but after a short while it was just showing the same problems I have seen in any other distro to date. In fact, Fedora seems to have more issues than others, because those crashes from the virtuoso process are not common.

On a different set of things, Fedora 17 KDE also benefits from this release new features, including GIMP 2.8 straight from the official repositories.


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Similarly, the improvements to the system firewall are also there, so both KDE and GNOME flavors are equally secure.


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STEADY IMPROVEMENT

Fedora 17 is yet another solid step forward. As should be expected, though, Beefy Miracle is fully aligned with the distro's mission, offering plenty of features and current software, as well as other interesting bonuses like GIMP 2.8 with the by now infamous single window interface. Ease of use and stability are not within the top priorities of Fedora, so users will still find some rough edges and may suffer the consequences of living in the fast lane, so starters might benefit from sticking to other alternatives. Any other user, from those not afraid of the occasional tweak to full blown experts, will surely enjoy what Fedora has to offer. Finally, the choice of GNOME Shell or KDE is down to personal preference, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed by some elements in the implementation of the latter.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Linux and Android meet again

After many very busy days where I couldn't find a minute to post anything, things start to get back to normal. Unfortunately, I have had no option but to delay some reviews I was working on, but I hope I can share them in the next few days, Ubuntu 12.04 and Fedora 17 among them.



Today I wanted to share some interesting news about Android and Linux, good news in fact. Most people claim Android uses the Linux Kernel, which is not incorrect, but not that many know that the Linux Kernel had dropped Android support since two years ago. Fortunately, Linux Kernel 3.3 embraces Android back and is the first release to include its drivers after that long gap.

Being a big fan and user of both Android and Linux, I am happy to see them reunite. Hopefully the issues that set them on different paths are now solved and their unity truly translates into more strength.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fedora 17 released!

Fedora 17 "Beefy Miracle" was released today... yes, better late than never, I guess!!

Instead of going through features or anything like that, I'll let the Fedora project leaders and developers present it themselves, in this neat little video. Enjoy!



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Eternal Night

Since I just wrote a review about Ubuntu Studio, I thought it would be good timing to share what I am doing with it and how accurately it fits its "Linux for creative humans" slogan. In order to display just a tiny bit of what can be achieved using the amazing software included with Ubuntu Studio, I put together a video including one of my songs and a very simple demonstration of what OpenShot can do with the help of Blender (needless to say, I am as far from an expert on those two as one can be).



The video includes images of my very humble studio, as well as some of the gear I use to record. I hope this provides some insight into what I do and how far you can go with this software if you let it take your creativity to new grounds.

For those into Audio Production, I recorded all drum tracks directly from Hydrogen into Ardour. All other tracks are real instruments either mic'ed (mostly the acoustic tracks and some guitar solos), or recorded direct from my POD X3. All of the mixing and mastering was done in Ardour. All effects come from the pre-installed LADSPA effects.

Hope you enjoy the video and the song!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ubuntu Studio 12.04 Review

Shortly after I started using Linux in late 2007, I realized one of the biggest challenges before I could leave Windows behind was to find an alternative in the open source World to record my music. After a bit of research, I found about Ardour, Hydrogen, Jack, LADSPA and so many other great apps that were already available in Linux. I also found about the need of a low latency Kernel, so I needed an easy way to get all those ingredients installed in an simple and convenient packaging, something I found Ubuntu Studio covered well. For me, it was a natural move, given that Ubuntu was the distro I started with, so since April 2009, I was a happy "Ubuntu Studio-er".

One of the reasons I had not updated my Ubuntu Studio 9.04 installation was that the recent past of the project had been a turbulent one. The previous release went through lots of trouble, as could be read in the official Ubuntu Studio 11.10 RELEASE NOTES. Essentially, the team behind the distribution almost disappeared, the transition to XFCE was far from complete, a low latency Kernel was nowhere to be found... Things were upside down, leaving last October´s release in a difficult position. Surprisingly (and it was a very happy surprise, I tell you), it seems things are now better than ever (sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom...) and this new LTS release has lots to offer. Here´s a list of some highlight features:

  • Live-DVD
  • GUI-based installation
  • lowlatency kernel installed by default
  • i386 images use the lowlatency-pae kernel
  • XFCE is default desktop environment
  • Pulse Audio <-> JACK bridging enabled by default
  • New theme, icons, and default font
  • New LightDM and Desktop background/backdrop images
  • Documented work flows/new application choices provide better user support
  • Menu restructured for better work flow support
  • ARandR included for improved multi-monitor functionality
  • mudita24 replaces envycontrol24 for ice1712 chip audio interfaces
  • Long Term Support release (3 years)

Right after reading those features and knowing how good Ubuntu and Xubuntu 12.04 had proven to be during my testing, I couldn´t wait to start downloading and testing Ubuntu Studio as well!

GET INTO THE STUDIO

One thing that concerned me was that I had a perfectly working system in Ubuntu Studio 9.04 and there was always a question mark on whether 12.04 would still provide support for my hardware (a simple, but old, M-AUDIO 1010 LT PCI card). On top of that, it had been years since I did all the configuration on 9.04, so I was not all that confident that I would remember what had to be done to get 12.04 moving with all my Ardour and Hydrogen projects.

One of the many new great features in Ubuntu Studio 12.04 is the ability to run it as a LiveDVD, which allowed me to see my hardware was still fully supported. In fact, I have to say hardware support, just like in Ubuntu 12.04, is stellar: everything was correctly detected and configured on my desktop. The 1010LT soundcard was no exception, but most impressive was the seamless integration in the sound applet from the notification area, which would make it a breeze to change the default hardware audio output for different media applications. On top of that, of course, the LiveDVD allowed me to take a quick tour and check the vast array of applications included, as well as the new and attractive looks of the debuting XFCE desktop manager. Long story short, I had found what I was looking for and it took only a few minutes before I was clicking the install button.

INSTALLATION AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS

As with any other x-buntu distro released back this April, the installation is superb. Quick, intuitive, only asking relevant questions and leaving the confusing bits aside, mature and stable. Thanks to the ability to download updates during the installation, I got a fully updated Ubuntu Studio desktop right off the bat, albeit taking longer than an "offline" installation would have, of course.

The Ubuntu 12.04 splash screen is beautiful, impressive, looking very professional and sharp. Unfortunately not like it is the login screen, which looks a bit archaic, even if sporting a beautiful background image. Just as it is the case in Xubuntu, the LightDM theme in Ubuntu Studio is far from being as sleek as Ubuntu´s. Hopefully we will see improvements in this area come future releases. If not, thanks to the reduced complexity of LightDM, changes to the background picture, login window theme and fonts are fortunately quite simple.

The desktop uses the same background as the login screen, incorporating a few changes from the GNOME Classic days. All in all, the default theme, fonts and icons look OK. However, since I love customizing things to my needs and Look&Feel means a lot to me, it didn't take long before I started tweaking. Conky, a change in fonts and the lower panel, plus the Faenza icons theme, all sitting on top of a better fitting wallpaper, put a smile on my face pretty quickly.


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APPLICATION GALORE

Unlike Xubuntu, Ubuntu Studio 12.04 leans towards GNOME in its applications of choice, so it is no surprise that Nautilus handles file management, instead of XFCE´s Thunar.


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Another departure from Xubuntu´s defaults is the text editor of choice, good old Gedit.


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Aside from a few minor differences, though, the similarities with Xubuntu are obvious. This should come as no surprise since both are using XFCE now. A good example of those similarities is the identical System Settings tool.


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The Audio Production application catalog is full of candy. Mudita 24 quickly helped me manage my 1010LT input and output levels, while Jack gave me a hand in choosing the hardware interface and adjusting connections. I still get an old issue at times, when my two audio cards seem to battle to take the first spot (HW0) at boot, making my default Jack setup fail. Choosing "default" in Jack Interface drop-down menu didn´t help, unfortunately. Now, I know there is a fix to this which involves hard coding which interface should go in first, but I was hoping this would be managed automatically at this stage. Oh, well.


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I quickly fired Hydrogen (testing version 0.96) and loaded one of my songs. Of course, I had to go through the tedious task of mapping instrument layers, but I was happy to see some new features that made my life a little easier when recording. All in all, though, Hydrogen is still poor in several areas, the user interface being the one I probably have more problems with. It does get the job done, though, and since this is an Ubuntu Studio review, I won´t go on about it.


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I then started Ardour (version 2.8) and was happy to see all looking very much familiar. I loaded some old projects and it all went buttery smooth. I only had to remap connections through Jack to get my drum tracks in, and I must say I am getting the best results ever in terms of latency, with less than 10ms. and almost zero xruns.

The whole thing comes preconfigured with LADSPA effects, mastering tools like Jamin and players like Audacious, among many others. Thanks to the intuitive audio setup, I now find it very easy to master my songs, export them and then check them out through my standard speakers or regular headphones, all without having to switch or change anything on Jack. It´s making mixing and mastering way easier and faster!


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Ubuntu Studio is not focused solely on Audio Production, though, Video, Image Manipulation and Digital Animation are very much part of it thanks to applications like OpenShot, GIMP and Blender. I have no skills at animation, though, so to me Blender is just a great companion to OpenShot for the 3D titles.


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The default Video Player handles a wide arrange of formats, but I find it is no match for my favorite: VLC. Luckily, Ubuntu Studio 12.04 benefits from being part of the x-buntu family and includes a fully up to date version of the great Ubuntu Software Manager, which made installing VLC (just an example) a breeze.


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As can be seen, the application catalog in Ubuntu Studio is impressive, but I think there are better options than Brasero for burning CDs/DVDs, specially in a distro like this, which may take such applications to their limits. Personally, I would have included K3B, my favorite.


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GIMP (which does include all of its plugins by default) I use quite a lot on most of my installations, but it does feel good to have it here, on a dedicated distro. Ubuntu Studio will probably handle all my image manipulation from now on.


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A SINGLE WORD: CONGRATULATIONS!

At the end of last year, the future of Ubuntu Studio looked uncertain, so to see the distro come back to life in such style is a most welcome and impressive surprise. The best thing, though, is that it just starts there, but only truly unfolds when one starts using it in depth and finding how good Ubuntu Studio 12.04 actually is. Its 3 year support resulting from its LTS nature is very welcome added plus.

Aside from the release itself, I think the best piece of news is that the team behind the project seems to be in best shape, which only raises expectations towards better upcoming releases. Yes, there is still work to be done around things like LightDM or a smoother XFCE integration, but looking at what those guys have achieved in such a short amount of time I can only congratulate them and thank them, hoping that future releases will stay this good.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The road to KDE LightDM-0.2

Dave Edmunson, one of the lead developers behind KDE LightDM recently published an UPDATE describing some of the features (and shortcomings) already part of the first KDE LightDM release, as well as explaining a bit of what´s coming along in the next few months for the 0.2 release.

Dave explained how some KDM features are still missing in KDE LightDM-0.1, but in turn, some of the screenshots he´s sharing look very promising. Among others, the benefits of using LightDM is, as its name rightly points out, its relatively low weight when compared with GDM or KDM. On top of that, there are obvious gains in terms of looks and flexibility. To give an example, changing the login screen wallpaper and/or welcome image will be very simple. Along the same lines, things like having the login screen and KSplash incorporating the same wallpaper the user has in her/his desktop should be easier. Inconsistencies between login screen and KSplash in terms of resolution and things of the like should also be out of the way thanks to the common QML thread.

Here´s a picture of the Login screen control module, as it looks today. Note these are early days for this piece of functionality, so chances it may not look exactly like this come future releases:

Here are some early ideas as to how the login screen could look using KDE LightDM.





In my opinion, all looking gorgeous and very interesting. Kubuntu could get KDE LightDM by default come the Quantal Quetzal later this October, certainly a feature to look out for!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Xubuntu 12.04 REVIEW

Most of the machines I use are laptops or tablets, but I also have a desktop that I use for recording my music. On that desktop, though, I have two different hard drives split in three (roughly 250GB) partitions, something that allows me to have different distros installed on it. Since late 2010, that machine had Ubuntu 10.10, PCLinuxOS KDE and Ubuntu Studio 9.04 spread across those three partions available. It was about time I went for a change, for a number of reasons, including the fact that Ubuntu 10.10 recently went out of support (needless to say, so did Ubuntu Studio 9.04). On top of that, PCLinuxOS had been stuck on KDE SC 4.6.5 for about a year, so I wanted a fresh update on all my partitions to get fully supported distros and up to date applications and features.

The first thing that came to mind was to go for Fedora 17 GNOME and KDE on two of those partitions and then Dream Studio on the third one. However, I had doubts about that approach, mostly because of the feverish Fedora tendency to keep updating the Kernel time and again (which may lead to trouble on somewhat old hardware when planning for a 2-3 years installation). Along the same lines, the fact that Dream Studio releases happen several months after Ubuntu ones do meant that I had to wait a few more months if I wanted the LTS release. All in all, I felt it was somewhat risky to go for Fedora, plus I wasn´t willing to wait that long for Dream Studio. Moreover, Dream Studio sports Ubuntu´s Unity, and let's just say it is not what I want to see on my Audio Production setup.

I recently stumbled with the latest Ubuntu Studio release announcement and it quickly grabbed my attention. The lack of a low latency kernel which had put me off in recent releases had been remediated, and a move to XFCE (as opposed to Unity) made this release all the more interesting. Not only that, but the fact that it is an LTS (Long Term Support) release and the huge array of Multimedia production tools available in the DVD made it the perfect candidate for me (expect an Ubuntu Studio 12.04 review soon!.)

I had had very little experience with XFCE, though, so before installing Ubuntu Studio, I wanted to use the opportunity of the recent Xubuntu release to give it a go and learn more about it. Long story short, the experience was so positive that I decided to use it as a replacement for Ubuntu 10.10 on my desktop, which is saying a lot. Kubuntu 12.04, which continues the improvement pace from recent releases, was the perfect candidate to close the circle, taking over PCLinuxOS as the KDE "representative" on my desktop (I will post a Kubuntu 12.04 review in the next few days as well!.)

...SO HOW ABOUT XUBUNTU?

As I was considering Xubuntu, trying to get an understanding of what XFCE could do, I started trying things on the LiveCD, checking configuration options and learning more about its flexibility and power by researching on the Internet. All I found was positive, including immediate, complete and correct hardware recognition and configuration out of the box. It didn´t take long before I made up my mind and went for the installation.

As can be expected, installing Xubuntu is very similar to installing any other X-buntu distro. The installation process is great, smooth, and if running in a system connected to the Internet, it can provide a fully up to date desktop right off the bat (albeit with a significantly slower installation time).

Aesthetically (and I know this is very personal), the default Xubuntu setup is, well... not beautiful. However, the good news is that most of the good old customization that was very easy in "classic" Ubuntu, still is in Xubuntu. Icons, window decorations, fonts, rendering, wallpapers, even Conky, Compiz and Emerald are easily set up and customized. In other words, don´t get too caught up by the initial impression, because it does not take much to make Xubuntu look stunning, as hopefully the screenshots in this article show.


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(Just to provide some background on what I changed, I added the Faenza icon set, the Ambience theme and window decoration and then changed fonts from Android to Ubuntu. Cairo Dock, Conky and a fitting wallpaper complete the list of changes.)

From a functionality stand point, as could be expected from a lightweight DE like XFCE, Xubuntu is very responsive, but also simple and intuitive. The System Settings application is clear and easy to grasp, but in general I would say Xubuntu just makes sense.


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Common settings are right there where most users would expect them to be. For instance, I know it is a small and probably meaningless detail, but I was happy to see window controls (minimize, maximize, close) on the right. Similarly, right clicking on the desktop brings back most of the relevant options one would expect to see.


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Thunar, a fast and no-nonsense file manager is consistent with this simplistic approach. It does lack some features that other more powerful alternatives like Dolphin offer, but it should satisfy most regular users needs.


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DEFAULT APPS

Xubuntu is great in itself, but it obviously helps if the default applications of choice are just as good. In that sense, I have to admit that the preinstalled applications list is full of good and interesting choices, some of which surprised me very positively. Firefox, Thunderbird and Pidgin take Internet browsing, email and instant messaging duties respectively. Music is managed by the impressive GmusicBrowser, which surprisingly loaded my entire music collection without complaining one bit.


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Image viewing is handled by Ristretto.


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Parole is in charge for video playback.


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Office productivity apps Abiword (text processor) and Gnumeric (spreadsheet) are simple and lack some of the features available in more popular alternatives, but in turn they are simpler and more responsive. If, like me, all you use them for is to open a spreadsheet every once in a while, they probably suffice. If not, a quick visit to the Ubuntu Software Center should fix the issue in a few seconds.


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All in all, the set of applications accompanying Xubuntu is consistent with its spirit, sporting somewhat modest yet powerful features, fast and easy to use. If the default set of apps does not fit your needs, though, installing other apps is easier than ever with the latest version of the Ubuntu Software Center, which works great, but I will save my speech for my soon to come Ubuntu 12.04 review.


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NOTHING IS PERFECT

Xubuntu is no exception to the rule, it is not perfect, and I did find my share of minor issues here and there. Here's a short list of the issues I have found so far:

  • Double clicking on the window bar does not maximize windows, even if the window management settings say it should. Not sure if this is a Xubuntu or an XFCE issue.
  • Thunar is lightning fast once it's been run for the first time, but the first run takes longer than I was expecting from such a lightweight file manager. On the same hardware, Dolphin needs less time for that first run under Kubuntu.
  • When booting the system, once I enter my credentials on the Xubuntu login screen, the time to load the desktop is a bit slower than usual with other distros/DEs.
  • Configuring automounting external drives on startup is not possible through the UI (at least I didn't find how), so I had to do a bit of /etc/fstab tweaking.
  • Loading Conky scripts as I ran them in Ubuntu didn't bring the expected results. The Conky window was not below nor transparent, so I had to do a bit of research before I found the right parameters to make it work correctly.

Like I said, minor stuff, but maybe someone can benefit from sharing my experience and issues.

UBUNTU FOR THE NOSTALGIC

Moving from Ubuntu 10.10 (sporting Classic GNOME) to Xubuntu 12.04 was extremely easy, pretty seamless. Ubuntu users who feel alien to new desktop paradigms brought forward by the likes of Unity or GNOME Shell, will feel right at home with Xubuntu. In fact, given it incorporates many of the latest Ubuntu improvements and features, as well as a set of apps that bring a fresh take to daily tasks, I would say many will feel positively surprised after giving Xubuntu a go. Personally, I can only recommend it, for it has truly surpassed my expectations.

NOTE: I do enjoy the new desktop paradigms GNOME Shell and/or Unity propose and I use both regularly. This article is by no means opposing or demeaning those alternatives, it´s just that XFCE and Xubuntu are a great alternative as well and that´s why I encourage using them. In other words, I have no interest in getting into the "A is better than B" discussion that is usually around when talking DEs. The way I see it, most are good in one way or another.