Tuesday, February 28, 2012

REVIEW: Chakra 2012.02 "Archimedes"

"Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth", said Archimedes. Can Chakra Linux move the Linux World? At the very least, it is a clear example of how a young project can grow and improve fast, becoming more interesting release after release. Let´s have a look at its latest release, Chakra 2012.02 "Archimedes"

MEETING ARCHIMEDES

This last Chakra release is one of the first distros to incorporate KDE SC 4.8. This already is a plus and a good reason to try Archimedes, for KDE SC 4.8 is awesome, but there is a lot more to this release than that. Here's a brief list of features:

- KDE SC 4.8.0
- Linux 3.2.2 (2.6.35.14 optional)
- Qt 4.8
- DVD image, including all locales and a nice selections of apps
- minimal CD image you can build your desktop on
- tomoyo-tools 2.5 added to a default install, for more security options
- wqy-microhei became the new default font for Chinese/Japanese/Korean
- QtWebkit 2.2.1
- Boost 1.48, switch to GRUB2


Click on image to enlarge

This release is the first to incorporate a minimal CD image, and that is the one I have installed and will be reviewing. Note that this minimal image is not meant for beginners, but I would still recommend it to anyone interested in building a taylor-made KDE desktop. It's also good for anyone interested in learning more about KDE, the packages that comprise its modules, etc.

Aside from the features I have already listed above, this release of Chakra comes with new artwork, which includes everything from the splash and login screens to the wallpaper and plasma theme. This new artwork has been dubbed "Ronak". It looks interesting, certainly setting Chakra appart from other KDE distros out there. Personally, I love the fact that the Chakra developers have made an effort to provide something different and stylish, but I am no fan of dark desktops. I love the splash and login screens, but the wallpaper and plasma themes are a bit too dark and intense for my taste.


Click on image to enlarge

MORE ABOUT CHAKRA

Leaving the features specific to this release aside, Chakra is quite an experience from the get go. The installation is handled by Tribe, Chakra's very own install wizard. The project developers clearly state Tribe is still under development, lacking some important features, but it is surely one of the best looking installers in Linux, one with its own personality, plus it already works well. One thing I have noticed, though, is that Tribe doesn´t seem to handle installation of locale and language settings very well. In my case, during the installation I chose Madrid as the city I live in, but specified I wanted the installation language to be US English. Every distro I have tried so far always managed this successfully, but in the case of Chakra, I get some quirky results when installing applications or managing system tools... For they appear in Spanish! (see pacman output below)


Click on image to enlarge

Some applications like KTorrent, VLC and some others (not all) were installed in Spanish, so I had to force them to start in English. If you have a similar problem, you can enforce a certain language using the following syntax in your launcher (or typing from the CLI):

KDE_LANG=en_US ktorrent (or any other KDE app you want to do this for)

Other things unique to Chakra include the splash screen, which is a departure from what other distros are doing. It uses a nice animation around the Chakra logo that looks simply beautiful. Just like the splash screen, the login screen makes the most of Ronak, and it looks just as good.


Click on image to enlarge

Chakra comes with its own firewall application (screenshot above), which allows for easy firewall configuration. Another bit that sort of defines Chakra is its commitment to KDE and, more specifically, to avoiding any GTK libraries in the installation. This results in a curious approach to installation of GTK apps (such as Firefox, GIMP, Google Chrome, Chromium or Inkscape, to name about a few), which is handled via Chakra´s very own Bundle Manager.


Click on image to enlarge

This approach is interesting and works well and upgrades are automatically detected when they become available (see above). However, it has some definite issues, for the complete lack of GTK libraries sometimes leads to unfortunate dead ends. For instance, installing Kfilebox will download the Dropbox daemon, but due to the lack of any GTK library, the dropbox setup has to be done through the command line interface. Similarly, if you are into bash scripting and rely on zenity or any of its forks... well, forget about it, Zenity is nowhere to be found... Looking for an excuse to migrate your scripts to kdialog? On top of that, while the Chakra developers have done a good job putting together a list of GTK most popular apps in the Bundle Manager, it is clear that the list is far from complete. What if the end user wants to install one of the many apps that are not included? Chakra users have limited freedom in this regard, which may end up being frustrating.

On the bright side of things, Chakra guarantees a "pure" KDE environment, free of any GTK "polution", which should be appreciated by some. Personally, after using Fedora KDE, PCLinux KDE or Kubuntu quite regularly (which do include GTK libraries when required), I cannot really see much of an advantage in such approach, but I am sure some people will.

A BIZARRE KISS

Chakra follows the KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) principles, so the expectation is to find a desktop that is easy to use right off the bat. Rightly so, even in the minimal CD image, Chakra comes with a whole bunch of codecs and plugins installed, which will allow users to be able to play about any kind of multimedia content in existence. Flash is included with the browsers that can be installed through the bundle manager. Default applications include Rekonq, Bangarang, Kate and just a few others, which is aligned with the spirit of a minimal installation. The bundle manager which allows the installation of GTK apps is also included, but there is no GUI software manager. It is surprising that certain basic apps like Ksnapshot or Kwallet are not included, and even the gtk-integration package is missing (which will make GTK apps look TERRIBLE).

Like I was saying, this is a minimal installation, so the gates are open for the end user to decide about anything, which is cool, but there is always a question around what are the basics that absolutely must make it into such minimal image. Personally, I would have included a few more things that I consider absolutely basic. Like it or not (if not, the extended DVD live image is the answer), Chakra will allow you to build your KDE desktop from the ground up, which is an enlightening experience, but once again, not recommended for beginners.

Living the minimal image discussion aside, there are some things that I find strange about Chakra. For example, it deviates from pretty much any other KDE distro out there and assigns the ctrl+alt+del key combination to a quirky symbol (see below on the krunner plasma dialog), as opposed to the good old shutdown dialog that we are all accustomed to. Similarly, the print key will not trigger ksnapshot (not even on the DVD version), so users will be forced to reassign it if they want the usual behavior back. I don't quite understand these strange choices, specially in a distro which claims to keep it simple.


Click on image to enlarge

Another unusual thing is that Chakra does not include any folder in the user home folder, except for the desktop. This is OK for those who want to create everything down to their own needs and taste, but I find it a bit extreme. It´s alright to leave certain folders out, like Public, Video or Pictures, but others like Downloads are pretty much a must, specially because most Internet browsers default to that folder when downloading files. Regardless of how you look at it, what is simpler, to ignore folders you don´t need or to be forced to create those you do need? Hmmm...


Click on image to enlarge

On a similar note, I find the default application catalog quite weird, specially considering Chakra is a KDE only distro (which I was assuming would evangelize the K desktop). Why then leaving so many KDE native apps out of it? Most of KDE PIM is nowhere to be found and many other popular KDE choices follow suit.

READY TO MOVE THE LINUX WORLD?

All in all, I believe Chakra is a very interesting and promising young project. There are some rough edges that I believe need polishing, but it is a good distro overall. I am not crazy about the fact that they seem to be reinventing the wheel in some ways (there is ongoing work to create its own package manager and GUI), plus the lack of any GTK support may cause issues to some users, but I think there is a relevant place for Chakra in the Linux World. I don´t see Chakra ready to take on the "big names" just yet, but it is getting there and with the right decisions, it may well be ready to sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ubuntu for Android

Now, how absolutely COOL is this?



I think this is probably the most exciting move by Canonical in years...

EDIT: Thanks Mohammad for the new link!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Meet The Spark

This is one of the most exciting posts I have published in ages, The mighty Spark is closer and closer and now, pre-order registration is open!

THE SPARK

So, never heard of The Spark? Time to get to know it! Aaron Seigo started publishing some posts recently about a new project he was about to get involved, one so profound that it was a bit of a paradigm shift in his life. I was intrigued by those almost phylosophical articles, which brilliantly built up to a higher note, which as it turned out, was the introduction of the Spark.



The Spark is a device, but most importantly, it is the result of a great move by the Plasma Active developers, which have bravely decided to contact hardware manufacturers to create their own device. Using Aaron's own description of The Spark:

"It sports an open Linux stack on unlocked hardware and comes with an open content and services market. The user experience is, of course, Plasma Active and it will be available to the general public. The hardware is modest but compelling: 1GHz AMLogic ARM processor, Mali-400 GPU, 512 MB RAM, 4GB internal storage plus SD card slot, a 7" capacitive multi-touch screen and wifi connectivity.

I'm sure some of you are already wondering what the retail price will be. The answer: a mere €200."


Like I was saying, this is way more than just a tablet. As Aaron himself rightly puts it:

"This is more than just another piece of hardware on the market, though. This is a unique opportunity for Free software. Finally we have a device coming to market on our terms. It has been designed by and is usable by us on our terms. We are not waiting for some big company to give us what we desire, we're going out there and making it happen together. Just as important: the proceeds will be helping fuel the efforts that make this all possible."

Aaron also published a very short video showcasing (note that this is NOT a product demo, more like a proof of concept) how things are coming together:



LEARN MORE

Aaron has been publishing lots of very interesting information around The Spark lately, so I very much recommend stopping by his BLOG (which includes plenty of FAQ answers) as well as the project own WEBSITE.

PRE-ORDER YOURS NOW!

Interested? No wonder! Pre-order registration is now open, so head up THERE and let the project leaders know of your interest. This will allow them to gauge interest and allocate the right amount of resources.

I have already pre-ordered mine... What are you waiting for?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pardus is no more

2012 is not bringing us Linux users much to cheer about so far. To the recent sad news on Mandriva and Kubuntu, we can add now the end of Pardus, a Turkey based project that was doing a great job putting together a user friendly KDE distro.

For more information, please check THIS and THAT statement from some of the project (ex)developers.

Texstar to step down temporarily

Bill Reinolds, a.k.a. "Texstar", the main developer behind PCLinuxOS, recently published in the distro forum that due to some health issues he's been forced to step down and hand over duties. From his own forum post:

"Making some changes around here. The Dr. says no more PCLinuxOS for me for a while cuz I've been doing way too much and ran out of gogo juice. Sooo I'm turning over lots of duties to others. Neal and Old-Polack will be taking care of business and others in the community will be stepping up to handle packaging, ISO's and other goodies. Please be patient until everyone can get up to speed on things ok?

I'll continue dropping in on the forum from time to time, and helping the team if they have questions or need advise, but for now I'll be leaving the day to day management of PCLinuxOS to Neal, Old-Polack, and the rest of the team. Please treat them all with the kindness and respect you've always shown me. I'd appreciate it.

Thanks a lot!

Tex"


This is unfortunate news for sure. First and foremost, I wish Texstar a prompt recovery. As for PCLinuxOS, well, sounds like its future is in good hands.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Which one is for you, GNOME or KDE?

A few months back, when Fedora 16 was about to go live, I thought it would be a good idea to compare the latest from KDE and GNOME back to back, not only under the same hardware, but also under the same distro. I thought Fedora would provide a perfect scenario for both contenders to show their strengths, specially considering that 3.2 was the first major update to get to the still young GNOME Shell. Unfortunately, I faced a number of problems with Fedora 16 which I have already discussed here, which put the whole comparison idea to bed for a while.

Recently I decided to give Fedora another try and, after using a couple workarounds, I was been able to install both the GNOME and KDE Verne impersonations on my HP 2740p tablet. After working quite consistently with both for some time, I realised that the article I had envisioned didn't really make much sense. Yes, there are many things that differentiate KDE from GNOME, but both have got to the point where they offer great results, so an in depth comparison wouldn't really work in practical terms.

In reality, GNOME and KDE mostly differ in terms of the approach they take to achieve the same goal, a great desktop manager. Is one better than the other? I really cannot say, to be honest. Long gone are the days when GNOME was way more responsive and stable, where many KDE applications were not up to par. Both KDE and GNOME offer end users a great set of tools to do a huge array of things, so it really boils down to two different philosophies that will appeal to two different types of users. The way I see it, it is quite easy to draw comparisons between these two and two types of cars.

THE FANCY SPORTSCAR

Yes, KDE is like a fancy Italian sports car: Beautiful, stylish, powerful and ridiculously customizable, still unorthodox, not the most reliable and a bit of a rebel at heart. The enthusiastic KDE user, like the wealthy collector who owns a fancy Italian sports car, enjoys the car and the journey every bit as much as getting to his destination. It's not all about getting from A to B, but about the experience. It is fantastic to sit back and enjoy the roaring of that beautiful Italian engine, to step out of the car to witness it in all its beauty, to play around with its hundreds of gadgets... and if a problem happens every now and then that delays getting to our destination, it's all part of the experience, forgiveable.

Just like that, KDE sports a beautiful desktop, amazing effects, window decorations and a million and one options available a few clicks away. It also includes many powerful applications and an edgy approach, but the sometimes quirky workaround or the seldom crash are never too far away.

THE JAPANESE UTILITARIAN

Along the same lines, I think GNOME is a bit like a trusty utilitarian. Practical, rock solid, optimised for productivity, barely customizable, but totally ready to get to the destination quickly and safely. In this case, getting there is what matters most, the journey is, well... secondary.

GNOME's first aim is to stay out of the way to allow the end user to become as productive as possible. The applications included live by the same rules, and while customization and looks are definitely there, they take a back seat to stability and productivity.

WHICH ONE IS FOR YOU?

Personally, while I have trouble digesting some of its shortcomings, I tend to enjoy KDE better. Not only do I have a ball reshaping my desktop to my heart's content, I simply have to admit it has improved leaps and bounds and some of the many original concepts it was set to push forward (activities, the semantic desktop, plasma, etc.) are finally coming together. In addition, the project has some great applications such as Kate, Akregator, Gwenview, K3B or Amarok and thanks to the rapid QT development, it is always improving fast. KDE is a very live project, with a personality and goals that are anything but orthodox, and I kinda like it that way.

GNOME, on the other hand, is perhaps a bit more mature, a well-rounded idea built around the concept of removing all obstacles between the operating system and whatever the user is trying to accomplish, and in that regard, it excels. If I had to set up a professional environment, I would probably go with it. Its shell is optimised for productivity, and everything from notifications to system settings are designed to distract users as little as possible. Fancy effects are gone and crazy customization options have simply disappeared. Things just work, so users can concentrate on the task at hand. Features like the new accounts setup, where simply entering your credentials to Google (for example) will be enough to set up the system calendar, inbox and address book, are a bliss. Unfortunately, things like this one are not solid in KDE, sometimes not even working at all, which is a shame.

So there you have it, two fantastic desktop managers with two very different approaches towards the same goal. It's not so much about which one is best, but about which offers more of what you are after. Which one suits you best?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Is Kubuntu in trouble?

Wow, what a busy time! I can barely find a break to keep up with Linux news and share them here. Hope the smoke clears soon so I can finish some of the reviews I started before they stink too bad.

Today I want to share some sad news coming from Kubuntu camp. Jonathan Riddell, the sole developer Canonical funded for the development of the project, explained:

"Today I bring the disappointing news that Canonical will no longer be funding my work on Kubuntu after 12.04. Canonical wants to treat Kubuntu in the same way as the other community flavors such as Edubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu, and support the projects with infrastructure. This is a big challenge to Kubuntu of course and KDE as well.

The practical changes are I won't be able to work on KDE bits in my work time after 12.04 and there won't be paid support for versions after 12.04. This is a rational business decision, Kubuntu has not been a business success after 7 years of trying, and it is unrealistic to expect it to continue to have financial resources put into it."


Worrying comments indeed. Jonathan goes on about how the Kubuntu project needs to adjust and do some things differently if it is to be successful (survive!). I see reasons to be positive in that Kubuntu 11.10 was an entirely community supported release, and it is the best Kubuntu yet, but I think it would not be smart to ignore the challenges that this decision from Canonical will bring to the Kubuntu project.

Personally, I wish the best for Kubuntu, it is currently one of my favorite distros and has a lot of potential in front of it. Let's hope it lives on and does so healthy and strong!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Best Advice

"Open Advice is a knowledge collection from a wide variety of Free Software projects. It answers the question what 42 prominent contributors would have liked to know when they started so you can get a head-start no matter how and where you contribute."

Ever thought of giving your own two cents back to the open source World but didn't know how? The Open Advice initiative is a great way of sharing experiences, do's and don'ts from a number of experts. I very much recommend downloading it and reading it, and if you really want to start giving back now, buying a printed copy. Whatever your choice, start HERE.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

About Fedora 16

Before Fedora 16 was released, I was quite excited about all the features that were being planned for Verne. I was looking forward to installing both the GNOME and KDE versions on the same computer and test each back to back, under the same hardware and OS. Unfortunately, I had my share of ISSUES, and that kind of put me off a bit.

After a while testing other distros, I had some spare time and decided to go for Fedora 16. Like I said, I tested GNOME and KDE back to back, but before I go on about that comparison (which will be an article in itself), I wanted to share some of my impressions on Verne, both from KDE and GNOME perspectives.

THE GOOD

There is a lot of good in Fedora 16, lots of new features that will make noticeable differences both for users as well as for administrators. In my opinion, the most noticeable (and welcome) is performance. Both flavors of Fedora 16 feel significantly more responsive that previous releases and, while this is perhaps something that we should have expected after reading the release new features/enhancements, I must admit it exceeded my expectations.

Fedora 16 boots faster than most distros I have tried recently, but what's even better is that such speed is consistent throughout, even with SELinux policies enabled. I consider this a major step forward, for I had always felt Fedora was somewhat slow compared to other distros. At the end of the day, I often ended up tweaking SELinux policies to make them more permissive or disabling them altogether, but that was obviously defeating the purpose of using SELinux in the first place.

Another relevant step forward is the addition of Apper, a much needed update on packagekit that finally provides Fedora with a software manager worth using. In the past, I always found packagekit so slow that it was useless to me, which meant I would go with yum and forget about it. Apper is significantly faster to start, update repositories and complete installations and updates. It still falls short on social interaction (no comments, rating, reviews available), but it does what it should do and does it well. Interestingly enough, in my testing Apper worked much better under KDE, the GNOME version still feeling too slow.

Standard users will probably not notice a lot more over previous releases, because changes such as the removal of HAL may have an impact, but nothing obvious to them. There is plenty of interesting stuff in store for administrators and developers, though. As is usually the case, there are tons of updates in terms of programming languages and compilers. What is most relevant, though, is the availability of Virtualization, Cloud and remote control tools, a must these days. OpenStack, Pacemaker-Cloud, TigerVNC or Matahari are examples of such applications/tools.

All of the usual Fedora strengths remain intact, such as very up to date software and the latest features in the open source World.

THE BAD

It is precisely that bleeding edge nature of Fedora that can bring unpleasant surprises. Fedora is not shy about it and it does state it in its foundations that:

"We recognize that there is also a place for long-term stability in the Linux ecosystem, and that there are a variety of community-oriented and business-oriented Linux distributions available to serve that need. However, the Fedora Project's goal of advancing free software dictates that the Fedora Project itself pursue a strategy that preserves the forward momentum of our technical, collateral, and community-building progress. Fedora always aims to provide the future, first."

Which is a way of saying that investing in future technology is more of a priority than long-term stability. That is all good, of course, but it shouldn't be understood as an excuse to release changes that can have an impact on stability without the right levels of information.

Now, since Fedora 11, I have always installed this distro the same way. I would download the ISO, create a LiveCD-USB out of it, complete the installation with the default options and that was it, I was ready to enjoy Fedora. Up to Fedora 15, this part of the process was always easy and flawless in my experience. Come Fedora 16, though, the default installation rendered my machine useless, for my BIOS couldn't even find the OS. The decision to substitute DOS partition tables with GPT ones by default simply screwed up my system.

After investigating a bit, I found a small note in Fedora Wiki that explained this change, but there was no warning during the installation at any point. Not a single shred of information about this new default partition table layout, something I consider quite critical in an installation. I personally believe this was a terrible move by Fedora, because while I applaud the will to be at the forefront of Linux development, that does not exclude any responsibility towards users.

In my opinion, a change of this nature should have been handled differently, there are many options:

1.- Have Anaconda auto-detect if the target machine BIOS supports GPT partition tables, revert to DOS partition tables if not.

2.- If option 1 is not technically viable, then use DOS partition tables by default, informing users that GPT ones are available and that testing them is recommended, obviously informing about the risk of doing so as well.

3.- If option 2 is not good because that would delay the testing of GPT partition tables, at the very least warn users that such change in Anaconda's default installation process took place and what its consequences may be.

Any of those options (there are obviously many more) imply an interest in users and their experience with Fedora, which I think is a must for any distro builder. Simply releasing something as critical as a new default partition table policy hoping that users are going to read all the release notes and Wiki is a bit irresponsible in my opinion.

THE UGLY

These are the days of smartphones, tablets and touch interfaces. There are many different models, sizes and brands, but there is one factor that all of them have in common (or at least try to): Beauty. Apple has demonstrated that pretty devices and OS, even if more expensive, can sell crazy figures and become people's favorites. I wonder then, why is this idea sometimes so overlooked in the Linux World?

Take Fedora 16, for example. Even with the gorgeous GNOME and KDE desktops on top, there are still little things that simply look ugly. Starting with Anaconda, there is plenty of room here to make something not only pleasant to the eye, but simply current looking. Fortunately, it seems a makeover is due next release. Similarly, most Fedora applications, such as the user management one, still use their own icon theme and look old and anything but native. On a different note, given that Fedora creates its own set of wallpapers for each release, why not add a button so that users can easily download them? There is also room for improvement when it comes to documentation and help aids, which are nowhere to be found in the default desktops. Small details like these can make a big difference in terms of end user experience.

IN SHORT

Once past the initial installation problems, Fedora 16 is clearly worth it. Standard users will notice performance benefits while administrators and developers will again find plenty of things to have fun with. Personally I would like to see more interest on end user experience and support, as well as on polishing aesthetics.