Introduction

Adam wearing Ubuntu t-shirt

This is our account of using the Ubuntu, Lubuntu and Debian computer operating systems, as well as Puppy Linux and other free software.

On we acquired a used Dell PC to run the Linux-based Ubuntu 7.04 on, while continuing to run Windows XP on our other PC.

We had several motivations for trying out Linux, as you will read here, including being very, very unimpressed with Windows Vista as a potential replacement for Windows XP, when its mainstream support ended on 14 April 2009. We wanted a second computer anyway so both of us could work at the same time and trying out alternatives to expensive commercial software turned out to be a good idea.

Because of our success in using Ubuntu, on we reformatted our remaining Windows XP computer and installed Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on it, going Windows-free.

We haven't missed Windows at all, in fact we have been far better off without it, Linux is free, works better, is more stable and doesn't run viruses or spyware. It does everything we want to do and has been a perfect solution for our computing needs.

This is the second page of our Ubuntu Diaries and describes our experiences with Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin, plus some side trips into Lubuntu 10.10, Lubuntu 11.04, Lubuntu 11.10, Puppy Linux 5.2.8 and Debian 6.0 as well. You will have to go to the bottom of the first page that covers Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn to Ubuntu 10.04 LTS Lucid Lynx, to see the beginning of the story.


Entries




HTML5 Video Codecs

By Adam Hunt

As I had noted before in my reviews of Midori 0.5.8 and Epiphany 3.6.1 both these browsers, installed on my laptop, lacked the ability to playback HTML5 video, producing just errors.

In asking around I managed to figure out that wasn't a fault with Midori, Epiphany or even the WebKit rendering engine, but it was because the laptop didn't have any codecs installed. I had omitted installing the ubuntu-restricted-addons or ubuntu-restricted-extras packages to avoid the non-free and troublesome Adobe Flash player. The Midori website FAQs described the the issue, but was very vague about what I needed to install to get all the HTML5 video formats working right.

To determine what I needed, while still avoiding installing Adobe Flash, I looked up what was included with ubuntu-restricted-addons and ubuntu-restricted-extras by picking the exact package for my release and downloading the ubuntu-restricted-addons_16.tar.gz and ubuntu-restricted-extras_59.tar.gz tar balls, which are just installation lists and then reading the lists. I combined the two lists of what I wanted and then ran:

$ sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly gstreamer1.0-plugins-ugly gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad gstreamer1.0-plugins-bad gstreamer0.10-ffmpeg gstreamer1.0-libav gstreamer0.10-fluendo-mp3 gstreamer1.0-fluendo-mp3 chromium-codecs-ffmpeg-extra gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad-multiverse libavcodec-extra-53

Installing those video codecs from the Ubuntu repositories allowed HTML5 video to work in Midori and Epiphany, as well as enabling H.264 support for Firefox too!

It is worth noting that for future releases of Ubuntu that list will vary, so each time you have to go get the tar ball lists for the specific version of Ubuntu you have and figure out what is needed, but you only have to do it once per installation.


The Midori 0.5.8 Web Browser

By Adam Hunt

I last had a look at the Midori browser back in when it was in version 0.3.6, and, at that time it wasn't very good, although it had good potential. Just recently I checked out the version that is available for Ubuntu 13.10, which is Midori 0.4.3 and it is an improvement, but it is out of date. For some reason the version of Midori available in the Ubuntu repositories hasn't been updated in two years and four Ubuntu releases, which is odd, because Midori is under active development, with new versions being regularly released.

As I noted in my last review, the development team keeps an active PPA that is easy to install and gives the latest Midori version, which is currently 0.5.8. All you have to do is run:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:midori

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webkit-team

$ sudo apt-get update

and then run the Ubuntu Software Updater and it will be installed.

Midori 0.5.8 adds a lot of good functionality over earlier versions and is well worth installing. It is available for both Linux and Windows.

This WebKit based browser is light, fast and easy to use. It scores 367 on the HTML5 test, which is the same as Epiphany 3.6.1. It also suffers from the same HTML5 video problem that Epiphany 3.6.1 has, in that, even though it supports all HTML5 video formats, no HTML5 video will run on it. Because both these browsers are WebKit-based, perhaps it is a WebKit issue?

Midori 0.5.8 does have a lot of good features. The interface is clean and straightforward. It handles tab overflow in a similar manner to Firefox, compressing the tabs to some extent and then moving them off the page with arrows to access them. This latest version also has full bookmark management: you can import from an HTML file, add, edit and remove bookmarks at last.

The new tab page is a "speed dial" feature much like that found on Chrome, Firefox and Epiphany, with the big difference that it doesn't collect recent pages there, it allows the user to define the pages displayed. This is far better than any other browser and easily makes up for the lack of a bookmarks bar.

A new feature is a trashcan icon, which allows reopening closed tabs, something Epiphany could use. You can manually clear browsing data, or you can set it to drop the data automatically when you close the browser, which is a handy feature.

The default search engine in Midori 0.5.8 is DuckDuckGo, which works well for me as that is my favourite! Google, Yahoo, Google translate and other options are presented when searching from the URL bar, which gives nice flexibility. Of course any search engine can be called up if it is in your favourites, just by starting to type the name in the URL bar.

When I tested Midori 0.3.6 Google Docs wouldn't work in it. I am not sure if it is the move to Google Drive or the newer version of Midori, but it works fine now.

In three days of testing Midori 0.5.8 had fairly good stability, with only one lock-up, grey-out and crash. This is a great improvement over previous versions I tested that crashed often, making them fairly useless.

In testing RAM usage on four standard web pages Midori scores very well:

Browser Comparison

Browser

Epiphany 3.6.1

Firefox 28.0

Midori 0.5.8

RAM used 163 MB 168 MB 140 MB

Midori 0.5.8 has some built in extensions that can be turned on by going to Preferences→ Extensions. One I tried, which I actually like, is called Colorful Tabs 0.5 which colours each tab with a key colour from that webpage, making them easy to identify.

Those are the good aspects of this current version, but there are still a few complaints:

HTML5 video support
HTML5 video support doesn't work
Bottom chrome
This is a very minor complaint, but there is an unnecessary area of browser chrome at the bottom of the window. This is used to display the URL on mouse hover-over, but most other browsers that used to do this now use a pop-up box for the URL and leave this space for displaying the web page.
Tabs tear off too easily
Just like in Google Chrome, you have to be very careful moving tabs on the tab bar, as they tend to tear off unintentionally.
Random new tabs appear
Sometimes when opening a quantity of new tabs from Ctrl+click, additional new tab pages open, which then have to be closed.
Spelling still only partly supported
As with Midori 0.3.6, when completing forms spelling errors get underlined, but there are no correction suggestions available. This means that if you don't know how to spell the word you are reduced to using a search engine or similar to find out how to fix it. Spell-checking is fully implemented in WebKit, so this seems to just be a user interface problem that needs some attention.
Password management
Midori 0.5.8 still does not remember passwords, which greatly reduces its usefulness. One danger is that some users may just reuse the same password over and over to make it easier to remember, which is a poor security practice.
Google Calendar
Midori won't load or display Google Calendar, which is actually something I use, so this is a showstopper for me.

Overall Midori has come of age with this release and can now be recommended for use. It still has a few features that need adding, like proper spell-checking and password management, but outside those two features it is fully functional. As a result I have now added to my Best of Free Windows Software DVD as an alternative browser to Firefox.

Update -

I managed to figure out why Midori 0.5.8 won't play HTML5 video. It isn't a fault with Midori or even WebKit, but it is because the laptop I had it installed on didn't have any codecs installed. I purposely didn't install ubuntu-restricted-addons or ubuntu-restricted-extras to avoid the non-free and troublesome Adobe Flash player. Installing the video codecs from the Ubuntu repositories allowed HTML5 video to work in Midori 0.5.8! More about this in the article HTML5 Video Codecs.

Update -

I figured out how to block cookies from certain sites from being loaded, by activating the cookies manager extension.

The bottom chrome bar I had noted above can be hidden with Ctrl+J.

Update -

Apparently password management on Midori can be handled with KeepassX and the problems of Google Calender and other websites not working with it can be handled by editing the user agent string.


Linux Distro Put-Downs

By Adam Hunt

I run into a lot of people, particularly on Diaspora, who are Linux users, but who insist on putting down other people's choice of distros. Typically it is "holier than thou" stuff, as in "my distro is freer than your distro", such as "Debian sucks because it is possible to install Flash on it", but I have seen attacks for other reasons as well. This attack is pretty typical.

A lot of users seem to like to attack Ubuntu, most usually because it has committed the one greatest unpardonable sin in the Linux world, it has a achieved a good degree of success being the distro of choice for the French government, the Indian courts system and Wikipedia's servers, to name just a few of its high-profile users.

Unlike with Mac or Windows, which only have one current version each and consequently no real choice of which one to use, Linux and BSD users have tons of choice. DistroWatch currently lists 219 main Linux and BSD releases, plus there are hundreds of others, too.

My approach with Linux and BSD distros has always been that there are many distros, some are good for some people, some are good for other people, but none are right for everyone, which is why it is good that there are lots of choices. All Linux and BSD distros are good in their own ways, all have some drawbacks, but all are right for someone, so I don't put any Linux distros down. Every time people get into putting down other people's favourite distros it contributes to one reason why many Windows users won't switch, because no matter which distro they might think of switching to, someone will say "it sucks". So people stick with Windows. Every time you put down one distro you are hurting the whole movement.

External links

Is Ubuntu Spyware?

By Adam Hunt

It has now been 15 months since Richard Stallman posted his article Ubuntu Spyware: What to do? on , accusing Ubuntu of being spyware. In that post he says:

Ubuntu...has installed surveillance code. When the user searches her own local files for a string using the Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu sends that string to one of Canonical's servers...Ubuntu uses the information about searches to show the user ads to buy various things from Amazon...the ads are not the core of the problem. The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it...Ubuntu allows users to switch the surveillance off. Clearly Canonical thinks that many Ubuntu users will leave this setting in the default state (on). And many may do so, because it doesn't occur to them to try to do anything about it. Thus, the existence of that switch does not make the surveillance feature ok...Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users...don't install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.

I noted Stallman's claims in my article Ubuntu 12.10 and the Amazon Shopping Lens Controversy and also reviewed the improvements that have been made in the feature over time in my article, Ubuntu 13.10 on the System76 Pangolin Performance. There have also been many words of both support and rebuttal to what Stallman said, but to my knowledge he has never published anything else on the subject since nor retracted it, so presumably his views still stand. So given that, here on the eve of the release of Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, which will include the dash searches for the first time in an Ubuntu long term support release, I wanted to examine whether Stallman is right about Ubuntu or not.

As of Ubuntu 13.10, the latest release, here is what the dash web search function in Ubuntu does. When you search from the home lens (not the applications or files lenses, which are both always local searches only) it sends your search string to Canonical's servers which anonymize it and send it to which ever outside websites you have selected. These include Amazon, Wikipedia, etc. By default it sends to all. When the search string results are returned to Canonical they are returned to the user's Unity display, anonymized in both directions. If a user buys something from Amazon or one of the other commercial search results then Canonical gets a commission on the sale, which it uses to support Ubuntu development. The dash web searches are on by default on installation of Ubuntu and can all be turned off with one switch at Settings→Security & Privacy→Search. The searches are also explained during Ubuntu installation and there is a complete legal notice that explains how they work in Settings→Details.

Many Ubuntu users like the Unity dash searches and leave them on. Some people, including me, don't find it helpful and turn it off. I prefer to do my searches from a search engine on my browser. I tested the dash search feature in Ubuntu 13.10 and you only have to turn it off once and it stays off.

That is what the Unity searches do and how they work, the question is: "is this spyware?"

The American Federal Trade Commission has a consensus definition of spyware that was developed in 2005. To be considered spyware software has to meet all three parts of the definition:

Spyware

In the case of the Unity dash search feature it does collect data, but it is not installed without the user's knowledge or consent, in fact it can easily be turned off and configured by the user. It also does not cause the user any demonstrated harm.

So is Stallman right that Ubuntu is spyware? No.

Update -

In an interesting announcement by Canonical’s Michael Hall this week it seems that the searching from Unity scopes is going to be vastly different in Unity 8. The concept is that you will do external searches from a special scope, currently bizarrely called the "Scopes Scope", which will then give you a list of places to search. You have to opt-in to pick one to search, such as Amazon or Wikipedia. This should put an end to any complaints, as all searches will be user opt-in each time you search.


Okular PDF Reader

By Adam Hunt

Okular is the PDF and document viewer for the KDE desktop. It was suggested as an alternative to Evince as it is cross platform and available for Windows and Mac as well as Linux. Okular is free software released under the GNU General Public License Version 2.

Installing Okular is simple, but it takes a while on a Gnome-based desktop as there are 23 dependencies to install, a total of a 62 MB download! That is a lot just to get a PDF viewer!

In viewing PDFs Okular works very well and also supports a wider range of formats than Evince, including:

Okular is more resource-intensive than Evince is. In opening the same 1.1 MB PDF document in both Evince and Okular, Evince used 31 MB of RAM, while Okular used 52 MB.

Overall Okular looks like a good document reader and should perform as well on Mac and Windows, although it does require installing the KDE 4 environment, which makes it less attractive to install to just get one PDF reading application.


Is Sumatra Free Software?

By Adam Hunt

Sumatra PDF is a PDF reader for Windows only, that since 2008 I have been including in my Best of Free Windows Software CD/DVD.

My CD/DVD contains only free software and I had been working under the impression that Sumatra is free software, released under the GNU Public Licence V3 which is what the Sumatra code website says.

It recently came to light in a post by Free Software Foundation Europe representative Heiki Ojasil, that there are complications, in which he said,

"Recently, the PDFreaders.org team has removed a PDF reader called SumatraPDF from the list of free PDF readers due to presence of non-free code in the software. We were notified of the problem by a community member and have attempted to resolve this with the developer. Unfortunately, they have not been receptive to our arguments, and hence we have been forced to take this action."

The problem is that, while the Sumatra code itself is free software under GPL V3, the application also incorporates the unrar utility which is under an "all rights reserved" freeware licence. This makes Sumatra overall "freeware" and not "free software".

Sumatra is still a good PDF reader that reportedly works well in its current versions, but it is not free software.

As a result of learning about this situation I have replaced Sumatra on our Best of Free Windows Software DVD with the Windows version of Evince. Evince is released all under a GNU General Public License and thus is all free software, retaining only free software for my giveaway DVDs.

As a result of this incident I have now added licencing information for each application included in my Best of Free Windows Software DVD. I hope this will give users a bit more confidence that the DVD is all just free software.


The Nikon L27 Camera and Video Editing

By Adam Hunt

Every since I got my new Nikon Coolpix L27 camera I have been taking sample videos and testing them out to find the best way to edit them.

The camera shoots video in high definition (HD) 12:9 ratio 1280x720 px format. It is also capable of shooting VGA 4:3 ratio 640x480 px video and 320x240 QVGA as well, all at 30 frames per second. The lower formats are acceptable, but the HD is amazingly high quality video.

As noted earlier, the best part is the codecs the L27 employs, MPEG video and uncompressed 16-bit PCM audio, all in an AVI container. This is a great improvement over my old Nikon L20 camera and its problematic mu-law audio.

I tried out editing these HD videos in Kino 1.3.4 and discovered that in converting them to DV format for editing it changes the aspect ratio to 4:3, changes the frame rate to 25 fps and seriously degrades the quality, making it a poor choice for editing. Kino hasn't been under development since 2009 and is starting to show its age, as it just doesn't handle these new videos very well. Kino 1.3.4 is the last version available.

Next was Pitivi 0.15.2, but it just endlessly crashed opening and editing clips. I monitored the RAM and CPU usage and it never came close to maxing those out, so I am not sure what is causing the instability. Pitivi 0.15.2 remains pretty much useless. Hopefully we will get a newer version with Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, although it doesn't look like it today.

That left Avidemux 2.5.4 and it worked surprisingly well. Avidemux imports the HD video easily and smoothly, editing is a breeze and it renders (saves) videos quickly and without maxing out the computer's RAM.

One of the biggest problems that caused me to switch away from using Avidemux was its lack of support for my previous camera's mu-law audio codec. With the L27 camera using uncompressed 16-bit PCM audio, Avidemux supports that and works just fine.

I found the best transition results between clips using Avidemux is to use the fade filter, with a fade out and fade in overlapped and kept to 10 frames overlapping the clip transition point. It still isn't perfect, but produces as good results as Kino does. An alternative is to fade to black out and then in from black, which produces a nice transition. Clips transitions remain Avidemux's weak suit and it would be great check out a new version to see if they have improved it at all, although Launchpad shows Avidemux 2.5.4 will be the version through Ubuntu 14.04 LTS.

I did also discover how to adjust the video output quality on Avidemux as well. This can be adjusted at Video→Configure→Quantizer set to "1" for best quality. The Quantizer provides high quality with lower numbers set, although the default is "26".

Overall I am happy to come back to Avidemux as my best video editor, as it is so simple and quick to learn and use. Compared to other editors it is actually a pleasure to work with. One of its biggest advantages is just how quickly you can create a video with it.

I'll be shooting some more videos this year, editing them with Avidemux and posting them to You Tube, experimenting with what I can do.

Right now it looks like Avidemux 2.5.4 is going to be my choice for video editing on Ubuntu 14.04 as well, but I'll track other video editor versions as April's release date gets closer.


The Epiphany 3.6.1 Web Browser

By Adam Hunt

Installing Ubuntu 13.10 on my System76 laptop gave me the opportunity to try out a slightly newer version of Epiphany, also known as Web in the new Gnome lexicon that also calls Nautilus Files. Ubuntu 13.10 comes with Epiphany 3.6.1 in the repositories and it does incorporate some changes over Epiphany 3.4.1 which came with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

In testing Epiphany 3.6.1 I have found that it retains most of the pluses that I described in Ten Days of Epiphany 3.4.1. The biggest difference is that something has gone wrong in HTML5 support and while Epiphany 3.4.1 will still happily play Vimeo and You Tube videos using HTML5 instead of Adobe Flash, Epiphany 3.6.1 just produces errors instead and both sites refuse to load any videos. This is odd as Epiphany 3.6.1 scores 367/555 points on the HTML5 test and shows no obvious video issues, which is better than the 351/555 that Epiphany 3.4.1 scores. That means that without Adobe Flash this browser is pretty useless on the internet and does little to help me achieve a free software-only installation. Hopefully Epiphany 3.10.3, which is currently slated for Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, will fix this issue.

In RAM usage on a standard set of three web pages, Epiphany 3.6.1 used 156 MB, versus 146 MB for Firefox 27.0 and 126 MB for Epiphany 3.4.1. Firefox is still a lighter-weight browser.

On the plus side this Epiphany version seems to have much better stability and in use over many days I have only seen one crash, which is very good! It also properly supports the Gmail sign-in page and will actually remember passwords for it, which 3.4.1 would not do. That is a definite convenience.

This version also has some new keyboard shortcuts which are useful, such as Ctrl+M for bringing up the personal data dialogue box.

Epiphany 3.6.1 also incorporates a new tab page that now displays "most visited websites" as tiles, instead of a blank page. This is similar to Firefox and Chrome, except that with Firefox you can turn it off and display a blank page instead. Even though there is still no quick means to re-open an accidentally closed tab, the "most visited websites" feature does help in that regard, but only if the page you want turns up there, along with Epiphany's history feature.

Here is the current list of Epiphany 3.6.1 drawbacks:

HTML5 video support
HTML5 video support has been lost since Epiphany 3.4.1.
Non-configurable web search
Google Search is still the default and only offering in Epiphany 3.6.1. All other searches have to be made by calling up the search engine page first, which is merely a minor inconvenience. This has been changed in future versions and starting with Epiphany 3.10 the default search engine will be DuckDuckGo, which works for me!
Saving downloads
All downloads go to the same place, you cannot click to save them in different folders, which is inconvenient.
Auto complete
The lack of auto complete when filling in web forms makes it slow to work on repetitive on-line tasks, like editing Wikipedia.
Inability to quickly reopen a closed tab
Both Firefox and Chrome/Chromium can do this with "Ctrl+Shift+T". In Epiphany you have to open the history "Ctrl+H" and then search for the page to reopen it or hope that it shows up as one of the "most visited websites" tiles on the new tab page.
Auto-closing page find
I used to rate this as a plus and for single searches it often is. As as soon as you click off the page search box, it closes. In the case of repetitive searches on one page, having the box close in between each search is a pain.

I have been testing out Epiphany since version 2.22.2 in 2008 and still haven't found a version that works completely satisfactorily yet. Overall Epiphany 3.6.1 is an improvement over 3.4.1 in all regards except HTML5 support. Unfortunately that is a major drawback and makes it of very limited usefulness, unless you install the non-free Adobe Flash player.

I will be trying out Epiphany 3.10.3, which is currently slated for Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, or a more up to date version, if one is made available.

Update -

I managed to figure out why Epiphany 3.6.1 won't play HTML5 video. It isn't a fault with Epiphany or even WebKit, but it is because the laptop I had it installed on didn't have any codecs installed. I purposely didn't install ubuntu-restricted-addons or ubuntu-restricted-extras to avoid the non-free and troublesome Adobe Flash player. Installing the video codecs from the Ubuntu repositories allowed HTML5 video to work! More about this in the article HTML5 Video Codecs.

I have also found a fairly good work-around for the lack of ability to re-open a closed tab. It is relatively easy to open a new tab and type anything you recall from the URL of the closed tab, such as the name of the website and then Epiphany will display the pages that fit from the history, making it easy and relatively painless to pick it out.

Because of solving these two issues I am able to upgrade my rating of Epiphany 3.6.1 to 9/10. It really only has a few minor squawks that need fixing.


Ubuntu 13.10 on the System76 Pangolin Performance

By Adam Hunt

When Ruth died she left me one of her few prized possessions, her much-loved System76 Pangolin Performance laptop. This computer had been her contact with the outside world during her 99 day stay at The Hospice at May Court and served her very well in that role. Ruth loved having a made-for-Linux laptop. It came with Ubuntu 11.04 and for the longest time it ran Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

After the laptop came to me I decided to see if I could get it running a bit faster as well as clean out Ruth's old files and stuff and so I installed Ubuntu 13.10 on it from a USB stick I made up with the Startup Disk Creator. That procedure worked very smoothly and the installation went quickly and flawlessly. I decided to decline the ubuntu-restricted-addons, including the installation of Adobe Flash and the other non-free software available, making this an all-free software version of Ubuntu. Adding VLC gives me MP3 and Flash playback, through LAME, and that is all I need!

Otherwise I didn't add a lot of software to it, just:

On the Pangolin Performance Ubuntu 13.10 boots up in 36 seconds and shuts down in six seconds, which is pretty good performance.

Ubuntu 13.10 features Gnome 3.8 and so most Gnome applications are in that same series. It also has Unity 7.1.2

Past Squawks

Here is a look at past complaints of some minor things that didn't work in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and information on their status in 13.10:

Gedit spelling
For some reason Gedit 3.4.1's spelling in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS could not be invoked with Shift+F7 as it is supposed to. In Ubuntu 13.10's Gedit 3.8.3 Shift+F7 now works!
Gedit crashes
The Gedit 3.4.1 text editor often crashed when opening files in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Testing shows that this seems to be fixed as well in Ubuntu 13.10's Gedit 3.8.3!
LibreOffice lacks global menus
This was a well-known compatibility issue between LibreOffice 3 and Unity 5 that was scheduled to be fixed in LibreOffice 3 and Unity 7. In testing LibreOffice 4.1.3.2 with Unity 7.1.2, the global menus now work!
GIMP HUD loss of focus
When accessing GIMP 2.6.12 menu items from the Unity HUD, GIMP often loses focus on the editing window, meaning that the HUD shows menus items for another open application that it has focused on instead. In testing GIMP 2.8.6 it still loses focus, so this is not fixed, although it is a very minor annoyance.
Epiphany lock-ups and crashes
For some reason Ubuntu 13.10 offers Epiphany (Web) 3.6.1, instead of 3.8.1 as expected, but in initial testing the stability seems to have improved over Ubuntu 12.04 LTS's Epiphany 3.4.1, as I have only seen one crash so far. Epiphany 3.6.1 also incorporates the new tab page that features "visited pages" tiles, like Firefox and Chrome do. Like Chrome, and unlike Firefox, there doesn't seem to be any way to turn it off if you don't want it, though. Epiphany 3.6.1 also has some new keyboard shortcuts, including clearing personal data with Ctrl+M. This isn't as good as having a setting to do it automatically on closing, but it is a step forward. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is scheduled to have Epiphany 3.10.3 at this point in time.
Pitivi lock-ups and crashes
Ubuntu 13.10 offers the same version of Pitivi as Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, Pitivi 0.15.2, so I didn't bother testing it. Hopefully Ubuntu 14.04 LTS will offer a newer version, Pitivi 0.92 being the current one today.
Brasero features missing
The Gnome CD/DVD burning program Brasero 3.4.1 in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS doesn't work very well. When you select a burning speed it ignores it and burns at maximum speed regardless and this sometimes breaks disks. It also doesn't seem to be able to eject disks or burn multiple copies, even though it is supposed to have these features. These are all fixed in Ubuntu 13.10's Brasero 3.8.0, it writes data and ISO files fine, holds the selected speed and even ejects fine, with a satisfying little ding! With these improvements I probably won't need XFburn, the CD/DVD burning application borrowed from the Xfce desktop. It works very well, but lacks some useful features.

Overall this is all good news, as most of the minor squawks I had noted before in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS have now been fixed in Ubuntu 13.10! Here are some other observations on Ubuntu 13.10:

Update Manager
The Update Manager is now called Software Updater and it has a new icon as well. The new application works a bit differently, but gets the job done well enough.
Nautilus
The Nautilus file manager is now called Files, another one of those new Gnome names that make sense on a menu, but makes it hard to search the internet for the application. The "new" Nautilus (Files) 3.8.2 is much simplified and not necessarily for the better. For instance, the simplified "Connect to Server" doesn't work as well as the old one did. I know that Ubuntu has problems with the simplification of Nautilus and that they may decide to fork it yet to retain functionality.
The Shopping Lens Controversy

In a post on about Ubuntu 12.10 and the Amazon Shopping Lens Controversy I noted that Richard Stallman had labelled Ubuntu "spyware" because it was searching Amazon for dash queries by default. The searches were anonymized through Canonical's servers, but the returned images were not, meaning someone could have figured out local searches from those images. In Ubuntu 12.10 that could only be turned off by uninstalling the lens. Both Canonical and the Ubuntu community developers have been listening to the complaints about this feature and it has been greatly improved since then. Today there are multiple lenses searching dozens of sites, all completely anonymized by Canonical, including any images returned. The internet dash searches are also now explained during the Ubuntu installation, there is a complete legal notice that explains them and it is easy to turn any lens off selectively or all of them with one single selection at Settings→Security & Privacy→Search.

I had a problem with the Amazon Shopping Lens implementation in Ubuntu 12.10, because there was no notice as to what it was doing and no easy way to turn it off, but since then Ubuntu has solved the issue and many Ubuntu users now like the feature. If you don't want it then it is completely explained and easy to turn off. I personally don't find it useful, so with one setting selection I turned it off.

Conclusions

Overall Ubuntu 13.10 is a good step forward over 12.04 LTS and it fixes more than it breaks, which is a good thing.

The upcoming Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, due out on , will largely be just a refinement of Ubuntu 13.10, running Gnome 3.10, but retaining Unity 7. The aim, of course will be to produce a stable, predictable platform for the next two years until the next LTS, Ubuntu 16.04 comes out in .

I am planning to upgrade all the PCs here to 14.04 LTS this spring.


New Camera - Nikon Coolpix L27

By Adam Hunt

Nikon Coolpix L27

It was in October 2009 that our old Panasonic DMC-FZ2 camera died during a trip to Montreal. That camera was nothing but problems from the start, with both quality and service and I would never buy another Panasonic again, as a result. The good news was that I replaced it with a Nikon Coolpix L20, which proved to be an excellent camera for less than half the price of the DMC-FZ2.

The Nikon L20 was completely trouble free and took great stills and videos over the past five years. It finally just wore out from constant use and so I decided to check and see if the Coolpix line was still available. It must have been my lucky day as Future Shop had the Coolpix L27 on sale for about half of the L20's 2009 $139.99 price, just $69.99.

The L27 has many of the same advantages of the L20: small size, light weight, uses common AA batteries and SD cards. The L27 model also offers some improvements over the older L20, including a maximum of 16.1 mega-pixels, compared to the L20's 10 mega-pixels, high definition 1280 x 720 px video and a 5X optical zoom compared to the L20's 3.6X zoom. The lack of zoom was definitely one of the L20's shortcomings.

The use of SD cards means there are no worries about Linux compatibility with the L27. The L20 was always recognized by all our Linux distros, but the cards can also be inserted in a card reader as well.

As a bonus the L27 has free shipping so I ordered it on-line and had it here in three days.

In trying it out the L27 works very well, takes great photos and videos and is actually a bit lighter and smaller than the L20 was. Once connected the L27 was quickly recognized by Ubuntu and mounted. A real bonus is that the L27 produces video audio as "Uncompressed 16-bit PCM audio" instead of the problematic "mu-law" codec of the L20, making it much easier to process videos using Avidemux and other simple editors.

The L27 comes with a very extensive 200 page manual on CD as a PDF file, which is handy. In reading through the manual, it is apparent that it would take a lot of work to learn how to use all the features that the camera offers and I am sure most people just learn to use the few that they regularly employ.

Overall the L27 is very hard to beat at this price. I am now looking forward to getting out and doing some shooting!

Sample Videos

The following sample videos were shot with the L27 in high definition 1280x720 px video and edited with Avidemux 2.5.4:


Flash Video on VLC

By Adam Hunt

Through the wonders of social networking on Diaspora I recently learned that the VLC media player can be used as an alternative to the non-free Adobe Flash player to play internet Flash videos.

VLC is a wonderful program to start with and handles just about any media type, audio or video. This recent discovery on my part just shows how little I know about its amazing capabilities.

To open an internet video, such as on You Tube, all you do is copy the URL from your browser, open VLC, hit Ctrl+N to open the network dialogue and then paste the URL there. The video will then play in VLC.

I have tried this and it works on You Tube, but not Vimeo or news sites as I guess it just doesn't find the video link. The dialogue box indicates it will also work with URLs that end in a video extension, such as ".avi", as well as rpt, mms or rtsp internet networking protocols.

Given the widespread availability of HTML5 video now on You Tube and Vimeo, including support for H.264 now in Firefox, as well as this VLC feature, it may be possible to get rid of Flash entirely. I may just try doing that when I install Ubuntu 14.04 later on this year and see if I can get by without Flash.


A New Look at FileZilla for FTP

By Adam Hunt

Back between 2007 and 2009 I used FileZilla as my File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client and found that it worked quite well. Then, with the release of Ubuntu 9.04 in April 2009, I found that it was suddenly no longer available for 32-bit Linux, so I switched to gFTP 2.0.18 instead.

gFTP has worked well since then, but I was recently checking its website and discovered that the most recent version is gFTP 2.0.19, released on 30 November 2008, which is now more than five years ago. gFTP still works satisfactorily, but it is always a concern when an application, especially a web application, is no longer being actively developed from a security and bug-fix point of view. The gFTP project head, Brian Masney, wrote in that the project is dormant, due to lack of time on his part and that he is looking for a new developer to take it over. Masney did indicate that some patches are required.

In I upgraded from a 32-bit to a 64-bit computer and this all lead me to check out FileZilla and see how it has progressed since I last used it in , since it is being actively developed.

I had previously reviewed:

Those 3.0 series versions were fairly good and had only one drawback, back then they did not read server date stamps.

The current version for Ubuntu 12.04 LTS is FileZilla 3.5.3, which is quite old, having been chosen for Ubuntu 12.04 on . FileZilla versions don't seem to be updated once an Ubuntu release is out. The current version of FileZilla is version 3.7.3, which is programmed for Ubuntu 14.04 LTS.

I did some testing on FileZilla 3.5.3. It has fixed that date stamp problem and now reads the server file dates and times correctly. Even though FileZilla is not an official Gnome component it integrates well into the Gnome desktop, matching the GTK styles and normal Gnome Human Interface Guideline (HIG) requirements.

FileZilla 3.5.3 also incorporates some nice features. For instance, unlike gFTP, it remembers your last local directory used and opens directly to it, meaning you don't have to click through your whole file system to get to your web pages to upload.

The FileZilla website is worthy of mention as well because it has good organization and contains a lot of useful information for new users. That sounds basic, but it is amazing how many project websites have neither!

One oddity about FileZilla, compared to other FTP clients, is that it lacks the normal left/right arrows for downloading and uploading, all transfers being initiated from a right click on the files to be transferred, or by double clicking on them. Once you figure that out the rest is easy!

FileZilla has been criticized in the past for storing passwords in a plain text xml file. FileZilla project head Tim Kosse has said "If there's malware already on your computer, you've lost already. Your system has been compromised at that point. However if your system is secure, you can use nuclear missile launch codes as desktop background." If this worries you, in, say, the case of a Windows computer, then you don't have to store your passwords, you can just enter them when you sign on.

Today FileZilla is available for 64-bit Linux, BSD, Windows 32-bit and Mac OS-X and PowerPC. Sadly 32-bit Linux is no longer officially supported, although it can be compiled from source. If you are running 32-bit Linux and your distro doesn't have a 32-bit custom build of FileZilla, then I still recommend gFTP as a good solution.


Browser HTML5 Support

By Adam Hunt

Support for the new HTML5 standard has been improving through browser development in . One of the most important steps in making this happen was Cisco open-sourcing the H.264 video codec in . Prior to this some browser developers, such as Mozilla, had refused to incorporate H.264, due to the licencing cost involved. H.264 support was first incorporated in Firefox 26.0, which was just released on .

So today I tested out the three browsers I have installed with the HTML5 Test to see how they are fairing. Epiphany 3.4.1 is still the current browser in Ubuntu 12.04, but it is pretty dated. Newer versions should fair better. Chrome 31.0.1650.63 and Firefox 26.0 are the current versions of those browsers.

Browser Comparison

HTML5 attribute

Chrome 31.0.1650.63

Epiphany 3.4.1

Firefox 26.0

Winner

HTML5 score out of 555 501 351 446 Chrome
HTML5 video support H.264
Ogg Theora
WebM-VP8
WebM-VP9
MPEG-4
H.264
Ogg Theora
WebM-VP8
WebM-VP9
H.264
Ogg Theora
WebM-VP8
Epiphany

Epiphany continues to lead in video support, while Chrome is close to feature-complete for overall HTML5 support.


Looking Back at Ubuntu 12.04 LTS

By Adam Hunt

Ruth and I have now been using Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin for 18 months. With only another four months until the next Ubuntu LTS release comes out, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr, I thought is was time to have a look back at Precise and see how it has worked out in long term daily use.

I should start by pointing out that the move to Ubuntu 12.04 for me followed a period of distro hopping that was caused by the inability to run Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat on my PC hardware. I tried out Lubuntu 10.10, Lubuntu 11.04, Lubuntu 11.10, Puppy Linux 5.2.8 and finally Debian 6.0.3 and 6.0.4 in a period that spanned to . During that same period Ruth tried out Lubuntu 10.10, Lubuntu 11.04, Lubuntu 11.10, Puppy Linux 5.3.3 and finally Debian 6.0.4 and Debian 7 Alpha 1. All of those distros worked reasonably well, except Lubuntu 11.10 and Debian 7 Alpha 1 which didn't. For Ruth's laptop Puppy Linux 5.3.3, Debian 6.0.4 and Debian 7 Alpha 1 had wireless problems. Most of those releases had some drawbacks and problems that made them less than ideal and only Lubuntu 10.10 and 11.04 worked adequately on both our desktops and laptop.

In new desktop PC hardware allowed me the option of using any distro and I opted to install Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which I had been using with good success at the National Capital FreeNet offices and which Ruth was already running on her laptop by then. We ended up installing it on the rest of our computers. Ubuntu 12.04 has turned out to be so good that we have both now used it longer than any Linux release; it is the best operating system of any type I have used to date. The usability and ergonomics are very good, as is the stability, the Unity interface is quite mature now and everything just works. When we first installed Ubuntu 12.04 it had Unity 5.12, today it has 5.20.0.

Ubuntu 12.04 LTS really made it worthwhile coming back to Ubuntu.

There are always some flaws to report and Ubuntu 12.04 does have a few of them, although they are quite minor:

Gedit spelling
For some reason Gedit's spelling cannot be invoked with Shift+F7 as it is supposed to. It does work by selecting it from the Tools→Check Spelling menu item or the Unity HUD, though.
Gedit crashes
The Gedit text editor often crashes when opening files.
LibreOffice lacks global menus
This is a well-known compatibility issue between LibreOffice and Unity that has apparently been fixed in Unity 7.
GIMP HUD loss of focus
When accessing GIMP menu items from the Unity HUD, GIMP often loses focus on the window, meaning that the HUD shows menus items for another open application that it has focused on instead.
Epiphany lock-ups and crashes
I have documented this before, but this seems to be an Epiphany browser issue, rather than an Ubuntu issue.
Pitivi lock-ups and crashes
I have documented this before as well. This seems to be problem with the Pitivi video editor, rather than an Ubuntu issue.
Brasero features missing
The Gnome CD/DVD burning program Brasero still doesn't work very well. When you select a burning speed it ignores it and burns at maximum speed regardless and this sometimes breaks disks. It also does not seem to be able to eject disks or burn multiple copies, even though it is supposed to have these features. This seem to be a Gnome problem, rather than an Ubuntu issue.

Hopefully these minor glitches will be addressed in Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. I am looking forward to trying it out and to starting a new page of the Ubuntu Diaries with that release.


Video Editing With Avidemux 2.5.4

By Adam Hunt

I thought while I was trying out Pitivi that I would also give the current version of an old favourite for video editing, Avidemux, a try as well.

The last version I tested of Avidemux in was version 2.5.2 only two versions ago. The explanation for this lack of much progress in the past three years is that Avidemux seems to have two trees right now and most of the active development is happening in the 2.6 series, while the 2.5 series is still offered as the current "stable version". All the recent versions of Ubuntu offer version 2.5.4 as the current version.

This current version of Avidemux is very similar to 2.5.2. Overall it is easy to learn, quick to create videos with and uses few hardware resources while doing it all. It is also stable and that means that, unlike Pitivi, it doesn't crash.

Avidemux 2.5.4 suffers from two drawbacks for me. First this newer version still doesn't support the mu-law audio codec that my camera produces. This is not a problem as long as I don't want to use the the existing audio track, which I usually don't. Overdubbing a soundtrack is a good way to get around this. The second problem is that the jumpy fade transitions haven't improved either. I played around with the possible types of transitions once again and I still find that the best solution to this is a ten frame fade to black and a ten frame fade from black at the join point between two clips, although it isn't as nice as a smooth fade transition.

As a test of Avidemux 2.5.4 I created a short video with a soundtrack and the fade to black transitions as a test. It worked out satisfactorily.

Overall Avidemux is a serviceable video editor. If the developers could provide more audio codecs and better fade transitions it would be an excellent editor. Given those limitations Kino remains a better choice, with better audio support and better transitions, even though it hasn't been developed since 2009.


Video Editing With PiTiVi Once Again

By Adam Hunt

The last time I evaluated PiTiVi was in using version 0.13.4. At that time I rated it as 0/10 and stopped even trying to use it, due to the endless lock-ups and crashes. It was completely worthless.

Since that time I have been doing video editing with Kino 1.3.4, which works really well. The one problem with Kino is that development has been abandoned since 2009 and so it is not being improved over time. While it works fine right now, I imagine that over time it will become less useful and functional. That fact alone lead me to install and test the latest edition of PiTiVi that comes with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, version 0.15.2. This is not the most up-to-date version of PiTiVi available, but it is only one version old, so not too bad. I have a new powerful desktop PC with fast quad processors and 6 GB of RAM, so PiTiVi can't run it out of resources.

I started testing it by creating a new video out of some old clips. That worked somewhat well, although I did experience one crash and a couple of rendering issues where it would stop rendering in mid-function.

I then tried editing another video, by cutting it and creating shorter clips, then removing the audio and inserting a new audio track and then rendering it in a You Tube compatible format. These are all pretty basic video editing functions. PiTiVi is designed to do these things in a simple, intuitive manner, that most people will be able to figure out reasonably quickly. PiTiVi also has a brief user manual that, while incomplete, does offer some help to the new user in figuring out how to do things.

PiTiVi 0.15.2 offers some new rendering choices, too, like the open WebM format, which I used for the above test video. WebM is a native format used on You Tube, so that makes it a good choice for uploads. There is only one video codec, VP8 and only one audio codec, Vorbis, for that container, so that takes the guess work out of picking codecs.

So far, so good. The problem is that PiTiVi 0.15.2, like PiTiVi 0.13.4, endlessly locks up, greys out, loses feature functionality in mid-use (such as that it won't save or when rendering fails to complete the process or saves null files) and then crashes. At no time did it max out my CPUs or my RAM, it is just unstable and therefore almost completely unusable.

There is no option in any current version of Ubuntu, except compiling from source code, to install the latest version, PiTiVi 0.91, but I did install the PPA which allows updates of some of the dependency packages, including gstreamer to 1.0.8.

Updating from the PPA didn't accomplish much and editing a video still resulted in the program greying out, locking up and crashing.

Just like in , at this point I can only conclude that PiTiVi is still unusable and so continues to rate 0/10 and is "not recommended for use". I will try whichever future version of it comes with Ubuntu 14.04 LTS in and write more about whether that works or not.


Chrome 29 Arrives

By Adam Hunt

Google Chrome 29 was released yesterday, on , and I decided to give it a try and see if it addressed some of the deficiencies found in recent versions of Chrome.

The release announcement indicated that this version includes:

Indeed one thing they have finally fixed is Chrome dumping empty libpeerconnection.log files in my home directory for no good reason. So that is an improvement.

None of my other complaints seem to have been addressed though and these include:

All of these annoyances add up to downgrading Google Chrome to 9/10. It is still an excellent browser and renders pages well and quickly, but it is no longer as good as Firefox 23.0, its contemporary Mozilla rival.

Firefox 23.0 is as fast in page rendering as Chrome 29, includes a built-in PDF reader, like Chrome, but has menus that are easy to navigate, it always finds searched-for bookmarks, more user-selectable features, more add-ons and when you set it to delete cookies on closing, it actually does.

Google really needs to fix these little annoyances, because as Firefox is rapidly getting faster and better with each release these days, Chrome isn't keeping up. Slick advertising campaigns have helped bring Chrome to the number one spot for browsers in recent months, but in the end if people get frustrated with annoyances they will switch to something that works better.

Overall competition is a good thing and there is lots of that in the browser market these days. Hopefully that will steer Google into making Chrome work better for the release of Chrome 30.


Browsers in

By Adam Hunt

Back in my article Comparing Browsers in I said:

For now I am using Epiphany as my main browser. Its only critical minus for me has been stability, with nine crashes in the first ten days, but in the last three days I have had no crashes at all. I am tracking this and will report on longer term stability.

I have now been using Epiphany 3.4.1 as my main browser for two and half months. I have managed to adapt to its quirks and I like its simplicity and speed. I have even got very used to searching for bookmarks from the location box instead of using a bookmarks bar. The one issue, as I noted above, has been stability and the daily random crashes are frustrating to deal with.

At the same time Firefox and Chrome have both gone through several new versions, the current ones being Firefox 22.0 and Chrome 28.0.1500.63. I have been testing out both of those browsers as their new versions come out.

Chrome 28 still has a lot of unaddressed issues, including that the last few versions keep dumping empty libpeerconnection.log files in my home directory for no good reason. That is a well documented issue and has been for three versions now. Chrome is still terrible at searching for bookmarks from the location bar, often not finding saved bookmarks at all. Then there is the matter of when you set it to delete all cookies on closing, it doesn't. Chrome's menus are also very badly organized and hard to find anything in, particularly the cookie-clearing. It is almost like Google doesn't want you to dump cookies!

On the other hand, as good as Firefox 19 was when it came out in , Firefox 22 is even better. They seem to have solved Ctrl+click to open in a new tab not working in Diaspora; either that or the latest Diaspora software builds fixed it. There have also been other small refinements, too that have made Firefox 22 even better than ever. Firefox's menus are much better organized than Chrome's are and the menus open on the last page you were on, a nice feature. When you ask Firefox to dump cookies at the end of a session it actually does, too. The only minus with Firefox is interacting with my modem interface, where it sometimes produces page load errors. If that was fixed it would be pretty much the perfect browser.

All of this means that, as much as I like Epiphany 3.4.1, the frequent crashes have driven me back to using Firefox 22.0 instead.

I will be evaluating future versions of Epiphany, but for now I will be using Firefox as my main browser.


Epiphany 3.4.1 Stability

By Adam Hunt

I have now been using Epiphany 3.4.1 for a month and as discussed in my earlier review, this is a very good browser, but, like earlier versions, it suffers from less than ideal stability. No one wants a browser that locks up or crashes, so the ideal is 100% stability. Epiphany doesn't make that grade, at least not in this version, but it does come pretty close.

In a whole month of using Epiphany 3.4.1 now I have had 18 crashes. Interestingly all but three of these have been caused by clicking on links in Google's Gmail. The remaining three were caused by trying to load three other random web pages.

In the beginning a number of the Gmail-induced crashes produced crash reports that tied the events to the Google Talk Plug-in, a non-free browser plug-in that enables video conferencing. Ironically this plug-in doesn't work in Epiphany, but it did seem to cause crashes. I am not using the plug-in any more so I uninstalled it. After that, Gmail related crashes have all reported SIGSEGV which is a segmentation fault (memory access violation).

There doesn't seem to be a good way of fixing this problem, but there is an easy work around, which is to not click links in Gmail. As long as the links are copied and pasted into a new tab they work fine.

So with that work around I have had only three other crashes, and none in the past two weeks, which is not bad in a month of use. Epiphany 3.4.1 does recover all tabs in the event of a crash, which does help reduce the annoyance of dealing with the crash.

Of note, if a user intentionally closes the browser (Ctrl+Q) instead of each tab one at a time (Ctrl+W), the next time Epiphany 3.4.1 is opened it offers to recover all tabs as well, which is a handy feature. It seems to treat Ctrl+Q the same way as a crash.

Other Features

Some of Epiphany 3.4.1's other features, which I have been working with, bear some mention.

The Epiphany upload selector, for instance for web-mail attachments, by default shows the most recent documents, which works far better than Chrome or Firefox, where you usually have to click around a lot, starting in your home folder, to find your file.

I have also been working with Epiphany's bookmarks and history features. These are both really quite well thought-out.

The history is shown by Ctrl+H and can be set to show any time period. It is probably easier to navigate than any other browser's history and searches on any part of a URL quickly locate the missing page. This works well enough that I almost don't miss being able to instantly reopen a closed tab (Ctrl+Shift+T in both Firefox and Chrome)

Imported bookmarks require some work to get optimized for use in Epiphany, when importing them from another browser, via an HTML file, as I did from Chrome. Once imported it makes sense to clean them up and then assign topics to as many as possible, to make them easier to find. While these are similar to putting bookmarks in folders on other browsers, the main difference in Epiphany is that multiple topics can be assigned to one bookmark, making them accessible from different searches. When the name of a topic is entered into the URL bar it shows all bookmarks in that topic, making them very easy to find, even if you can't remember the assigned name or the URL. Once topics are assigned the Epiphany bookmarking system is hard to beat.

Versions

It seems that Epiphany 3.4.1 is not the last in the Gnome 3.4 series and so we may possibly get an upgrade to Epiphany 3.4.3 yet in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which uses Gnome 3.4.2. Newer versions of Ubuntu, including 12.10 and 13.04, use Gnome 3.6 and so include Epiphany 3.6.1, but none so far use the latest version, which is 3.8.1.

Conclusions

In a month of using Epiphany 3.4.1 I am impressed enough to be using it full time now as my main browser, only occasionally opening Firefox to use Adobe Flash or to check page rendering with Gecko.

As I have mentioned many times in past reviews of Epiphany versions, this has always been the browser that I wanted to love, but just never could. No matter how great the features and how simple and fast it worked, the consistent crashes made it functionally unusable. Epiphany 3.4.1 has really changed all that. As long as I don't click on links in Gmail, it has good-enough stability! The rest is great: simple interface, works well without Adobe Flash, the history and bookmarking features are very innovative. This seems to be the Epiphany browser I was hoping for back in November 2008 when I first tried it.

I am planning to run Ubuntu 12.04 LTS until eleven months from now, when Ubuntu 14.04 LTS comes out in . It will be interesting to see which version of Gnome comes with that release and hence which version of Epiphany, too. After the generally good experiences with Epiphany 3.4.1, I will be trying out whatever new version of Epiphany becomes available.


Comparing Browsers in

By Adam Hunt

Since I have been recently spending quite a bit of time reviewing current web browsers, I thought I would summarize what I have found out about them in table format.

Browser Comparison

Attribute

Chrome 26.0.1410.63

Epiphany 3.4.1

Firefox 20.0

Winner

Page loading speed Comparable Comparable Comparable Tie
RAM used on four standard pages 368 MB 138 MB 126 MB Firefox
Stability Excellent Good Excellent Chrome & Firefox tie
PDF handing Integral PDF reader Integrated with Evince Integral PDF reader Epiphany
HTML video support WebM, OGG, H.264 WebM, OGG, H.264, MPEG4 WebM, OGG Epiphany
Practicality without Adobe Flash Flash is integrated Works well without Flash, due to HTML5 video support Flash is essential Epiphany
HTML5 score 468 plus 13 bonus points 344 plus 16 bonus points 394 plus 10 bonus points Chrome
Spell checking Yes Yes Yes Tie
Intregrated language translation Yes No No Chrome
Auto-reloading web pages when writing web sites No Yes No Epiphany
Auto-hiding page search bar No Yes No Epiphany
Supports Google Talk Plugin Yes No Yes Chrome & Firefox tie
Individual website cookie blocking Yes No Yes Chrome & Firefox tie
Search engines Selectable Google only from URL bar Selectable with add-ons Chrome & Firefox tie
Saving downloads Selectable locations One selectable location Selectable locations Chrome & Firefox tie
Searching bookmarks Fair Excellent Excellent Epiphany & Firefox tie
Extensions Thousands 15 Many thousands Firefox
Menu ease of use and navigation Poor Best Good Epiphany
Ease of use and interface simplicity Good Best Good Epiphany
W3C web standards compliance Yes Yes Yes Tie
Free software No - freeware based on Chromium free software core Yes Yes, except logos Epiphany
Total unweighted score 10 11 11 Epiphany & Firefox tie

There is no doubt that these three are all good browsers and which one you choose will largely depend on how you weight the pluses and minuses, because some factors may be more important to you than other things. For instance stability is pretty critical to all users, whereas extensions might not be if you don't use them. If free software is most important to you then Chrome isn't going to be your browser, likewise if there is a Firefox-only extension that you can't live without then that will be your choice. It all comes down to individual user priorities.

For now I am using Epiphany as my main browser. Its only critical minus for me has been stability, with nine crashes in the first ten days, but in the last three days I have had no crashes at all. I am tracking this and will report on longer term stability.


Ten Days of Epiphany 3.4.1

By Adam Hunt

Since I installed Epiphany 3.4.1 on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS ten days ago on , I have been using it as my main web browser.

I stumbled onto an Epiphany "easter egg" by accident! I typed into the URL bar about:epiphany and it returned:

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher. - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This translates as:

It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to subtract. - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

That seems to pretty much sum up the Epiphany philosophy!

I thought that ten days was a long enough period to give a reasonable evaluation of how this particular version of Epiphany performs as a primary web browser, so here is my list:

Pluses

Adobe Flash free
Because of its great HTML5 video support, it is actually viable to use Epiphany 3.4.1 without Adobe Flash installed, thus avoiding Flash crashes, Flash cookies, Flash security problems and exploits and non-free software. The Flash-free internet is not just coming, it is actually here today!
Gnome integration
This is actually subtle, but really makes the experience of using Epiphany unique over other browsers. Epiphany opens PDFs in Evince document viewer, movie downloads (like from YouTube Mobile) in Totem movie player, images in the Eye of Gnome image viewer and so on. The one integration item that has changed since older Epiphany versions is that viewing web page source code is now done in an Epiphany tab, rather than the Gedit text editor.
Clean interface
The interface is truly minimalist in a way that really appeals to me. I don't even miss the home page or bookmarks bar.
Searching bookmarks
This works very well from the URL bar and always quickly finds bookmarks, unlike Google Chrome, which often doesn't.
Spell-checking
At long last this works and it works well.
Simplicity
The interface and menus are remarkably simple and easy to use.
Auto-reloading web pages
When writing web pages displayed in Epiphany it auto reloads on saving, a nice labour-saving feature for web developers.
Auto-hiding page search bar
Automatic hiding page searches when you click off the bar also saves effort in de-cluttering the web page.
Launches very quickly
Epiphany opens in about 1/3 of a second, noticeably more quickly than any other browser.
Low resource use
RAM use is quite low, only 38% of the RAM useage on the same web pages, in testing compared to Chrome. This is good for low capacity PCs, like netbooks.
Obscurity
Epiphany's relatively low number of users and being Linux-only probably makes it less susceptible to browser exploits.
All free software
No need for non-free plug-ins like Flash and not even any non-free copyrighted logos!

Minuses

Crashes
Nine crashes in ten days, which is not good. All but two crashes were related to emailed links in Gmail, so that seems to be the key issue. In the last four days of my ten day trial I had no crashes.
Lack of support for Google Talk Plugin
No Google+ hangouts video conferencing.
Non-configurable web search
Google search is the only offering. All other searches have to be made by calling up the search engine page first.
Saving downloads
All downloads go to the same place, you cannot click to save them in different folders.
Auto complete
The lack of auto complete when filling in web forms makes it slow to work on repetitive on-line tasks, like editing Wikipedia.
Inability to quickly reopen a closed tab
Both Firefox and Chrome/Chromium can do this with "Ctrl+Shift+T". In Epiphany you have to open the history "Ctrl+H" and then search for the page to reopen it.

I have also had the opportunity to install Epiphany 3.4.1 on the computer I use in my volunteer job at National Capital FreeNet and it ran flawlessly all day there with no crashes at all. The only minus was that it failed to display one database readout web page for some reason, probably related to JavaScript. It didn't crash, just showed a blank page. Firefox 20 does display this same page, but the page was designed for Internet Explorer.

After ten days I can say that I really like Epiphany 3.4.1. The ability to avoid Adobe Flash is reason enough alone to use it and its simplicity and ease of use is really quite outstanding.

While it has a number of pluses over other browsers, the minuses do detract a bit from using Epiphany. Of the negatives, only the crashes are critical, the rest I can easily live with.

Since November 2008 Epiphany has been the browser I always wanted to love but never could quite. In the intervening four and a half years Epiphany has matured quite a bit and I can now say that this love affair is once again growing warm. Will she throw me once again with her capricious moods? Only time will tell.


Trying Out Epiphany 3.4.1

By Adam Hunt

On I installed Epiphany 3.4.1 to give it a try.

Some readers may think I am a glutton for punishment in trying out yet another version of the Linux-only Epiphany browser. That might be the case, but this time persistence has paid off as this version of Epiphany is surprisingly good! That conclusion is a far cry from previous reviews of this browser that I always really wanted to like, but just never could.

I first installed Epiphany 2.22.2 in November 2008, some four and half years ago and since then have written eleven articles on versions 2.22.2, 2.26.1, 2.30.2, 2.30.6 and 3.0.4. The early versions, like 2.22.2, worked reasonably well even if they were a bit feature-poor, but versions 2.30.2 and 2.30.6 suffered from frequent crashes, probably over JavaScript handling, which made them pretty much unusable.

In many ways the earlier versions of Epiphany were better and 3.0.4 was such a problem over the lack of video support, that I rated it 0/10 in and haven't looked at Epiphany in the intervening year and a half.

To the credit of the project and its new leader, Xan Lopez, a lot has happened in the intervening time and Epiphany is now much better, probably better than it has ever been. One of the biggest changes in the last while has a been a complete interface redesign, which was rolled out with version 3.4.0 and released on .

Getting Epiphany

Installing Epiphany on Ubuntu is as easy as opening a terminal and running:

sudo apt-get install epiphany-browser

and the rest happens for you. Because Ubuntu is Gnome 3 underneath there are not a lot of dependencies to download and within a few minutes it is ready to take on a test flight.

Of course it can also be installed from the Ubuntu Software Centre, where it is found under Internet → Web Browsers → Epiphany Web Browser. More on that name later.

Interface

The first thing you notice when you open Epiphany 3.4.1 is how bare and minimalist the interface now is. It almost makes Google Chrome look cluttered! As the project's home page says "Its goal is to be simple and easy to use." It certainly is that!

There is almost no browser chrome (the framing) at all. The controls consist of just forward and back arrows, a URL bar, a reload button and a settings menu button. The settings menu is pretty minimalist as well. Oddly there is also a simple global menu, too and it isn't clear why the two menus haven't been merged into one.

Many features were stripped out during the interface overhaul and that means there is not only no "home button", but no option to set a home page either. Unlike on Chrome or Firefox, there is no "new tab page", with pictures of most visited web pages. As a result the browser opens to a blank page, which, combined with the minimal chrome, adds to the "shock and awe" upon opening it for the first time. It is like staring at a completely blank space that I find has a very attractive zen-like quality to it.

In keeping with the aims of simplicity and a high degree of integration into the Gnome 3 desktop, Epiphany has no "themes" available and takes up the operating system's GTK theme instead. Personally I don't mind this as I don't make use of themes on Firefox, Chrome or LibreOffice, as I think they clutter up the interface with unnecessary eye candy.

Bookmarks

Not only is there no home button, there is also no bookmarks toolbar. In a bold move it was stripped out too, although the help pages for Epiphany are out of date and still explain how to set the bookmarks toolbar, when it no longer exists.

That, of course begs the question of how to use your bookmarks, if there is no toolbar for them. Users seem to have three choices: start typing in the URL bar and look for the website's address to appear, hit Ctrl+B and open the bookmark manager and then scroll or search for the website or access the bookmark's list on the "gear" menu at the top right of the browser window. All are surprisingly quick and easy to do and so far I haven't really missed the bookmarks toolbar.

As in the past the Epiphany bookmarks manager is a little different from other browsers, in that it allows assigning bookmarks to "topics" rather than putting them in folders and each bookmark can be tagged to multiple topics.

Video

One of my biggest complaints about Epiphany 3.0.4 was that it would not run Adobe Flash and its HTML5 support was too poor to offer an alternative for YouTube and Vimeo, making it fairly non-functional as a browser. This has been pretty much fixed. One method is to install Flash via a Gnome 2 workaround:

sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer
sudo apt-get install nspluginwrapper
sudo nspluginwrapper -i /usr/lib/flashplugin-installer/libflashplayer.so
nspluginwrapper -v -a -n -i

The other alternative is to skip Flash altogether, as I have done, and rely on HTML5 instead. This actually works because Epiphany 3.4.1 has better HTML5 video support than either Chrome 26 or Firefox 20 does!

Today Chrome 26.0.1410.63 scores 468 plus 13 bonus points on the HTML5 test but lacks MPEG4 support. Firefox 20.0 scores 394 plus 10 bonus points, but doesn't support MPEG4 or H.264 video, which makes it unable to play about half the videos on You Tube under HTML5. Mozilla refuses to licence H.264 and so there is no solution in sight for that issue, leaving Adobe Flash as the fallback for Firefox, at least for the near term.

Epiphany 3.4.1 only scores 344 plus 16 bonus points on the HTML5 test, but it supports all four HTML5 video formats, including H.264 and MPEG4, beating out Chrome and Firefox for HTML5 video support.

That great HTML5 video support means, at least for YouTube and Vimeo, which both by default detect browsers that have no Flash and route them automatically to HTML5 video, that Epiphany 3.4.1 is viable without Flash. In some ways it is an advantage as you avoid Flash cookies, avoid non-free software (Flash is proprietary), avoid Flash crashes and also many pages that have embedded Flash ads and other stuff load more quickly.

Features

One thing Epiphany 3.4.1 does finally offer is something that I found hard to live without in earlier Epiphany versions: spell-checking! It works quite well, at least in US English and spell-checks any field text that you enter, but not existing field text.

One feature I do like in Epiphany, over both Chrome and Firefox, is that the page search bar auto-closes when clicked off, taking it out of the way. Both Chrome and Firefox require clicking an "X" to close the page search box, which is extra work to de-clutter the page.

Epiphany 3.4.1 seems to work well with Ajax pages, like Gmail and Zimbra web mail. One Gmail quirk is in using GChat and popping the chat window out. Unlike Firefox and Chrome which pop the chat window into a new small window, Epiphany 3.4.1 pops it out into a new tab. This works fine and if you want it as a new window need only tear the tab off and then re-size the window as required.

Epiphany 3.4.1 lacks support for the Google Talk Plugin as as such does not allow Google Plus Hangouts (video conferencing). I haven't determined if this is basic to Epiphany or just because I don't have Flash installed.

Web search engine selection on Epiphany 3.4.1 is not configurable. Typing search terms into the URL bar results in a Google search, just like with Firefox. You can use any search engine you like, of course, by just calling it up from bookmarks, but it would be nice to be able to chose a search engine to be used from the URL bar.

Downloads are handled very simply. On set-up you can chose where they go and to automatically open them or not. This does mean that all downloads go to one place and cannot be clicked though to different folders, though.

Unlike Chrome or Firefox since version 19, Epiphany 3.4.1 doesn't have a built-in PDF reader, but, because it is so well integrated into the Gnome desktop, it opens PDFs in Evince, the Gnome PDF reader, automatically. One nice feature is that PDFs and other downloads by default are saved in the user's home directory, meaning that you don't have to take extra steps to save a PDF or other file, it is just there. I find that is a work saver and prevents me having to go and download the same PDF twice because I closed it too quickly and found I needed it again later.

Tab overflows, having too many tabs open to see easily, is a problem on all browsers and none of them have solved this problem satisfactorily. Chrome just keeps compressing the tabs until they are unreadable. Firefox compresses them up to a point and then puts them off screen with arrows to scroll laterally to see them. Epiphany 3.4.1 continues the behaviour of previous Epiphany versions and just doesn't compress the tabs at all, overflowing them off screen like Firefox. It isn't ideal, but then none of the solutions are.

Tabs can easily be re-ordered by dragging, without risk of tearing them off by accident. Tabs can also be torn off into new windows, but not re-attached.

Epiphany 3.4.1 has an odd feature, Save as a web application, which will save any given web page as a shortcut to a simple window for the web page. I guess this makes mobile phone users feel at home, with their "apps" (really websites) for everything, but it isn't that useful for desktop users, I find. One thing I did discover is that once you have created one of these it is hard to get rid of! I managed to delete it from the Unity applications menu by going to the hidden file at ~/.gnome2/epiphany and deleting the folder it created there. Apparently these applications can be managed by typing in about:applications into the URL bar. Eventually there is supposed to be a proper Gnome manager for these applications, but it missed the planned creation for Gnome 3.4.

Like earlier versions of Epiphany, 3.4.1 has a useful feature for web developers: when you save a web page in your text editor that is being displayed in Epiphany, the browser automatically updates to show your additions, which saves a step of refreshing the page. This is a nice feature!

Another nice, but invisible, feature of Epiphany is that it is all pure free software, unlike Chrome which has a free software core, but is proprietary. Even Firefox, while free software, has generated controversy with its non-free, copyrighted logos. On Epiphany even the logos, showing a blue globe and cursor arrow, are free.

Epiphany 3.4.1 is missing a few features that would be nice to have, particularly regarding cookie handling. One is the ability to automatically clear cookies when closing the browser. Epiphany 3.4.1, like earlier versions, requires you to go to Web menu → Personal data → Cookies → Clear, if you want to dump them. The other nice-to-have-feature would be the ability to block cookies from certain websites.

Another nice-to-have would be the ability to re-open a closed tab quickly with a keyboard short cut. Both Firefox and Chrome offer this with Ctrl+Shift+T and it is a great help for people like me who often close a tab and then realize that I still need it! The Epiphany history function (Ctrl+H) allows quick finding and reopening closed pages and this mostly compensates for this lacking feature.

Yet one more nice-to-have feature would be remembering and suggesting form data, but I guess with the emphasis on simplicity this is probably too complex a feature to include.

I don't tend to use many browser extensions but users who do will find the list of available extensions pretty skimpy.

User Agent String

I used What's My User Agent? to see what the browser is reporting to the world and discovered it has a rather long and complex string:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/535.22+ (KHTML, like Gecko) Chromium/17.0.963.56 Chrome/17.0.963.56 Safari/535.22+ Ubuntu/12.04 (3.4.1-0ubuntu1) Epiphany/3.4.1

In a way this is probably good as many websites will record Epiphany 3.4.1 simply as Google Chrome, the leading browser today, which should reduce website access incompatibility errors.

Performance

In testing Epiphany 3.4.1 against Chrome 26.0.1410.63 and Firefox 20.0 I found they all loaded a selection of simple, complex and not very compliant web pages in similar times. There is little to choose between them for speed.

Comparing RAM usage between the different browsers is interesting. I opened each browser separately and loaded the same four web pages and got these results:

Browser RAM Comparison

Browser

RAM used

Chrome 26.0.1410.63 368 MB
Epiphany 3.4.1 138 MB
Firefox 20.0 126 MB

Chrome always seems to use more RAM, due to its separate processes for each tab, while Firefox and Epiphany, both single processes, are much lighter. Firefox is surprisingly lightweight.

So far, in five days of use Epiphany 3.4.1 seems somewhat stable compared to earlier versions that crashed a lot. I have seen four crashes and all were related to trying open links from Gmail. I will monitor this and we will see over time if it is a major problem and occurs on other websites or not.

What's in a name?

I have to admit that I am not really sure what the name of this browser is any more. On , with the release of Gnome 3.4, it was announced that Epiphany would be renamed "Web". The browser's "About" file reflects this, and nothing else does, so I am not sure what to make of the announcement. Is this in the same vein as Gnome referring to gedit as "Text Editor" and Evince as "Document Viewer" for clarity on menus? If that is the case then I think it would help menu labelling to call it "Web Browser". On the other hand if this is an attempt to make Epiphany out as "The" web browser then it is a bit premature.

The other problem with calling this "Web browser" is that it is far too generic. All web browsers are called a "web browser", which makes it impossible to search for information on this particular one. Software applications need unique names to make it possible to search for information on them. Calling your web browser "web browser" pretty much guarantees no one will find it.

Since the application is still called "Epiphany" by its package name, epiphany-browser and in the Ubuntu Software Centre, on the Gnome website, on the Unity launcher, on the application's own title bar ("Epiphany Web Browser"), on the developer's own mailing list (called the "epiphany-list"), the extensions package and even the built-in help manual, I tend to think that my guess that the use of "web" is just for menu naming, is correct. Personally I am still calling it Epiphany, but I think Gnome needs to clarify this naming issue.

Conclusions

Overall Epiphany 3.4.1 has a nice simple, elegant and clean interface. It is mostly stable, very simple to learn and use and has some nice features, although it lacks a few nice-to-haves. It renders web pages well and as quickly as any other browser these days. It seems to be the best version of Epiphany yet!

All that said is there really any compelling reason to use it over Chrome, Chromium or Firefox?

Aside from some of the nice minor little features, I think there actually is. The biggest reason is freedom from proprietary software, especially Adobe Flash. With Epiphany 3.4.1 you can actually get away without Flash, its security problems and its crashes. With its current video limitations Firefox 20 is not viable without Flash, while Chrome is non-free software itself and comes with Flash built in. That all adds up to a good reason to use Epiphany.

Epiphany 3.4.1 is the newest version available for Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which is what I am running, but it is actually not the most up to date version of Epiphany available. Version 3.6.1 is in the Ubuntu repositories for Ubuntu 12.10 and 13.04. Since Ubuntu 12.04 LTS started with Epiphany 3.4.0.1 and has been upgraded, perhaps we will get newer versions yet for Ubuntu 12.04.

Given the success of this version, I am optimistic that future Epiphany versions will be even better!


Firefox 20 Builds on Success

By Adam Hunt

Firefox 20 was released on and has built on the success of Firefox 19. I am really impressed with what Mozilla is up to with their flagship browser these days, each release every six weeks has solid development goals that get achieved. They stole that six week release model from Google's Chrome project, of course, but it works!

Firefox 20 retains the recent page loading speed of earlier releases, but adds two new features, improved download handling and better private browsing.

Downloads used to be managed via a download dialogue box in earlier versions of Firefox. With Firefox 20 there is now a downloads "arrow" icon on the top bar that brings up the downloads library box, which then brings up a list of downloads. It is still a bit cumbersome and could be streamlined a bit more into a single box, but is a move in the right direction for improved download management.

Private browsing (often called "porn mode") was a Firefox exclusive when it first came out, allowing browsing without retaining cookies or browsing history. In its earlier forms, when it was called up it closed and remembered existing normal browsing tabs and opened a new private browsing window instead. This meant that you couldn't do private and regular browsing at the same time and made it difficult to see a series of web pages in regular mode and then open them all in private mode. In Firefox 20 this is now fixed and switching to private mode just opens a new window, which works much better. Users can browse web pages in both modes seamlessly. Users can also right click on any link in regular mode and open the link in private mode, a useful feature if you suspect you will get fed a large quantity of unwanted cookies, such as from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Closing the private browsing window just dumps the cookies.

I should note also that Firefox has lately achieved a very good level of stability, at least where I test it, on Linux. In the past nine days of using Firefox 20 I have only had one minor crash, just a loss of menu functionality that was quickly restored by closing and reopening the browser. For stability on Linux, Firefox now matches Chrome for rock solid reliability.


Firefox 19 is a Game Changer

By Adam Hunt

Firefox 19 was released on . This is an evolutionary release, but it is still a game changer for Mozilla, because the browser is now firmly better than Google Chrome 25 is. Google Chrome 25 is the current version of that browser.

Back in the days before Chrome, Firefox was the only viable alternative browser to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. When Firefox 3 came out I found it very slow to load pages (like IE6) and switched to Epiphany (now called "Web", for some reason) in an attempt to find a faster browser. Epiphany was faster than Firefox then, but it had a lot of limitations, including regular crashes and no spell checking and so wasn't a good alternative.

When Google Chrome 4 came out for Linux in December 2009 I jumped to using that, later used the free software Chromium version and basically have stuck with Chrome and Chromium ever since. I liked the simple design, and features, like the built-in PDF reader, but mostly the page-loading speed was so much better. There is no doubt that other browsers had to scramble to catch up with Chrome and that has made the internet overall work faster, which is good for everyone.

But in the meantime a lot has been happening over at Mozilla, including a large search deal with Google that provided a lot of money to Mozilla, allowing them to move to a six week release schedule for new versions of Firefox and improve the browser quite quickly. Each new version since Firefox 4 has been incrementally faster and better. All of that has now added up to Firefox 19 being overall faster and mostly better than Chrome is.

First: speed, page loading speed. In trials Firefox 19 seems to be generally faster loading web pages than Chrome 25 is. There is obviously a lot of variability here, depending on JavaScript, page media, web server speed and other factors. Both are pretty fast browsers, but in general Firefox 19 wins.

Firefox 19 introduced the one major feature that the browser lacked in comparison to Chrome, a built in PDF viewer. The viewer automatically loads PDFs from websites when clicked on. The viewer is simple and quick to load and works well. The usual features expected are there, including "save", "print" and "zoom" controls. The viewer can also be used to view local PDFs on the user's computer as well, just select Firefox to open them. This last feature means that users now don't need a dedicated PDF reader on their computer, like Evince or Adobe Reader.

Firefox 19 has superior spell checking to Chrome 25, although Chrome 26 is supposed to receive some improvements in that regard. Early versions of Firefox wouldn't spell check form lines, but would spell check larger form fields, which was a pain when doing tasks like editing Wikipedia pages. Firefox 19 now does both. Its spell checking is also more consistent than in Chrome, which often misses spelling errors in forms and deals with pre-filled form text badly.

Firefox 19 allows searching for URLs in the URL bar from both the browser history or bookmarks, or both, or neither. On Chrome this is not selectable, but Firefox allows user control, a philosophy that permeates Firefox throughout. There is much more user control of everything and many more features that can be configured. This is a trade-off: control over simplicity, of course.

One problem in recent releases of Chrome that has caused me headaches is tab tearing off. Both Firefox and Chrome allow tabs to be re-arranged by dragging them on the tab bar and also to be "pulled off" the tab bar to make a new browser instance. The problem in Chrome is that often when I am just trying to move the tabs on the bar they tear off, which is annoying. Often they don't go back easily, either. Firefox doesn't have this problem, as it is easy to re-arrange the tabs without the risk of tearing them off by mistake.

Firefox still beats Chrome for the number of available extensions and for themes as well. There is only one extension I use, a video downloader, and Chrome doesn't have it, or anything similar. I don't use themes, but Firefox certainly has more of these than Chrome does, for those who do care about them.

One area where Chrome still leads is page translations. Chrome offers to translate pages that aren't in your default language, using Google Translate, whereas Firefox has no equivalent feature.

Tab overflow is handled differently in Chrome and Firefox. In Chrome opening more and more tabs makes them smaller and smaller and more and more illegible, whereas in Firefox after a certain density you get arrows on the tab bar and the overflow is not displayed until you click the arrow. Neither is an ideal solution, really.

By default Chrome will cut and paste URLs as pre-formed links, which makes them difficult to edit. You can right click and select "paste as plain text" which I find myself doing a lot. I actually prefer Firefox's behaviour which is to paste them as plain text by default.

There is one area where there isn't much debate: Firefox is free software, whereas Chrome is commercial freeware based on a free software core (Chromium). Free software is always preferable.

I have been using Firefox 19 for the last few days and it is really a delight to use, smooth and fast. It is great to see the results of all the work done by Mozilla's developers on it over the last few releases. It is probably back to being the best browser available once again.

Update -

I have now been using Firefox 19 as my default browser for two weeks and I have to say I remain very impressed with this release. Overall it continues to work better than Chrome 25. The bookmark searching from the URL bar is far better than on Chrome and the spell checking continues to be superior as well. It is great that Firefox gives up nothing on page loading speed to Chrome, too.

One member of our NCF Free Software Discussion Group did identify a bug in the new PDF reader: landscape PDF documents display fine, but print in portrait mode instead of landscape mode! Hopefully this will get fixed in the next release.


Ubuntu 12.10 and the Amazon Shopping Lens Controversy

By Adam Hunt

This is an issue that I have been watching and monitoring since early in the Ubuntu 12.10 development process when it was first announced. Early on Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical decided to include the new unity-lens-shopping package which takes dash searches and interrogates Amazon.com for results as well as your local computer and returns lists of books, movies and other products that you might want to buy. Canonical has been upfront that this is being done to provide users with a seamless desktop experience and that it will also bring in some revenue to Canonical to help pay for Ubuntu development.

Naturally something like this is going to be controversial with Ubuntu users. The queries go to Amazon via Canonical's servers where they are anonymized, but the images returned are loaded directly and unencrypted from Amazon making it easy for them to tie a user's IP address with a request. A knowledgeable user on the same network could see the images and pretty easily figure out what someone was searching for.

The main issue here is that unity-lens-shopping is installed and turned on by default in Ubuntu 12.10, although the user can turn it off in settings→privacy or uninstall the lens from the Ubuntu Software Centre or by running

$ sudo apt-get remove unity-lens-shopping

from the command line. Some Ubuntu users may love this feature, while others may hate it and turn it off. The problem is that most less-informed users won't understand what it is doing and that a local enquiry for a file or application on your own PC is being sent to Amazon.

During development a number of bug reports were entered on this including Bug #1054776 which has been where the main discussion has been. Naturally most users there want it "off" by default or even "not installed" by default. The bug reports did drive some changes and it was only due to that feedback that a GUI method of turning it off became available.

The push-back from the users and other critics resulted in Mark Shuttleworth writing a blog post on the subject explaining why they are doing this and why it is a good thing:

It makes perfect sense to integrate Amazon search results in the Dash, because the Home Lens of the Dash should let you find anything anywhere. Over time, we’ll make the Dash smarter and smarter, so you can just ask for whatever you want, and it will Just Work.

Shuttleworth described that if users just want to search for files on their own computer then use the file lens (Super + F) and the search stays local.

An early critic of the shopping lens was the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Micah Lee, who wrote a well-reasoned and balanced article the day after Ubuntu 12.10 was released. In his article he explains the shopping lens and how it works in some detail, including how to turn it off. His bottom line:

It's a major privacy problem if you can't find things on your own computer without broadcasting what you're looking for to the world. You could be searching for the latest version of your résumé at work because you're considering leaving your job; you could be searching for a domestic abuse hotline PDF you downloaded, or legal documents about filing for divorce; maybe you're looking for documents with file names that will gave away trade secrets or activism plans; or you could be searching for a file in your own local porn collection. There are many reasons why you wouldn't want any of these search queries to leave your computer.

Lee agrees with the vast majority of the bug reporters that the shopping lens needs to be "opt-in", not "opt-out".

Since the release of Ubuntu 12.10 the issue had largely died down in the press, as users waited to see how the issue would develop in Ubuntu 13.04, due out on . Then, on , Richard Stallman, a long-time critic of Ubuntu for including access to non-free software, weighed in on the shopping lens issue in his article Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?. He didn't just label Ubuntu 12.10 "spyware":

The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it...Ubuntu allows users to switch the surveillance off. Clearly Canonical thinks that many Ubuntu users will leave this setting in the default state (on). And many may do so, because it doesn't occur to them to try to do anything about it. Thus, the existence of that switch does not make the surveillance feature ok...Even if it were disabled by default, the feature would still be dangerous: "opt in, once and for all" for a risky practice, where the risk varies depending on details, invites carelessness

Stallman asked users to take action to pressure Canonical to get rid of the shopping lens:

It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users...please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute...tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.

Stallman is no stranger to controversy, but I don't see how he could have been more plain or harsher in his criticisms.

Naturally coming from someone with the stature of Stallman this news was picked up by the tech media and rapidly spread throughout social networks. The same day there was a personal (not official) response from Jono Bacon Ubuntu's community manager. Bacon labelled Stallman's arguments "FUD" (the spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt) and said:

When controversies such as this kick off from time to time about Canonical and/or Ubuntu, my approach has never been to try and convince our critics that they are wrong. My goal is not to turn the unbelievers into worshippers at the church of Ubuntu. My only goal has been to ensure that everyone who participates in the debate trades in facts and not in misinformation and FUD; there is enough misinformation and FUD on the Internet without us all adding to it. If someone has an accurate set of facts and accurately represents the topic but is critical about the position...no problem. We can then engage in respectful, accurate debate that will likely enrich all perspectives and ultimately result in better software.The goal of the dash in Ubuntu has always been to provide a central place in which you can search and find things that are interesting and relevant to you; it is designed to be at the center of your computing experience. Now, this is a big goal, and we are only part-way along the way to achieving it.

Bacon went on to say of Stallman's article:

These statements simply generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt about Ubuntu; a project that has a long history of bringing Free Software to millions of users around the world with an open community and governance. But then again, this is not particularly surprising from Richard. I have tremendous respect for Richard and his fantastic work in laying the foundations for the Free Software and Open Source world that we have today, but I think he is short-sighted at times. His views on software projects are pretty binary: either a strict set of ethics (defined by him) are observed, or it should be shunned.

There was also an Official Canonical response posted the same day, but it doesn't mention Stallman's article and instead gives a sort of roadmap as to how they want to see the shopping lens change over time to give more searches for more places. The one thing said there that does address the issue is:

Privacy is extremely important to Canonical. The data we collect is not user-identifiable (we automatically anonymize user logs and that information is never available to the teams delivering services to end users), we make users aware of what data will be collected and which third party services will be queried through a notice right in the Dash, and we only collect data that allows us to deliver a great search experience to Ubuntu users. We also recognize that there is always a minority of users who prefer complete data protection, often choosing to avoid services like Google, Facebook or Twitter for those reasons – and for those users, we have made it dead easy to switch the online search tools off with a simple toggle in settings.

It is clear the shopping lens is not going to disappear, although it will get more refined by the time the next LTS release is out in .

Through all of this I have been trying to figure out what I think about the issue. It is easy to dismiss Stallman as an extremist, but I do think that on this issue he has identified a genuine problem, just as the EFF did and the bug contributors have done. There is a privacy problem here and a lot of people have a problem with it, including me.

Personally I would have no problem installing Ubuntu 12.10 and turning off the web searches, because I think I understand the issues and I feel informed enough to know that this is not something that I want.

The bigger issue is that I give away Ubuntu DVDs to people who are new to Linux. Despite the fact that this feature can be turned off the problem is that by default it is turned on and I can't recommend Ubuntu 12.10 for people who are going to install it themselves because of that, unless there is a way of telling them what the issue is and how to turn it off after installation if they want to.

We aren't running Ubuntu 12.10 anyway, we are using 12.04 LTS. As a result we will continue to give out 12.04 LTS DVDs, as it doesn't include the unity-lens-shopping package. In fact the package isn't even in the Ubuntu 12.04 LTS repository. The longer term question of what we will recommend when the next LTS comes out in will depend on how it is configured. If it still has the unity-lens-shopping or similar package and it is still turned on by default on installation then I don't think I will be handing it out to any new users, unless I can find a way to explain the issue and give instructions on how to turn it off. Perhaps I'll give out Lubuntu 14.04 LTS instead.

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Puppy Linux 5.4 Slacko Puppy

By Adam Hunt

Puppy Linux 5.4 desktop

The latest version of Puppy Linux is Slacko Puppy 5.4, which was released on . This is a continuation of the series of Puppies based on Slackware Linux binaries and incorporates some improvements noticeable to the user.

Puppy Linux currently has two active mainstream branches, Slacko and Precise, which uses binaries from Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin. the Puppy Linux world is getting to be an embarrassment of riches! To make matters more confusing they both have 5.4 versions out, although Precise Puppy is now on 5.4.2. I am not sure if one branch will be terminated in favour of another or if both will carry on in parallel. For now I am following Slacko Puppy and leaving Precise Puppy for others to review.

This release of Slacko is larger than previous ones at 162 MB, while the last version, Slacko 5.3.3 was just 115 MB. One factor that is adding to the size of the release is browser choice. There is a release that includes Firefox 17 and another that uses Opera as the included browser. These replace the former use of SeaMonkey, which is a much smaller browser. There are also Physical Address Extension (PAE) versions with Opera as well, while the regular (4g) releases do not require PAE.

Aside from the default browser choice, this version of Puppy also has reorganized menus that are easier to use, new artwork and some new themes available. The usual assortment of applications is included in the ISO, featuring AbiWord, MTPaint, MPlayer, Gnumeric, Leafpad, Geany, GParted and lots more. Applications like LibreOffice, GIMP, VLC and Chromium are available in the repositories.

The Puppy Package Manager (PPM) is now the standard package go-getter and Quick Pet is not installed. That said, not all packages can be found in the PPM and in many ways it is just easier to go and download the .pet files directly from the repositories and then just click on them to install. Puppy is nothing if not simple!

This version has a new screen saver/power manager GUI tool and it is turned off by default, so if you want the screen to blank after a set period then you will have to turn it on.

Because of the larger ISO size and the fact that Puppy Linux runs entirely in RAM, this release is going to require more than the traditional 128 MB of RAM that recent releases have needed. With a 162 MB download it seems that 256 MB will now be the minimum normal amount to run this Puppy, which was the amount of RAM included with the earliest Windows XP boxes. It runs fast on old hardware, making Windows XP look stodgy on the same box. One nice thing about Puppy is that the older releases are still available and, because there are no updates just new releases, they never get really out of date.

Once again this new version of Puppy Linux offers lots of functionality out of the box for use as a rescue disk, a hardware troubleshooter or as a main-use production distribution for getting work done, especially on older hardware.

Users looking for the download should note that it isn't in the usual place on Ibiblio right now, due to lack of space there. Instead the Slacko release mirrors can be found on Mick Amadio's website


A Look at Lubuntu 12.10

By Adam Hunt

Lubuntu 12.10

While installing Lubuntu on a friend's computer, I recently had a chance to have a good look at the latest version, 12.10, which was released on .

This version of Lubuntu has not been well covered in the tech press, probably because it is really just an incremental upgrade over the last version. Other than the artwork, not a lot has changed, but then when it works as well as this release there isn't much to change, especially because Lubuntu is intended as a lightweight Ubuntu variant and you don't want to keep adding things to it.

Other than new versions of the standard suite of applications, including the lightweight Lubuntu Software Centre, which was introduced with Lubuntu 11.04, this version adds only one new application. The one obvious deficiency with previous releases of Lubuntu was its lack of a desktop search capability out-of-the-box. Actually, like all Linux distros it does have the command line Find utility, which works very well, but has clumsy syntax and, being a command line item, certainly puts off use by the Windows crowd. The solution was pretty simple - to include Catfish, a stand-alone desktop search GUI utility that uses the Locate command, with Find as a fallback. Catfish works well and is very simple and easy to use, too.

The new icon set and artwork introduced in Lubuntu 12.10 is very smooth and professional-looking, making the whole package look well planned and put together. Running it on an old Dell Dimension 2400 Windows XP box, with a Pentium 4, 2.6 GHz processor and 2 GB of RAM, it turned in good performance, opening applications quickly and showing no signs of maxing anything out.

Lubuntu 12.10 seems to be a good solid release, with complete features for a simple desktop computing experience. Being all menu-driven, from a single menu, it will be an easy transition for any Windows user to make.

My only criticism of Lubuntu in general these days is that in five full releases they haven't put out a Long Term Support (LTS) edition yet. Ubuntu 12.04 was an LTS, as was Kubuntu 12.04 and Xubuntu 12.04, but Lubuntu opted to leave 12.04 as a normal release, supported for only 18 months. Hopefully Lubuntu 14.04, due out in when the next Ubuntu LTS is due, will be an LTS for Lubuntu as well and give users the chance to run one version for a few years without upgrading.


APT From the Command Line

By Adam Hunt

I find one of the worst aspects of using Ubuntu is the Ubuntu Software Centre (USC). This store-like application is the main means of installing and removing software applications on Ubuntu, but I find it slow to open, slow to use, overly glitzy, with too many ads and just plain cumbersome. The only thing it is really good for is searching for an application when you aren't sure what you are looking for.

The good news is that there are lots of alternatives to the USC, like the Synaptic graphical package manager, or my favourite, the Advanced Package Tool (APT), which is run from the command line. I have previously written about using Debian's Aptitude from the command line and it is simply a front end for APT.

APT is very quick and easy to use from the command line on Ubuntu, although it helps to know the names of the packages you want to install.

To use APT open a terminal window, Ctrl+Alt+T and use these basic commands:

Install an application package
$ sudo apt-get install package-name
Remove an application package
$ sudo apt-get remove package-name
To remove configuration files as well
$ sudo apt-get purge package-name
To look for a package
$ apt-cache search package-parameters
To show the details of a package
$ apt-cache show package-name
To show the current version you have installed and the available version in the repositories
$ apt-cache policy package-name

One nice feature of APT is that you can install or remove a list of packages just by separating them with spaces. This allows setting up a new installation of Ubuntu very quickly with just one command, as long as you know which packages you want to install.

The Ubuntu community documentation has a good article that explains how to use APT, entitled Package management with APT.


A Week Back on Ubuntu

By Adam Hunt

It was , which was 21 months ago, that I left Ubuntu at version 10.10 Maverick Meercat over its insatiable appetite for hardware. As recently detailed, during the ensuing period I was using Lubuntu 10.10, 11.04 and Debian 6, all running the LXDE desktop. It has been just over a week now that I have been on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin with its Unity interface and Gnome applications and I have to admit it is like coming home again after a long time away.

LXDE is a great desktop, but, being lightweight it lacks a number of features and in its Debian incarnation, even more. Small things are missing, like having to do screen-shots from the command line, as well as read exif file metadata and desktop search as well. I probably could have tracked down GUI solutions for those, but they certainly didn't come with the desktop. Gnome is a full-featured desktop, so you get all the features included in the GUI, like full file exif metadata. Ubuntu comes with a keyboard-bound screen-shot tool and desktop searching is now built right into Unity as well, making it very fast to find files, as well as applications, too. As I have mentioned, Unity is now easier and faster to use than even the simple LXDE desktop is, all based on hands-on keyboard shortcuts.

After a week of use Unity 5 deserves special mention. In its present version Unity works really well, is easy to configure and provides instant access to the most used applications. The interface also includes lots of shortcuts, a list of which can be seen by holding down the "super" (Windows) key. Unity is really based on searching for applications and files, rather than looking through lists and, as a result, it has full search available with a tap of the "super" key.

Ubuntu 12.04 introduces the "HUD", which is really another form of search that offers searching for application menu items, rather than looking though the menus themselves. On applications with many menus and items, like GIMP, this works very fast and saves a lot of mousing, once you learn how to use it. The menu-searching HUD is accessed by hitting the Alt key and it works on all applications that I have tried, except LibreOffice, integration for which is still outstanding for now.

In working though the usual weekly computing functions of web browsing, writing, printing, scanning, downloading photos from my camera, uploading files via FTP and so on I have found just about everything in Ubuntu 12.04 works perfectly right out of the box. The only two exceptions I have found are spell-checking in gEdit and functionality in the CD/DVD-burner, Brasero.

gEdit normally allows spell-checking by hitting shift+F7 and the menus indicate that is still the case in gEdit 3.4.1, but it doesn't work for some reason. Spell-checking can still be selected from the "tools" menu or from the HUD of course. I admit this is a very minor gripe.

The Brasero CD/DVD burner application has never worked right since it was first introduced and it still doesn't. Like earlier versions, Brasero 3.4.1 takes a very long time to burn a CD, has a really awful interface and regularly screws up burn jobs, wrecking the CD or DVD. This issue was easy to fix, though, as I just installed XFburn 0.4.3 instead. XFburn is actually from the Xfce desktop, as used on Xubuntu and also in the LXDE desktop on Lubuntu. It is well laid out, easy to use and, most importantly, actually works. With the Ubuntu GTK ambiance theme it looks more at home on the Gnome desktop than Brasero does.

All in all Ubuntu 12.04 is a very polished and smooth release that works almost perfectly out of the box. Users coming from Mac or Windows will not find it lacking in any respect when compared to those proprietary products. Of course being predominately free software Ubuntu offers a lot more than Windows and Mac could ever do, like 33,000 free applications in the repositories.

So after a week on Ubuntu 12.04 it feels good to be back!


SSHFS & SFTP on the TP-Link TD-W8950ND DSL Gateway

By Adam Hunt

TP-Link TD-W8950ND

For the last five years we have been using a Thompson SpeedTouch ST585v6 DSL gateway at home. We bought this new from National Capital FreeNet in 2007 and it had been working fine until recently. It started spontaneously doing soft reboots all on its own, three in a two week period that I observed, although there were probably more that I missed seeing. This isn't a good sign and I figured since it is five years old, which seems to be the average life expectancy for one of these units, that it might be good to upgrade now, before it actually fails.

Because we have marginal wireless signal strength upstairs in our house, plus interference from neighbouring networks, I thought that getting an "N" wireless gateway would be a good idea. Gateways with the IEEE 802.11n protocol are supposed to have better range and resistance to interference from neighbouring systems. NCF is currently selling TP-Link modems and, as part of my volunteer work at NCF, I get to program these every Friday for members. The TP-Link units have proven very reliable in service over the past nine months with NCF members. NCF advertises the TP-Link TD-8816 single-ethernet port modem and the TP-Link TD-W8901G four ethernet ports, plus "B" and "G" protocol wireless gateway for sale. These meet most members' needs and are easy to set up and use. NCF does also stock the TP-Link TD-W8950ND gateway, but because it is a fairly specialized unit and more expensive than the TD-W8901G they don't advertise it widely. The 8950 provides four ethernet ports, plus "B", "G" and "N" wireless protocols.

So I bought an 8950 from NCF and, because I am the person there who sets up the modems on Fridays, I set this one up as well. The 8950 gateway has a completely different interface from the 8901. The 8901 interface is actually quite simple, well-laid out and user-friendly, while the 8950 has none of those attributes. The interface is complex, confusing and looks like it was designed by a networking engineer so that only he could understand it. In fact it looks like a testing environment more than a retail product. All the information is there, but it is technical, hard to find and poorly laid out, being spread out over many dozens of pages. Normally in cases like this the manufacturer's user manual is of some help. TP-link does publish a 94 page TD-W8950ND user manual, but it is not very useful as it is equally technical, not aimed at beginners or end users, seems to have been written by someone who didn't understand the interface either and who just copied the interface pages. A sample: "DHCP can be enabled for PVC in MER mode as WAN interface if "Obtain an IP address automatically" is chosen." I have no idea what that means.

Fortunately NCF Executive Director Ross Kouhi wrote the NCF 8950 gateway set-up documentation that enabled me to get the interface configured properly for use. There are some oddities in the set-up, too. For instance the SPI firewall is by default selected "off" and this leaves the gateway not well secured for Internet use. Also the default wireless set-up is "unencrypted" which is, again, not very a very smart default condition. All of this takes some knowledge to find the interface page required and set it up. The set up instructions that NCF uses are continuously updated to ensure that the gateways go out properly configured.

Here are some useful items that I located in the interface:

  1. Set SPI Firewall: Advanced Setup → LAN → Enable SPI Firewall
  2. Event log: Management → System Log
  3. Set Time: Management → Set Internet Time
  4. Devices connected to the modem: Device Info → DHCP
  5. Soft reboot: Management → Save/Reboot

Once we had it in service, we tested out the signal coverage on our third floor. With the old Thompson SpeedTouch 585v6 we were lucky to get 0.8 MB/s speed up there and had frequent drops, probably due to interference. Testing the 8950 showed speeds of over 2 MB/s, or about three times as fast and we haven't seen any drops at all in a week of use. That gets top marks!

Overall the 8950 is a great piece of gear, as it works well, does give better range and interference resistance, but I rate it only 9/10 due to the complex user interface and poor documentation. Some special knowledge is required to use it effectively.

The one problem we did immediately encounter when testing the 8950 was with our usual networking protocol, SSHFS, which kept returning "connection reset by peer" no matter what I did. With the 585 it just worked, so I thought perhaps the 8950 needed configuring for LAN communication, or perhaps it had a closed port somewhere that needed setting up. In the end troubleshooting this problem resulted in finding an alternative that works better than SSHFS!

After reading the 8950 manual, faqs and doing many searches for information I came up empty-handed. I asked Ross for help as he is a networking specialist and he was keen to see if we could solve it, as others may encounter the same problem. It makes NCF look good to already have the solution in hand!

At the NCF office I set up an 8950 on the test bench and we connected two computers to it. I installed SSHFS and openssh-server and duplicated the problem getting only "connection reset by peer". Ross was able to connect from one computer to the other via SSH, which showed that it was working by default and that the SSH port, port 22, was open. Obviously the problem is in SSHFS and not SSH or the gateway. Because it was busy at the NCF office, Ross left me to track down the issue with SSHFS.

That information left me with two options:

  1. Try to find out what is wrong with SSHFS or
  2. Find another networking method

I did some searching though the Ubuntu forums for more information on SSHFS and discovered that a number of users have been having trouble with it recently. I also found out that Nautilus, the Ubuntu file browser, provides GUI support for SFTP, which is the SSH File Transfer Protocol. This information, combined with Ross's demonstration that SSH and port 22 worked, meant that I could set up an SFTP network simply by installing openssh-server (actually already installed as part of trying to get SSHFS working) on the machine to be connected to and then use Nautilus → File → Connect to Server → SSH and then complete the local IP address, user account and password of the PC to be connected to and voila it worked.

In fact SFTP is a better networking protocol than SSHFS as it allows me complete access to the remote PC instead of just to the user home folder, so this was a worthwhile discovery. It is a bit more user friendly as well, being a GUI-based system. This also proves that the 8950 gateway is not the problem, the problem lies with SSHFS.

For anyone who buys a TP-Link TD-W8950ND and then notes that SSHFS doesn't work, the solution is simply to use SFTP, which for most Linux machines will just require openssh-server to be installed on the PC to be connected to.


Ubuntu 12.04 LTS

By Adam Hunt

As recently described in Distro Hopping we have just recently switched our whole house over to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. This current release came out on , so it had two months to mature before we dived in.

Ubuntu 12.04 is not only a Long Term Support (LTS) release, but sets a new standard, being supported for five years on the desktop and server, whereas previous LTS releases were good for three years on the desktop and five years for the server version. Clearly this release is intended for enterprise use and its development period was predominately used for polishing the Unity interface and ensuring maximum stability. It seems to have succeeded in both those respects.

Ubuntu 12.04 was released with Unity 5, a solid improvement over Ubuntu 11.10's Unity 4 and especially over Unity 3, which was released as part of Ubuntu 11.04. Unity 5 introduces the new Head-Up Display (HUD), a new video lens for searching videos and improvements to the Ubuntu Software Centre.

In installing Ubuntu 12.04 the one thing I noted was how easily everything worked right out of the box. The installation process was quick, smooth and simple and all the hardware I have worked without any problems, including my scanner, camera and printer. My HP 1018 printer was detected on turn-on, set up automatically and worked right away. That is impressive, as this printer usually requires command line intervention to be properly set up. The whole Ubuntu 12.04 installation and set up took just over an hour.

Boot times have really come down with this release and Ruth's laptop boots up in 40 seconds, while my desktop boots up in 36 seconds, which is impressive. A fresh boot leaves my desktop idling at 404 MB of RAM used and Ruth's laptop at 344 MB of RAM, so this isn't a lightweight distribution, but it does require lower specs than some previous versions of Ubuntu.

Using Ubuntu 12.04 is really a matter of learning Unity 5 and the learning curve is pretty short. The interface is quite capable of being used via the mouse or touch-pad, but really is designed for taking maximum advantage of keyboard shortcuts. A proficient user can pretty much do anything without taking their hands off the keyboard to grab the mouse and that makes Unity 5 a fast and efficient desktop. Since Unity 3 the ergonomics have been greatly improved and now work much better. Unity 5 makes a real effort to make looking though menus a thing of the past and replaces it with search functions instead, rather like how we all use the internet.

One of the most useful shortcuts is the "alt" key, which opens the HUD. This allows searching the open application's menus for parameters. In gedit, for instance, tap the "alt" key to open the HUD and type in "save" and it shows all save features. Arrow down and hit return and you are done.

Tapping the "super" key (usually the "Windows key" on most keyboards) opens the Dash, which allows searching for applications, files, directories, music, videos and more. A complete list of all installed applications is also quickly available in case you have forgotten the name of the application you are looking for.

Holding the "super" key brings up a list of Unity shortcuts and also numbers the applications on the Unity launcher so they can be activated by hitting the corresponding number key.

There are lots more shortcuts, but those three, using just two keys, will get most users started. Once you learn a few shortcuts your work-flow becomes much faster and fluid.

In working with Ubuntu 12.04, both at home at at National Capital FreeNet's offices, I have tried to find things I don't like about it, but I have to admit that I have not been successful. Despite my critical look at it I haven't been able to find much wrong with it at all, except perhaps the disappearing "edge scroll bars". I have never really liked the Ubuntu Software Centre, finding it slow and cumbersome, but doing "apt-get" from the command line is faster and easier anyway. Transitioning from the ultra-fast and simple LXDE desktop, which I have used for the last year and a half, I have to admit that Unity 5 is actually faster to use.

As noted below, with our whole house now using Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, we are going to take advantage of the long term support and plan to run this version until the next Ubuntu LTS is scheduled to be released in .


Distro Hopping

By Adam Hunt

Distro hopping is the practice by Linux users of jumping from one Linux distribution to another looking for the best one. This is of course a foreign idea to Windows and Mac users, as they have only one current release and so no choices. But in the Linux world there are hundreds of distros to choose from, which makes trying many out very, very tempting, in a "grass-is-always-greener" sort of way.

Ruth and I started our Linux adventures back in April 2007 with Ubuntu 7.04. We tried out some other distributions, including Puppy Linux and Xubuntu along the way, but kept coming back to Ubuntu. Then in , Ubuntu 10.10 was released and it caused us problems with hardware. It seemed to just demand more resources than my old Windows XP PC could handle. That lead me to give a serious look at the then-new Lubuntu, the LXDE-based derivative of Ubuntu. It worked well enough on my old hardware that I switched to Lubuntu 10.10, replacing Ubuntu 10.10, as did Ruth. We both went on to run Lubuntu 11.04 once it was released in and it was even better yet.

Also released in , Ubuntu 11.04 introduced the new Unity interface. Both Ruth and I tested Unity version 3 and found it pretty bad to work with, with just poor ergonomics. That seemed to cement our move to Lubuntu and LXDE, that is until Lubuntu 11.10 came out, which had tons of problems. Ruth couldn't even run it on her laptop without crashes. After looking over the options and seeing that the newer Unity 4 interface had greatly improved, she decided her best option was moving to Ubuntu 11.10. As very recently related, when her Ubuntu 11.10 installation became corrupted, she tried Puppy Linux 5.3.3 and Debian 7 Alpha 1, both without much success. That brought her to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which we installed on her laptop and desktop. Ruth's daughter, Rachael, was impressed enough with it that, when her six-month-old Windows 7 installation refused to boot, it was an easy choice for her to ask me to install Ubuntu 12.04 on her Acer laptop, too.

My own distro trip was no less convoluted. After running Lubuntu 11.04 very successfully and not being at all successful in switching to Lubuntu 11.10, I was looking for a new distribution myself. I tried out Puppy Linux 5.2.8 and finally settled on installing Debian 6 with the LXDE desktop on an old Dell Precision WorkStation 650 that I had inherited. With its SCSI architecture it really wouldn't run anything other than Debian, which supports a lot of old hardware.

Debian 6 actually worked out quite well and I had Ruth sold on eventually moving her laptop and desktop to Debian 7 in late or early , when it should be released in stable form. Debian is a very conservative distribution, not cutting edge, but with lots of choices in desktops, architectures, installation media, etc. It takes a lot of work and some inside knowledge to get it installed and set up to work for a user, but once it is set up, it runs very well and is very stable. What it lacks in features and innovation it makes up for in stability and predictability. I have no real reservations about Debian.

A number of factors caused me to move on from Debian, some of them hardware related and some software. On the software side LXDE is a good desktop, although it lacks some features, like a desktop search function, but these can easily be made up on the command line. The releases are far apart, usually at least two years or more, but the stability makes up for it. The one thing Debian doesn't have going for it is innovation. Desktop users have the choice of Gnome 3, KDE, Xfce and LXDE. I have never liked the first two options much, although Gnome 2 was fine. Xfce and LXDE are good desktops, if lacking a few features. Newer interfaces and their ways of working, like Unity 5, aren't available. At my volunteer position with National Capital FreeNet the computer I use on the front desk runs Ubuntu 12.04 and I was very impressed with how good it is. I found it annoying that Unity 5 allows me to work faster than LXDE does.

My hardware at home was constraining me from trying out other solutions, as it will not run much more than Debian. The hardware presented other challenges as well. The old Dell Workstation is almost ten years old. It was higher-end hardware back then but even so it sometimes labours to keep up, mostly due to the dual SCSI hard drives. The two drives are only 36 GB each, which is inconvenient and upgrading them to a single, bigger drive is prohibitively expensive. They are slow and constrain the CPUs. Overall it just doesn't run as well as a modern SATA, dual core PC. Due to the age of this PC there is a good chance that something will break on it in the near future. That usually doesn't worry me, as I just get parts and fix PCs all the time. The problem with this one is that just about all its components are so old as to be unavailable now. That would mean a breakdown would require a quick, and perhaps inopportune, purchase of a new PC, which isn't ideal.

Aware that the upcoming secure-boot hardware requirements may create problems in the Linux world later this year, when Windows 8 is released, I was actually keen to get a new PC before that happened. So I finally picked up a Gateway DX4860 with an Intel Core i3-2120 3.30GHz 4 core CPU, 1 TB hard drive, on-board Intel graphics (no Nvidia, AMD or ATI graphics card to worry about) and 6 GB of DDR3 RAM. Right now these are quite inexpensive and include some nice features, like built-in card readers and wireless. The Gateway was less than half the price of a similarly equipped System76, plus I got it locally, so no shipping charges!

This new hardware gave me the freedom to install just about any Linux distro I wanted to and I choose to give Ubuntu 12.04 a serious try.

In using Ubuntu 12.04 at NCF, and also in installing it on Ruth's and Rachael's computers, I have found that it is actually a very impressive release. Unity 5.12 works really well and is even faster to find and open applications than LXDE is, removing a lot of advantages of that desktop. It seems very smooth, seamless and polished in use. On my new desktop it is amazingly fast and responsive, even faster opening applications, loading web pages and such than the Dell Workstation was. Loading up the computer with everything running I could think of, barely used a small fraction of the RAM and CPU capacity. Ubuntu 12.04 is a Long Term Support (LTS) release with updates until , and so with it running on every machine in the house, our plan is to keep it until the next LTS release, Ubuntu 14.04.

And so I have finished almost two years of distro hopping, starting with Ubuntu 10.04 and ending up at Ubuntu 12.04 with stops at Ubuntu 10.10, Lubuntu 10.10, Lubuntu 11.04, Lubuntu 11.10, Debian 6 and Puppy Linux 5.2.8. In the time away from Ubuntu I missed out on most of the teething troubles when Unity 3 was released, although I certainly hit problems with releases like Lubuntu 11.10. In this trip I have learned a lot about Linux and computing. All the Linux distributions are good in their own way, but some releases are definitely better than others!

I am hoping to take a break from distro hopping over the next few years, which will probably give me less to write about here, but then I should get more other work done.


Ruth Tries Puppy & Debian

By Adam Hunt

Until very recently Ruth was running Ubuntu 11.10 on both her desktop and laptop computers. She had been impressed by my demonstrations of Debian 6 and its stability and, as outlined back in in Debian on the System76 Pangolin Performance, she was planning install Debian 7 on both her computers when it went stable later this year. This plan was moved up a bit this week when her laptop installation of Ubuntu 11.10 developed some software problems and wasn't booting up right.

Looking for more speed she asked to try out Puppy Linux as an interim measure. I did a full installation of Puppy Linux 5.3.3 for her. Puppy is certainly fast and she was impressed with many aspects of the operating system. It turned in a solid 30 second boot-up time, suspend and resume worked and applications opened very fast indeed. Unlike many users, she liked the Rox file manager with its one-click file opening. The battery indication was often minutes behind a plug-in or unplug of power, but that wasn't serious.

Installing Puppy Linux is very quick and can be done in about ten minutes.

The initial installation didn't last more than a week before it developed problems and wouldn't shut down. I re-installed it again as a full-installation and it seemed to work well for another week. After that it once again developed issues, not shutting down, not opening files and so on. In addition, some applications that were available in the repositories would install fine, but not open, probably lacking some dependency somewhere.

The final issue for Puppy was when we got a new TP-Link TD-W8950ND "802.11n standard" DSL gateway. This new gateway uses WPA-PSK/WPA2-PSK for wireless security and Puppy just does not support this protocol. Other devices could be signed on to the gateway just fine, but not Puppy. We did an Ubuntu 12.04 LTS "live session" and that connected to the gateway, so Puppy was the problem.

That made Puppy Linux a non-starter and Ruth rated it as 4/10 as a result. I suspect that a lot of the trouble was running Puppy as a full installation, as it would probably do much better booting from the CD each time, which is how it is designed to run.

Next we thought we would try Debian 7 Wheezy, which is currently in alpha testing and just about up to feature freeze. I knew that it had Linux kernel 3.2.0 and thus good driver support for Ruth's Realtek RTL8188CE wireless card.

So I downloaded the small net installation CD ISO image, MD5 sum checked it and burned it to a CD/RW that I had. The first CD/RW didn't boot, but the second one I tried was fine and we used the graphical installer and an ethernet connection to select Debian with the LXDE desktop. It all installed just fine, although it took a couple of hours to finish everything up.

Using my checklist we installed all the application software Ruth wanted, including Google Chrome and set everything up. We elected to use wicd as the wireless application and once that was installed tried to get the wireless working, but it refused to detect any wireless networks. We went through the instructions carefully but it just would not work. I tried downloading the Gnome network manager but once we had tried wicd we couldn't even get an ethernet connection back again.

Debian 7 presented other problems as well. The shutdown GUI only allowed "log out", not shutting down or rebooting, those had to be done from the root terminal. Editing as root from PCManFM was broken, the touch-pad "tap to click" function did not work and could not be enabled.

Basically it was a hopeless mess that we weren't going to be able to get working right quickly or easily. Debian 7 Alpha 1 is basically broken for laptop use right now, although perhaps it will work better once it goes stable at the end of the year. It took us over three hours to learn that.

So what to do next?

My back-up plan was always to install Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on Ruth's laptop, so we did. I even had a 64-bit DVD standing by for just that purpose.

As always the Ubuntu installation ran flawlessly and in under 35 minutes we had it all finished up and operational. We installed applications from the command line using apt-get to avoid the slow and cumbersome Ubuntu Software Centre. Apt-get works just fine, is quick and allows installation of everything you want in one command.

For something different we downloaded Google Chrome as a .deb file and installed it from the command line with Gdebi. It installed and worked fine, too.

Ubuntu easily connected to the TP-Link TD-W8950ND "802.11n standard" DSL gateway in WPA-PSK/WPA2-PSK mode without any problems, showing why it remains one of the most popular distributions, everything "just works" without any hassles. Ubuntu 12.04 worked so well for her on the laptop, that we installed it on her desktop as well. Again the installation was quick and easy.

Ubuntu 12.04 LTS is a very solid release, designed for desktop and server support for five years, Ruth is now planning to keep it at least until the next LTS release, which will be Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, due out in . After the experience with Debian 7, she isn't keen to waste more time on trying to get that working again.

Overall that was a bit of a roundabout trip to get from Ubuntu 11.10 to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, but we did learn a lot about Puppy Linux 5.3.3 and Debian 7 as well, at least in its current alpha testing phase.


Five Years of Linux

By Adam Hunt

Tux, the Linux Penguin

It was five years ago today, on 23 April 2007, that we got our first computer running Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn.

A lot has happened in those intervening five years. Today Ruth is running Ubuntu 11.10 and I am using Debian 6.0.4, but in the intervening time we have used Xubuntu, Lubuntu and Puppy Linux, too. All of them have been good. Really good in fact!

If you go back to the early days of our Ubuntu Diaries Part I there were some frustrations then, mostly to do with hardware that didn't work. Those problems were solved quite fast though and since then it has been mostly trouble-free computing for us. Since we dumped Windows on 14 June 2008 we haven't had any viruses, spyware and very few problems with instability and crashes. All the Linux-based operating systems we have used since then have been far better than any versions of Windows.

In switching to Linux many people are afraid that they won't be able to exchange documents with Windows users, but we have never found that. We make pdf, doc, xls, ppt and other files and Windows users never know the difference.

Perhaps the best part has been that Linux is free. Not just free of charge, but also free of proprietary software with all its restrictions. To be honest we do still use some non-free software, like Adobe Flash, but it should be gone in a year or two, once HTML5 is fully implemented and that should be the end of non-free software. The freedom alone is worth using Linux for.

We could go into all the reasons why Linux works so much better than anything else out there, but the Why Linux is Better website really does a great job of explaining that.

In all this free software, better performance and lack of viruses and crashes, one thing that should not be overlooked is the great people we have met in the free software world. People who use free software and especially Linux are always quick to help out and quick to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. That makes using Linux so easy - help is always there when you ask for it.

We are not software developers, but we have been doing our part to contribute, making donations, giving away a lot of Linux CDs and free software for Windows CDs and generally promoting the work of the talented developers in the free software world.

Overall, the past five years on Linux have been great!


Four Months of Debian

By Adam Hunt

My last review of Debian was back in , after I had completed Ten Days of Debian. Since late last week marked four months, I thought it was a good opportunity for another update on how Debian is working out.

I think I can sum up the experience by saying it has been almost flawless. Even with a couple of caveats, Debian 6.0 has certainly been the best operating system I have ever used. The most amazing part is its rock solid stability. I have had only one crash in four months; it hardly ever even needs a reboot! To be fair even the one crash was caused by IceWeasel 10, which is not a basic part of Debian 6, it is backported, so that can't really be laid at Debian's feet, either.

Of course with Debian stable you trade off the latest application versions for stability. To a large extent this works fine. Using OpenOffice.org 3.2.1 is good enough for most everyday purposes, so that you don't need the latest version of LibreOffice. Where this argument really falls down, though is with browsers. Debian 6 does not have a single good browser in the repositories. The basic browser it comes with is still IceWeasel 3.5.16, which is a security-updated version of Firefox 3.5, a browser that was released on 30 June 2009. The internet has changed a lot since then and you need things like HTML5 and Ajax support these days. There aren't a lot of browser alternatives in the official repositories either, just offerings like Chromium 6.0.472.63 from , Epiphany 2.30.6 from or even Galeon 2.0.7, which dates from , which is four and half years ago! These choices aren't that far from from people still using Internet Explorer 6 from and there are still a few doing that, or at least trying to. There are some good browser alternatives outside the official repositories though, such as backporting to the current version of IceWeasel or installing Google Chrome. I did both. They are both great browsers and make Debian truly usable for the internet. Of course there is a price to pay and that is that you may get one crash in four months from IceWeasel. Chrome hasn't caused any issues at all.

In terms of browser preference I have to say that I have been using Chrome more these days. It is just smoother and more functional than IceWeasel is, and the tabs never freeze up while pages are loading, either. There is some good development going on over at Mozilla, so perhaps it will get better in the next few releases.

I can't say enough good things about the LXDE desktop on Debian. It is very simple, light, fast and smooth. I do get to use Ruth's PC running Ubuntu 11.10 with Unity 4 now and then and while it is actually not bad, LXDE is just so much better, easier to use and more flexible. Debian plus LXDE is an amazing combination.

I have been doing all my package management, including installing applications and updates, using Aptitude from the command line. As noted in that article there are a few things to learn, but generally it is very fast and easy to use. It sure beats the Ubuntu Software Centre all to heck. I can install or update a package in Aptitude while an Ubuntu user sits and waits for the Ubuntu Software Centre to open! Even Ruth has taken to using APT from the command line on Ubuntu.

As I have noted before installing and setting up Debian is not for beginners, but once it is up and running it is just about flawless and a beginner can easily use it then. Debian 6.0 with LXDE is the best operating system I have ever used. It is so good I am not even in a hurry for Debian 7.0 to arrive. Ruth is though as she is waiting for a Debian version that supports her System76 laptop hardware, which Debian 6 doesn't do, unfortunately. No date has been set for Debian 7 yet, but it may be out near the end of or perhaps early in .


Working With Aptitude

By Adam Hunt

I have been working with Aptitude, the terminal-based front end to the Advanced Packing Tool (APT), since I started with Debian in . Its simplified syntax and powerful tools, along with good speed, make it very easy to use. It does have a console-based GUI, but I find I much prefer using Aptitude from the command line, as it is just easier.

Here are some sample commands, all done from a Debian root terminal:

update package file listing
# aptitude update
download updates
# aptitude safe-upgrade
install a package
# aptitude install foo
remove a package
# aptitude remove foo
search for a package containing "foo"
# aptitude search foo
check if a package is installed
# aptitude show foo
update one package only
# aptitude safe-upgrade foo

As you can see it is nice and logical, simple to use and fast too.

Recently, though I ran into a problem that I couldn't quickly solve. Aptitude indicated that there were two MySQL package updates that had been provided by Oracle as binaries only, they were essential security upgrades, but were technically untrusted. Aptitude displayed this as a text warning, but there was no way to accept the warning and proceed past the warning page, it just stuck there and wouldn't install. I managed to update other packages individually while I was figuring it out, so I didn't get too far behind.

I worked on this for a few weeks, trolling through the Debian forums and other forums and found nothing. All I could think was that this must be an easy problem to solve, because no one has asked about it. I went though the official Debian Aptitude wiki page and even the APT wiki page as well. Finally I had an inspiration and carefully read the manual found at:

# man aptitude

and there was the answer, which says:

-q[=<n>], --quiet[=<n>] Suppress all incremental progress indicators, thus making the output loggable. This may be supplied multiple times to make the program quieter, but unlike apt-get, aptitude does not enable -y when -q is supplied more than once.

All I had to do was run:

# aptitude safe-upgrade -q

and it worked!

Aptitude is a great utility from the command line, but like all other command line applications is limited by the user's knowledge of the syntax. Of course it helps to read the manual as well.


Zimbra WebMail

By Adam Hunt

The first time I encountered Zimbra web-mail was around . I was on one of my volunteer Friday afternoons at National Capital FreeNet, our not-for-profit ISP. Our Sysadmin, Andre Dalle, asked me to stay late and have a look at his proposal for a new web-mail system to replace our aging Messenger Express interface. Andre was very enthusiastic about Zimbra and quickly flashed me through some of its capabilities on a test server, pausing on some of the new things it will do, like the briefcase and calendar features.

It was clearly more than just a new web-mail interface, the parts I saw were running on the Zimbra Collaboration Server, a free software system from the ground up, from mail server to the user.

That first look at Zimbra actually impressed me as much as Andre. It looked like a modern e-mail web interface at last, a vast improvement over the old interface that belonged in the 1990s, along with its mere 20 MB of e-mail storage.

Andre doesn't get wound up about software unless it is really good quality and I hadn't seen him that enthusiastic about software before. From last summer's demo Andre went on to do a member's "beta-test" of the installation from July to February, gathering feedback and tweaking the installation, based on what participating members said.

In general I wasn't following the story too closely, as I didn't really use the old NCF e-mail. Compared to my Gmail account the old NCF Messenger Express was far too limited. Even when Zimbra was officially rolled out in I didn't pay much attention. That only happened when I was in volunteering at NCF one Friday and NCF Executive Director Ross Kouhi asked me to put together some documentation about Zimbra. Even though the account-by-account roll-out was underway and the vast majority of NCF members had no problem figuring out the new interface, it was causing problems for a few dozen members. The NCF Help Discussion Group carried several entreaties from members, "please switch back to the old system, I don't want to learn this new Zimbra thing".

With the old Messenger Express too old to maintain anymore, lacking support for mobile devices and more-to-the-point, since Zimbra was fully deployed, I couldn't see what the problem was, but then I hadn't tried Zimbra out, as I was using Gmail. With Ross's request that I write some documentation, my first step had to be learning Zimbra. Perhaps I could see where the complaints came from while I was at it. I decided to try out basic functions, like sending and receiving mail and write them up, since I thought it must be pretty non-intuitive, from reading the complaints.

I quickly discovered that to send a new e-mail you click "new", to reply to an e-mail click "reply" or "reply to all". E-mail comes in automatically, or you can speed it up by clicking "get mail". Forwarding, sending to multiple recipients, using the address book and briefcase were well explained with graphic icons and labels on all the buttons, plus hover tool tips on everything. Zimbra includes very complete on-line help that is available by clicking "help". The preferences menu is extensive and allows a lot of customization to be done, from languages, to HTML/text, to sixteen themes to choose from. It all seemed amazing easy to do and I had most of it figured out in about ten minutes. The ergonomics are actually very well thought out.

That mostly left me in a quandary for writing the documentation, as I couldn't think of anything to write about - it was too self explanatory and also far too similar to other applications. Anyone who has used Gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail, Thunderbird, Outlook Express or even Outlook should find it very similar and just as easy to learn. I decided to go through the Help Discussion Group pages and pick out all the questions asked about Zimbra, along with the answers and then add that to the documentation, along with screenshots for each question. The resulting documentation page is publicly available and still growing, as people ask more questions and as I add the answers.

When I started learning Zimbra I had no intention of switching from Gmail to NCF mail, but in working with Zimbra now for a week I am actually so impressed with how well it works and how many features it has that Gmail lacks, that I am using it as a second e-mail account, especially for my NCF volunteer work. In fact the only thing that Zimbra's implementation at NCF lacks over Gmail is storage space. Right now Gmail offers 7.6 GB of e-mail storage, which at my rate of use is over ten years of e-mail. NCF mail now offers 200 MB, which is about 90 days of e-mail storage for me. If NCF ups its mail storage in the future it would be a real contender against the big boys, like Gmail and Hotmail.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, Zimbra is named for the Talking Heads song I Zimbra and that the song is, in turn, an adaptation of Dada poet Hugo Ball's poem "Gadji beri bimba." That it has its roots in Dadaism kind of fits.


Debian on the System76 Pangolin Performance

By Adam Hunt

Based on my success in running Debian 6.0.3 Squeeze on my desktop, Ruth decided that she would like to try it on her System76 Pangolin Performance laptop.

In short it didn't work out.

The Pangolin Performance is built for Linux, so it should work, right? Searching the web forums showed that some people had had problems running Debian on Pangolins in the past, due to wirles card isues, but that Debian Squeeze seems to work fine, at least with Pangolin versions P6 and P7. Ruth's Pangolin is a slightly newer version P8 and that proved to be a deal breaker.

We did an installation of Debian 6.0.3 64-bit from the small net installation CD. The installation ran fine, but the operating system did not find the wireless card. We tried the Debian Wiki and as usual found some good information there under WiFi and WiFi HowToUse. It suggested that Wicd would be a good application to install for wireless on the LXDE desktop. We installed it but it was unable to find the wireless card.

The hardware printout from lshw showed that the wireless card installed is a Realtek RTL8188CE. Some digging on the Debian Wiki showed that this card is supported in the Linux kernel 2.6.38 and later. Of course Squeeze is using the 2.6.32-5 kernel right now.

A check of the packages for Debian 7 Wheezy, the current testing version, shows that it is using the 3.1.0-1 kernel. So the obvious solution was to try Wheezy, which we did. I downloaded the ISO image, MD5 sum checked it and burned it to a DVD. The graphical installer hung up several times on the second screen, so I switched to the text installer instead, but it could not identify the ethernet card. Obviously Wheezy is at far too early a stage to be useful right now.

So Ruth is back to using Ubuntu 11.10, at least for now. It would seem that her hardware is too new for Squeeze, but will be supported in Wheezy and should work fine, once it becomes the new stable late in .


Flash Versus Gnash

By Adam Hunt

For almost three months now I have been using Debian 6.0.3 Squeeze and it is a very impressive operating system, very stable and smooth in use.

In fact the only piece of software that came with Debian that has been a problem has been Gnash 0.8.8, the free software alternative to the Adobe Flash player. In theory Gnash is a good idea, a free software application to play Flash videos, but in practice it doesn't work very well. It performs adequately when there is one video per page and it is in Flash 7 or earlier format. As Gnash's page on Debian explains: "GNU Gnash is based on GameSWF and supports most SWF v7 features and some SWF v8 and v9. SWF v10 is not supported by GNU Gnash." That means that it supports some of the Flash video and animation that you see on the internet, but not others. Because Flash will shortly be replaced on the web by HTML5 it seems that not a lot of work is being put into Gnash right now, which is understandable.

After my first two Gnash crashes and also noting that it is a CPU hog on any page that has Flash content, I just went to using Iceweasel with Gnash disabled. That actually worked pretty well and I could see about half the videos on You Tube using HTML5 (the WebM ones, not the h.264 ones). In some cases I just turned Gnash on to watch a video and then turned it off again when I was done to avoid it crashing. The real problem arose when I ran into a web video that was Flash version 9 or 10, which is very common, as there was no way to view it on Iceweasel. That left me to open Google Chrome as the only option. Basically Gnash, while a good idea, doesn't work very well and is unlikely to get better in the near future. While I would love to have a totally free software system, it just isn't practicable right now, but should be once HTML5 is established.

I have come to really like Iceweasel 9.0.1, mostly due to its superior spell checking and bookmark searching. So today I decided that if I am going to keep using it that I really need to have Flash installed.

I started off trying to just do:

# aptitude install flashplugin-nonfree

but that didn't work, as apparently I didn't have the nonfree repository activated. So I set out to find out exactly how to do that.

I started with the Debian Wiki, my usual first stop for information, but it was not much help, as it does not tell you how to set the repositories.

My second stop is usually the Debian User Forums, but the threads I found were not specific enough and some like this one, contained enough rudeness towards the question-asker that most people would not be tempted to ask any more questions. The Ubuntu Forums are not like the Debian forums in that regard.

Finally I found the help I was looking for on the Linux Questions. There I found some friendly and helpful information that actually answered the question as to how to configure the sources file. The answer was: as root edit /etc/apt/sources.list to add the words "contrib non-free" to:

deb http://mirror.csclub.uwaterloo.ca/debian/ squeeze main contrib non-free
deb-src http://mirror.csclub.uwaterloo.ca/debian/ squeeze main contrib non-free

With that done it was just a matter of running:

# aptitude update
#aptitude install install flashplugin-nonfree

and that installed Flash 11.1.102.55. After a reboot Iceweasel found the Flash player and for some reason Gnash had disappeared. It hasn't been a problem but the Linux Questions thread suggested if it is, to run:

# aptitude purge gnash browser-plugin-gnash

Flash will not update with the other installed software, so as the Debian Wiki explains, to update the Flash player you have to run:

# update-flashplugin-nonfree --install

As a bonus Iceweasel has access to all the Firefox extensions and one is the Flash Video Downloader, written by Pavel Shcherbakov and Artur Dubovoy. This handy extension allows videos to be saved and played later, or allows them to be played on a media player, like VLC, instead of in the browser, eliminating stuttering and other playback issues. The Firefox extensions library has a number of other extensions that will do the same thing, and so does Google Chrome for that matter.

So now, after three months of having a semi-functioning browser, I now have Iceweasel fully configured. Hopefully in the next couple of years, when HTML5 video becomes more widespread, we can do away with all non-free software.


Chrome 16 Versus Iceweasel 9

By Adam Hunt

I have now been using both Iceweasel 9.0.1 (same as Firefox 9.0.1) and Chrome 16.0.912.75 alternately for about a month to compare them and have concluded that they are both very good browsers. As a result I thought I would create a comparison table to see which one has the edge.

Here is what I have found:

Browser Comparison

Item

Chrome 16.0.912.75

Iceweasel 9.0.1

Comments

Winner

Page load speed Tie Tie Iceweasel loads most pages faster, but occasionally some page loads are quite slow on some specific websites. Tie
Tab switching while page loading Yes Slow Iceweasel often will not allow switching tabs while a page is loading, essentially locking the browser up. Chrome
Tab dragging Smooth and flawless Not as clean Chrome
PDF handling Integrated PDF reader Choice of download or open in PDF reader application, can set default Tie
Searching bookmarks from the URL bar Often does not work Flawless Chrome often cannot find bookmarks, even when the whole URL is typed into the omnibox Iceweasel
Spell checking Only includes form text that you type, not existing form text Spell checks all form text Iceweasel
Themes Thousands 30,000+ Tie
Interface customization Very little A lot Iceweasel
HTML5 test 358+13 315+9 Chrome
You Tube HTML5 support WebM + h.264 WebM only Chrome is slated to lose its h.264 support in the future but then You Tube will probably drop it also Chrome
Free software No Yes Chrome is proprietary freeware based on the free software Chromium browser Iceweasel

The comparison ends up as an overall tie!

As can be seen both browsers are currently very good, usable, standards compliant browsers. Chrome is currently smoother to use, but if an advantage had to be identified then Iceweasel's free software status certainly gives it the edge there, although this would not be the case in comparing Chromium 16, which is also free software.

Personally I have been favouring using Iceweasel over Chrome, mostly because its superior spell-checking and bookmark-finding from the URL bar make it more functional for me in what I do on the internet. Its more flexible interface customization is nice as well, as it is easier to make it look the way that you want.

It will be interesting to track these two browsers, now both on fast development schedules and both being financially supported by Google, to see how they compare in the near future.


Iceweasel 9

By Adam Hunt

As described previously, I finally figured out how to update Iceweasel to the latest stable version. This resulted in upgrading the version that comes with Debian 6.0.3, Iceweasel 3.5.16 with version 9.0.1, a big jump!

Iceweasel 9.0.1 is not just based on Firefox 9.0.1, it is exactly Firefox 9.0.1, with the new Iceweasel free logos substituted for the non-free Mozilla logos. Otherwise it is identical.

Firefox 9 is getting good reviews, particularly for its improved speed, as Dan Bailey notes. JavaScript benchmark testing conducted by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes shows that Firefox 9 has improved, but still hasn't caught Chrome up yet for raw JavaScript speed. He notes, however, that this is probably no longer critical:

Looking at the data, and combining this with real-world usage, I really don’t think that JavaScript performance is an issue any more. In real-world testing it’s almost impossible to see a difference between the browsers (some HTML 5 sites not withstanding, given that many are optimized for a particular browser). In fact, unless one of the players managed to boost JavaScript performance by an order of magnitude, shaving a few milliseconds off here and there hardly matters any more.

So according to Kingsley-Hughes all the modern browsers are very close in performance now. In testing Iceweasel 9.0.1, I agree. Using real-world testing and loading a variety of websites on both Iceweasel 9.0.1 and Chrome 16.0.912.63 I found that Iceweasel timed a bit faster on most websites, but lost out on a couple to Chrome. Overall in real-world use there is not much difference in page loading.

In daily use Iceweasel 9.0.1 is fast and smooth. Unlike Iceweasel 3.5.16 you can switch tabs while other tabs are loading, which makes it seem faster yet. The user interface hasn't changed between Iceweasel 8 and 9, but it is an improvement in a number of respects over 3.5. Many of these improvements seem to borrow ideas from Chrome, such as replacing the bottom fixed status bar with a bar that only appears when you hover over a link.

Iceweasel 9.0.1 has more user interface flexibility than Chrome does and gives the user more control over how it looks. The amount of "browser chrome", the parts of the browser that do not display a web page, such as the menu bar, location bar and the bookmarks bar, can all be added or removed at user discretion. This allows the top "chrome" to be reduced even more than on Google Chrome. Iceweasel 9.0.1 is smart about this as well. If you remove the menu bar, which includes the preferences and bookmarks, it creates a new button at the top left to provide user access to the menus and moves the bookmarks to an icon at the right side of the location bar. Furthermore the user can select whether tabs are displayed at the top or bottom of the browser chrome.

One real strength of Iceweasel 9.0.1 over Chrome is searching bookmarks. Both can do that from their location or URL bar, but Iceweasel gets it right and finds bookmarks as you type them in every time, whereas Chrome often doesn't find them until the whole URL is typed in.

Perhaps the only feature Iceweasel 9.0.1 lacks out-of-the-box is web page translation, but this is available as an "add-on". While Chrome has a lot of add-ons these days, Firefox still has a lot more, due to its longer history and larger developer base.

Iceweasel 9.0.1 handles PDF files acceptably, offering to open them in Evince or save them, but of course Chrome, with its integral PDF reader is still slicker in this regard.

Comparing RAM use is interesting. With an identical selection of six tabs open on the same six web pages, Iceweasel 9.0.1 consumes 208.7 MB of RAM in one process, while Chrome 16.0.912.63 uses a total of 275 MB of RAM in nine processes. No doubt Chrome's individual processes for each tab provide better security and crash-resistance, but at a cost of 32% more RAM.

One area where Iceweasel 9.0.1 improves greatly over Iceweasel 3.5.16 is in HTML5 performance. Iceweasel 3.5 scored only 166/450 on the HTML5 test, whereas Iceweasel 9.0.1 makes 299 points. It still isn't there yet, though as H.264 video support is lacking and that means that it can only play some videos in the current You Tube HTML5 trials. If it could play H.264 video then I could probably survive without Adobe Flash, but maybe future versions will correct this. In comparison Chrome 16.0.912.63 supports both H.264 and WebM video and scores 328 on the HTML5 test.

The question of Adobe Flash brings up an interesting point. When Iceweasel finally provides good HTML5 video then it should be possible to do away with Flash and its crashes and also have a truly free-software-only installation. I have Gnash installed in place of Flash, as it comes with Debian, but it is disabled to avoid it crashing web pages. Chrome is never going to offer a free-software-only installation, as it has a built in proprietary Flash player and the browser itself is freeware and not free software.

Overall Iceweasel 9.0.1 is quite impressive and a great improvement over earlier versions. It provides a good, standards-compliant browser that is as fast as Chrome in everyday use. Once its HTML5 video support improves it will provide users with the opportunity to eliminate non-free software like Adobe Flash from their computers and still get a rich web experience.


Upgrading Iceweasel

By Adam Hunt

Today marks one month of using Debian and, other than two Gnash crashes in Iceweasel, I have had no problems with it at all, especially since I disabled Gnash. The stability is remarkable.

I have been using Iceweasel 3.5.16 intermittently since my initial review of it and while it works okay, it is a bit slow and stuttery on some web pages at times. Being basically two and half years old it also produces warnings on some websites, like Gmail and Google docs, that it may not work right, although it does seem to interact with those websites fine. As noted earlier Debian stable provides one version of Iceweasel and then updates it periodically with security fixes, but not new features. This means that, for instance, Iceweasel 3.5.16 does not support HTML5 video, and scores only 166/450 on the HTML5 test.

I have been doing some reading on how to upgrade Iceweasel to a more recent version and the Debian forums as usual provided the best answer.

The key is the Debian Mozilla team website, which provides exact instructions on how to pick a new version of Iceweasel and install it. The page specifies six different versions: 3.0, 3.5, 3.6, release, beta and aurora. The first three are old releases and beta and aurora are respectively new beta and alpha testing versions. For stable use the one you want is "release". As that page explains, all you do is open a root text editor and add the following lines to the file /etc/apt/sources.list

deb http://backports.debian.org/debian-backports squeeze-backports main
deb http://mozilla.debian.net/ squeeze-backports iceweasel-release

Then you open a root terminal and run a normal update:

# aptitude update
# aptitude safe-upgrade

and the latest stable version of Iceweasel will be installed, along with any required dependencies.

As indicated on the instruction page there will be warnings about the signatures, but this can be addressed though the keyring package or ignored.

This procedure should provide the latest stable release version of Iceweasel and keep it up to date, as it is made up from the most recent Firefox release and updated as new Firefox versions are made available.


Iceweasel 3.5

By Adam Hunt

My new Debian 6.0.3 installation came with a new browser, Iceweasel 3.5, so I thought I would try it out and see how it works, mostly because I like the name!

I should start off by explaining that Iceweasel is not really a new browser at all, it is really Firefox 3.5, re-branded with a new name and logo. Naturally there is a story behind that. It goes back to 2006, when there was a dispute between Mozilla and the Debian Project. Debian's philosophy on browsers within their stable release is not to provide new versions as this can compromise stability, but instead to patch the existing browser for any security vulnerabilities fixed in later releases. This lead Mozilla to ask the Debian Project to not call the resulting browser "Firefox" since it is really a fork and not their browser product. At the same time Debian had a problem with including Mozilla's logos in their releases. Even through the Firefox source code is 100% free software the logos are copyrighted, with makes them non-free. The solution was to re-brand the browser and the name the Debian Project chose was Iceweasel. The name comes from a Matt Groening quote, fictionally attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: "Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come."

So Iceweasel is not a new browser, but it is not exactly Firefox 3.5 anymore either.

The Iceweasel user interface is the same as that of Firefox 3.5 and that means that the browser "chrome" at the top occupies about twice the vertical screen space as Google Chrome's does. Also Iceweasel has a fixed status bar at the bottom, which eats a bit more screen-space.

The version number causes some problems as well, even if patches have been applied for security, if not new features. For instance Gmail identifies Iceweasel 3.5 as a very old version of Firefox and warns that Gmail may not work properly with it. There is some merit to the concern as Firefox 3.5 made its appearance on 30 June 2009, but it seems to work fine with Gmail, in both "basic HTML" and full display modes.

Another interesting feature of Iceweasel 3.5 is that it doesn't come with Adobe Flash. In an attempt to keep it uncontaminated by proprietary software Iceweasel 3.5 uses Gnash 0.8.8 instead. Now Gnash is an attempt to produce a free software equivalent to Flash, the problem is that while it can play You Tube videos it stumbles over web page Flash graphics and generally can't handle them. This rather degrades the usefulness of the browser.

I tried running You Tube videos on HTML5 instead, but that doesn't work on Iceweasel 3.5, because, being an older version for features, it scores quite low on HTML5 support, only 166/450, doesn't support WebM or h.264 video formats and thus won't play HTML5 video.

Gnash seems to have trouble with websites that have multiple Flash video windows embedded on them. While on any such pages Gnash immediately consumes about 50% CPU capacity for some reason.

Iceweasel 3.5 still suffers from some of the same normal problems that Firefox suffers from. It has spell checking that stops half way down the page on longer form pages and no spell checking in web page bars, just on forms. My favourite search engine, DuckDuckGo, is not available in the search engine listings and thus requires a plug in to make it the default search engine. That just took a few extra steps to get set up right, however.

On the plus side Iceweasel 3.5 is a relatively lightweight browser. On a typical selection of five web pages Chrome 15.0.874.121 consumed 373.6 MB of RAM, while Iceweasel 3.5 used only 151.9 MB, including 18.9 MB for Gnash.

In comparing page load speeds, at least on my fairly capable Dell WorkStation 650, there seems to be very little difference between Iceweasel 3.5 and Chrome 15. Some pages load more quickly, but on some, like CBC News, it hangs up, probably on the embedded video content. My previous testing of Firefox 5 back in , on less capable hardware showed that Firefox 5.0 had slower page loading than Chromium 12.0.742.91 at that time, but the hardware may have been a factor.

Iceweasel 3.5, with its security patches, is a good, solid standards compliant browser. I understand the trade-offs of stability for newer features, but the use of the very feature-incomplete Gnash really holds Iceweasel back. Of course that is a problem that will go away in the near future as newer versions of Iceweasel will appear in Debian 7.0 with better HTML5 support and as Flash disappears from the internet.

Overall Iceweasel 3.5 is a serviceable browser, but its drawbacks, predominately its use of Gnash, make it second string to browsers that are updated regularly, Like Firefox, Chrome and Chromium.

Update -

I have had a couple of problems with Iceweasel crashing, due to Gnash locking up on embedded video on web pages. When this happens it not only locks up the browser, but the whole desktop and requires a reboot to resolve it. I am now trying out Iceweasel with Gnash disabled and it seems to run faster and without any hang-ups. Gnash can be disabled at Tools→Add-ons→Plug-ins.

Update -

I have now run Iceweasel for several days with Gnash disabled and it runs relatively fast and smoothly, with no problems at all. This tends to support the notion that the crashes were caused by Gnash. Adobe Flash can be installed in Iceweasel as described in the Debian Wiki entry and even updated from the command line, too. Since I have Google Chrome with built-in Flash I haven't bothered installing Flash in Iceweasel, however.


Puppy Linux 5.3.0 Slacko Puppy

By Adam Hunt

Puppy Linux 5.3.0 desktop

The latest version of Puppy Linux, numbered 5.3.0 to start a new sub series, was released on . The release was low-key enough that even the Wikipedia page wasn't updated until 3 December!

This new version represents a departure of sorts for Puppy Linux, as belied by the release name Slacko Puppy. Past Puppy 5 versions were named Lucid Puppy, because the applications used were based on binaries from Ubuntu's Lucid Lynx repositories. Now this latest version of Puppy draws its application binaries from Slackware 13.37 instead.

As far as the user experience goes, Puppy just gets more refined as time goes by and each new release represents more polish and usability than the last one. The most obvious change when you boot up Puppy 5.3.0 from the CD is the black desktop. Puppy has been noted for its varied and striking desktop images in the past, but this one is a stand-out. It looks like a tribute to Pink Floyd's 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon and certainly is an attention-getter!

Perhaps the biggest change for Puppy 5.3.0 users is in browsers. The previous Puppy didn't come with a web browser, other than a stripped down version of Dillo that was used as a help browser. It was left up the the user to pick a browser and download it from the repositories. This time the developers have done away with Dillo and re-introduced Seamonkey 2.4.1 to be used as both a help browser and also as a usable web browser. Lots of other browsers are available for download, including Chromium, Firefox, Iron and Opera for users who want a more full-featured browser.

Puppy 5.3.0 comes with the usual assortment of applications, including the AbiWord word processor, Gnumeric spreadsheet, MTPaint and Inkscape graphics editors. Also available in the dedicated Slacko repositories are such favourites as the GIMP image editor, LibreOffice suite and VLC media player.

The ISO file for Puppy 5.3.0 is 124.2 MB to download, smaller than the 129.2 MB for Puppy 5.2.8 and most importantly under the 128 MB line, which means it can all be loaded into RAM on a PC with just 128 MB of RAM.

We find Puppy is a great operating system for a number of uses. First and foremost it is the distribution of choice for people on dial-up because it supports dial up out-of-the-box so well and also because there are no updates to download. But Puppy is also a really useful operating system for data rescue, just pop the CD into the drive of an infected and unbootable computer, boot Puppy into RAM, click though and remove your documents, transfer them to a USB drive and you are all set. It is also very useful as a hardware diagnostic tool. As long as the CD drive and RAM are operational then you can bring up Puppy and see if the hard drive or other components have failed.

Overall Puppy Linux is a great operating system and it looks like the new Slacko Puppy series is going to be a worthy successor to the previous Lucid Puppy series, providing more polish, more striking artwork, updated applications and a continually refined user experience.


Ten Days of Debian

By Adam Hunt

I have now been using Debian 6.0.3 exclusively for ten days and I thought it was time for a longer term look at how it works, particularly on the quirky old 2003 vintage Dell Precision WorkStation 650 hardware I am using.

The most obvious point, after having used Lubuntu 10.10 and 11.04 for the last year, is the amazing stability that Debian offers. With Lubuntu there were frequent panel and file manager crashes, plus the odd Flash crash in Chromium as well. My Debian installation uses the same LXDE desktop as Lubuntu and Chrome in place of Chromium. Chrome has an integrated Flash player, in place of the plug-in one used in Chromium and that might account for the lack of Flash crashes. The panel and file manager seem rock-solid so far, with no crashes. This is probably a result of the large amount of testing and bug fixes that are done by the Debian team before a "stable" branch release is made. So far "stable" seems very stable!

Here are some performance notes about Debian 6.0.3 LXDE running on the WorkStation 650 hardware that I am using. The boot time is a fairly slow 1:23, but I think that is largely attributable to the SCSI hardware and its odd boot sequence. The operating system idles at an impressively low 73 MB of RAM use after a reboot (plus 9.1 MB of RAM for LXtask to see how much RAM it uses). Running CPU-intensive applications is also impressive, although again the hardware's dual 2.8 GHz CPUs probably get most of the credit there. On my previous Dell Dimension 2400 with a single 2.66 GHz CPU running either a ClamAV scan or doing a network file transfer would max out the CPU, slowing down any other tasks attempted. With Debian and the WorkStation 650 ClamAV uses only 25% of the CPU capacity and a network file transfer uses only 15%. Considering that this PC has only twice the CPU capacity, not four times, that is impressive and allows other things to be done while those operations are underway without loss of performance.

One thing that is notable is that applications seem to open faster under Debian, with some help from the hardware, no doubt. The most obvious is the Gedit text editor, which took five seconds or more to open on Lubuntu 11.04 but on Debian 6.0.3 is almost instantaneous. The fast opening of Gedit takes away any advantage using Leafpad may have had, as fast opening is its only advantage over Gedit.

All the applications I have installed work well in testing. In checking out the command-line utilities, including the ClamAV virus scanner, Tesseract optical character reader, Aptitude package manager, Exiv2 metadata reader, Gdebi .deb package installer and even Scrot, the command line screenshot tool, I found they all work well. While it would be nice to have Scrot work from the "print screen" key, I haven't figured out the key binding yet. In the meantime it works well from the command line, using a delay to allow minimizing the terminal window to get it out of the way of the picture.

I discovered an odd hardware quirk that is probably related to the SCSI hard drive architecture in the PC and is definitely not related to Debian at all. My combo CD/DVD drive works fine and can create ISO image CDs and DVDs without any problems. But when I attempt to test Ubuntu or Lubuntu DVDs an odd thing happens. The DVD main menu comes up, but any attempt to test the DVD or load the operating system for a live CD session results in the video display going into hibernation mode and nothing else happening. I tried this with several DVDs and even tested the DVDs on another PC to confirm that they are serviceable, which they are. It seems to just be hardware compatibility issue, but it does mean that none of the Ubuntu family of operating systems could be run on this box as they can't be installed. I tested Puppy Linux 5.2.8 as well and it booted to the desktop just fine, but wouldn't detect either of the two hard drives, again pointing to the SCSI architecture as the problem there. It is probably a good thing I have Debian installed, as I am not sure if any other operating systems will run on this PC.

One thing I do like about Debian is its simplicity compared to Ubuntu, which Ruth is currently using. A good example is package management. As long as you know the names of the packages that you are looking for then using Aptitude from the command line is dead easy compared to the sluggish Ubuntu Software Centre. Of course even Ubuntu packages can be managed using apt-get from the command line if you want to do it that way.

I have installed some security updates and this feature is very nice, because it is a "pull" process where you have to ask for updates, rather than having them pushed to you when you may be busy doing other things. I do the updates from Aptitude in a root terminal:

# aptitude update

# aptitude safe-upgrade

and that is it! Very fast and slick.

So far there have been very few issues with Debian 6.0.3. I have had two instances of the file browser, PC Man FM, showing directories as empty when they aren't. I had this problem previously on Lubuntu, too, so I suspect it is a PC Man FM bug, although I haven't been able to identify a relevant bug report. Of course I have PC Man FM 0.9.7 and the current version is 0.9.10, so it may have already been resolved in later releases.

As is apparent, most of the quirks I have come across relate to this odd computer hardware that I have, rather than Debian. So far I am very impressed with Debian, it is simple, stable and it works very well. Certainly when running Debian "stable" you give up cutting edge versions of applications in exchange for stability, but, these days when most free software application projects are pretty mature, that is not as big a deal as it was in 2007-08 when big improvements were being made from version to version. If a user wants to trade stability for more recent versions then Debian unstable is available.


Revisiting Chrome

By Adam Hunt

We started using Google Chrome in December 2009 just a few days after the Linux beta version became available on 8 December 2009. The initial version was Chrome 4.0.249.30 beta. We were both very impressed with it and stuck with Chrome until Ubuntu 10.04 came out four months later, in . The last version of Chrome we used was 5.0.342.7 beta. Ubuntu 10.04 introduced a version of Chromium, the free software project that Chrome is based on and so we started using that in place of Chrome, starting with Chromium 5.0.342.9.

As mentioned earlier, because I installed Debian 6.0.3 and the version of Chromium available is very old and not updated, I elected to install Google Chrome instead, downloaded the file from Google directly and installed it using Gdebi. The initial version I got was Chrome 15.0.874.121, and it seems to have added the Chrome repositories to my update manager, so I should get new versions as they are released. So far a new version of Chrome hasn't come out, so I still have to confirm that works.

Generally Chrome and Chromium look the same and work the same, mostly it is the logo that is different. However, over time Google has started adding some extra features to Chrome that Chromium doesn't have. One of these features is a built-in PDF reader that opens PDF documents as if they are web pages, in a browser tab. This works very well and still offers the opportunity to save the PDF too. In contrast Chromium, without the built-in PDF reader, requires the user to download the PDF and then either use the downloads page to open the operating system's PDF reader (such as Evince) or else go to the operating system file manager, locate the PDF in the home or downloads folder and then open it in the system PDF reader from there. It isn't difficult, but involves extra steps.

Another difference is Chrome's treatment of Adobe Flash. With Chromium is it a traditional plug-in and, due to problems within the design of Flash, this can result in Flash crashes that can crash the tab or even the whole browser. Chromium has to use Flash as a plug-in as Chromium is all open source and Flash is proprietary. Chrome includes an integrated Flash player, built right in and this seems to improve stability. I haven't seen any Flash crashes so far in using it in Chrome.

A third advantage of Chrome over Chromium is getting newer versions in a more timely manner. In the past the version of Chromium available though the Ubuntu repositories was only a few days behind the latest version of Chrome, but that seems to have slowed down over time. For instance, the current version of Chrome, version 15.0.874.121, came out on . Today the Ubuntu Chromium repository is still on version 14.0.835.202. This version came out for Chrome on , two months ago. I am not sure what has happened that the Chromium versions have fallen so far behind, but Launchpad often shows new versions proposed for months and no action taken. The initial package maintainer used to be Fabien Tassin, but he seems to have been replaced by "Ubuntu Developers", which may indicate that no one is watching Chromium very closely these days. In general this is not critical as there have been few serious bugs or vulnerabilities identified recently, but it is a potential problem. Using Chrome removes the delays in getting the current version of the software.

Overall Google Chrome 15.0.874.121 has proven quite fast and very stable over the last couple of weeks of use and I have no complaints about it at all. I have also had no crashes of any type, even Flash-induced. Ruth is using Chromium on Ubuntu 11.10 and it is fine to use, but some work needs to be done to make new versions available more quickly.

Update -

Good news for users of the Ubuntu version of Chromium, the Chromium Launchpad page shows that Fabien Tassin is back in charge of Chromium updates and, best of all, he just issued a new version of the browser, 15.0.874.106. So perhaps Chromium is back on track there at last!

Update -

More good news. Today a new version of Google Chrome was released, Chrome 16.0.912.63 and it appeared available though Aptitude immediately from the Google repository. I ran Aptitude and it updated and installed just fine. I am impressed!


Unity - It's Not As Horrible As It Used To Be

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

When I first got my Pangolin laptop, it came already loaded with Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal and the Unity desktop application launcher. I had already tried Unity out back in and wasn't impressed with what a colossal mess it was, finding it confusing and cumbersome to use. In general, if something is too complex for the average user then it won't get used. It's not like that just with computers but for everything else as well. But, with computers now a part of our lives on a daily basis, you would think the makers of such systems as Ubuntu would keep it simple.

Actually, "simple" isn't really the right word here. "Moderately intuitive" is probably a better term and is certainly the premise I would use were I developing such goodies as an application launcher for computers.

The version of Unity that shipped with my System 76 Pangolin Performance laptop was 3.8.10 and to describe it as awful would be an understatement of epic proportions. Lost in the whole experience was user friendliness and, thus, usability. Trying to even find the text editor took over 5 clicks before I finally gave up trying. Trying to achieve anything was out of the question, so I installed Lubuntu with the LXDE desktop instead on the Pangolin. It all worked out well for the most part, before some problems started to emerge. Long story short, I am now running Ubuntu 11.10, with Unity, version 4.24.0.

What a difference a few updated versions can make.

I wouldn't describe the Unity experience "delightful" any more than I would describe a new flavour of cereal to be a "delight". What it is, however, is eminently more user friendly. In fact, it's a LOT more user friendly.

The launcher is always present on the desktop, unless an application window touches it, in which case it auto-hides. When hidden moving the cursor to the left of the screen will cause the launcher to emerge. All of the applications I use (anything from the already-comes-with-Ubuntu LibreOffice Writer and Calc, to my favourite planetarium program, Stellarium) are on the launcher. Best of all, it does not take a PhD in pretzel-logic or the abstract mental gymnastics of a computer geek to figure out how to place applications onto the launch strip. If in doubt, right click and see what you can do. If even that fails, try actually moving the icon from whatever folder you found it in and dragging it to the launcher.

I think that for a lot of people, they are used to desktop GUIs, drop down menus and logically placed items (eg a text editor in the "accessories" folder and not the, say "other applications"). Using Unity requires an open mind and the understanding that logic does prevail in the use of Unity - even if it isn't immediately apparent.

I am writing this on gedit, the Gnome text editor. In an expected situation, for me to switch to doing another task results in my open text file minimizing (which it does) and a minimized icon on the desktop panel - which it does not and that's what can confuse people. When I minimize a window it disappears, but when I move the cursor to the left of the screen, the Unity launcher comes into view. I can then click on the gedit icon and, poof, my text document pops back into view. Of course, an application that is open will have a tiny white pointer to the left of its icon to show that it is open. Open and active (meaning it's open and in use - rather than idling in the background) will have a white pointer to the left AND right of the icon. It's really that simple.

I have been using Unity 4.24.0 for only a few days so I'm writing this perhaps from a more "honeymoon phase" than anything else. But, seriously, at this point, I just do not see what the aversion to using Unity is. The earlier version? Yes, it was pointlessly awful and unendingly frustrating. This version? Go for it. After about twenty minutes, you'll have it figured out. Yes you will.


Moving From Lubuntu to Ubuntu and Debian

By Adam Hunt

As described yesterday Lubuntu has been giving both of us problems with crashes and other issues, like laptop suspend/resume. On Ruth's laptop the issue was serious enough that it needed action, as she was tired of the reboots required all the time after the frequent panel crashes. It wasn't as bad on my desktop, but it was annoying, none-the-less.

I suggested to Ruth that when she had "had enough" that we would take some action, to which she replied that she had already indeed "had enough", as the problems were preventing getting work done. She had been trying out Ubuntu 11.10 for the last couple of days and it seemed stable, her laptop suspend/resume worked flawlessly and she was finding Unity 4.24.0 a great improvement over Unity 3.8.10, which was the initial version shipped with Ubuntu 11.04. She had tested Unity 3.8.10 in and found it difficult to use. So we discussed the situation and came up with a plan. She wanted to run Ubuntu 11.10 on both her desktop and laptop, for ease of transition between them. She had Ubuntu 11.10 on her laptop already, but it had all the Lubuntu desktop files and applications on it and plus it was a 32-bit installation on 64-bit hardware, which works, but is probably not optimal. So we agreed to switch both her PCs to Ubuntu 11.10 64-bit and configure them exactly the same, with the same Unity launcher icon order and even the same wallpaper to allow her to move from one PC to the other easily.

I have been so impressed running Debian 6.0.3 this past week with the LXDE desktop, that I wanted to make some hardware changes to the PC, including adding a CD/DVD combo drive, more RAM and a bigger hard drive to replace the dual 36 GB ones in it now and reinstall Debian.

Ruth was keen to get started, so we began right after lunch on Friday . We agreed to do one PC at a time to reduce confusion and allow a network back up for documents. We started with downloading the 64-bit version of Ubuntu, MD5 sum checking it, burning it to a DVD and then running a test on that. It passed the tests, so we reformatted Ruth's laptop first, using our checklists, updating them as we proceeded. The laptop installation went very smoothly, if a little slowly, mostly because we let it connect wirelessly rather than plugging it into an ethernet cable. This slows down the download of files and applications and thus the whole process took about two and a half hours to finish. The only glitch was that Ruth elected to install Google Chrome instead of Chromium as Chrome has some advantages right now, like more updates, plus integrated Flash and PDF reader. We downloaded the .deb file, but the Ubuntu Software Center balked at installing it. We tried gdebi as well but the same problem occurred. In the end she elected to just install Chromium from the repositories.

Next we did Ruth's desktop, having backed up all the documents while the laptop work was being done. Again the installation went smoothly. Due to it being plugged into an ethernet cable the installation and downloading of applications went much faster and we were done in an hour and a half.

During these two installations I found that the Ubuntu Software Centre is really a pain. It is slow and very sluggish to work, periodically even maxing out the dual core possessor on her desktop. When it wouldn't refresh and display all the packages available I switched to installing using:

$ sudo apt-get install

from the command line and that was much faster. The USC is great if you are looking to see what applications are available, but it is slow and difficult to use if you already know what you want to install.

Next it was time to do some work with hardware. While Ruth's desktop had been finishing its installation I pulled apart my old Dell Dimension 2400, removed the 160 GB hard drive and the CD/DVD combo drive and swapped in some lower spec components to keep it as a back up. I used the time to blank the two hard drives on the Dell Precision WorkStation 650, since they would be removed and replaced with a single 160 GB drive. After that was complete I opened it up. The 650 is one of those steel-cased Dells that they built in the early 2000s that opens like a book on metal hinges. The thing weighs about 60 pounds, but would survive a nuclear attack. The 650 has been running with 2 X 512 MB of RAM, but I used all four slots available and upgraded it to 4 GB of RAM. I removed the two old CD and DVD players and installed my new CD/DVD combo drive, removed the second network card and then turned my attention to the hard drives. These are all mounted on those neat green plastic rails that Dell used back then. They add weight, but make installing and removing components easy, no trying to reach into impossible spaces with a screwdriver! The old hard drives came out, so I installed the rails on the new hard drive and slid it into place, perfect! I hooked up power and then went to connect the data ribbon cable. That's where the problem happened; the ribbon cable had pins and so did my hard drive. I had never seen that on IDE hardware before. In checking the removed hard drives, I saw that they both had female connectors on them. Every other IDE hard drive I have has male connectors, so this was definitely a new phenomenon for me. But, I didn't think it would be an unsolvable problem as I did have spare ribbon cables, so I tried them as there was a slot on the mother board for them, but it was a no-go, the PC did not detect the hardware. It seemed the only solution was to reinstall the two old drives and use both. Not ideal, but workable because I have an external hard drive if I need more space. It also meant that I hadn't needed to blank those two drives. So I got the PC all back together and re-installed Debian 6.0.3 with LXDE and Google Chrome once again, using the very slick and fast Aptitude package manager from the command line to install applications.

Because the second drive had been blanked, it was unformatted and so I used GParted to format it to ext3 and rename it. I also remembered to change the ownership, as GParted renders everything it touches owned by root. This is easy to do in a root terminal:

# chown -R username:username /media/devicename

Next I installed my documents, spread over the two drives. Considering that this computer is now eight years old and dates from the early days of Windows XP, it is pretty capable and quite fast:

About nine hours had passed getting all this done, but it was time well spent. We had lots of fun with both hardware and software and ended up moving from three PCs running Lubuntu to two running Ubuntu and one running Debian. Kind of like Christmas in November!

Because we are looking for stable production platforms to get work done, our plans are that Ruth will switch to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS in April when it comes out and then run that for two years until the next LTS comes out in . I am planning to run Debian 6.0 until 7.0 is released in stable form in the spring of 2013.

Update -

A knowledgeable reader sent me a note and pointed out that the WorkStation 650 supports the SCSI standard for devices and wondered whether the hard drives I mentioned could use SCSI connections, which would account for the odd plugs. In checking the lshw printout I discovered that he is absolutely right, they are SCSI and not IDE, so that is one mystery solved!

PC Cyber still sells one model of SCSI hard drive, and it is the same model line as I have in this box, a Seagate Cheetah! The only problem is that the 300 GB drive that they offer costs as much as a SATA-based PC at Cdn$469.77. It would be cheaper to just buy a new PC!


Lubuntu Forces Changes

By Adam Hunt

Both Ruth and I have been having problems with Lubuntu and this has compelled us to work on alternatives recently.

For my part I have had quite a number of bottom panel crashes, where the panel becomes non-responsive and closed applications still appear on it. The shutdown button also doesn't work, requiring me to open a terminal by ctrl+alt+t and then sudo reboot. I have also had PC Man File Manager crashes, where it just snap-closes while trying to open a file or shows a directory as empty when it isn't. These have been annoying but not a show-stopper.

As described earlier in Round Trip, my two attempts to install Lubuntu 11.10 were not successful as it installed but wouldn't run properly for some reason.

Ruth has also had Lubuntu problems. She had Lubuntu 11.04 installed on her laptop, but she was getting suspend/resume problems and frequent crashes of LibreOffice. This caused me to suggest that she install Lubuntu 11.10 as a fix, which she did. This version didn't fix the LibreOffice problems and there were continuing suspend/resume issues, where it would often just not suspend when the lid was closed. This caused me to suggest installing Ubuntu 11.10 and then adding the lubuntu-desktop package to get Lubuntu. This did work and solved the Lubuntu suspend/resume issues completely but introduced new problems. Running the Lubuntu desktop on Ubuntu caused frequent panel crashes and lock-ups of varying symptoms. This was happening several times a day, which was unworkable.

Since she was running the Lubuntu desktop on Ubuntu, I suggested she try switching her desktop sessions to Unity and see if that solved the problem. After all, the System 76 Pangolin is designed for Ubuntu, so it should be flawless! At first Ruth balked at using Unity since she had tried it out on Ubuntu 11.04 and really didn't like it. She discovered that the current version used on Ubuntu 11.10, which is Unity 4.24.0, is much better organized and easier to use. She tried that out and everything seems to work fine on it, so that sold her. She would rather have Unity working than Lubuntu crashes. Our next plan therefore is to clean out the unneeded Lubuntu installation and since this is 32-bit Ubuntu on a 64-bit PC, to just do a re-installation with 64-bit Ubuntu. If that works out well in testing Ruth has indicated that she would like to install it on her desktop PC as well, just for usage commonality.

As I reported below, I am involved in testing out Debian 6.0.3 with LXDE and it is going very well. So far I have run it for four days with no issues at all, it is totally rock solid and seems to show none of the crash problems that Lubuntu has running the same LXDE desktop. My plan is once I have confirmed that Google Chrome will update, to rebuild the PC and then do a new installation of Debian.

If that all works out we may find ourselves running Ubuntu and Debian in place of Lubuntu entirely.


More Debian Dabbling

By Adam Hunt

Back almost a year ago, in , I tried out Debian 6.0 Beta, just out of curiosity, to see how it worked. The experience was pretty good, with the installation going smoothly, even if it is a bit advanced and thus not for beginners. Once installed it required quite a bit of set-up as it doesn't come with much, the philosophy being that you should be able to customize it by adding applications, rather than having to remove them.

At that time Debian 6.0 Squeeze (the release names are all from characters in the Toy Story movie series, believe it or not!) was in beta testing and only a month and a half back from its eventual release date of . I managed to get it all working except for sshfs networking and updates, so I rated it as 9/10.

Since last December I have kept up with developments at Debian and there have been three "point release" updates to 6.0 since then. The third, Debian 6.0.3, was released on . I have also been reading the very good documentation that Debian has, including an installation manual, an FAQ, a Debian reference, a Wiki as well as a very good forum, too. Other useful tools include a compact list of packages that is easy to search though.

It was in the forums that I learned that within the stable releases, which are supported for three years, that web browsers receive no regular updates, just security updates. I gather that each update would have to be thoroughly tested on each of the ten supported architectures or else it would possibly compromise stability, which is the opposite of the aim in the "stable" release. The only problem with this approach is that sometimes browsers need updating. Chromium is a good example. The sole version in the Squeeze repositories is Chromium 6.0.472.63. The problem is versions earlier than 8.0.552.237 have a serious security flaw, so running Chromium 6 today is not a good idea. Other problems crop up, too. For instance the synchronization feature has changed between Chromium 6 and the current stable version 15 and probably won't still work on the earlier version. One suggestion on the forum is to install Google Chrome instead, which I did, as described later on.

After the recent problems I had not being able to install Lubuntu 11.10 on my desktop Dell Dimension 2400 I felt that we needed an operating system plan, including back-ups. The concept Ruth and I both agreed on was to plan to install Lubuntu 12.04 LTS, which is due out on , and hopefully use it until the next LTS version in . (Since then it has come to light that Lubuntu 12.04 will not be an "LTS" release.) The problem is that I want to have a back-up in case Lubuntu 12.04 won't install on some of our hardware, like 11.10 wouldn't. My first line of back-up would be of course to install Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and then the lubuntu-desktop package to turn it into an LXDE desktop version of Ubuntu. In fact, since Ruth was having trouble with Lubuntu 11.10 not suspending and resuming correctly on her laptop, we recently did exactly that and the suspend/resume does work right now.

But, with my background in military planning, I wanted to have a "Plan C", just in case the first two didn't work. I considered casting Puppy Linux in that role, but it is tricky to get working on our network right with only one Puppy PC. With three it could be mayhem. Also testing Puppy on Ruth's laptop showed that it doesn't recognize her wireless card, which is odd on a System 76 laptop that is designed for Linux! So I decided that Debian would be the best fall-back plan. After all both Ubuntu and Lubuntu and based on Debian so the learning curve is reduced somewhat and my earlier trials were fairly successful.

So I downloaded the latest 32-bit Intel version of the Debian "small CD" installer and burned it to a CD. I currently have three extra old PCs due to a donation of six broken ones earlier this summer. The three were constructed from the remains of the six. Since I am using a Dell Dimension 2400 with Lubuntu 11.04 I thought I would try the spare 2400 that I have. Debian did not want to install on this box, although it runs Puppy Linux fine in tests. First there was a video issue which I resolved with a BIOS setting and then the installation process hung up when it could not make a connection to the internet. Again Puppy was able to connect from it fine, so I am not sure what the problem was. So I switched PCs and tried a Dell OptiPlex GX240 that I have. The installation went fine on this PC, but when it booted after installation, the video would not work. This may be related to the PC's ATI video card, but is hard to troubleshoot when you have no display at all.

That left me almost out of test boxes, all I had left was one "Dell Precision WorkStation 650 Mini Tower Computer". Calling it a "Mini Tower Computer" is rather funny as it is a huge and very heavy Windows XP box dating from 2003, with dual CPUs, dual CD drives, dual network cards and dual hard drives as well. The video is dual DVI monitor outputs. No wonder it is so heavy; it is like two PCs in one box. I had got it running again using a few parts from a sister WorkStation 650 unit that I did scrap and had then put the surviving one into storage. I had thought of scrapping this box as well, since it is huge and heavy, who would want it anyway? I didn't think Debian would like that oddball hardware, but I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised when it installed and booted just fine!

Setting the PC up took a bit of time as the default LXDE desktop on Debian doesn't come with much. It does come with:

That is about it for applications. Of course the best thing about Debian is that has a huge selection of applications that can be downloaded to customize it as you like. So I used a root terminal and Aptitude to download some of my list of applications:

I used lshw from the root terminal to figure out exactly what hardware the PC has. The one DVD drive didn't turn up on the list, even though it is installed and has power to it. I tested it and it seems to be unserviceable. I had a pleasant surprise when I checked the CPUs and found that they are a pair of Intel Xeons of 2.8 GHz each! It turns out that this was a pretty decent computer when it was new, probably purchased for CAD/CAM use or something similar. Today it is as good as most Vista boxes and it performs well, too. This means that it really should be used and not stored or scrapped. It does need some work, though as its dual hard drives are small 36 GB units and, as mentioned, its DVD drive is shot. With only 1 GB of DDR RAM is is probably a bit "under-memoried" by today's standards, but I have lots of DDR RAM sitting around here waiting for a use and the PC has four slots, so that is easy to fix, too.

Since I prefer Chromium as a browser over Firefox-based ones, like Iceweasel, I decided to try to install Google Chrome. I got the ".deb" file from Google's website, but couldn't figure out the next step. The last time I installed Chrome on Ubuntu I just clicked on the package and it opened with gdebi, but that didn't work on Debian. It just asked me what I wanted to open it with. I checked and gdebi wasn't installed, so I used Aptitude to install it, but then the question remained of how to get it to install Chrome. In the end I opened a root terminal and tried: #gdebi plus the path to the file and that worked! In theory it should receive updates through Aptitude or APT, but since none have come out yet that remains to be seen.

The next unsolved task from last December was getting sshfs working so I could connect to the other computers on the network. I installed openssh-server and sshfs, but in using it I hit the same "permission denied" problem as last time. I was sure that the problem was that I wasn't listed as a user in the FUSE group. I tried just editing the file, but that didn't work, even though the the Wiki page seemed to suggest that solution. Checking the forum turned up the right answer: just open a root terminal and run:

#adduser username fuse

That did it!

With that problem solved I had a working system, with just one outstanding issue to confirm, whether Google Chrome will update to the next version. To find out I have to wait until the next version comes out, hopefully in a week or so.

I should point out amongst all this Debian talk that I have not been unhappy with Lubuntu at all. In fact Lubuntu 11.04 has been a great operating system. I have had a few minor issues, including file browser and bottom panel crashes, which have become too frequent annoyances. Then there is the minor annoyance that Chromium browser updates have become sporadic, sometimes skipping whole versions in between updates. It sounds like the Ubuntu Chromium maintainers are busy doing other things these days. Again a minor annoyance, but nothing critical.

I have been impressed enough with Debian to give it an extended trial. Even though I was originally planning to hold it as a "Plan C", if I don't get the file browser and panel crashes and as long as Chrome updates, then this may be a better choice for me than Lubuntu. If it tests out over the next week or so I may just upgrade the PC to use my larger and newer IDE hard drive and more recent CD/DVD combo drive, increase the RAM, remove the dual 36 GB hard drives and clean up a few other items and make this my main production PC, running Debian 6.0.

Debian 6.0 should be replaced with 7.0 in early , as Debian stable releases are issued every two years and supported for three years, the same as Ubuntu LTS releases. This may make a good parallel to Ruth running Lubuntu 12.04 as what we are both looking for is really stable, trouble-free operating systems to get work done with.


Trying Out Epiphany 3.0

By Adam Hunt

During my short time running Lubuntu 11.10 I was able to install and run Epiphany 3.0.4, which is something I have wanted to try for a while.

The first thing I noticed is that the browser chrome has been shrunken again, which is a good thing. The browser comes with a minimum of control buttons, but more can be added from the menus if desired. The previous setting to define a minimum font size has disappeared, which is an annoyance, as this was a useful feature in earlier versions.

Epiphany 3.0.4 still doesn't have spell checking and principle developer Xan Lopez indicated in that this would hopefully be in version 3.2. That version was released on , but I will probably have to wait until next spring to see if it made it in there. Spell checking is supported by the Webkit back-end, it is just a matter of making the GUI work with it.

Another oddity is the handling of the bookmarks bar. In the past having the bookmarks bar displayed has been optional and it still is. The difference now is that any websites listed on the bar get compressed and are pretty much unreadable. Before the bar would display the whole website name. I just turned it off anyway, but it should work better than this.

I previously reported that Epiphany 3 will not support Flash without heroic efforts. I originally thought this would kill the browser dead, but the new Apple iPad doesn't support Flash and Microsoft has announced that Windows 8 will not support Flash either. It seems that Flash is soon to be gone and will be replaced with HTML5 video. You Tube has an HTML5 trial that users can try and it works very well in Chromium 12 and later. The videos download quicker than the Flash versions, play smoothly and of course don't crash like Flash does. Given this I thought that it would be no big deal that Epiphany 3 doesn't support Flash, I would just use HTML5 instead, but it wouldn't play those either. Some HTML5 websites, like Diaspora, didn't work, which is not a surprise as Epiphany didn't score highly on the HTML5 test. On the plus side in the time I was using it, Epiphany 3.0.4 didn't crash, which is an improvement over earlier versions.

Given the other peculiarities of Epiphany, like poor handling of excess tabs (they just move off the screen, instead of compressing) it all adds up to a browser that is hard to love and hard to use. In general the Epiphany developers seem to be falling further behind Chromium/Chrome and Firefox. I am not even sure if Epiphany 3.0.4 is an improvement over Epiphany 2.30.6. Sure Version 2 had crashes, but at least it would run videos.

I will hopefully get a chance to try out Epiphany 3.2 at some point, although the repositories right now show version 3.0.4 on deck for Ubuntu 12.04.


Round Trip

By Adam Hunt

The last three days are ones I don't want to have to repeat, if I can avoid it in the future.

I set out on Saturday to install Lubuntu 11.10 on my own PC. This is an old Dell Dimension 2400 with an Intel P4 processor of 2.66 GHz and 2 GB of RAM. It makes a great Lubuntu box and has been running Lubuntu 11.04 flawlessly.

I didn't run a live session, since there is a known issue with that on some hardware and mine seems to be one of those cases.

So I followed my checklists, backed up my documents one last time, ran the DVD and went straight to "Install Lubuntu". The DVD had been made from the ISO file which had passed its MD5SUM check. The DVD also passed its internal integrity check. The installation hung up in the middle of installing.

In hindsight this should have been an indication to quit while I was ahead.

I started the installation a second time from scratch and it seemed to install fine, taking 33 minutes to complete the job, which is normal. I installed my favourite applications, my documents and got Lubuntu 11.10 all set up. The new wallpapers look nice, the new theme is also attractive and as a bonus Lubuntu was idling at just 74 MB of RAM, which is impressive! It looked good.

Then the problems started. Applications wouldn't scroll right, hesitating like I was out of CPU or out of RAM, except that LXTask showed that I wasn't. LibreOffice lagged, Chromium was slow in scrolling, gedit lagged, even Leafpad lagged a lot. Then I started getting black screens and horizontal lines, like the video card was broken or the driver was. These resolved within 10-20 seconds, but kept happening repeatedly. I thought it might be a problem with some applications that I had installed so I removed them but the problems persisted.

Could it be a hardware problem? Could it be a failing video card? This PC has "on-board graphics" not a plugged-in ATI or nVidia card, so it was unlikely, but possible. I booted up Puppy Linux 5.2.8 from a CD into RAM to test the system hardware out and it all worked fine, no hesitation, no video problems at all. Puppy loaded into RAM doesn't touch the hard drive, so could it be a hard drive problem? Unlikely as it is a virtually new hard drive, but something to keep in mind.

I figured that it was most likely that there must have been some kind of Lubuntu installation problem, so I bit the bullet, so to speak, and did a fresh installation all over again, this time from a different disk, a CD. Once again the CD passed the internal integrity test. I decided to install nothing this time and try out the installation with just the native applications from the ISO file, in case that was the problem. The same symptoms cropped up right away, slow scrolling, hesitation, black screens, horizontal lines and sometimes missing letters on dialogue boxes, too. Another attempt from the CD resulted in a hang up in the middle of installation. By Sunday night I seemed to be getting nowhere and spending a lot of time on what should have been a couple of hours work.

By this time the options were pretty clear. There seemed to be most likely either a problem with my hardware or the Lubuntu 11.10 ISO file. I had to install something else and give that a try to rule out any hardware problems for good and also to actually get some work done. So, feeling a bit dispirited with Lubuntu I installed Puppy Linux 5.2.8 as a "full installation", mostly because it is quick to do that, about five minutes. I added Chromium 14, LibreOffice, SSHFS, got networking operational and added a few other applications.

Puppy is actually pretty impressive these days, fast and smooth, it comes with just about everything you need, including things that Lubuntu doesn't have, like a desktop search application. It also comes with gFTP, ISO burning and even a simple bulk file renamer. I installed my documents and got some work done for a while. Then Chromium kept crashing on certain web pages, like Gmail and Diaspora, both HTML5 pages. This is odd as Chromium 14 on Lubuntu 11.04 does just fine on those pages and the browser score high on HTML5 support. I removed Chromium, thinking that because it was a dev build there might be an issue there and installed Iron 14 and then Iron 10, but the crashes persisted. I tried installing Firefox 5.0.1, the latest version I could find as a .pet file in the Puppy repositories, and it worked just fine, flawlessly in fact. At least this proved that my hardware is fine and that the problem is somewhere in the Lubuntu 11.10 ISO file.

I tried running Puppy 5.2.8 in a live session with Iron 14 and it worked fine, with no pages crashes, showing that there is some issue with the full installation that doesn't play well with Chromium-based browsers. This sounds odd, but we have seen it before, where PDFs wouldn't open in a Puppy full installation but work fine on a live CD or on a frugal installation. Just an odd bug in some releases, I guess.

So that left me with a tested and working PC, but not with the browser that I wanted. Hmm, what to do? There seemed only one clear course, use Puppy to burn a CD and reinstall Lubuntu 11.04, which I did on Monday. It installed fine and runs perfectly, just like before. I put my documents back on it and downloaded the applications I use and all went very smoothly, with no hardware problems in sight. I might just leave Lubuntu 11.04 there until , when it becomes no longer supported.

So after three days of messing around with my computer I ended up back where I started, running Lubuntu 11.04. While I am very happy with that operating system, knowing what I know now I could have saved myself three days of work, testing and frustration.

I did learn a few things in all of this, though. First off be prepared to undo your work; keep a spare CD handy for the last version in case things don't work out right. Also, Puppy Linux is actually a pretty darn good troubleshooting tool for testing hardware and also for use as a day-to-day operating system. It is also a great data rescue disk, too. If it didn't have a glitch in this version running Chromium on a "full install" I would probably still be using it right now.

This story isn't completely done. I can't get my printer working as OpenPrinting.org is down and I need a plug-in from that website to get the printer operational. Once that is complete and we can print again, the round trip back to where I started will be complete.

Update -

I did get my printer working again, even though OpenPrinting.org is still off-line, with some help from the Ubuntu forums. So I am fully operational again!

Also, because Ruth was having trouble with her laptop's Lubuntu 11.04 installation, Flash stuttering and LibreOffice crashes, rather than try to trouble shoot it, I suggested we just try installing Lubuntu 11.10 instead. We did that and it installed very smoothly, with no problems at all and, of note, the installer updated itself as we started the process. Ruth has been testing her installation of Lubuntu 11.10 out for a few days and all seems to be working fine there now, even Flash and LibreOffice.

Since that installation went fine I can only conclude that there must have been some glitch with the original ISO that has now been fixed by updates. In this case I did have a "Plan B", which was to install Ubuntu 11.10 on Ruth's laptop and then install the lubuntu-desktop package, which will give pretty much the same result. If you do that you just choose LXDE at the log-in screen.


Oneiric Ocelot

By Adam Hunt

Today was the day that all the new 'buntus came out. This edition is 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot and is the regular October release. Traditionally the October releases have been fairly minor updates and this is certainly true this year.

As part of our distribution of CDs at National Capital FreeNet I downloaded not just Lubuntu 11.10, but also Ubuntu 11.10 and Xubuntu 11.10 as well.

Back in the old days downloads on the day of release, and often for days afterwards, were hit-and-miss. Servers often seemed to be clogged and ISO downloads would just stop or proceed at a snail's pace. Back then Ubuntu's website gave a choice of mirrors and I often downloaded from Zimbabwe or some other far away place that no one else was downloading from. Now all that has changed and Ubuntu automatically routes you, presumably based on your IP location, and the downloads are uniformly smooth and fast. With Xubuntu you get to hand pick your mirror and I chose the University of Waterloo Computer Club, which gave a similarly fast download. Lubuntu seems to just download from one place, but it was similarly quick. All downloads MD5 checked just fine and I burned one copy each to a DVD and tested that each DVD was good.

Ubuntu 11.10

I booted up Ubuntu 11.10 for live sessions on both my old XP PC and Ruth's newer Vista box. On the Vista box the Unity 3D desktop booted up fine, with all its transparency effects and such. I played around with it for a while and it is a definite improvement over the version of Unity that shipped with Ubuntu 11.04, although it is still slow and cumbersome to use. At least the designers now give you instant access to your file folders in Nautilus on the launcher without having to go though the pointless "lens" first. Unity has been reorganized and while it is better than before it still took me a minimum of four clicks to launch the text editor, versus two in Lubuntu.

On my older XP box I tried booting up the live Ubuntu session and it brought up the 2D version of Unity. It looks much the same, less the transparency effects and works much the same as well. Users can still get the "classic Ubuntu desktop", if they want it.

Xubuntu 11.10

Next I tried out Xubuntu 11.10 in a live session. The Xfce desktop looks very much unchanged from 11.04, even to the default desktop image, but then if it works why change it? The desktop provides three different ways of launching applications: the auto-hiding bottom panel launcher, the main menu via the logo in the top right corner and a right click on the desktop. There are a few new applications: gThumb is the new image viewer/organizer, Leafpad replaces Mousepad as the default text editor and LightDM is introduced as the log-in manager. The release also incorporates pastebinit for cut and paste.

I did some work in the live session, taking a screenshot of the desktop, using Firefox 7.0.4 to upload it to WikiCommons and then putting it in the Xubuntu article.

Xubuntu 11.10 seems like a very solid release and the distribution is now very polished, although if you are running 11.04 they may be few reasons to upgrade, other than having access to newer versions of applications.

Lubuntu 11.10

Last I tried out our favourite, Lubuntu, on my XP box. For some reason the DVD tested fine, but the live session wouldn't boot and just got hung up. I tried the same DVD on Ruth's Vista box and it loaded just fine, which is very odd. (It turns out this is a known issue and you just have to enter sudo start lxdm at the prompt.)

Testing it out I noted that the new desktop images are simple, but quite striking and the whole desktop looks refined and polished. I also posted a a screenshot of the desktop. Other than the inclusion of the Pidgin microblogger client, there are no new applications included in 11.10, just new versions of the existing ones, so there isn't much incentive to upgrade, at least not right away.

All three new releases look quite good and should serve users well. I haven't decided whether I will go to the trouble of upgrading my own desktop yet or wait until the 12.04 LTS release in April.


Goodbye to Facebook

By Adam Hunt

Facebook Refusenik

This article is really part II of Diaspora - the Free Software Alternative to Facebook

After being on Facebook since the end of 2007 I have decided to delete my account. This is even though I have quite a number of "real-life" friends on there whom I keep in touch with through Facebook.

This is not because I want to lose track of my friends, but because the sheer hubris of Facebook's owners has made it just too evil to be a part of anymore. By using Facebook I am tacitly endorsing what they are doing and recent events, combined with my sense of ethics, don't allow me to do that anymore.

I should start off by declaring that I am not in any way opposed to the concept of social networking, connecting with other people through the internet. I actually think it is a great idea, but that Facebook is a very bad choice as a medium to do that through.

I opened a Facebook account under duress, as it was a requirement for a volunteer position I had taken on, running a community service group. The group had a Facebook page and I was assigned the task of managing it and keeping it up to date. After I started an account I picked up more and more Facebook friends, but I never liked the idea of interacting though a big for-profit American corporation that was trying to make money from me being friends with people.

As Terry Hancock of Free Software Magazine recently pointed out, Facebook users are not Facebook's customers, we are its product that is served up to their real customers, the advertisers. That means we are really suppliers to Facebook, partners with them to get their product to market, just like Intel is, in supplying processors to Dell to build computers around. Facebook builds their product around the data supplied for free by the users to sell to the advertisers. This means that Facebook needs me a lot more than I need them and since they have really started treating us, the suppliers, like crap recently and aren't listening to us, it is time to end this very one-sided business relationship.

What are the problems? Let's have a look at an incomplete list:

  1. Facebook has a long history of getting privacy wrong because providing privacy to its users harms its goal of selling its users' data to its advertisers.
  2. Other Facebok users tagging you in photos has proven a privacy problem as you can't control it, even if you aren't in the photos.
  3. Facebook keeps your data forever, even if you don't want them to and sells it to anyone they like.
  4. Facebook thinks it is just fine to secretly track every website that you visit, even when you aren't signed into Facebook, store that information in a profile on you and then use it to target advertising at you. At one time I used to keep Facebook open in a browser tab to see what people I knew were up to, but this problem alone has forced me to change that. I had to open Facebook in an "incognito" window to isolate it from my working browser and close it as soon as I was done to delete all the tracking cookies. That alone eliminated most of the small amount of usefulness it offered and made it an annoyance and a chore to use.
  5. Facebook constantly changes its interface, requiring its users to relearn how to use it, sometimes several times a month, making using it difficult and frustrating. These changes are usually rolled out without user consultation, or, if users are consulted, their opinions are ignored. Their latest changes are going replace the user page with a timeline that will expose your whole life and record of activity on Facebook unless you go though and delete it all. Then the data will just be hidden.
  6. Features that millions of users have requested, for instance an "unlike" button, have been ignored, while other features people don't want get added, making Facebook frustrating for users.
  7. Facebook constantly changes its security settings and has made posts and pictures that were restricted in distribution by default, made publicly available
  8. Everything you post or upload to Facebook, by their terms of service, you agree to licence to them to use anyway they want. They can use your wedding pictures, your graduation pictures, anything you upload. Their current terms of service claim that you still own your photos etc, but it doesn't really matter since "you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License)." So they can sell it or assign it to anyone else without asking you.
  9. The way Facebook is set up, with a requirement for "friends" to be mutual, makes it very easy for spammers to target users. I got "friended" by people selling mutual funds, diets and lots and lots of porn. This is just bad design and it has never been fixed.
  10. Facebook runs on closed source software, so there is little opportunity to participate in its development or see what it really does.
  11. And fundamentally the problem is why do we have to make some foreign company mind-bogglingly rich just to connect with our friends?

I am sure many more objections could be added to that list.

Even as Facebook became more and more annoying over time there were two things keeping me using it even after I left the volunteer position in .

The first was a lack of alternatives. Google Buzz was rolled out as a competitor to Twitter and Facebook in but was a privacy disaster and basically was stillborn. Since there is now Google+ publicly available, but giving Google even more of my life is not high on my list of things to do, as it suffers from many of the problems that Facebook has. Recently Diaspora has become a really good alternative and, as described earlier, is social networking that is community owned, non-profit, runs on free software, consults members and is responsive, was built from the start to respect privacy and make it easy to manage who sees what and is a disbursed network so no one person or organization can control it. Compared to Facebook using Diaspora is really easy and yes, much more fun, too.

The second problem, of having friends on Facebook that I don't want to lose contact with, is indeed a problem. For many people this is Facebook's hostage taking, as you have to stay on or lose touch with your friends. This has caused me much pause as well, but I have decided to send each Facebook friend a note with a link here to explain my objections to Facebook and invite them to stay in touch with me by other means, such as e-mail or on Diaspora. I know that those who want to stay in touch will do so.

So, do I think that the Facebook management will mend their evil ways because I am no longer one of their "data suppliers"? Nope. But if enough people quit it they will. Facebook really does need us more than we need them. Social networking on Facebook has costs that are just too high and there are now much better alternatives.

Update -

I managed to let each one of my Facebook contacts know that I am closing my account, because I didn't want anyone to think that I had just "unfriended" them, but it wasn't easy to do. I tried sending a fairly detailed note to each contact though Facebook mail, one at a time, with links to my article here as well as our Diaspora pages, but after the first few went through Facebook blocked the rest. Through some experiments I was able to determine that it was the links that it objected to, no links to my article criticizing Facebook and no links to Diaspora were allowed. Talk about evil!

Regardless I sent the full message to everyone whom I have an e-mail address for via e-mail and for those whom I don't have an e-mail address for I sent them a Facebook message telling them I am leaving Facebook, that Facebook is blocking links to my explanation why and to e-mail me for my reasons. At least Facebook did allow me to add my e-mail address.

Update -

After waiting a week for any responses on Facebook, and there were some, plus a bunch of e-mail, I deleted my Facebook account today.

Resources:

Diaspora - the Free Software Alternative to Facebook

By Adam Hunt

In many ways Facebook is the social networking website that everyone loves to hate.

While Facebook is the most-subscribed social networking website in the world, with 750 million users as of , it is US corporate owned, has had serious privacy issues, even to the point of being cited by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner for breaches of Canadian privacy law, tracks every website its members visit even when they are not signed into Facebook, doesn't consult its users about major changes and is constantly annoying the heck out of its users with sudden unexplained changes to the way it works. There have also been database failures so that you get "unfriended" by people without any input from them. Again this week Facebook users signed in and found that they had to figure out all over again how it works and what is changed. Then there are all the ads you are bombarded with and the spammers constantly trying to sign you up as Facebook friends. On top of that you can never really close your account as they don't seem to delete your data ever. By their terms of service anything you post is theirs to use, not yours anyway. For the service you get it is annoying to have to give up so much privacy and freedom.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems with Facebook, which also explains why they treat their users so poorly, is that the Facebook users are not their customers, they are the product that is packaged for their real customers, the advertisers.

Still, despite all the griping, far more than half of all Canadians are on Facebook and it has become so accepted that there is a social price to pay for not being on it. So the demand for social networking is there, even with the drawbacks. Not everyone is just griping and carrying on using Facebook, though. There have been several attempts to produce something better than Facebook, although most of them have fallen flat. One that has been gathering momentum recently is Diaspora. This project was started by four students at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. They were inspired by a speech given on by Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, to the Internet Society's New York Chapter. In his speech Moglen described centralized social networks as "spying for free."

One of the students behind Diaspora, Raphael Sofaer, said, "In our real lives, we talk to each other. We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists." Another of the students, Max Salzberg added "When you give up that data, you’re giving it up forever. The value they give us is negligible in the scale of what they are doing, and what we are giving up is all of our privacy." And so they set out to write the code and raise the funds needed to get started. It turns out a lot of people thought the idea had merit and they found a lot of financial support quite quickly.

They called their project Diaspora from the Greek word for a dispersed population. The term fits, even if it isn't the best grabby marketing name.

Diaspora is a website like Facebook is, or rather a series of websites that each allow access into the Diaspora dispersed network. Of course it could have ended up as Facebook II, The Sequel, but this group of students wanted to do it all differently. First off it is not corporate owned, in fact it isn't owned at all, just like the internet itself isn't owned by anyone. As a distributed network the software is designed to be run on a network of servers (called "pods") that anyone can set up. These then connect to provide the Diaspora service. Currently there seem to be at least 64 Diaspora pods with more being added all the time. Each pod hosts accounts ("seeds") but everyone can see everyone else on their own and all other connected pods - the network is totally transparent to users, it acts just like any website. Users give up nothing, you always control and own your own data.

The software that runs Diaspora is free software, developed collaboratively as all free software is. It was designed for privacy from the start. Users can follow anyone they like and anyone can follow you, unlike on Facebook, where "friending" has to be mutual, which leaves users open to spamming. You assign people following you to "aspects", which are simply groups of people whom you allow to see some of your posts and not others. The default aspect for new people following you is public posts only, meaning you have to give them more access at your discretion. This really works well as it eliminates the spamming problem so prevalent on Facebook. People can follow you and you don't have to follow them. If someone does follow you, then you will get a "sharing" notification and can then choose whether to follow them in return, or not.

In a distributed model like this where anyone can set up a pod and where the software is all freely developed and shared, the costs are quite low. The project has been working with some start up money and should survive like many free software projects do on donations and t-shirt sales, at east once they get some decent t-shirts available. This is not a money-maker, this is a community service.

So what the user ends up with is a free social networking website that looks a lot like Facebook or Google+. You can post updates, add photos and links to videos. You can follow other users and they can optionally follow your posts. You control who sees which posts, by assigning "aspects" (groups of users) to it when you post it. You can create new groups any time. You can send private e-mail to other users when you mutually follow each other. Hash tags enable users to follow subjects whenever anyone posts about things like #coffee or #catrikes. The interface is simple, uncluttered and clean. The software is still rated as alpha, but, while there are more features to add, it is working quite well right now. Because it is free software anyone with the skills can participate in developing it.

There is even a nice collection of simple Diaspora tutorials available to make starting out as painless as possible.

What you don't get is actually more important. You get no advertising and no spammers, because people can follow you without you returning the favour. You can close your account any time you like and it is really gone, not saved for data-mining later. You always own your data and can download it all anytime. There is no data mining, because it is a community owned and run disbursed network, and you are not being sold out to the "real customers" like you are on Facebook.

Diaspora is currently missing some features that Facebook has, like thumbnails for links, support for emoticons, chat and the ability to upload videos. Personally I never used those features, so I don't miss them, but perhaps others will. I upload videos to You Tube and then link to them. Diaspora automatically makes links for you. I suspect by looking over the feature requests that many of these things will eventually be added to the software.

It sounds good, right? So what is the catch? The only thing really missing right now on Diaspora is more users, in other words you and your friends.

Diaspora is growing fast right now, especially among people interested in free software and privacy. Some of the pods, like the main one joindiaspora.com require you to ask for an invitation and right now they are running months behind. Other pods, like the one we are on, diasp.org, allow instant sign-ups, with no invitations required and no waiting times.

Ruth and I are both on Diaspora and have been trying it out for the last few days. It is actually quite impressive, smooth and uncluttered, it works well. Because it is all free software and community run it is one of those cases that if people sign-up and use it then it will grow quickly. Terry Hancock of Free Software Magazine is encouraging people to sign up and use Diaspora for exactly that reason:

With all of the concerns over who controls the "Social Web" (We’ve addressed some of these problems before in Free Software Magazine — regarding the Google+ name policy and other privacy issues, Facebook’s questionable ethics, and the overall danger of controlled networks. I think it is extremely important for a more decentralized, more democratic, more open, and more free solution to succeed in the interest of personal freedom on the internet. And it looks to me like Diaspora is an essential part of that solution, so I’m endorsing it now, even though it’s not entirely "ready".

At this point I am not advising anyone to quit Facebook or Twitter for Diaspora as it still has some distance to go, mostly in attracting users, but do sign up for an account and use it. Link it to your Facebook page if you want to, as it has functionality to do that with. With some support Diaspora could quickly become what Facebook has failed to be - social networking that doesn't sell the users to the advertisers, that really respects privacy and isn't controlled by a US based corporation intent on turning your personal information into their profits.

Resources:

The System76 Pangolin Performance Laptop

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

The decision wasn’t all that difficult to make even if the circumstances were becoming increasingly so. In , I purchased a netbook for myself. I had and still have a desktop in our basement office but wanted to have the ability to use a computer with Internet access from any point in the house. Sometimes, my health doesn’t allow for me to get up and down flights of stairs easily so having a portable means of using a computer became a necessity. So, I purchased the very inexpensive Acer Aspire 150 netbook. It’s a compact and very capable little mini laptop and I used it daily.

However, what it has in usability, speed and overall good performance it lacks in durability and I found myself encountering a few signs of that - uh - lack of stamina. I should mention here that I am just not hard on my things. My little Acer has never been mishandled in any way. It has only been outside a few times and, even then, only in the back yard close to the door and only for a short time. I keep the Acer clean and well maintained...yet it still showed signs of its fatigue. The suspend/resume feature didn’t always work as advertised, the screen would erupt in a seizure-inducing kaleidoscope of rapidly spinning twitching lines and, most annoying of all, the battery charging cord wouldn’t always connect completely, resulting in my having to jiggle the cord to allow the battery to charge completely. Small netbooks like the Acer just don’t have longlasting batteries and so keeping it charged at all times became necessary, not just merely important.

To be sure, I am extremely grateful to even have the ability to work on my own on a floor that has a bathroom on it. That is important to me! but, over time, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with the Acer. I still have it. It still works and I still enjoy using it...but I also felt that I should look into getting another, more durable laptop.

Enter System76

As I said, the decision wasn’t all that difficult to make. Recently, Adam had sent to me an article describing the various computers that System76, a company out of Denver, Colorado, has. The laptops are both very reasonably priced and, best of all, do NOT come preloaded with an OS I would not use as they only ship Linux. System76 computers come loaded with Ubuntu 11.04, which is the latest version. It was only a matter of my choosing which laptop would suit my needs best.

I like to think I’m not too demanding when it comes to the things I have. However, I must confess to harbouring some resentment towards the fact that my li’l Acer is breaking down despite my meticulous care. I can understand that if you don’t clean, maintain or otherwise take care of your “toys” you have no right to be surprised when it stops working or otherwise breaks down. However, my Acer is thoroughly babied so I couldn’t help but feel a teensy bit irked at having to experience the angst of a computer breaking down like that.

Now you have an idea of the situation; here’s what I did next.

On the evening of July 28th, Adam and I sat down and discussed my purchasing another laptop. I would keep my Aspire until it totally breaks down but have its replacement already set up and running. This would be a more robust and less frustrating laptop. We considered looking around locally but then remembered System76. A quick re-reading of the reviews of the various laptops from System76 later and we settled on this one I’m using now...the Pangolin Performance. This is a highly capable laptop armed with a 15.6” monitor with a 1366 x 768 pixel screen resolution. Compared to the Acer, this screen is large...very large.

The next day, armed with my morning cup of java (also important - yes it is) I went online and ordered the Pangolin Performance directly from System76. I should make a note or two here about the customer service I received from them. In short, the service is absolutely top of the line. At no point was I uncertain about the status or location of my order. I was treated superbly by the wonderful people at System76 and I would highly recommend the company to anyone who is looking to purchase a computer that doesn’t come with Windows and the associated licensing fees you wind up paying to Microsoft. The purchase experience was flawlessly smooth.

So, I ordered my Pangolin and within a very short period of time, I started getting email updates from them telling me where my computer is and when I can expect it to arrive. System76 uses UPS Worldwide as their delivery company of choice. I then received an email from System76’s customer service providing me with UPS website and a tracking number. This made it extremely easy for me to follow the progress of my Pangolin. It also allowed me to note exactly where my laptop was before it finally arrived at our home on August 3rd, just after lunch.

Now for the not-so-great bit.

As much as I strongly support free software, including Ubuntu, which we used from Ubuntu 7.04 to 10.04. I must freely admit that I was thoroughly unimpressed by Ubuntu 11.04 with its Unity interface. Having been spoiled, I guess, by the simple, flexible and easy-to-use Lubuntu, I found Ubuntu, a clunky, bloated behemoth that runs slowly even on this capable hardware. I was able to figure out Unity, but I just did not like it. I do not like having to spend copious amounts of time trying to figure out how something that should be fairly intuitive, but isn't, works. Unity is just slow, difficult to use, frustrating and generally awful. So, within a short period of time, I decided that Ubuntu 11.04 and Unity had to go. Luckily, we have the latest version of Lubuntu and it is here where one of the nicest features of my Pangolin is highlighted.

The Pangolin comes with an optical CD/DVD/RW. With my Acer, if I wanted to change the OS, I would have to use unetbootin, an application that allows you to install a new OS onto a USB stick. My Acer certainly has USB ports and so does the Pangolin. However, the existence of an optical drive negates having to make a USB stick so it became a very simple matter of overwriting Ubuntu, turfing the Unity desktop, and installing Lubuntu. From there, all I had to do was install Lubuntu, customize a few things, such as installing Stellarium, the desktop planetarium, which runs really well on the Pangolin, and make it my very own. The wide screen makes viewing the nighttime sky a real treat and the scrolling through time is handled with complete ease. There is no jittering or hesitation while the processor tries to keep up with the planets moving through the sky. For amateur astronomers like me, this feature is extremely important.

Booting to the Lubuntu desktop takes about 33 seconds, which is not bad. The keyboard is good, although I find the medium powder-blue colouring on the function keys a bit difficult to see easily. The only sniggly bit I am finding is that there are two buttons labelled del (delete). One is a part of the number pad, which can be a bit disconcerting when what you’re trying to do is ‘delete’ characters to the right of the cursor and instead it writes decimals. The del button above that and also on the blue ‘num lock’ is the one you want.

In summary, this is a robust laptop sold by a good company with really good customer service. My rating: as is, out of the box, with Ubuntu 11.04 and Unity - 6/10. Running Lubuntu 11/10 (yes, it’s an improper fraction but so what?)

In case you were wondering what on earth the computer is named after, Wikipedia clears up the mystery.


Reading Image Metadata From The Command Line

By Adam Hunt

Most images taken by modern digital cameras include a metadata file, usually in Exif format, that includes information about the image. Typically this will include the date and time the image was taken, the shutter speed, f-stop, whether a flash was used, etc. Fully-featured file managers, like Ubuntu's Nautilus include the capability to read and display this information, but Lubuntu's lightweight PCManFM does not.

I thought that there must be a command line utility to read this data and indeed there is. I found it by asking a question on the Ubuntu Forums, where it was suggested that I try Exiv2.

Exiv2 comes with Ubuntu and I suspect it is how Nautilus reads the metadata in the first place. It doesn't come with Lubuntu, but is easy to install using Synaptic. The application has extensive, if rather advanced, documentation. The application can read many different formats of metadata and can also edit and save data too. For my purposes I just wanted to read it, which turns out to be simple to do. Once the application is installed, reading the metadata is as easy as typing into a terminal the name of the application and the pathway to the image:

adam@d:~$ exiv2 ~/DSCN1457.JPG

and Exiv2 will output the data, in this example:

File name : /home/adam/DSCN1457.JPG
File size : 919893 Bytes
MIME type : image/jpeg
Image size : 2048 x 1536
Camera make : NIKON
Camera model : COOLPIX L20
Image timestamp : 13:09:08
Image number :
Exposure time : 1/60 s
Aperture : F3.1
Exposure bias : 0 EV
Flash : No, compulsory
Flash bias :
Focal length : 6.7 mm (35 mm equivalent: 38.0 mm)
Subject distance:
ISO speed : 208
Exposure mode : Auto
Metering mode : Multi-segment
Macro mode :
Image quality : NORMAL
Exif Resolution : 2048 x 1536
White balance : AUTO
Thumbnail : image/jpeg, 4508 Bytes
Copyright :
Exif comment :

Exiv2 is the perfect example of a great command line utility: it does exactly what I need it to do and the commands are simple and intuitive. You can't really ask for better than that and it adds greatly to Lubuntu's usefulness, without adding GUI bloat!


Firefox 5

By Adam Hunt

It has been a while since I have written about Firefox. In fact it has been about a year and a half since we switched from Firefox 3.6 to Google Chrome 4.0.249.30 and later to Chromium and haven't really looked at Firefox in that intervening time. We switched to Chrome mostly because it was much faster loading web pages, so I was interested to see how Firefox 5 performs on that measure.

The tech media have been writing mostly anti-hype about the release of Firefox 5 recently, with stories like Firefox 5 RC: Are You Disappointed? pointing out that all the changes between Firefox 4.0.1 and 5 are all under the hood and that the user experience hasn't really changed much. That article also points out that many of the features advertised as being aimed at inclusion in Firefox 5 didn't make it into the final release, such as "multiple accounts" or "a speed dial new tab page".

I got Firefox 5 though an odd process. I am using Lubuntu 11.04 and it is not supposed to come with Firefox, but, for some reason it was included in the ISO. Just to save on updates I removed it through Synaptic, but apparently I didn't get all of it, because as soon as the new version was available it appeared in the updates. That doesn't happen if you remove an application completely. But since Firefox 5 appeared in the updates, I decided I should give it a try, since it was available.

The current Firefox interface has become more like Chromium in recent versions, although it still uses up more screen space with "browser chrome" than Chromium does. I was easily able to import my bookmarks from an HTML document and get Firefox 5 quickly set up for use. Most keyboard shortcuts used on Chromium are now available on Firefox 5 and that makes transitioning from one to the other fairly smooth. Firefox 5 definitely has more user interface options and plug-ins than Chromium, so it is more customizable. For instance the new default location for the tabs bar is above the URL bar, Chromium style, but there is a user-controllable option at View→Toolbars→Tabs on top at allows the tabs to be moved back directly above the web page, as in older versions of Firefox.

In testing, I found that Firefox 5 is a solid, standards-compliant browser, just like earlier versions were. It works very well with web applications, such as Google Docs and displays every website I could find properly. Its rendering of borders is noteworthy - they always seem to look better in Firefox than any other browser.

Spell-checking in Firefox 5 works differently than it does in Chromium. With Chromium spell-checking only works on form text that you have written or that you have high-lighted. In Firefox spell-checking works on any text in the form, which is good. However, as on earlier versions of Firefox, if the form text is long then Firefox just stops spell-checking at some point down the page. It seems to hit a buffer limit or similar and then gives up. This can be annoying when editing a long Wikipedia page, for instance. The other spell-checking oddity is that Firefox does not offer spell-checking in web page bars, just in form fields. Chromium does offer this and it is very useful.

The Firefox page find feature is activated by hitting Ctrl+F. It seems obtrusive as it occupies the entire bottom space on the web page and doesn't auto-hide when you click off it.

In comparing Firefox 5.0 to Chromium 12.0.742.91 for RAM usage I opened four standard web pages in four tabs on both browsers and found that Firefox 5 was using 160.7 MB of RAM, versus Chromium 12 using 225.5 MB for the same pages. A lot of that is due to Chromium running each tab as a separate process, which gives better security, but uses more RAM. In comparison Firefox 5 is a relatively lightweight web browser these days, although not lighter than Epiphany 2.30.6 at 119.6 MB.

In using Firefox 5 for three days I found that its page loading feels slow in comparison to both Chromium and Epiphany. Objective testing bears this out. Timing loading of pages both with and without JavaScript shows that Firefox 5 is considerably slower than the other browsers. In some test cases it took almost twice as long to load a page and averaged 47% slower over all pages tested.

In three days of testing I had no crashes or other issues to report, so stability seems good.

In conclusion Firefox 5 is a good solid, stable browser, with good features and extensions available, it is just noticeably slow loading pages, which makes it a bit frustrating to use if you are used to Chromium or Epiphany.


Update On Ubuntu Hardware Requirements

By Adam Hunt

Last August I wrote about Ubuntu hardware creep as a number of people had noted that Ubuntu was requiring more and more RAM and better and better CPUs to run. Last summer the Ubuntu Community Documentation had been changed indicate that Ubuntu required a 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, which was quite a leap from the previous 500 MHz processor and 384 MB of RAM.

Even given the new specs Ubuntu 11.04 didn't run very well on my computer with 1.833 MHz AMD processor and 1 GB of RAM. Nautilus was very slow, video wouldn't play properly, maxing out the CPU and PiTiVi, the included video editor, was a non-starter, requiring a dual core processor to run at all.

Since the release of Ubuntu 11.04 the minimum hardware requirements have been adjusted downwards again. Does this mean that 11.04 has reversed some of the previous bloat or that the developers are willing to accept slower and slower computers? I am betting of course that most developers have fairly capable PCs. Most of them don't seem to be running low end hardware, not even for testing.

Regardless I thought this would be a good opportunity to have a look at what the developers say the hardware requirements of the various Ubuntu family distributions are right now:

Hardware Requirements

Item

Ubuntu 11.04

Kubuntu 11.04

Xubuntu 11.04

Lubuntu 11.04

Minimum RAM to install (text) Not stated 384 MB 64 MB 128 MB
Minimum RAM to install (graphical) 384 MB 384 MB 256 MB 256 MB
Minimum RAM to operate 384 MB 384 MB 192 MB 128 MB
Recommended RAM 512 MB 384 MB 512 MB 256 MB
Disk space (text) Not stated Not stated 2 GB Not stated
Disk space (graphical) 4 GB Not stated 4.4 GB Not stated
Minimum Processor 500 MHz x86 Not stated Not stated Not stated

That is what the documentation says, but it would take someone with a PC meeting those specs to see what kind of performance you would actually get. I have seen older versions of Ubuntu trying to run on hardware well above the minimum spec and it wasn't useable in some cases.


The Midori Web Browser

By Adam Hunt

The word Midori is Japanese for "green", which explains the green "cat's paw" logo. You would naturally think that the Midori web browser would come from Japan, but instead it is developed by a team lead by Christian Dywan from Germany.

I have wanted to try out Midori for a while as it is billed as "a lightweight web browser" and the recent installation of Xubuntu 11.04 on my test PC gave me that chance. I recently read that Midori 0.3.6 had been released and thought I would give it a try out. The Natty repositories have Midori 0.3.2, so I installed that and then added the Midori and Webkit PPAs as explained on the Midori and the Webkit Launchpad pages. The simplest way to do this was from the command line:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:midori

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webkit-team

Then calling up the update manager showed the update from Midori 0.3.2 to 0.3.6 was available. Midori 0.3.6 is mostly a bug-fix update and doesn't change much on the user interface. It introduces better CSS fonts and shadow rendering, fixes to the user agent string so it isn't read as a mobile browser on Facebook, fixes for URL completion crashes, icon size and "speed dial" importing. Midori 0.3.2 had some serious problems that have been fixed in 0.3.6. For instance it would not hold cut and paste text.

The Midori user interface is very straightforward. It has tabs below the URL bar like Epiphany does, which some people find more intuitive. It does have some oddities, though. Importing bookmarks from an HTML file is easy, but Midori does not display bookmarks. There is no bookmark manager or way to display a list of them, but you can search them through the URL bar. I couldn't find any way to delete or even edit bookmarks once they are entered, though, which is odd. There is the option to put bookmarks on a separate bookmarks bar above the tab bar, although I haven't found any way to remove them once there.

The new tab page is by default a "speed dial" display. This is very similar to that found on Chromium and Chrome, except that Midori allows you to set and fix nine favourite websites there, whereas Chrome/Chromium figures out your most visited and displays those, without user input. I think Midori has the edge in this, as it gives more user control.

Since Midori is based on the Webkit rendering engine, which includes spell-checking, Midori has this feature, sort of. Upon making a spelling error while completing a web form Midori will underline the error in red, but doesn't offer any correction suggestions. This is better than nothing, but not as good as spell-checking on most other browsers.

You can manually clear browsing data at the end of your session, or you can set it to drop the data automatically, like on Firefox, which is a nice feature.

Midori does not seem to accept passwords and has no interface to manage them. I guess this is a good security feature, but if you have a lot of passwords for various websites it is nice to have the option of storing them.

As far as page loading speed goes Midori 0.3.6 is faster than 0.3.2 and comparable to Epiphany 2.30.6 or Chromium 11. Midori certainly is lighter on RAM than other browsers. A standard test set of web pages showed that Midori used 157 MB of RAM, compared to Epiphany 2.30.6 at 223.6 MB and Chromium 11.0.696.57 at 222.1 MB

Even though Midori is a standards complaint browser it won't run Google Docs at all - you just get a warning that it isn't supported. Epiphany isn't officially supported for Google Docs either but it still mostly works. Google won't even let you try with Midori.

The one aspect that both Midori 0.3.2 and 0.3.6 share is frequent crashes. This is similar to Epiphany 2.30.2 and 2.30.6 and just as unwelcome! On both versions of Midori that I tried out I had three crashes each in an hour or so of use. This are not lock-ups, but just snap-crashes where the browser just suddenly closes.

Between the odd spell-checking, the non-existent bookmark management and especially the frequent crashes which are a non-starter for me in a browser, Midori gets 0/10 and thus I can't recommend it for daily use.

Amongst all this there is some good news. Basically Midori is a sound design and it is in the early stages of development, basically it looks like an alpha release right now. It will be interesting to come back when the team releases Midori 1.0 and see how far it has come by then.


Xubuntu 11.04

By Adam Hunt

Xubuntu 11.04

Xubuntu is essentially Ubuntu, but using the Xfce desktop in place of Ubuntu's Gnome desktop. Xfce is is a lighter weight desktop than Gnome, but not as light as the LXDE desktop that is used in Lubuntu.

Back in February 2009 I did a review of Xubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex and then Ruth used it as her operating system for a month in March 2009. After that she used Xubuntu 9.04 until May 2009 when her old Dell computer died and on her more-cabable replacement PC we installed Ubuntu 9.04.

We both had positive things to say about Xubuntu 8.10 and 9.04. They both worked well and certainly ran faster on 512 MB of RAM than Ubuntu did. Still back then Ubuntu wasn't as much of a resource hog as it has become recently and so we didn't see a significant advantage to Xubuntu then. By May 2009 our whole house was using Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope. Ubuntu Jaunty was a great release and we used it for a year, but by Ubuntu 10.10 the system requirements had increased for Ubuntu and the minimum recommended was then a 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM and it needed more than that, especuially a faster processor, to run well.

We have been very happy running Lubuntu 11.04 and both think this might just be the best operating system either of us has used, but I have been curious how Xubuntu has been faring recently. In some recent releases it has been faulted for using as much or more RAM than Ubuntu. Linux Magazine testing in September 2009 on Xubuntu 9.10 beta showed that it actually used more RAM than Ubuntu on the same tasks. In Damien Oh said:

So what about Xubuntu? isn’t it supposed to be the lightweight equivalent of Ubuntu? Sadly, that is a thing of the past. The truth is, the supposed lightweight equivalent is not lightweight at all. While Xubuntu is using the lightweight XFCE desktop environment, it had been bugged down by several heavyweight applications and also the integration with GNOME desktop also makes it lose its advantage.

In keeping an eye on the Xubuntu project over time it looks like they have taken steps to differentiate it from Ubuntu at least in resource use. They used to recommend at least 256 MB of RAM, but it didn't do well on that little memory in testing. Whereas Ubuntu recommends 1 GB of RAM, Xubuntu is now recommending 512 MB, which is more realistic.

I recently downloaded Xubuntu 11.04 and installed it on my test PC, an XP box from 2004, with an AMD 1.833 GHz processor (equivalent to an Intel 2.6 GHz) and 1 GB of RAM. This box had been running Ubuntu 11.04 and it was slow and occasionally jittery.

Xubuntu installed quickly and without any fuss. It uses the same installation program and a similar slide show to Ubuntu and Lubuntu, that makes it dead simple to install, even for a rank beginner.

The basic default Xubuntu 11.04 desktop is very attractive and understated, but because it uses Xfce 4.8.0, it includes some innovative features. It seems everyone wants to incorporate a Mac-style application launcher, after all that is what Ubuntu's Unity is trying to achieve, as is the Gnome Shell used in Gnome 3. There is nothing really wrong with having a launcher, as long as it doesn't make it hard to launch applications that aren't on the launcher, like Unity does.

Xubuntu's launcher is actually the bottom panel, slightly enlarged and with some transparency dialled in. It is by default set to hide unless the user places the cursor at the bottom of the screen. By default it is at the bottom of the screen, but unlike Unity, can be repositioned to any edge. It looks like this (actual size):

Xubuntu 11.04

At first glance it looks a bit mysterious, but there are "tool tips'' upon hover-over to show you what each one does. From left to right they are: show desktop, web browser, e-mail, terminal, preferences, application finder, Ubuntu Software Centre, AbiWord, Gmusicbrowser, GIMP, Thunar file browser and trash. More can be added or removed. To launch any applications on the bar, just move the cursor to the bottom of the screen and when the panel appears just click the icon. That is it, just like Unity. The real test, though is in trying to launch applications that aren't on the launcher. In Unity this is difficult and requires up to four clicks. Xfce has it right, though. All applications can be quickly found in three different ways:

  1. You can select the "application finder" on the launcher and it shows lists of all installed applications.
  2. You can right click on the desktop for a list of applications
  3. You can click the tiny Xfce mouse icon on the top panel at the far left to also show a complete list of installed applications.

This all adds up to a smart and very flexible solution that should lead to few user complaints. If you don't like the launcher you can turn it off or just ignore it as it doesn't appear unless the cursor is held at the bottom of the screen.

As always Xubuntu comes with a good list of installed applications, many of which are the same as those installed in Lubuntu, including:

These is a good choice of lightweight applications. Firefox is perhaps the only mismatch there, but its popularity probably outweighs its slower performance to Chromium, which is the default browser in Lubuntu.

Thunar is still a good file browser, only notable in that it lacks tabs. This seems odd in this day when all file browsers have tabs, even Lubuntu's PC Man File Manager. This means that to transfer between two Thunar file windows you have to open two instances, instead of doing it in tabs.

The Catfish desktop search is one feature advantage that Xubuntu has over Lubuntu, which does its search from the command line instead.

Xubuntu now does package management via the Ubuntu Software Centre (USC), whereas Lubuntu uses Synaptic. USC is much more user friendly, but it is a CPU hog and checking resource use showed that it was topping out my AMD 1.833 GHz CPU when idling or in use.

All the other applications available to Ubuntu are available to Xubuntu via USC and the Ubuntu repositories. That means that a different browser, such as Chromium or a different office suite, such as LibreOffice, is just a click away.

I did check out my peripheral hardware on Xubuntu 11.04 to see how it fared out. Xubuntu had no problem with my Canon LiDE 20 scanner and even recognized my HP 1018 Laser printer on turn on and offered to go and get drivers for it. That set-up was completely painless. This contrasted to Lubuntu, where I had to run a command line to get the printer working. Networking with SSHFS worked flawlessly, but my camera was not recognized at all. That last one is not critical for me as the camera stores images on SD cards and my SD card reader which worked fine. Oddly enough while Lubuntu 10.10 didn't recognize my camera, Lubuntu 11.04 did, while Xubuntu 11.04 didn't. You would think this would be part of the Ubuntu back end stuff and thus all the same releases, like Lubuntu 11.04 and Xubuntu 11.04, would work the same way, but apparently not.

Overall Xubuntu works just fine on my hardware. It has a lot to recommend it, a simple interface and, now that Ubuntu has become a very resource-intensive distribution, Xubuntu has actually slipped into a useful niche between Ubuntu and Lubuntu, offering a bit more in the way of features, for a slightly higher RAM requirement.

Personally I wouldn't give up Lubuntu for Xubuntu at this point, but it is nice to have a good solid back-up distribution available for future use.


Epiphany 3.0 And Flash

By Adam Hunt

In many ways the saga of Epiphany goes from bad to worse. I am still running Epiphany 2.30.6, but it looks like the next version, Epiphany 3.0, released in April, was pretty much stillborn.

Back on I noted that the developers had written about Epiphany 2.91 (which became 3.0 on release) "BAD, but likely to happen: Flash doesn't work with GTK+ 3.0"

In reading the Epiphany mailing lists I came across Gnome developer Xan Lopez explaining, "There's the valid complaint about Flash not working with Epiphany, of course. All I can say is that we are working on it, hopefully HTML5 video + nspluginwrapper can make you survive meanwhile! ... The Flash plugin won't work unless you are using something like nspluginwrapper (since it links with GTK+2.x and we cannot have it in the same process than the rest of Epiphany)."

One day Flash will go away, but we aren't there yet. HTML5 is in the very early stages right now and doesn't fully work. I am really not sure how the developers can put out a browser that won't play video and expect people to use it as their main browser. It seems to me that if Epiphany had some fans before that this should put an end to that.

Let's see if Lopez's "All I can say is that we are working on it", translates into a fix or not.

I guess every cloud has some silver lining. In this case at least Epiphany 3.0 won't suffer from any Flash-induced crashes.


A Look at Unity

By Adam Hunt

A month after Ubuntu 11.04 came out I finally got a chance to try Unity. My initial attempts weren't successful as it wouldn't run on any of my test hardware or even my current PC, all of which are former Windows XP boxes. Running Ubuntu 11.04 on these PCs resulted in the fallback default of the classic Gnome desktop. It was only when I tried booting Ubuntu 11.04 up on Ruth's former Vista box that Unity would load and run, giving me the chance to try it out.

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth has high hopes for Ubuntu. Unity is a big part of making that a reality. Earlier this month he said:

[Our] goal is 200 million users of Ubuntu in 4 years. We’re not playing a game for developers hearts and minds – we’re playing a game for the worlds hearts and minds. and to achieve that we’re going to have to play by a new set of rules.

Canonical's official pitch for Unity says:

Unity brings together a powerful set of technologies designed to empower application developers and deliver a unique user experience.

Very Dilbertesque, but it certainly seems to set the bar high.

The initial impression when it loads up is that it isn't that bad, contrary to all the negative reviews. Launching applications that are in the Unity launcher is easy, just click on them and they launch. The lack of a bottom panel to show which applications are open is a bit odd, but you can get this information from Alt+Tab to switch from one to the other or by looking at the Unity launcher that shows a small white arrow on the left side of the icon for any application that is open and an arrow on the right for the application that is on top. Applications that are behind the top one can be brought to the top by clicking the Unity launcher icon. So far so good.

Opening files is most easily accomplished by clicking the Home Folder icon on the Unity launcher, which opens a Nautilus window. Clicking on the Files and Folders lens on the Unity launcher also opens Nautilus, but you have to go through the intermediate step of opening the lens and then the Nautilus window, which is a waste of effort. You can't directly open files from the Unity files and folders lens, so I am not sure what it is for.

Unity places the menus for open applications on the top panel instead of on the application window. That is for all applications except LibreOffice, which has't been so integrated yet. The application menus are also hidden until you mouse over them and then they appear. This is far less than ideal.

The Unity launcher itself remains on the screen until you either move an application window into its space or maximize a window and then it hides, reappearing only when you move the mouse pointer to the far right side. This works okay once you are expecting the behaviour.

Where Unity really falls down is in launching applications that aren't on the Unity launcher, and limited real estate there means you will have lots that aren't. I gave Ruth, an experienced Gnome user, the task of launching Gedit, the Gnome text editor, which isn't on the Unity launcher and she couldn't figure out how to do that at all. It is no wonder really. On the classic Gnome desktop you go Applications→Accessories→Text Editor, which is simple, intuitive and just two clicks. On Unity to do the same thing you go Applications→All Applications→Installed - See 4 more results→Text Editor, a total of four clicks. After I talked Ruth though it she decided Unity was "non-intuitive eye candy". She tried a few more tasks and pronounced it "garbage". Her conclusion was that you could probably learn how to use it over time, but everything is slower and takes more time and clicks to accomplish. "What was Mark Shuttleworth thinking?" she added.

I have to admit though that Ruth is now spoiled by using Lubuntu and its LXDE desktop, which is not only much more intuitive, but quicker and uses far fewer clicks to do most tasks. Being far lighter weight it also runs a lot faster on the same hardware.

One of the oddest things about searching for applications you have is that the lens system seems to use up more space showing you applications that you don't have installed, but could install. Why not show you what you do have installed instead?

I spent some time using Unity and came to basically similar conclusions that Ruth did. You probably can get Unity to work for you, if you have the hardware to run it, but why would you want to? It is slower and harder to use than the classic Gnome desktop and provides nowhere near the usability of the LXDE desktop. It offers no real advantages and lots of disadvantages.

Apparently we are not the only ones who have tried Unity and think that. Ryan Paul of Ars Technica said:

...the application lens interface is the single worst part of the Unity environment. In fact, it's a serious contender for the worst piece of desktop shell design since Microsoft Bob. The layout and navigational structure is completely incoherent.

Jesse Smith of DistroWatch said:

...the layout doesn't translate well to large screens or multiple-screen systems

Jack M. Germain of Linux Insider wrote:

Clearly, Ubuntu's Unity desktop is going to produce a love-it-or-hate-it reaction among users. Put me in the Hate It category. I did not like Unity in its earlier iterations, especially on the Netbook Remix version. I like most of its features -- or lack of features-- a lot less now.

The only truly positive review it has received was from Joey Sneddon of OMG! Ubuntu!

Sure it’s different – but different doesn’t mean bad; the best thing to do is to give it a chance... [It makes] better use of screen space, intuitive interface layouts and, most importantly, making a desktop that works for the user and not in spite of them.

Perhaps the final expert word should go to Mark Shuttleworth:

I recognise there are issues, and I would not be satisfied unless we fixed many of them in 11.10...Unity was the best option for the average user upgrading or installing. There are LOTS of people for whom it isn’t the best, but we had to choose a default position...It’s by no means perfect, and it would be egotistical to suggest otherwise.

Clearly there will be work done to improve Unity over time. The key thing is what do the users think? They have now had the stable version of Unity in Ubuntu 11.04 for just about a month.

One gauge is DistroWatch's popularity measure. On , shortly after Ubuntu 11.04 was released, Ubuntu was on top of the 30 day list with 3158 hits per day. Today, on the same list, it is still in the number one position but at 2809 and falling fast. That is a loss of 22%. Probably more telling is the current seven day list, which puts Ubuntu at number three behind Fedora and Linux Mint. More critically it seems to have only about 54% of the popularity of Fedora this week. This is a big deal as Ubuntu has topped the DistroWatch list for the past six years; it seemed unshakable. Time will tell what users think, but in the Linux world users vote with their feet. If they don't like the direction a distribution is going they will quickly find another one and won't come back.

In many ways this is Mark Shuttleworth's big gamble, he wants to increase Ubuntu's user base from its current 14M users by almost 15 fold to 200M by the spring of , just four years away. So far he seems to be losing users, not gaining them. The data should show whether Shuttleworth's strategy is working over time or not and we'll be keeping an eye on his goal.

Update -

I have been tracking the Distrowatch numbers and it is worth noting that between and , marking more than a month after Ubuntu 11.04 came out, that it has lost 35% of its daily hits and fallen to third place behind Linux Mint and Fedora on the one month tracking list.


Epiphany 2.30.6 Crashes

By Adam Hunt

Using the Epiphany browser continues to be less than optimal. There is no doubt that version 2.30.6 is the best Epiphany I have tried to date, although I still have to give 3.0.0 a whirl later this year. But it still doesn't entirely make the grade as a useable browser.

In testing out Epiphany 2.30.6 for a week I had no crashes at all, which was great compared to version 2.30.2 which crashed on a regular basis. But in the last three days I have had three crashes, one per day, just snap and all instances of the browser close, leaving me looking at a bare desktop. In all cases these happened while loading a page laden with JavaScript, so I suspect that was the problem, just as mentioned in Jack Wallen's review.

That is frustrating. I do like Epiphany, as it is fast and has some nice features, but the crashes are off-putting, to say the least. So, at least for today I am back to using Chromium 11.0.696.65. It may be a bit slower than Epiphany but at least it virtually never crashes and if a process or plug-in goes bad it usually just locks one tab.

I have been following up on my previous attempt to find out if Epiphany has some secret spell-checking feature that I haven't worked out how to turn on, by asking on the mailing list, but despite a week later prompt never got even a bad answer, which is disappointing.

Update -

I gave Epiphany 2.30.6 another try this morning and it crashed on me again in the first half hour of use! I really can't use a browser that crashes regularly, it is too annoying. It gets 0/10

Update -

I did finally get an answer to the spell checking question I asked on the Epiphany mailing list, after 15 days. Xan Lopez from Gnome said "It's not enabled by default, as you can see in https://bugzilla.gnome.org/show_bug.cgi?id=637021. Hopefully we'll fix this for 3.2." My follow-up question about whether it can be enabled by the user at all wasn't answered, so I gather the answer was "no".


Has OpenOffice.org Become Abandonware?

By Adam Hunt

Has the once flagship free software office suite OpenOffice.org become abandonware?

It is starting to look that way!

Here is the story. First Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, the owners of OpenOffice.org. Oracle has gained a bad reputation in the free software world after they terminated OpenSolaris in favour of closed-source development and so a group of OpenOffice.org developers decided to fork OpenOffice.org, start the Document Foundation and call the new fork LibreOffice. They invited Oracle to join and donate the name "OpenOffice.org" but they declined and compelled any developers working on both projects to resign. That lead to a mass exodus of developers and on Oracle announced that OpenOffice.org would become a community supported project, meaning that it wasn't going to put any money into the project any more.

It all sounds ominous for OpenOffice.org, but it is hard to figure out just what is happening there. The project put out its last press release on , three days before the end-of-commercial-support announcement. That announcement indicated that OpenOffice.org 3.4 beta was available for testing, with a closing test date of . There has been nothing since.

It could well be that, with Oracle having pulled any paid developers and the community developers having left, that there is nobody home at OpenOffice.org. The last stable release remains at 3.3.0 and the beta at 3.4. Perhaps when the domain registry expires it will disappear from the internet entirely?

Of course none of this is a surprise and could have all been avoided if Oracle had done a better job of the take-over of OpenOffice.org. It isn't even necessarily bad news for any users as we have LibreOffice which is better than OpenOffice.org is, incorporating all the same code plus the Go-oo code as well, plus lots of new evolutionary changes, too. So no one is left in the lurch by all this and in fact with LibreOffice, including management by the vendor-neutral Document Foundation, users are definitely now better off. Still it is sad to see a once proud project, once the mainstay of the free software movement just disappear without a eulogy, or even a word, like this one seems to be doing.

"OpenOffice is dead, long live LibreOffice".

Update -

Maybe OpenOffice.org is not dead yet! There was an announcement today that Oracle has turned it over to Apache: OpenOffice proposed as Apache project. The Document Foundation that is developing LibreOffice hopes that this will lead to a future reunification of the two projects.


Fixing The Epiphany User Agent String

By Adam Hunt

A user agent string is the information your browser sends when it requests a web page from a server. In some cases it even affects the information that the server responds with. It is also used to collect statistics about the browser and operating system used, hopefully so that web designers can make their pages work better for the users viewing them.

Strings can be checked in a couple of places, to see what your browser is telling the world:

When I first installed Epiphany 2.30.6 on Lubuntu 11.04 I checked the user agent string that it was transmitting and was rather surprised to find that it was saying:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux i686) AppleWebKit/534.26+ (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.0 Safari/534.26+ Ubuntu/10.10 (2.30.6-1ubuntu5) Epiphany/2.30.6

Most of that information is okay, but why "Ubuntu 10.10"? I thought that it would be good to fix it if I could figure out how to do that. Looking around the Epiphany files on my computer didn't turn up a place where that is stored, but I happened onto a conversation about this on the Epiphany mailing list, which I had joined.

After a few exchanges of information there with some helpful people, I was informed the best way to edit the user agent is to install the gconf-editor package, which I did. That application enables fine tuned editing of preferences in Gnome applications and is relatively easy to use.

In the gconf-editor the user agent is located at Apps→Epiphany→General→user_agent. It also creates a file at ~/.gconf/apps/epiphany/general/% gconf.xml, which is easy to edit manually too.

So with those tools in hand I was able to change the string to:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux i686) AppleWebKit/534.26+ (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.0 Safari/534.26+ Lubuntu/11.04 (2.30.6-1ubuntu5) Epiphany/2.30.6

Now at least it reflects the operating system it is running on. Hopefully that will help the Lubuntu stats on DistroWatch!


Lubuntu Makes The Grade

By Adam Hunt

This week the Ubuntu Developer Summit is underway in Budapest, Hungary. These events are mainly to plan the next release of Ubuntu and its derivatives, but there are sometimes some surprise announcements as well and that proved the case today.

Back in February 2009, Mark Shuttleworth invited the LXDE project to create an Ubuntu-based distribution using the LXDE desktop. His intention was that it would be a self-maintained project called Lubuntu with the aim of it eventually becoming an officially-recognized Ubuntu derivative.

After much work by the team to produce a really good product and three strong Lubuntu releases, the goal was still not met with 11.04. The day after Lubuntu 11.04 was released, on , Mario Behling stated, "The next goals of the project are clear. Apart from constantly improving the distribution, the lubuntu project aims to become an official flavour of Ubuntu." He didn't have to wait long as just 12 days later Mark Shuttleworth announced that they were "in". This means that Lubuntu 11.10, to be made available on , will be an official release.

Ruth and I would like to add our congratulations to the Lubuntu Team. They have produced a really excellent distribution and in three complete release cycles have moved it from an interesting project to number ten on DistroWatch's one month list. Lubuntu is all we are using at our house these days and we love it!

Announcements:


A Week of Epiphany 2.30.6

By Adam Hunt

After testing Epiphany 2.30.6 for one day on Ubuntu 11.04, I have now also done a week's worth of testing on it on Lubuntu 11.04. The results are actually fairly good. This version of Epiphany is a great improvement over 2.30.2

For starters I should review what Epiphany 2.30.6 doesn't do. Unlike Epiphany 2.30.2 I have had no crashes at all and no problems loading any web pages. It works with Google Docs and all other websites that I have tried just fine. Whatever JavaScript problems 2.30.2 had seem to have been fixed in 2.30.6.

On the minus side I have had one instance of not loading passwords and the odd TLS handshake error in Gmail, but the latter was quickly cleared with a page reload.

Epiphany 2.30.6 does include some new features and fixes. It now supports drag and drop form editing, which is very useful. It also supports colouring visited links better. In 2.30.2 it failed to colour some visited links, which could be a bit confusing.

In comparing Epiphany 2.30.6 to the current version of Chromium, which is 11.0.696.57, there is a lot that I like about Epiphany. Its page history handling is neat and useful, as is its bookmark manager and personal data. Unlike Chromium, Epiphany makes it impossible for someone else using your computer to see your passwords. It handles downloads better than Chromium as well, enabling downloading and opening files like PDFs with much less user effort. As mentioned before, for web developers Epiphany automatically reloads local web pages when you save the source file, which saves a lot of hitting F5 while writing web pages and checking them in a browser.

The handling of bookmarks though the URL bar deserves some special mention. Chromium always seems to have some trouble with this. For instance, usually if I start typing in the name of a website, or the URL, that is stored in the bookmark manager in Chromium, it will show all bookmarks that fit the typed text and the right one can then be selected. But there are a number of saved bookmarks that it just will not display. I have even tried editing the descriptions and it doesn't help, it just won't show them when you type them in, even when you get to the last letter of the URL. Epiphany is much more accurate in dealing with bookmarks and shows all saved bookmarks that fit what you have typed, quickly refining the list down as you type more in.

I don't use it much, but full-screen view on Epiphany deserves some mention because it really works well. Hitting F11 causes the browser to shed all its chrome except the right side scroll bar and the top tabs and navigation bar. This means that you can still navigate between tabs and use the browser normally. In contrast, in full screen mode Chromium loses everything except the scroll bar, making all navigation impossible, including tab navigation, unless you resort to keyboard shortcuts. Of course then you are navigating blindly as you can't see which tab you are switching to.

Epiphany 2.30.6 still does not have spell checking for form completion, but it looks like experiments were done with this in the past using about:config or other means. In trying these out it doesn't look like it is working now, though. Entering about:config just produces a blank page now. These bug reports give various parts of the story:

As mentioned, spell checking on Chromium and even on Firefox has always been hit-or-miss. For some reason they often miss some spelling errors, which can produce a false sense of security. It all means that in all browsers that you have to do a careful copy-edit for errors anyway.

Since I have both Epiphany 2.30.6 and Chromium 11.0.696.57 available I wanted to also do some comparative testing of RAM use and page loading speed.

In opening a standard set of test web pages I found that there wasn't much to choose between the browsers in terms of RAM usage. Epiphany 2.30.6 used up 223.6 MB while Chromium 11.0.696.57 consumed 222.1 MB to show the same pages. That is only a 0.7% difference.

Given that Chromium and its derivative product, Google Chrome, has such a focus on page loading speed it was interesting to compare them on this measure. In testing some slow, large and difficult web pages I found that Epiphany 2.30.6, with one exception, was always faster loading pages than Chromium 11.0.696.57 and sometimes a lot faster. The sole exception to this was the AvWeb homepage. That page has newly been repaired by its webmaster (I got credit for pointing the problem out) so that JavaScript problems no longer cause page loading and reloading, but the page still has a lot of remaining issues and Chromium overcomes them and loads that one web page more quickly than Epiphany does. Otherwise Epiphany is very fast loading pages, probably due to not being a cross-platform browser, but Linux-only, which eliminates a lot of design compromises.

One note on page loading, while Chromium uses the "thrummer" rotating icon in the tab to show when a page is loading, Epiphany actually shows a coloured progress bar in the URL box, which is a much more obvious indication of page loading.

Overall Epiphany 2.30.6 is a great improvement over Epiphany 2.30.2 and no longer can I classify it as lacking as a browser. If the developers get the password management and the spell checking sorted out it would be just about an ideal browser. I am looking forward to trying Epiphany 3, most likely in October when Lubuntu 11.10 comes out.


Lubuntu 11.04 Applications

By Adam Hunt

Lubuntu 11.04 comes with new versions of some existing applications, but it also includes access to the Ubuntu Natty Narwhal repositories, allowing users to install any software that is available to Ubuntu users. According to Synaptic this includes 33,501 packages!

Audacious

The biggest advertised change in Lubuntu 11.04 is the replacement of the Aqualung music player with Audacious. In using Lubuntu 10.10 I got to know the Aqualung player quite well and I like its simplicity, light RAM and CPU footprint and ease-of-use. When I read that Aqualung was being replaced I have to admit that I was not convinced that this was a positive move, but decided to wait and see what Audacious was like.

Having now tried out Audacious for a few days I actually think that incorporating it in Lubuntu 11.04 was the right move. It is at least as easy to use as Aqualung and offers better features, including a graphic equalizer. This puts it on par for useability with VLC, at least for playing music.

Audacious also seems to produce a crisper sound as well. It offers the ability to create complex play-lists if you like or to just browse files and load them quickly. The interface, while very simple also has a lot of keyboard shortcuts built in, which are useful. It even shows album jackets in the interface, if they are available in the directory.

In checking resource use during playback I found Audacious used about 8% CPU and 27 MB of RAM playing a song, which is pretty low.

Having worked with Audacious now for a few days, I am sold on it. Aqualung is good, Audacious is better.

Chromium

Chromium is the default web browser in Lubuntu 11.04 and it arrived with Chromium 10.0.648.205 in the ISO file. Today this was quickly upgraded to Chromium 11.0.696.57, which features the new 2D Chromium logo.

For some reason this new version seems more sensitive to JavaScript errors, just like Chromium 12 which I tested on Puppy Linux a month ago. This means that the JavaScript errors on the AvWeb homepage cause it to load and reload the page over again. This is really not a browser issue, but a web-page issue. I didn't get any response from AvWeb's webmaster on fixing it, so I have sent it on up to their editor-in-chief.

Otherwise Chromium 11 has some tweaks to its synchronization that makes it easier to use and also adds some more JavaScript speed due to its use of Webkit 534.18 and V8 3.1.1, although I am betting that is also where its greater sensitivity to JavaScript errors comes from. Chromium 11 has not repeated the long page form buffer error that was introduced with Chromium 10.0.648.133 and solved with Chromium 10.0.648.205. Hopefully we won't see that back again.

I have only one complaint about Chromium 11 so far - it seems to keep forgetting passwords, even when they are clearly saved in the password manager.

For reasons that have not been explained, Lubuntu 11.04 when installed includes Firefox 4.0.1. I don't mind Firefox, but I don't use it and, as it has very frequent updates, I just uninstalled it from Synaptic.

Update Manager

This version of Lubuntu uses the Ubuntu Update Manager 0.150, which has a few differences from previous versions. It has a new distinctive orange icon for one thing. It also now auto-closes when it is finished doing an update, whereas before it would report that it was finished and wait for the user to close it. This isn't a problem, it was just a surprise and I had to check and make sure that it was intentional and not a crash.

LibreOffice

Lubuntu 11.04 comes with two quite capable lightweight office applications, the Abiword 2.8.6 word processor and Gnumeric 1.10.13 spreadsheet. These both work okay, but I have numerous existing documents that were created on the old OpenOffice suite and really need more full-featured graphing and other capabilities. The repositories have OpenOffice.org 3.3.0 available, but I elected to installed LibreOffice 3.3.2 instead.

LibreOffice is the fork of OpenOffice.org that happened when Oracle bought out Sun Microsystems. Since then Oracle has discontinued commercial support of OpenOffice.org, making LibreOffice the clear winner here. LibreOffice already incorporates a number of improvements over OpenOffice.org due to rolling in the Go-OO changes that Sun never accepted for OpenOffice.org.

In trying out both LibreOffice Writer and Calc they seem to function as well as OpenOffice.org ever did and work with the same formats and documents just fine. The menus have been shrunken a bit which helps leave more space for the documents, which is a good thing.

Overall LibreOffice looks to be a winner and, with the support of the community behind it, will probably see faster development than in the past when Sun's internal policies slowed down bringing in new features and improvements.

Fonts

As with Lubuntu 10.10 I have elected not to install the restricted extras package with its Microsoft fonts. Over the last four months I have found that I am actually enjoying using Free Sans, Free Serif and the Ubuntu fonts better anyway, so have no use for those fonts that Microsoft owns the rights to, even if they are freely distributed.

As a bonus Lubuntu 11.04 uses the Ubuntu font as its default system font. It is a very attractive font and easy on the eyes as well.

Conclusions

Applications are one of Lubuntu's strongest suits. It comes with a good selection, enough for everyday work right out of the box. Best of all, with the Ubuntu repositories available through Synaptic, just about any application can be found and installed safely and quickly to customize your Lubuntu the way you like.


Lubuntu 11.04

By Adam Hunt

Lubuntu 11.04

Lubuntu 11.04 arrived on schedule on 28 April 2011. The ISO file was available in the middle of the day, but the Lubuntu website seemed to be off-line for much of the day. I am not sure if it was down or just swamped with users. Regardless, the files are on a different website! That meant I was able to bypass the main website and get the ISO early!

Download, MD5 sum checking and burning some CDs went very smoothly. We decided to install right away on Ruth's desktop, did mine the next day and finally Ruth's netbook last.

Once we got it installed the first thing I noticed was just how gorgeous the new artwork is. Mario Behling's release announcement credits Raphael Laguna with the new theme and artwork. The default theme is now Ozone and it is very clean-looking. The new default wallpaper is also a great improvement over the last one for Lubuntu 10.10. Both Ruth and I were impressed enough with the new theme and wallpaper that we have not replaced either!

Installation following my checklist was quick and took only an hour. Even the Ubuntu software repositories were running smoothly and there was little wait for application downloads to customize my installation. Lubuntu identified and offered to set up my HP 1018 printer. I followed the wizard though and it resulted in a non-functional printer. So instead I ran:

from the command line and that worked just fine once I had deleted the previous set-up.

Scanning worked right out of the box and, as a bonus, my camera now connects on plug in, eliminating the need to use an SD card reader!

Having a look through the menus shows that Lubuntu 11.04 comes with lots of useful application software:

The Audacious music player is a new addition, having replaced Aqualung from Lubuntu 10.10. I have to admit that I was surprised to find Firefox installed, as it wasn't evident on the live CD and the installation slide show indicted it was available but not installed.

To customize Lubuntu 11.04 I added some of my favourite applications:

Aside from the beautiful artwork, Lubuntu 11.04 incorporates a number of behind-the-scenes changes. This version will run on 128 MB of RAM, but requires 256 MB of RAM to install. One welcome change is that the menus have been reorganized for the better. For instance, no longer will you find Synaptic under Preferences, now it is more logically under System Tools.

The one glitch I have come across is that input device preferences doesn't accept any changes to the mouse settings. If you try to change it, it just closes. Fortunately the defaults are fine. I expect this will be fixed up in short order, through an update.

Otherwise Lubuntu 11.04 runs very fast and smoothly. It looks great and works really well. Even on my old XP hardware it runs very quickly. It is a stark contrast to Ubuntu 11.04, which, on similar hardware, wouldn't run the Unity desktop and is slow and jittery.

I can recommend Lubuntu 11.04 without reservation. If you have old XP hardware or a netbook it is the distribution of choice. Ruth has it on her ex-Vista desktop and it is very fast on that dual core CPU with 3 GB of RAM. Lubuntu 11.04 is all we are using at our house now.


Testing Epihany 2.30.6

By Adam Hunt

One of the Ubuntu 11.04 applications I have been very keen to try out is Epiphany 2.30.6, the web browser I keep wanting to like, but which keeps thwarting me.

As part of my test of Ubuntu 11.04 I installed Epiphany 2.30.6, the intermediate version in-between Epiphany 2.30.2, which I reviewed earlier and the current Epiphany 3.0.0, which requires Gnome 3 to run and is therefore not available in the 11.04 repositories.

Since Epiphany requires some Gnome dependencies to install and Ubuntu 11.04 has Gnome 2.32.1, it was just a matter of selecting Epiphany from the Ubuntu Software Centre. It installed fine, but when I went to add my bookmarks in the form of an .rdf file it seemed to lock-up. By running the System Monitor I was able to figure out that it had just maxed out the CPU processing the large bookmark file. Eventually it did install the bookmarks fine.

Some checking of websites that I previously had problems with showed that the AvWeb, CBC News, OMG and even Google docs websites now work fine. The Epiphany team must have solved a lot of problems in between these two minor versions.

In using Epiphany through the day, I had had one crash-on-tab-close so far, which is not a good sign. Epiphany also still lacks spell-checking, but this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Epiphany 2.30.6 still does not display passwords, even when indicated that it should, but this may be a security change that the GUI has not caught up to yet. So far it has not refused to produce them for web pages, unlike 2.30.2 which often didn't.

As a result of these tests I have provisionally rated Epiphany 2.30.6 at 8/10 for now. I will need to do some longer-term testing to see if the previous problems have been solved and to ensure that no new ones have cropped up.

So far Epiphany 2.30.6 looks quite promising and a serious improvement over Epiphany 2.30.2.


Ubuntu 11.04 Arrives

By Adam Hunt

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal arrived today. In fact it was earlier than expected, with the ISO download available around 0800 hours Eastern Daylight Time, instead of the more customary afternoon availability for a new release.

I downloaded the ISO file, carried out an MD5 Sum check and then made some DVDs. To evaluate it properly I installed Natty on my test PC, which has an AMD 1.833 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM. It was a very capable XP box in its day.

The Natty installation went smoothly, with the new slick graphical installer very easy to use. It is very user-friendly and quite suitable for rank beginners. The slide show has been improved and outlines what the user can expect, including installed applications. A nice touch is that the slide show even mentions that the GIMP image editor is available, now that it is no longer shipped on the ISO. The installation took 35 minutes, which isn't too bad.

After the installation was complete and I rebooted, the first thing I was informed is that my hardware isn't up to scratch to run Unity and so it reverted to the classic Gnome desktop. This was disappointing - what hardware is needed to get Unity running? The documentation page seems to make me think that this computer has enough power to run Unity, but probably the lack of an onboard nVidia or ATI graphics card is the problem. This PC did at one time have a nVidia GeForce4 MX 4000, but it was so old that there are no drivers available anymore, so I removed it. I installed the Unity 2D system, but haven't figured out how to boot to it yet.

In testing out some obvious things that have caused Ubuntu problems in the past, I discovered:

The Natty desktop wallpaper image is very similar to the ones used on Maverick and Lucid and resemble, what Ruth terms "what you see when you hit your head real hard." I quickly replaced it with a much nicer included image of two orange narwhal silhouettes on a purple background. I have no idea why that wasn't the default wallpaper, as it is a much better picture. Also I have never liked the default Ambiance theme with its left-side buttons and so replaced it quickly with the much more conventional and minimalist Dust Sand theme.

Naturally Ubuntu 11.04 comes with a good assortment of applications, including:

PiTiVi 0.13.5 is an interesting application. We have tried PiTiVi before in its 0.13.4 version and while it had a nice, easy-to-use interface it had very high hardware requirements (basically a dual-core processor or better) and even then endlessly crashed. In testing out PiTiVi 0.13.5 I found that it consistently crashes X every time you try to use it, making it worthless, not to mention frustrating. It is interesting that the Gedit spellchecker insists "PiTiVi" is a spelling mistake and suggests "pitiful". Kino is definitely a better choice for movie editing.

Because this is just a test box I haven’t installed a lot of extra applications on it, but I did add:

Overall Ubuntu 11.04 looks like a serviceable release, although I can't comment on Unity, as it won't run on my hardware, PiTiVi is a dead loss and the Software Centre is a CPU hog.

One thing this release does firmly establish is that Ubuntu requires advanced hardware to run properly. As I have described before it is really a Windows Vista and 7 replacement as it needs the hardware they come with to run on. Lubuntu remains the distribution of choice for replacing Windows XP on high-speed internet and Puppy Linux for anything older than that, as well as for dial-up use.


Browser Fixes

By Adam Hunt

Today Chromium 10.0.648.205 arrived though the normal Ubuntu updates process. This brings Chromium up to date and matches the current stable version of Google Chrome, six days after Chrome 10.0.648.205 was released. I would add that this was not a moment too soon, too!

As outlined previously the last version of Chromium packaged for Ubuntu, 10.0.648.133, had a page form buffer problem that caused it to crash while editing long form pages. This made editing Wikipedia pages almost impossible as the browser would lock up and crash as soon as a long form page was opened and searched or edited. There was an intervening update to Google Chrome of version 10.0.648.204, but the maintainers never packaged that for the Chromium Ubuntu repositories. All of that caused me to switch to using Epiphany 2.30.2 in the meantime, despite its drawbacks. At least it could edit Wikipedia pages.

When Chromium 10.0.648.205 turned up today the first thing I did was check to see if the long page form problem was solved and it is. This allows me to raise the rating for Chromium from 7/10 back up to 10/10. As a bonus, this new version of Chromium has a new Synch check box to allow the synchronizing of passwords or to avoid that. As I mentioned before this is a great option. Some people may like synchronizing passwords, but personally I don't want Google having my passwords, so making it an option is the ideal solution.

All this adds up to that I am back to using Chromium as my primary browser in place of Epiphany again.

But what about Epiphany? I have been using it almost exclusively since my last report on it 20 days ago and have learned more about it every day. In that 20 day period I have had only two crashes, which is an improvement, although I am not sure why it is crashing less frequently than before.

However new Epiphany issues have arisen in the last 20 days. For instance a website I often visit, OMG Ubuntu, recently underwent a redesign supposedly to make pages load faster and the result is that it locks up Epiphany, just like CBC News does. In both cases it is not a plug-in or JavaScript problem, the browser just takes the CPU to 100% and locks up with the page half loaded. In the case of CBC news I have been using the mobile version which loads fine, but there is no work around for OMG in Epiphany.

On the other hand since Chromium 12 exhibited the same problems loading AvWeb and that page has identified JavaScript errors, I have decided that case is more of a web page error than a browser problem.

Here is the list of outstanding Epiphany issues I have:

As I have said before I like Epiphany, which is why I keep coming back to it to try it out, I just wish it would work better than it does. Of course I am using version 2.30.2, which is two main releases out of date now, but at least we have a time line for improvements there:

I will be installing and trying out Epiphany 2.30.6 at the end of April as part of Lubuntu 11.04 and will report on it and whether it fixes some of these probems.


Epiphany 3.0.0 Is Out But Not Really Available

By Adam Hunt

Epiphany 3.0.0 was actually released a week ago on . It started life as version 2.91, a development-only number and once accepted for Gnome 3.0 it was renumbered to match.

The source code is currently available on the Gnome website, but there is no sign of it being considered for the Ubuntu repositories for 11.04. Launchpad's Epiphany page shows Epiphany 2.30.2 remaining as the current version for Ubuntu 10.10 and 2.30.6 as the version for 11.04. That isn't really a surprise as Epiphany 3.0.0 is part of Gnome 3.0 and Ubuntu 11.04 will use Gnome 2.32.1.

Epiphany 3.0.0 looks a bit different from 2.30.2 and I am interested to see if it fixes any of the shortcomings I previously identified.

In an attempt to see if I can install Epiphany 3.0.0 I asked how to do that on the Ubuntu Forums. The answers I got there were very informative. I was hoping that there would be a way to just compile Epiphany 3.0.0 from the source code, but apparently not. Its long list of dependencies makes that a non-starter. It would make more sense to install Gnome 3 first, except it isn't available in the current Ubuntu 10.10 or even in the 11.04 repositories. Ubuntu 10.10 uses Gnome 2.32 and 11.04 will use Gnome 2.32.1. The best suggestion I received was to try a different distribution, like Arch Linux which already has Gnome 3 available.

Because Epiphany 3.0.0 is dependant on many Gnome 3 files it is unlikely that it will be available in the Ubuntu world in any practical way sooner than Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot, due out on . That is one of the disadvantages of Ubuntu, it is not cutting edge. Users tend to get stable packages that have been well-tested, but if newer packages have improvements they may not be available for a while. One problem this creates is that it makes it hard for Ubuntu users to meaningfully contribute to development by filing bug reports and such, since they are often using an old version. It doesn't help developers to get bug reports on versions that are not being developed anymore.

For now then it looks like Epiphany 2.30.6 will be included with Ubuntu 11.04, which is due out on 28 April 2011. I will install that version and see if it improves on 2.30.2 in any substantial way.


Chromium 12 Solves Browser Woes

By Adam Hunt

Along with Puppy Linux 5.2.5, the Puppy repository had a brand new copy of Chromium 12.0.723.0, that was just three hours old when I found it on the Puppy website. Given the problems I have been having with Chromium 10.0.648.133, which is the current stable version on Ubuntu and Lubuntu, I was keen to give it a try and see if it works better.

The short answer is that it does!

Checking out the long-form page buffer crashing problem that first turned up on Chromium 10.0.648.127, it seems to be completely fixed and long Wikipedia pages can now be easily edited, without lock-ups or crashes.

Chromium 12 also addresses another concern that I had, synching passwords. Earlier versions did not seem to give any choices on this, although the interface was unclear if it was synching them or not. It turns out none were, as far as I can tell. After installing Chromium and checking Preferences→ Personal Stuff→ Synch it is now an option that you can "uncheck" if you don't want your passwords synched and therefore stored on Google's server. Making it a clear option is the best solution in my mind.

Of interest, one of the odd flaws I picked up on Epiphany 2.30.2 is that it loads and reloads the AvWeb home page about twice a second. This seems to be a JavaScript error that is unique to that one webpage, but Chromium 10 just ignored it. Chromium 12 has the same problem that Epiphany 2.30.2 has, constantly reloading the page. Disabling JavaScript solves the problem, so I am thinking that this should be really classified as a website JavaScript error that essentially crashes the browser and not a browser problem. I have written to the AvWeb webmaster twice now to point this out, but he has not written back to me, or fixed it.

In testing it out, Chromium 12.0.723.0 seems to run flawlessly, I don't even mind the new simplified logo, so it gets 10/10. I can't wait for it to seep down to Lubuntu in place of Chromium 10, so I can use it on that operating system.


Puppy Linux 5.2.5 Is Here

By Adam Hunt

This latest version of Puppy Linux, a jump in numbering from the last version, which was 5.2.0, was released on , but it was no April Fool's joke!

The newest version of Puppy has a number of behind-the-scenes improvements. The release notes detail the changes:

Lucid Puppy 5.2.5 is the most leading-edge Lucid ever. It has Bash 4.1.0, Syslinux 4.03, and e2fsprogs 1.41.14, the latest from Ubuntu Natty. It now has JWM 500, up from 493. Gnumeric 1.10.13 is a necessity because our forum member yarddog had posted a bug to Gnumeric that is corrected in 1.0.13. Lucid 5.2.5 uses the Woof of FEB 28 replacing the Woof of NOV 28 for 3 months of progress in Woof development. All of the favorite Puppy programs are there in their latest versions. Check out Pburn by zigbert which now compares favorably with Nero Linux. Gnome-mplayer 1.02 compiled by forum member ttuuxxx is a substantial improvement and now works well with both the Openbox and JWM window managers. All this and the low overhead that makes Puppy fast, friendly and fun.

Puppy 5.2.5 does have some user-visible changes, most notably the new default desktop image that personally I found far too cluttered and so quickly changed it. Recently Puppy Linux has had some nice desktop images, but they have also had some scary ones, too.

Another welcome fix is that some new and better fonts have been added. This website, for instance, is supposed to render in a nice Free Sans, or as a back-up, Arial, but in past Puppy versions it always defaulted to a serif font. Now it shows the pages a lot closer to how they were intended.

This new version also incorporates something really useful, the ability to adjust mouse sensitivity and acceleration. In many ways this makes the distribution much more useable, as before you might have to live with an oversensitive mouse, which can be a user fatigue issue.

The new Puppy includes the option of installing some nice new application versions, too, including the Chromium 12.0.723.0 or Iron 10.0.650.0 browsers. Epiphany is not available anywhere that I could find as an option, which is too bad as I was hoping to run across a more current version of it, like Epiphany 2.91.92 to test out. Of course Puppy does come with an amazing array of applications already in the ISO file, including the Geany 0.20 text editor, Dillo 2.2 browser (used for help files, not as a main browser, although it does display webpages), AbiWord 2.8.6 word processor and Gnumeric 1.10.13 spreadsheet. The Puppy repositories are getting better over time and now offer some very up-to-date applications, including LibreOffice 3.3.1.

The old installation script that I have been using to make full installations of Puppy doesn't work on version 5.2.5, because the developers renamed the CD drive. As explained: "The installer uses the probedisk command to identify the CD-ROM drive. In all previous versions, the drive was called "cdrom". In Lupu 525, it's now called "optical"." The script has now been updated and is available on the first page. I tested it out on Puppy 5.2.5 and also on 5.2.0 to ensure backwards compatibility and it works well.

In testing a full installation I can confirm that the PDF opening problem I reported in full installations of Puppy 5.2.0 has been fixed and PDFs open fine now in 5.2.5.

Overall, once you change the desktop photo, Puppy 5.2.5 looks like another strong release!


Browser Woes

By Adam Hunt

It is April 1st, but this is no joke - I can't find a browser that works at this point in history!

I have already catalogued the deficiencies with Epiphany 2.30.2 below and also covered the outstanding bug in Chromium 10.0.648.133 that affects the editing of long form pages.

Epiphany cannot load some webpages, still suffers from occasional crashes, has problems with JavaScript, remembering passwords and lacks spell-checking.

The current version of Chromium 10 is all but unusable for editing Wikipedia pages as, if the page is longer than some arbitrary and fairly short length, it locks up and crashes at least the tab that is displaying the page plus all other tabs with the same website and sometimes the whole browser. I have run into this with a number of pages. There is a new stable version of Chrome out, Chrome 10.0.648.204, but Chromium has not been updated. Perhaps that would fix the problem?

Other browsers aren't doing much better. Firefox 4.0.0 was released on , 10 days ago, but there are lots of problems being reported with it, including lost passwords, faults with password completing and Flash player stall-outs and crashes. Mozilla is working on 4.0.1 to address some bugs that they knew were present when it was released. The complaints have been relatively few about Internet Explorer 9, which was also just released recently on , but then, of course it doesn't run on Linux.

So right now I have been left with the problem that no one browser will do what I need to do on the internet on a daily basis. I tried using Chromium for everything except Wikipedia work and having Wikipedia tabs open on Epiphany, but the switching back and forth was a challenge to get my head around, as they are similar enough to be confusing, but not the same. I also needed pages open on both browsers at the same time and it just wasn't very workable.

So after stating a few days ago that I wouldn't be using Epiphany anymore until a new version comes out to try, I have found that for what I do on the net it is the "least-worst" browser right now. Thankfully I haven't had any crashes in the last few days and I have work-arounds for the pages it won't load properly, like AvWeb and CBC News. On Chromium I don't have a work-around for its current problem, except to use Epiphany instead.

I am hoping that the problems with Chromium can be solved quickly as it has been my browser of choice since when we installed Lucid Lynx. Epiphany, as always shows promise, but needs work to be fully usable.


Lubuntu Functionality

By Adam Hunt

One of the criticisms that gets levelled at Lubuntu is that, sure it is lightweight, but that is because it is missing features.

What I have found is that it is missing the sort of GUI features that you find in Ubuntu, but that there is usually another way of doing what you are trying to accomplish and it sometimes even turns out to be better, or at least faster.

A good example of this is desktop searching. Ubuntu has Tracker, which is okay as a search tool, although it has limitations, whereas Lubuntu has nothing. I found the solution on the Ubuntu Forums, of course. You don't need to install a desktop search GUI function because Linux comes with a command line search tool called Find, that works quite well. It works like this:

find / -name '*searchterm*'
To search for all the files with "searchterm" in it on the whole computer file system. "*" is a wild card term and can be used at either end of an expression.
find ~/ -name 'searchterm.txt'
To search for a file named "searchterm.txt" in your home directory
man find
The complete manual for the find application

Another item that seems to be missing from Lubuntu is means of adjusting the touch-pad on laptops. The controls appear to be at Preferences→Keyboard & Mouse but that only has two controls, acceleration and sensitivity, there is no way, for instance, to disable tap or even the whole touch-pad if you want to.

To help solve this one Lubuntu blogger Leszek Lesner has put together a screencast (what most of us call a video) called Configure Touchpad showing you how to do it. This is one of a series of videos that Lesner has created to show you the secrets of Lubuntu. The videos are all really great resources. They are large screen, so you can actually read the text he is typing and he takes the pace nice and slowly so that even beginners can easily follow along.

In the case of the touch-pad there are two ways to adjust the settings. Lubuntu comes with a command line mouse device configuration application called Synclient. It can be called from the command line by opening a terminal and entering synclient -l, which gives a list of commands. This can then be used to adjust parameters by picking out the parameter name and entering it in the command line along with the command number. If this is a bit confusing an easy GUI can also be installed, called Gsynaptics, which is available in the repositories and can be installed from the Synaptic package manager or from the command line with sudo apt-get install gsynaptics. Gsynaptics can then be opened from the menu or the "run" command and provides complete GUI touch-pad and mouse configuration.

Of course why would you have to install a GUI, when other distros, like Ubuntu, include it? This is where the "lightweight" part comes in, most users won't need this feature, so you only install it if you need it. That keeps Lubuntu's ISO file smaller to download and install.

Lesner's whole series of videos can be found on the Lubuntu blog page.


Eight Days of Epiphany 2.30.2

By Adam Hunt

Well after eight days of using Epiphany 2.30.2 I have mostly given up on it. I had it open this morning and was adding some text to an article when it did a snap-crash and closed all tabs and instances of the browser. This was my sixth crash in eight days and so I just opened Chromium and carried on without Epiphany.

As I keep noting, I actually like Epiphany, but it just isn't very serviceable as a browser. I like the simplicity of the interface, I like the speed and the features it has, like its bookmark and history handling and especially its handling of download files, which is far better than Chromium. I like the way it looks and works, when it does work, but it just doesn't work consistently enough. As Veronica Henry noted on ,"this would be a hard sell as a primary desktop browser for most users."

The outstanding issues:

So for now I will probably not use Epiphany anymore unless I need it to edit a long form page that Chromium crashes on. When I get a new version of Epiphany I will have another look at it. I can't help thinking that one day the developers will get it working and we will actually have a really good little browser.


Five Days of Epiphany

By Adam Hunt

I have now spent the last five days using Epiphany exclusively for everything I do on the web and have a more complete appreciation for how it performs and what its shortcomings are.

In testing Epiphany on many different websites I have found that it handles most of them just fine, generally performing as fast, or faster, than Chromium 10. This website of mine for instance, which is all pure validated XHTML with no Flash or JavaScript, loads very fast and renders just the way I wrote it.

There are problems with a few websites, though. Epiphany won't load any pages from CBC News properly, it mostly loads the page, but the CPU load hits 100% and stays there until the tab is closed. In comparison Chromium 10 loads the same pages just fine. It is odd, but non-news pages on CBC load fine, so it must be something specific to the news site. Even though the pages are loaded with JavaScript, disabling it doesn't fix this, so the cause must be something else. It looks like this has been reported as a bug at least twice and affects a number of different websites for reasons that aren't totally clear:

At least one of the bugs is marked as "fixed" so the problem I am seeing could be just because I am running Epiphany 2.30.2, although a friend running the current stable 2.30.6 version reported the same issue on the same website. Perhaps it will be fixed in the new Epiphany 3.0.0 version that is due out ? In the meantime I have found an easy work around: using CBC news for mobile browsers, which loads very fast, even though there is some JavaScript on the page. As a bonus that version of the website has almost no ads!

Another website that doesn't load right is the AvWeb home page which just keeps loading over and over again. The page source code is laden with lots of JavaScript and if JavaScript is be turned off at Preferences→ Privacy→ uncheck Enable JavaScript, then the page loads just fine, indicating that JavaScript is indeed the problem here.

Yesterday I had three Epiphany crashes. Just like in the "bad old days" of Epiphany 2.22.2 it just suddenly closed, taking down all instances of the browser and all tabs at once. I have seen it crash while opening pages and also while closing a tab, just like in the 2.22.2 days. I came across an interesting review of the browser from by Jack Wallen, where he identifies the crashes as due to loading pages with JavaScript on them. He says:

When I first started working with Epiphany it crashed on most sites I visited. After doing a little research (and then a little debugging) I realized the issue was with javascript. Epiphany (in its current release), for some strange reason, doesn’t like javascript. The only way around this was to disable javascript. Yes this means a lot of features won’t work on a lot of sites – but this also means those same sites will load faster and won’t be so prone to having issues (like crashing my browser).

Certainly Epiphany did crash twice while loading Wikipedia pages with JavaScript menus and once while loading Google docs which is almost all JavaScript. Of course a lot of websites won't work without JavaScript, including my DSL modem interface, which makes it hard to just turn it off and leave it off.

Despite its identified shortcomings, Wallen does have some good things to say about Epiphany in his conclusions:

Although Epiphany hasn’t fully replaced Chrome and Firefox as my one-stop-shop browser, I now use it much more than I would have previously. [It has a] small footprint, fast startup, and clean interface.

One thing that is an advantage for Gnome users is how integrated Epiphany is into the Gnome desktop. This is a bit of a disadvantage for non-Gnome users however. When I installed it on my LXDE desktop, Synaptic not only fetched the browser files but also a fair number of Gnome dependencies as well, that obviously LXDE doesn't have. This certainly makes it more bloated on non-Gnome installations, although it doesn't seem to cause any operating problems.

I have also experienced four stored password problems, where I have the passwords saved but Epiphany doesn't provide them for any website stored. This seems to be sometimes resolved by closing and re-opening the browser or rebooting and sometimes not. There are a number of bugs filed on issues related to this, including Bug 617144 and Bug 632578. As well, the password manager, when it does work, does not show that you have saved any passwords, it is consistantly empty. This is filed as Bug 624638.

Veronica Henry, in reviewing Epiphany on , had some good things to say about it, with qualification:

To be fair, this would be a hard sell as a primary desktop browser for most users. In fact, there isn’t even a setting to let you designate it as your default browser. But for those instance[s] where you need to fire up a lighting-fast browser for quick surfing, Epiphany will do the trick. While this browser can’t compete with Firefox in terms of add-ons, its does have a set of useful extensions that might be adequate for the average Internet user. It comes with the popular web development tool Greasemonkey and Ad Blocker. Though I still use Firefox as my primary browser, lately it seems to run at a snail’s pace. So, one of the first things I noticed about Epiphany is how quickly it launches. And subsequent page loads on my system are equally as fast. I was quickly able to import my bookmarks from Firefox and was happy to see the inclusion of the mouse gestures feature. On the downside, firebug, an extension I use for web development isn’t available.

As I said previously, I really do want to like Epiphany, but its drawbacks keep shining though. For me the identified problems are:

Those identified problems have caused me to lower my rating from 9/10 to 6/10, one point for each major problem to be solved.

When Epiphany 3.0.0 comes out on hopefully it will make it into the repositories for Ubuntu 11.04 and I will be able to try it out. It looks promising and includes some changes, including these highlights:

If that last item isn't fixed I suspect that very few people will be using Epiphany for a while, but perhaps it will not be an issue as it looks if Ubuntu 11.04 will use Gnome 2.32.1, which doesn't use GTK+ 3.0. Of course this may preclude offering Epiphany 3.0.0 and indeed Launchpad currently indicates that Natty will include Epiphany 2.30.6, although it notes that 2.91.92, which will become 3.0.0, is available. There will be more news on this after when Natty is released.


Epiphany Revisited

By Adam Hunt

The recent problems with Chromium 10 being unable to edit long Wikipedia pages lead me to check out a browser I used back between November 2008 and December 2009, Epiphany.

Back then Epiphany had a lot of potential. The early versions I was using, 2.22.2 and later 2.26.1, were noticeably faster loading pages than Firefox 3.0.3 was at the time. Epiphany had a very simple and unobtrusive interface long before Chrome and Chromium made that the fashion in browser design. Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4 have now copied what Chrome borrowed from Epiphany's original design. Back then Epiphany also used less memory than Firefox, as little as half the memory for the same tasks. Truly the little browser was ahead of its time, but got little notice by anyone. I did a review in November 2008 and several updates on its performance in The Ubuntu Diaries Part I along the way.

I liked the pluses a lot, but there were some noted minuses as well at that time:

Some of the minuses listed above were minor and could be easily worked around. The lack of spell-checking is an annoyance, although to be fair the spell-checking built into Firefox, Chrome and Chromium is unreliable - sometimes they pick up errors and sometimes they don't, which can lull you into a false sense of security, if you rely on it. Fortunately Gmail has its own on-line spell-checker which helps with e-mail.

I always wanted to like Epiphany, but it was that last listed problem, the random crashes, that caused me to stop using it and go back to Firefox for a while, before moving onto the freeware Chrome browser in December 2009 and then the open source Chromium browser in .

Some of the problems I identified with Epiphany back then have been addressed and some haven't. Cookies and session data still have to be manually deleted, but then they do on Chrome and Chromium as well, it isn't a big deal. Google is still the default and only search engine available from the URL bar. The problem with on-line databases has been solved, though I am not sure if the browser was fixed or the website was. Tab overflow has not been changed, although to be fair Chromium doesn't handle that much better, with many tabs open they get so small that you can't read them anyway. It is usually better to open a new window if you are going to open a lot of tabs. There is still no spell checking. Time will tell whether the crashes have been fixed or not, but so far in using it I have had no crashes.

Epiphany currently lacks some nice-to-have features, such as page language translation, auto-form field completion and drag-and-drop form editing, although cut-and-paste does work.

Back in 2009 Epiphany also lacked, and still lacks, some features that I didn't care about or didn't use, but that others might:

The newest version of Epiphany in the Maverick Meerkat repositories is 2.30.2, somewhat behind the latest official stable release, which is 2.30.6 and which will be in the Natty Narwhal release. The earlier versions of Epiphany that I tested out were powered by the same Gecko rendering engine that Firefox uses, but since the September 2009 release of Epiphany 2.28 the browser has been using the Webkit rendering engine, as used by Safari, Chrome and Chromium, making versions of Epiphany since then truly a new browser.

The user interface has also been tightened up considerably and comparing the look of Epiphany 2.26.1 to the present Epiphany 2.30.2 interface shows that the toolbars and such have been reduced considerably, allowing more screen space for the webpage and less for the browser "chrome".

Many of the keyboard shortcuts that work in Chromium also work in Epiphany, including Esc to stop loading a page, Ctrl+T to open a new tab, Ctrl+W to close a tab, Alt+left arrow to go back a page, Alt+right arrow to go forward a page, Ctrl+L to highlight the URL bar, F5 or Ctrl+R to reload a page, ESC to stop loading a page, Alt+number to go to a tab and Ctrl+left click to open a link in a new tab.

Epiphany has added some useful features, such as being able to drag tabs to reorder them on the tab bar and also make a tab its own browser instance, although this has to be done through Tabs→Detach Tab. These features are new to Epiphany, but similar to Chromium and add some good functionality expected in a modern browser.

Epiphany has some unique features as well. It automatically reloads the page when you are viewing off-line pages and save a new version, which is nice for web developers. Its bookmark manager is very simple and allows multiple categorization of bookmarks. That takes a bit of adaptation, but once you understand it, it is very useful. Downloading files in formats like PDF is well-handled as the browser gives you the choice of saving or opening, or can be set to automatically open files, if you prefer. Chromium doesn't do this, it only saves PDFs and then you have to go and find them and open them, which is not ideal. Chrome handles PDFs better I understand, opening them in the browser itself, but that is a Google addition not found in the open source Chromium.

My testing of Epiphany 2.30.2 indicates that RAM usage for a standard test package of four tabs yields 273 MB versus 212 MB on Chromium. Page loading speed on some large test pages shows that Epiphany is at least as fast as Chromium 10 and on some pages is much faster. It loaded one page twice as fast and another page six times faster!

One of the major complaints levelled against Chrome and Chromium is that anyone using your PC can see your passwords, because they are not hidden. This is not the case with Epiphany 2.30.2, as it hides passwords and encrypts them.

Overall Epiphany has come a long way since 2008. Time will tell whether its show-stopping problem of crashes has been solved or not. I am going to be using it as my main browser for the next while and I will write an update when I have more to report.


Chromium 10

By Adam Hunt

Chromium 10 arrived today via the Ubuntu update process, just three days after the same edition of Google Chrome was released as the new stable version.

This new version of Chromium represents mostly evolutionary development and there have been no major changes to the interface since Chromium 6. Chromium 10 does include one noticeable change, the Preferences menu has been changed from a dialogue box to a tab, presenting the menus as a web page. This is a bit neater and more consistent with the rest of the interface, since other dialogue boxes, like the Bookmark Manager were changed to tabs long ago. The new Preferences menu does actually work better as a tab, since it presents the information on a web page with a scroll bar instead of many smaller box pages with their own tabs that the user has to click though to configure everything. With the only dialogue box-style page left is About Chromium, can making it a tab as well be far away?

The rest of the changes in this version, as outlined in the Chrome release notes are mostly bug fixes (23 of them), a new and much faster V8 javascript engine and accelerated video. So far in testing it out it does seem to render web pages a bit faster than previous versions. The release notes announced password synch doesn't seem to implemented and if it was working that is something I would disable. I really don't want Google having all my passwords.

Development of Chromium continues very quickly with new builds out pretty much every day, even on holidays! I guess the developers don't get any days off.

Even though new user features seem to be few and far between these days, this is probably because the browser has evolved to the point where the user interface is close to its final configuration and just doesn't require much more than the odd adjustment. That said, I should point out that the Chromium developers have discussed combining the tabs bar and the URL bar into one line, so more interface changes may yet be coming. Overall they certainly have taken the "simplify" philosophy to new lengths and that seems to be a trend-setter as Firefox 4 and Internet Explorer 9 are attempts to catch up to the Chromium interface, maximizing web page space and minimizing borders and buttons.

Judging by the release notes the vast amount of the work at the Chromium Project these days is happening behind the scenes, making Chromium and Chrome faster. You certainly can't improve on stability, as on Linux we have seen no crashes of any kind in many months. Adobe Flash will occasionally crash, but that is a Flash problem and plagues all browsers. Hopefully the full implementation of HTML5 will solve that problem over time.

We both remain very impressed with Chromium as a browser. For us it continues to be the best browser available, simple to use and faster than any other.

Update -

Upon further checking, it actually looks like password synch is implemented and cannot be unselected. This Chrome help page explains that any saved passwords are encrypted, though that does mean that while they should be safe in transit, that Google still has all your passwords saved.

Update -

It looks like this particular Chromium version has been suffering from a memory corruption bug and so has been quickly replaced today with 10.0.648.133. This is a good thing, as we both had a couple of crashes with the last version 10.0.648.127, which is very unusual for this browser.

Update -

Further testing indicates that this bug seems to still exists and it is causing some problems for me. Chromium seems to have trouble dealing with long form data pages. This means that I am unable to edit some longer Wikipedia pages. When the page is opened for editing the search function doesn't work and the page just locks up and crashes the tab and often the whole browser. This is not good. The bug itself seems to "classified" as going to the bug page returns 403. That’s an error. Your client does not have permission to get URL /p/chromium/issues/detail?id=75712 from this server. That’s all we know. This is a serious problem for me as a user, so I have downgraded its rating to 7/10 until this problem is fixed.


Lubuntu 11.04 Planning

By Adam Hunt

I have now been using Lubuntu on my desktop continuously since , which is two and half months. I have to admit that I am greatly enjoying it. The simplicity and speed are a delight and the lack of glitz and eye candy is a relief! It is just plain and simple and it works.

Ruth has also now been running Lubuntu on her Acer Aspire netbook for two and half months and she is really enjoying it for the same reasons. Especially on the netbook's limited hardware it runs very fast and snappy and other netbook users we have heard from have also noted how much faster everything works compared to Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

We use three PCs in our house and two of them are running Lubuntu 10.10, with Ruth's desktop still running Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx. Ruth has found it notable how much slower her desktop is compared to her netbook, even though the desktop has dual core 2.4 GHz processors and 3 GB of RAM. She has also found it takes a few seconds to figure out where things are when transitioning from one to the other, for instance on Ubuntu the menus are at the top, while on Lubuntu they are at the bottom.

All of this is to say that Ruth is interested in moving her desktop to Lubuntu 11.04 when it comes out in a little over two month's time on . As long as the testing on Lubuntu 11.04 goes well and there no issues, we will also upgrade my desktop and Ruth's netbook as well, leaving us with no PC running Ubuntu for the first time since April 2007!

As I have mentioned before Ubuntu has been great, but the last few versions have been slow, slow, slow on our hardware, even on Ruth's dual core desktop. In the trade off between glitzy features and eye candy versus performance, simplicity and speed we will choose the latter every time and at the present Lubuntu is delivering.


The Limitations of Old Hardware

By Adam Hunt

I recently found out how far back you can go to get a workable home desktop computer system, at least one that is usable for common tasks, like watching videos.

A friend brought over a desktop tower which was giving her trouble. It hadn't been used in a few years and wasn't able to connect to the internet properly. The tower was running Windows 98 Second Edition, which was released on 5 May 1999, giving some indication of the age of the tower.

First I opened the box up and cleaned it out, although there was not much dust inside and the hardware looked okay. I tried booting it up and it booted straight to the BIOS control screen, which was odd, but handy as I had to reconfigure the boot sequence anyway to boot from the CD drive. I finally got Win98 running sort of, but Internet Explorer crashed on opening and the whole thing locked up all the time. It reminded me of my experiences with Win98!

The hardware seemed okay, although a bit odd. It had a 450 MHz CPU and 192 MB of RAM (3 X 64 MB SD RAM cards), a 52X CD reader, a floppy drive and four USB ports, all on the back, of course. There was an ethernet network card and no dial-up modem, which is a bit unusual. The hard drives were odd as well, because there were two of them, one 80 GB and the other 10 GB. The 10 was probably the original, if I recall typical specs from the 20th century right.

The hardware, particularly the slow CPU and the RAM, ruled out replacing the operating system with Ubuntu, which requires a 1 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM dead minimum, and Lubuntu (266-450 MHz Pentium II and 256 MB of RAM) and left us in Puppy territory, which needs only a 166 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM. I tested Puppy in a live-CD session and then did a full hard drive install of Puppy 5.2.0 and it installed fine. Performance was not too bad overall, a little slow, but acceptable. It wouldn't run Chromium 10, but it did install and run SeaMonkey 2 as a browser okay and connected to the internet just fine. This at least proved that the hardware was good and that the problem was Windows, of course.

In testing out Puppy on various tasks it seemed to perform acceptably, including text editing on Geany, word processing on AbiWord and spreadsheet use on Gnumeric, until we got to Flash videos. In attempting to play a short and relatively low-resolution video on You Tube the image just froze up, although the audio played, indicating a maxed-out CPU. I retrieved the video from the temp file, closed everything else and played it in the Gnome Mplayer video player, but with the same results, which ruled out the Flash player as the source of the problem.

Since playing videos was a requirement for the user, this wasn't going to work, so we went to "Plan-B". This involved swapping the nice 80 GB hard drive into a spare Dell Dimension 2400 tower, which I had handy and that had a smaller 40 GB hard drive. This box has a 2.66 MHz CPU and 2 GB of RAM, so it booted up Puppy off the hard drive very nicely and played videos without any issues, proving that it was a hardware limitation on the other PC. Because this Dell box will run Lubuntu 10.10 very spryly I installed that instead of Puppy, since it gives more application options and features. In testing Lubuntu out it worked just fine on all tasks, including videos. We did a tour of Lubuntu's features, set up Chromium 8, installed GIMP and it was ready to go home.

In looking at the Win98 box I decided that since it didn't have enough CPU power to play videos it is really past its prime. I used the CPU to run DBAN and blank the 10 GB hard drive and the swapped-out 40 GB had drive from the Dell. DBAN was able to overwrite both hard drives at the same time, which is a nice feature, although it took three hours with the slow CPU. I had to plug in an extra CD player as the installed one proved to be unserviceable. I then stripped the box of all its useable parts and took it to recycling.

So all good things must come to an end and with old Win98 vintage hardware not able to play videos, it may have reached the end of its service life, at least for home desktop use.


Twilight of the CD

By Adam Hunt

The CD was first introduced in October 1982, but it doesn't look like it will be around to celebrate its 30th birthday in .

My first inkling that something was happening was about a year ago while shopping for some CD-Rs for our Best of Free Windows CD program, along with the Linux CDs we give away. I noticed that none of the stores seemed to have any of the CD-RW re-writable CDs anymore, although CD-Rs were still widely available at good prices. The second indication was in , when my usual supplier of CD-Rs, PC Cyber ran out. Their on-line stock reporting system claimed that they still had stock, but the shelves were bare. There were lots of DVDs available, however.

Then, this past week, I was getting quite short of CD-Rs and once again made a concerted effort to find some. I checked everywhere: Future Shop, FactoryDirect.ca, Staples, Wal-Mart, PC Cyber and so on. Many places had none at all, some had them in small packages for anywhere from $0.68 to $1.00 each! It was only a few months ago that these could be found for $0.28 each.

When queried most store clerks gave me the usual "gee I don't know, maybe we'll get some next week, shrug" answers, but I had my suspicions that things were changing in CD-land. Then yesterday I finally cornered both a knowledgeable PC Cyber clerk and a manager at Staples and got the real story. The CD is close to extinct. They both confirmed that CD sales have been slow, so manufacturers have been cutting back producing them, which drives up costs and hence prices. The simple fact is that people aren't buying them much anymore. For most uses, like music CDs and data back-ups, people aren't using them, music and videos games are now just downloaded, storage is all moving to USB devices and external hard drives. Both admitted that the CD-R will be gone from the shelves very soon, probably by spring this year. I picked up what stock I could, for $0.44 each.

The good news is that DVDs will be available for a while yet as they are still selling well. I picked some up for $0.24 each, cheaper than I have ever bought CD-Rs for.

But so what, whom is this a problem for? Surely I can just switch my Best of Free Windows CD and Linux CD programs over to the now even cheaper DVDs and keep going, right?

Sure I can, but there is a problem here and that is for people who own older Windows XP computers. These old computers, 5-10 years old now, are around in large numbers, are in lots of homes and will run for some years to come. Most of them have CD drives but not DVD drives. DVD drives will read both CDs and DVDs, CD drives will only read the soon-to-be-extinct CD. They can always download free Windows software directly, unless they are on dial-up, but how do you download a Linux ISO, burn it to a CD and boot to it, without a CD? So maybe these people should just go and install a DVD or combo drive, problem solved, right? The problem is that all these PCs are IDE architecture and not the newer SATA architecture, parts like DVD drives are getting hard to find as well and are close to out of production. Additionally these older PCs won't boot from a USB stick or USB external drive, as their BIOS doesn't support it. So how will you install Linux on these boxes? A network install may still be possible, but that requires a network and the knowledge to be able to do it, and is beyond the abilities of the average owner of these old PCs.

What this adds up to is that without CD-Rs and without new DVD drives these older XP PCs may soon become unmaintainable. I guess the manufacturers want you to go out and buy a new computer.

For now I have enough CD-Rs to last a while. I am going to move the Ubuntu CDs we hand out over to DVDs as they really need Vista or newer PCs to run properly on and those usually came with DVD drives. I'll try to make my supply of CD-Rs last as long as they do, but when they are gone that will be it for the CD and probably those old XP boxes as well.

The CD, - , RIP


Puppy 5.2.0 Released

By Adam Hunt

The latest iteration of Puppy Linux, version 5.2.0, was released on , showing that lots of feverish work must have been going on behind the scenes in the puppy pound over both Christmas and New Years.

Puppy 5.2.0 is another in the Lucid Puppy series of releases, using some application binaries drawn from Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx. This new release is nothing radical or revolutionary, but a solid set of improvements that have obviously been created in a step-wise evolutionary process, which is a definitely a good thing.

The most noticeable thing upon booting 5.2.0 up is that the hurts-the-eyes-wavy-blue-lines default desktop used on Puppy 5.1.0 and 5.1.1 has been replaced by a much tamer Lucid Puppy 5.2 one, very similar to the one first introduced in 5.0.0. The impression it gives is much better, as the wavy lines had to go in my opinion. They were ugly. Oddly enough the monochrome icon set, which was a nice addition introduced in Puppy 5.1 have also gone, replaced by the older multi-coloured Fisher-Price-style set. Now if we could just get the new desktop with the monochrome icons we would have a winner in the area of design! It is probably worth mentioning that 5.2.0 has some nice alternative desktops in its files, or you can pick your own, of course.

Puppy 5.2.0 has some other obvious improvements that go beyond the mere aesthetic. These include an easy firewall set-up icon on the panel that uses firewallinstallshell and a new settings menu that allows quick and painless customization of the X windowing system. The general menus have also been overhauled, made a little bit larger and easier to read and use.

One of the behind the scenes improvements is that Puppy 5.2.0 is smaller. That is right, while other operating systems have bloated up out of sight, Puppy has shrunk. The 5.1.1 release tipped the scales at 130 MB, making it a bit big to run in 128 MB of RAM, while this latest Puppy has dieted down to 127 MB, quite an achievement.

The repositories, small as they are, contain some good, and in some cases very recent, applications. In the pet-packages-lucid file I found the Chromium 10.0.630.0 web browser, posted there on , the day that Chromium version was released! I downloaded it and installed it and it works very well. The latest Chromium versions are very fast and on Puppy they run fast indeed.

Overall Puppy 5.2.0 looks like a winner. As previously explained I really think Puppy Linux is the distribution of choice when your computing needs include older or low-spec hardware and dial-up internet, due to its great dial-up support, its ability to run fast on little RAM and slow CPUs along with its lack of updates to download.

Update -

We recently discovered an oddity about Puppy 5.2.0. When using it from the CD or in a frugal installation it reads PDFs just fine, but in a full installation it won't open PDFs no matter what action you take. We tried many different approaches including different PDF viewers and even manually associating the file to the ePDFviewer, all to no avail. The solution is to do a frugal install and not a full install.


Dabbling in Debian

By Adam Hunt

Debian 6.0 Beta

Debian is the Linux distribution upon which the whole Ubuntu family is based and Debian 6.0 Beta Squeeze is the latest version of Debian. For a while I have been interested in having a look at the current Debian offerings to contrast them with Ubuntu and the recent overhaul of my old Ubuntu PC gave me the opportunity to use it as a Debian test box.

Of course in many ways Debian has a lot of similarities with Ubuntu. They share the same basic architecture, the same APT package management system and applications. In fact Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth had been a member of the Debian development team in the 1990s. He really likes the Debian operating system, but started Ubuntu to address some problems that he felt were holding back its more widespread adoption. These included a cumbersome organization, that while very democratic, made decision making slow; very widely spaced releases averaging two years apart; lack of ease of installation and set-up for new users; and lack of focus on the user experience including aesthetics.

In particular I wanted to see how easy Debian is to install for someone who has never done it before. Also, based on previous testing done by DistroWatch that showed that Xfce had a lot more performance on Debian that in its Xubuntu implementation, I was curious to see if the same held true for Debian running the LXDE desktop compared to Lubuntu.

One of the things Debian offers the new user is choice, lots and lots of choice. In fact, at least for someone new to Debian, the choices are probably a bit bewildering.

First off Debian can be installed in many different ways including ISO images for tiny CDs and USB sticks, small CDs, full CDs and network installations. There are also complete sets of CDs or DVDs with the entire repositories on them for installing off line. The tiny CD images are very small, around 40 MB and just allow a set-up big enough to download the desktop and components. The small CDs offer a graphical installation and run about 180 MB. The full single CDs are around 650 MB and there are different ones with different desktop options, for instance one with Xfce/LXDE. After reading though the user installation manual I determined that the small CD was probably the best option as it allows a choice of four desktops, Gnome, KDE, Xfce and LXDE and I wanted to install the latter.

The next choice is computer architecture type. Debian offers versions for eleven different architectures, including 32 bit i386, 64 bit, Sparc and even Apple PowerPC. This gives great flexibility for hardware that can be used, but you have to know what hardware you have to get the right installer. Given that I was installing on a 32 bit x86, I decided to download the i386 version of the small CD installer which turned out to be 197 MB (188 MiB). I also decided to use Debian 6.0 Squeeze even though it is still in beta, just because the current stable version is almost two years old. Squeeze was slated to be released as a stable version by Christmas, but since that is today and it isn't out yet, it looks like it will be late!

This image was then MD5 checked, although the MD5 sums are carefully hidden away in the web folders with the image and not linked from anywhere, I did manage to find the right one and successfully MD5 checked the download from the command line on Lubuntu. Burning the small ISO file to a CD-RW was easy and quick.

The next step was simply booting to the ISO CD and that brought up the first choice, graphical installer or text-based. I went for the graphical installer; it works quite well and is relatively easy to follow. I knew from reading the installation manual that the default desktop installation is Gnome, but that others can be installed from Advanced options→ Alternative desktop environments→ KDE/LXDE/Xfce. This is an easy step to miss if you don't know where to look for it. During the installation there are lots of other choices to make as well: will this computer be used as a web server? How about a printer server? Most are pretty straightforward, but with others I just went with the default answers. Even the graphic installer is not really for Linux beginners, you really need to know your hardware and what you want to use the PC for when it is done.

The installation takes quite a while as the CD doesn't contain the application software and so there are lots of downloads as part of the installation process. Overall it took about two hours to complete. When done it spits out the CD and then comes the acid test, the first reboot. In this case all went well and the boot left me with the LXDE default wallpaper and most of the LXDE desktop components installed.

The first thing I did was do a quick look though the menus to see what was installed and what was missing and needed installing. I was expecting the installation would include the complete set of LXDE desktop applications, but not include much in the way of applications, so I was surprised to find installed:

These applications are somewhat a surprise as they are all rather non-lightweight. What was more surprising was what was not installed:

All of these could be installed from the repositories, but first I had to get Synaptic installed from the command line in the root terminal using apt-get install synaptic, then I could install the rest. I must remark that the lack of a graphical package manager would probably stop most new users in their tracks, so this was definitely not a user-friendly default installation.

I did manage to install our normal networking applications: openssh-server as part of the installation process and the installation came with openssh-client. I added sshfs as well but couldn't connect to the network due to a permissions problem. I suspect that my user account is not on the fuse group which is required, but Debian doesn't come with a User & Groups management tool, so I can't tell. I am sure that I can add myself from the command line, I just have to figure out how.

So with most of the applications I needed installed from Synaptic, including Chromium browser (which comes with Flash), ClamTk, Evince, LXtask, Tesseract OCR and Xfburn I was mostly set. Chromium takes only a few seconds to set-up as it is just a matter of engaging synchronization, although for some reason I got Chromium 6, instead of the current Chromium 8. In fact many of the repository versions seem out of date, but this may be related to the beta status of the Squeeze release. I did install the Scrot screen-shot tool, but it doesn't seem to work from the Print screen key, so I suppose there is a key binding required there. In the meantime I was able to get it to work from the command line.

So other than sshfs networking I had a pretty usable desktop set up in a couple of hours. In testing the hardware I was very pleased to see that everything worked, all with no non-free drivers installed. The printer was recognized on turn-on, although it wouldn't print without running # hp-setup -i in a root terminal to configure it. Unlike Lubuntu, Debian recognized our Nikon camera, as well as reading SD cards directly though our card reader. The scanner worked fine and I was able to scan a document with Xsane and then OCR it as a text document in Tesseract from the command line.

In testing the boot-up time Debian running LXDE is definitely slower, turning in a 54 second boot, versus 32 seconds for Lubuntu. I also used LXtask to assess resource usage. After a fresh boot Debian with LXDE idles at 89 MB of RAM, while my Lubuntu installation uses 91 MB, pretty much the same. Performance while running similar talks, both for RAM and CPU usage was pretty much the same, both are equally efficient.

There were a couple of additional problems with the Debian installation. Updates are controlled from Software Sources and are turned off by default, maybe because this is a beta. When I tried to configure it it crashed and even after several boots would not open, even as root. Also similarly to Lubuntu when I first installed it, Debian with LXDE is not holding settings, including mouse settings. This was solved on Lubuntu with a later update and I suspect that it would be with Debian too, but as noted the updates are not working.

I think all of these problems are quite solvable, it would just take some time and research to figure it out. Overall I have rated Debian 9/10, as it produces a usable LXDE desktop, but the installation process is not very "new user friendly" and not very complete either. Since Debian with LXDE doesn't seem to offer any performance advantages over Lubuntu and is harder to install and set-up I don't see any reason to use Debian with LXDE over Lubuntu, at least at this point in time. That said, if Lubuntu becomes bloated and slow in the future, the way Xubuntu did, it may be worthwhile keeping Debian as an option to keep running our older and lower spec hardware.

Update -

In doing further reading about Debian I have learned some more things worth reporting here.

On the Debian stable releases the applications are not updated, to ensure real stability. Browsers get security updates, but not feature updates. As I noted above the repositories for Debian 6.0 Squeeze come with Chromium 6.0.472.63. Chromium versions before 8.0.552.237 have a serious security flaw and it is not clear if that has been patched or not. There is a good work-around for this problem, however, which is to install Google Chrome directly, which provides regular automatic updates.

I also think I have solved the updates question. System security updates can be downloaded manually through the Aptitude package manager. Apparently all you have to do is run in a root terminal:

# aptitude update

# aptitude safe-upgrade

I think I have also solved the problem with SSHFS. It seems that, as I surmised, it is indeed the case that when you install it, that, unlike on Ubuntu, the user is not added to the FUSE group. This can apparently be easily done in a root terminal:

#adduser username fuse

With these few items sorted out I think I can say that there are no barriers to using Debian as a replacement for Lubuntu or Ubuntu, should the need arise. Debian certainly has amazing documentation compared to Ubuntu, as well as comparable forum support.


What is Lubuntu?

By Adam Hunt

One of our readers brought up the point that I have probably not explained in enough depth what Lubuntu is in contrast to Ubuntu, in particular whether Lubuntu is a new Linux distribution or just Ubuntu with a different interface. So I thought I would address that and provide some background information about Lubuntu and at the same time the whole Ubuntu family of Linux distributions.

For people new to Linux and coming from Windows or Mac where Windows is just currently Windows 7 and Mac is just OS-X, the Ubuntu world is confusing. It can also be confusing to people coming from other Linux distributions where they distribute software differently and use their naming system differently as well.

Essentially Ubuntu is a large family of official Canonical-sponsored or recognized Linux-based distributions, or "Ubuntu flavours" as they are sometimes called, plus wanna-be official flavours, like Lubuntu, which is working on achieving that status. There are also dozens of other distributions based on Ubuntu, but developed by outside organizations. For the purposes of this discussion let's stick to the official Ubuntu recognized flavours of Ubuntu, including those aspiring to that goal.

All Ubuntu flavours share the same behind-the-scenes architecture, kernel, X-window system, utilities, file systems and structure, along with the same software repositories and the same update system. They even all have the same version numbering system of "year.month" which makes it easy to figure out their history. To that is added different desktops or other user software for different purposes. Some Linux distributions, like Debian, offer all this within one distribution, so that Debian with a Gnome desktop is still Debian, as is Debian with the Xfce desktop. Ubuntu is a derivation of Debian, but names things a bit differently and offers them as independent ISO downloads, mostly because they want to be able to distribute each distinct flavour on one CD-R of under 700 MB to make installation an easy and painless experience for beginners.

So here is a look at what makes each flavour different:

Ubuntu
The first version of Ubuntu was 4.10 Warty Warthog introduced in October 2004. Ubuntu used the Gnome desktop up until Ubuntu 11.04 when it will use the Unity interface with Gnome applications. Ubuntu is still an active project.
Ubuntu Server Edition
This is obviously the server version, comes with no desktop or GUI and is run from the command line instead. The first version of Ubuntu Server was released alongside the first desktop version of Ubuntu 4.10 Warty Warthog and introduced in October 2004. The Server Edition is still an active project.
Kubuntu
Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop in place of the Gnome desktop. The first version of Kubuntu was 5.04 Hoary Hedgehog introduced in April 2005. Kubuntu is still an active project.
Xubuntu
Xubuntu is an attempt to create a lighter weight Ubuntu flavour and so uses the Xfce desktop in place of the Gnome desktop. Xubuntu was available as an optional desktop package in Ubuntu 5.10, in October 2005, as xubuntu-desktop. The first stand-alone version of Xubuntu available as a separate ISO file was 6.06 Dapper Drake introduced in June 2006. Even though the Xfce desktop is inherently lighter in CPU and RAM usage than the Gnome desktop, in its Xubuntu version it has been tested and uses slightly more CPU and RAM than Ubuntu, so it hasn't been entirely successful in its aim. Xubuntu is still an active project.
Gobuntu
Gobuntu was an attempt to create a flavour of Ubuntu using the Gnome desktop, but using only free software, no binary blobs in the Linux kernel and no non-free logos, like Mozilla Firefox uses. Even the Gobuntu logo was released without copyright restrictions. The first version was Gobuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon in October 2007 and the last was the second version, Gobuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron released in April 2008. The project was terminated when it was decided to just make totally free software installation an option for vanilla Ubuntu instead.
Lubuntu
Lubuntu uses the lightweight LXDE desktop in place of the Gnome desktop as a new attempt to create a lightweight version of Ubuntu. The first version of Lubuntu was 10.04 Lucid Lynx introduced as a stand-alone ISO file in , although it was available as an optional lubuntu-desktop package for Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex. Testing has shown that Lubuntu uses slightly less electrical power and about half the RAM and CPU load of Ubuntu and Xubuntu on similar tasks. Lubuntu is still an active project.
Edubuntu
Edubuntu is Ubuntu using the standard Gnome desktop, or optionally the KDE desktop, but with a collection of educational packages included along with LTSP thin client architecture and is designed to be easy for teachers to install and maintain. The first version was Edubuntu 5.10 Breezy Badger in October 2005, although with Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron in April 2008 it was renamed Ubuntu Education Edition and became just an add-on package that could be installed on vanilla Ubuntu. Starting in October 2009, with 9.10 Karmic Koala, Edubuntu returned as a complete DVD ISO as it is too big for a CD-R at 2.4 GB. Edubuntu is still an active project.
Ubuntu JeOS
Ubuntu JeOS, pronounced "juice", was intended to be "Just enough Operating System" for a virtual appliance. The first release was Ubuntu JeOS 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon, introduced in October 2007. The last release was 8.04 Hardy Heron in April 2008 and after that it was turned into an option package for the Ubuntu Server Edition.
Ubuntu Mobile Internet Device Edition
Also known as Ubuntu Mobile, it was intended to run on the Intel Mobile Internet Device platform for the Intel Atom processor, using the GNOME framework Hildon for its interface. The first release was 8.04 Hardy Heron in April 2008 and the last one was a year later as 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope in April 2009, after which development was terminated.
Ubuntu Netbook Edition
Originally called Ubuntu Netbook Remix, the Netbook Edition is optimized for the netbook environment of small screens and lower powered processors. The first version was 8.04 Hardy Heron introduced in April 2008, using the Gnome desktop, with a special netbook interface. Starting with version 10.10 it switched the the Unity interface. With desktop Ubuntu 11.04 also switching to the Unity interface and thus eliminating all differences, the Netbook Edition will be rolled into vanilla Ubuntu and will cease to be a separate version.

In summary, for the release there will be the following versions available as independent downloads, each from their own project websites:

So based on all this information it is easy to see that you can get an Ubuntu flavour quite easily by downloading the appropriate ISO file, writing it to a CD and then booting it up and installing it. Because these all use the same Ubuntu behind-the-scenes-software there are other ways to get the same thing, though. For instance if you are running Ubuntu and want to try out Lubuntu you can just install the lubuntu-desktop package from the Ubuntu Software Centre and then at boot-up you will have a choice of desktop environments. You could also install the Kubuntu and Xubuntu packages the same way, as long as you have the hard drive storage space. In the same way the Edubuntu or server packages can be added to Ubuntu, too.

Furthermore, to some extent, you can mix and match packages. For instance in the area of CD burning we have installed the KDE desktop CD burner, K3B, on Ubuntu and while it requires a lot of library files, it runs just fine. We have also installed the LXDE and Xfce CD burner, Xfburn on Ubuntu, too. I have tried installing the Gnome CD burner, Brasero, on Lubuntu and for some reason it doesn't work at all, though. Of course installing heavier resource-use application packages on a lightweight desktop will use more resources when that application is in use. As an example I need some of the word processing features that Openoffice.org Writer has that AbiWord, the native Lubuntu word processor, doesn't have, so I installed it. In comparing the two applications on the same document Writer consumes 68.7 MB of RAM, while AbiWord uses 27.8 MB. This web page open in gEdit (which has spell-checking and syntax highlighting) uses 27.9 MB of RAM, while the Lubuntu default text editor, Leafpad, uses only 10.4 MB. So it is a trade-off, resources for features. Of course the larger applications only use CPU and RAM when they are open, otherwise they just use up some hard drive space.

It is in mixing and matching packages, like you might do in Debian, that the Ubuntu flavour nomenclature breaks down a bit. Is Lubuntu with lots of Gnome applications still Lubuntu? Is Ubuntu with the PCManFM file manager in place of Nautilus still Ubuntu? In Debian it would all be Debian.

While you can "fatten" up the lightweight distributions with more capable applications, you can also slim down Ubuntu to some extent by installing applications such as AbiWord or the PCManFM file manager, although it is obviously easier to start slim and add weight, rather than put your distro on a diet to slim it down to your hardware's limitations. Also that probably won't make it boot faster, either.

The world of Ubuntu offers a lot of choices and ways to get the desktop that you want within your hardware limitations. The pre-packaged distributions offer ease of installation which is very useful for newcomers to Linux, because if they have an easy time of things they are more likely to keep using it. Distributions like Debian, that allow you to build your own desktop from a minimal ISO file and then download packages, or download a huge DVD full of applications, are fine for more experienced users, but they aren't as friendly for beginners.

So are the different flavours of Ubuntu independent distributions or just different desktops on top of Ubuntu? It all depends on how you look at it. Certainly each flavour has its own independent website, its own development team and some reviewers consider each a separate distribution. In the case of Lubuntu, DistoWatch considers it a separate distribution as does reviewer Jim Lynch of Eye On Linux who says, "Lubuntu is a distro designed to provide a lightweight alternative to Ubuntu itself". Some other reviewers indicate that they consider it a sub-set of Ubuntu. Joey Sneddon of OMG! Ubuntu! has referred to Lubuntu as "LXDE-based Ubuntu spin Lubuntu". Damien Oh of Make Tech Easier says "Lubuntu is a Ubuntu variant built using the LXDE desktop".

So what is the conclusion? The different flavours of Ubuntu can really be considered both independent distros and just different package builds on top of Ubuntu. It really all depends of how you look at it and how you get it, as an independent downloaded ISO file from the project's website or as additional packages downloaded though the Ubuntu Software Centre.


Two Weeks of Just Lubuntu

By Adam Hunt

Today marks two weeks since I overhauled my old Dell Dimension 2400 and installed a fresh copy of Lubuntu 10.10. In the past two weeks I have used it as my sole computer for getting everything done, from creating documents and spreadsheets, writing on Wikipedia via Chromium, printing documents, doing email, working on this and our other websites, editing photos, handling files, networking by SSHFS and lots of other daily chores.

I wish that I could make this a much longer entry by reporting on all the work-arounds I had to do or problems I had to solve, but there weren't any. In fact over the past two weeks Lubuntu has proven to be a very fast and smooth operating system, with no problems or issues to deal with at all. The only work-arounds I need to do are the ones previously mentioned:

  1. Lubuntu does not mount our Nikon camera, so I read the SD cards in my card reader.
  2. CD-RWs cannot be blanked using Xfburn without first unmounting the CD-RW by running:
    • sudo umount /media/disk.

I consider both of these very minor.

In the last few weeks of using Lubuntu I have learned a couple of useful operating system keyboard shortcuts:

Ctrl+Alt+Del
On Ubuntu this brings up the shutdown dialogue, which isn't generally all that useful, but on Lubuntu it brings up LXtask, the task manager, so you can check RAM and CPU usage and kill any processes which are causing a problem, which is very useful.
Ctrl+Alt+T
This general shortcut seems to work on all Linux distributions and brings up a terminal window, in this case LXTerminal. Ctrl+Shift+Q closes it again.

The other item that is worthy of mention is just how amazingly well designed the Lubuntu file manager, PCManFM, is. It is especially useful that you can not only find the whole file system there, but all your installed applications as well. As a result I almost never use the main menu, but do everything from the tabbed file manager instead, keeping a separate tab open for applications and files.

At this point I don't intend to go back to using Ubuntu as my main desktop operating system. I still have it installed on my other box, but Lubuntu is much faster and more responsive that I feel spoiled by its performance. It is even faster than a dual-core CPU ex-Vista box with 3 GB of RAM running Ubuntu. I find the lack of glitz and things like desktop effects to be a bonus, as with Ubuntu I just have to turn those off anyway as they slow the PC down unacceptably. With access to things like the Ubuntu update system and the Ubuntu application repositories, Lubuntu offers all the advantages and familiarity of Ubuntu, without the bloat and slowness that has crept in in recent releases.

Here is my current thinking on picking a distribution for use on highspeed internet, assuming computer speed and performance is your priority. If the PC used to run Windows XP then Lubuntu will give a lot more performance over Ubuntu. If the PC used to run Vista or Windows 7 then it will probably run Ubuntu at an acceptable speed for daily use, as all three of those operating systems now have the same minimum hardware requirements: 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, although all really need much more than that to run well.

Lubuntu has actually impressed me and that is a surprise, because I was pretty unimpressed when I first tried it out. It seems that some other Linux users agree, because, even though the first version of it just came out in , it has vaulted to 11th place on DistoWatch's current six month distribution popularity list, putting it ahead of every other flavour of Ubuntu, other than Ubuntu itself which is in first place, including Kubuntu (24th) and Xubuntu (36th).


My Lubuntu Experience on my Acer Aspire Netbook

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

Acer Aspire Running Lubuntu 10.10

I hate bloatware. If it takes longer to boot up my netbook than to shovel the driveway with a soup spoon then I’m not going to be happy about that. Would you?

Ever in the search for lighter operating systems, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a way to install Lubuntu 10.10 on my Acer Aspire netbook using UNetbootin and we did just that. The installation, off a USB stick as my netbook does not have a CD drive, took a lot less time than I thought it would. Since I assume any task, regardless of its purported simplicity, will take all day to do, the fact that Lubuntu installs easily is a very pleasant surprise.

The simplicity of Lubuntu extends beyond mere installation. No, I did not sit here with a stopwatch (yes, we actually own one) and time how quickly Lubuntu boots up. However, I can say for certain that from the moment I press the "on" button to my desktop appearing is about 35-40 seconds. Even an Exocet missile couldn’t clear the snow off my driveway in that time.

The Lubuntu desktop on my netbook is sparse, which is no surprise considering how light it is. However, "sparse" doesn’t mean "lacking" and so it is only a matter of noting the little icons on the bottom left hand side of the screen to learn where everything is.

Clicking on the Lubuntu icon (that thing that looks like a cross between a slow gull and a soaking wet paper airplane) results in everything you need appearing in a pop-up menu. The menu snaps onto the screen, reminiscent of Windows 95, and, like W95, you only need to move the mouse pointer up until you get to where you want to go. "Accessories", at the top, will get you to important places like the file manager from which you can ease over to applications.

Games that come with Lubuntu are all prefaced with the word "penguin", clearly a reference to its Linux origins. I have played the "penguin" solitaire but none of the others. I do enjoy the occasional computer game but more along the lines of solitaire or mahjongg.

Lubuntu comes with Abiword which, admittedly, I have not used. However, I have no doubt in my mind that Abiword works pretty much like any other word processing application. Same goes for gnumeric, the spreadsheet application that, like Abiword, comes with Lubuntu.

My office suite of choice remains Open Office. While it does not come with Lubuntu, can very easily be retrieved from the Synaptic Package manager. Getting to the package manager requires you go to Preferences (the bottom option after clicking on the Lubuntu logo) and then opening the Synaptic Package Manager and then taking it from there. Any and all packages that are available for Ubuntu are equally available for Lubuntu. For me, that meant a quick search for Open Office on Synaptic and an equally quick selecting of Open Office Writer and Calc. A simple mark for installation and, within about a minute (maybe less), I had both Writer and Calc installed and waiting. I did later on install Impress - the presentation application - with equal ease.

As simple as installing any application goes, so removing already installed apps is just as simple. I use web-mail for all my email use and so had no need for the native Sylpheed email client program. Remember my stated dislike for bloatware? Well, in my mind, having something I neither need nor will ever use is sufficient reason for getting rid of it. So, again, in synaptic, selecting the application "Sylpheed" and then marking it for uninstallation brings the desired result in very short order.

Like Ubuntu, or any variation therein (ie Xubuntu), any updates appear via the update manager whose blinking indicator at the bottom of the screen demands attention. There is one observation I did make which I find kinda cool. Typically, with Ubuntu, two actions take place in order for the update to be complete. The first is to download the second is to install. Normally, the progress bar appears twice, the first to download the second to install. Not so with Lubuntu. For every download, only one progress bar appears. The first part of an update takes half the progress bar with the installation taking the second half of the progress bar. That means that when a, say, 10.0MB update is being downloaded, only half the progress bar will be shaded after the download. The actual installation will take the second half of the progress bar. Indeed, it’s a small and rather irrelevant point but it can be a little off-putting when it happens if you’re not expecting it (I didn’t).

The details of working with Lubuntu are, perhaps, not nearly as important as the fact that Lubuntu is very easy to work with. I did try Puppy Linux on my netbook recently and really enjoyed that as well; however, where I could not get Puppy to suspend when closing my netbook cover, Lubuntu suspends easily and comes out of suspend mode just as easily...though with it being December as I write this perhaps the term "hibernate" is more appropriate.

I also use the Leafpad text editor for taking notes. It opens quickly (everything does) and I, personally, find the font very easy to read. Options like word wrap are very helpful as well. Nothing will make my eyes roll in perturbation faster than watching any words I type bounce happily along a seemingly infinite line. Selecting "word wrap" fixes that.

So, is there anything I don’t like about Lubuntu? Seriously? Well, there is only one thing and that is the desktop image that comes with Lubuntu. I have no personal objections to the colour blue but I really REALLY like the colour green - especially a nice, rich, almost tropical colour green. The stunningly gorgeous green wallpaper shown in the screenshot came from Pr09Studio.

So, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a blinking tab on the bottom of my screen called "Update Manager".


CD Blanking & Burning on Lubuntu

By Adam Hunt

As I previously described, after having determined that the CD reader/writer that was installed on my PC was unserviceable I replaced it with a new LG combination CD/DVD reader/writer. That resulted in the Lubuntu default CD-burning program working perfectly, with the exception of one remaining problem. Whenever a written CD-RW was in the drive and XFburn opened it would say: Failed to unmount media/disk. Drive cannot be used for burning.

The problem was that XFburn was not unmounting the CD-RW and therefore could not be blanked. I posted the problem on the Ubuntu Forums and got some answers there. As a related question I also asked whether a CD could be blanked from the command line. This question actually resulted in solving the XFburn issue as I learned the command to unmount a CD, which allows XFburn to do its job. As long as the CD is unmounted before opening XFburn, then XFburn will open fine, blank and write perfectly.

Here are the commands to unmount and then to burn CDs using wodim from the command line:

sudo umount /media/disk
To unmount the CD so it can be blanked or burned
wodim dev=/dev/cdrom blank=fast
To blank a CD-RW
wodim dev=/dev/cdrom ~/image.iso
To write an ISO file with the name "image.iso" in the home folder

Wodim doesn't come with Lubuntu, so if you need to use it to blank or burn a CD you will have to install it first.

With this one last problem now solved on Lubuntu I have raised its rating to 10/10. Lubuntu works really well for me and I can use it to do everything that I want to.

Ruth is greatly enjoying using Lubuntu 10.10 on her netbook; she has noted that it is quite a bit faster than Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Edition was before on the same hardware. She also seems to be finding the interface much more usable, including not having to have windows full screen all the time.

Both Lubuntu 10.10 itself and my knowledge of it have come a long way since its release on . It truly is a light weight version of Ubuntu, faster and smooth on lower specification hardware. At this point in time I can recommend it without reservation for anyone who wants to run a faster Ubuntu-based system on older PCs originally designed for Windows XP, netbooks or other lower spec hardware.


Real Lubuntu Progress

By Adam Hunt

Dell Dimension 2400 overhaul

Lubuntu has been working surprisingly well on my test PC. In place of glitz and eye-candy it is simple, smooth and fast and that has inspired me to carry out a longer term test of Lubuntu as a serious replacement for Ubuntu, which has become bloated and noticeably slow in recent releases.

Since I am not ready to give up the safety of Ubuntu 10.04 on my production PC, this meant that my test PC would need a bit of an overhaul and some upgrades for longer term use. Firstly additional testing of the CD reader/writer, including with Ubuntu 10.10, convinced me that the CD writer is unserviceable. It reads fine, but it writes very inconsistently, writing ISO files with errors, amongst other problems, the mark of a failing drive. The second upgrade was a replacement for the 40 GB IDE hard drive. It actually works fine, but is just a little bit too small for daily use.

The Dell Dimension 2400 is an old 32 bit PC, dating from the early days of Windows XP, circa 2003. The bus architecture is IDE, which isn't used in new PCs anymore. Fortunately PC Cyber still carries IDE parts and I came home with a new Western Digital 160 GB hard drive plus an LG combination CD/DVD reader/writer.

I blanked the old 40 GB hard drive with DBAN and then pulled the PC apart to give it an overhaul, detailed cleaning and upgrade. I removed the old broken CD reader/writer and replaced it with the new CD/DVD reader/writer. That fit perfectly in the existing slot. Next I decided to remove the floppy drive as it looked really dirty and besides we don't use floppies anymore. Removing that was a challenge as the whole PC appeared to have been built around it; the drive was very securely anchored in place with inaccessible fasteners. You can accuse Dell of lots of failings, but not under-building their desktop PCs. Last was installing the new hard drive. The old one was mounted vertically at the front of the box, in the airstream of the air intake vent, which sounds like a good idea for cooling. Once again it was well secured in a metal rack, so it was just a matter of figuring out how it came apart and then swapping the drives. After sealing up the old floppy slot in the plastic case front and a final cleaning, the whole PC went back together easily.

The installation of Lubuntu 10.10 from the CD went very smoothly, at least the new CD/DVD drive worked! Once the updates were installed the computer booted very quickly, turning in a remarkable 32 second boot time!

Next I installed the applications I needed:

Last I got it all configured, set up sshfs networking, my printer and started doing some testing. Just about everything worked really well. After one false start I elected not to install the Lubuntu Restricted Extras, with its Microsoft font package and just live without the copyrighted fonts instead. The installation process allows the automatic installation of Lubuntu Restricted Addons instead, which includes Flash, MP3 playback, etc, which is really all you need.

In looking at the PCMan file manager I discovered that the previous explanation that it is reading MB instead of MiB is correct. This developer blog explains that the units will be selected in a future and modified version, 1.1.3, while I have version 0.9.7. This isn't a problem, it is just good to know which units are being used.

One thing I did get right in this installation is not deleting the Desktop folder in the home directory. As I had surmised doing this causes all your home directory files to be shown on the desktop and I didn't find an easy way to fix it, as the obvious move of recreating the folder didn't do it. Lessons learned!

This left only CD burning to look at and the final assessment to see if all the problems I reported earlier were due to a faulty CD burner. After thoroughly testing out the new LG CD/DVD burner with the default CD burning application, XFburn, I can say that most, but not all of the problems were related to the previous failing drive. The new drive reads and writes CDs and DVDs just fine, including ISO files. The only thing it doesn't do is erase CD-RWs. When a written (as opposed to blank) CD is inserted in the drive and XFburn is opened it reports an error Failed to unmount media/disk. Drive cannot be used for burning. This is obviously a software issue in Lubuntu that I may be able to track down, although it isn't listed as a bug on Launchpad. I have posted the question on the Ubuntu Forums. Other than this one glitch I really like XFburn, the interface is very simple and easy to use, it actually combines the best interface features of Brasero and K3B.

Incidentally even though CD burning with Brasero on Ubuntu tends to max out the PC's CPU, XFburn is very light weight. In my testing, while burning a CD XFburn uses just 2% of the 2.66 GHz CPU and just 20.8 MB of RAM. While doing CD burning and nothing else the whole PC runs at 4% CPU capacity and 114 MB of RAM, while at idle with everything closed it uses 1% CPU and 110 MB of RAM. This is all remarkably impressive compared to Ubuntu 10.10.

As mentioned before Lubuntu mounts my camera SD cards though my SD card reader just fine, so this is not really an issue.

The only other item that was on my "wish list" was some sort of file search function. Once again the Ubuntu Forums comes to the rescue. As that entry explains, you don't need to install a desktop search because Linux comes with a command line search tool called Find. It works quite well and you certainly can't get lighter weight than a command line tool! The commands for find are:

find / -name '*foo*'
To search for all the files with "foo" in it on the whole file system. "*" is a wild card term.
find ~/ -name 'foo.txt'
To search for a file named "foo.txt" in your home directory
man find
The complete manual for the find application

So after the computer repairs and a fresh installation of Lubuntu 10.10 the snag list is down to:

  1. Lubuntu does not mount our Nikon camera.
  2. CD-RWs cannot be blanked.

Other than those couple of minor issues I am quite pleased with Lubuntu 10.10 on the desktop. It is fast and simple and does everything I need to do.

One final note, we tried installing Lubuntu to Ruth's net book using the Ubuntu "Startup Disk Creator" and the ISO self test failed repeatedly, producing 115 errors. It seems that the Ubuntu "Startup Disk Creator" cannot write the Lubuntu ISO to a USB. I posted this question on the Ubuntu Forums and got a recommendation to install it with UNetbootin and as long as 7zip is also installed that works perfectly. Ruth's netbook is now running Lubuntu 10.10 and she will evaluate it and do a write-up once she has had a chance to work with it for a bit.


More Lubuntu Notes

By Adam Hunt

Lubuntu 10.10 on the Acer Aspire 150 netbook

In doing further work with Lubuntu I am becoming slowly more impressed with it. I have to admit that I wasn't all that keen on it at the beginning, but it is winning me over with its performance and utility.

One experiment Ruth and I both wanted to try was running it on her Acer Aspire 150 netbook. This is easy to test out by just making up a USB drive as a "live disk" and booting the Aspire to it. As in all live sessions it uses more RAM and isn't as fast or responsive as a full installation, but it does give the opportunity to check out hardware compatibility. In particular I was interested to see if it worked with the wireless connection.

Lubuntu booted quickly from the USB stick and found the right screen resolution without any input. The wireless worked flawlessly right out of the box, as did suspend and resume when closing the netbook's lid. The standard Lubuntu interface is also easy to use on the netbook's small 10.1" screen and presented no difficulties at all.

Ruth tried out AbiWord and Gnumeric along with Chromium and a few other applications and all worked fine. She even tested out LXtask, the task manager and, even from the USB stick, Lubuntu seemed fairly frugal on RAM and CPU power. Her conclusion was that it would make a good netbook operating system.

In other developments one reader picked up on my earlier observation that Lubuntu's file manager PCManFS was reporting file sizes as too big (e.g. a 693 MB file as 726 MB) and noted that it is reporting "millions of bytes, as opposed to MB". This makes sense, although it is odd! At least it shows that PCManFM is not misreading, just not reporting what is expected, since the file sizes are labelled as "MB".

I have also been carrying out more extensive testing of the CD burning problem, with XFburn, Brasero and K3B installed. It is always hard to tell whether you have a bad CD, bad hardware or a software problem, but here are my latest observations. XFBurn will make data disks okay, but creates errors in ISO files most of the time and crashes when asked to erase a CD-RW. Brasero crashes when asked to erase a CD-RW or burn an ISO or data disk. K3B burns normally, but it refuses to erase a CD-RW, but that is a known bug. I would really like to try out Lubuntu on some other hardware to see if it works better.

We have now been doing quite a bit of work with Ubuntu, Puppy Linux and more recently Lubuntu. I think these three distributions each have a lot to offer in different situations. Together they provide a matched set of capabilities. Let me illustrate what I mean in this table:

Operating System Comparison

Item

Ubuntu

Lubuntu

Puppy

Minimum recommended CPU 1 GB* 266 MHz 166 MHz
Minimum recommended RAM 1 GB 256 MB (for Lubuntu 10.10) 128 MB
Out-Of-The-Box Dial-Up Support No** No** Yes
Updates Yes, up to 100 MB/week Yes, up to 100 MB/week No, instead new version released every 3-6 months
Optimal Use A full distribution for capable hardware and a high-speed internet connection A light weight distribution for hardware less than the Ubuntu minimums and a high-speed internet connection A light weight distribution for less capable hardware or for a dial-up internet connection
Notes *Ubuntu 10.10 appears to need a much more capable CPU than these specs indicate as it maxes out playing videos, amongst other functions, even on a 2.66 GHz processor.

** Ubuntu has been made to work on dial up by installing wvdial, gnome ppp, scanModem and driver finder cnxtinstall.run and ensuring the user is on the "dip" group.
** Ubuntu has been made to work on dial up by installing wvdial, gnome ppp, scanModem and driver finder cnxtinstall.run and ensuring the user is on the "dip" group. This may work for Lubuntu as well.

My recommendation for operating systems remains Ubuntu as long as your hardware is up to running it and you don't need dial-up.

On my regular production PC, which has a 1.8 GHz AMD processor (equivalent to a 2.8 GHz Intel) and 1 GB of RAM, I find Ubuntu 10.04 runs okay, but is not at all snappy. In particular the Nautilus file manager can be quite slow opening directories that have lots of files in them. This hardware is also not nearly enough to run the default movie editor, PiTiVi, which maxes out the CPU and seems only happy on dual-core PCs. See my observations on this issue, including testing of Ubuntu 10.10 which uses even more CPU power than Ubuntu 10.04 does.


Lubuntu Improves

By Adam Hunt

Lubuntu 10.10

Since my last experience trying out Lubuntu 10.10 when it first came out six weeks ago the distribution has come a long way.

Back in October Lubuntu 10.10 was just out and a bit "wet-behind-the-ears". Quite a number of things didn't work, particularly hardware. I didn't hold out much hope that the Lubuntu team would get things fixed before the release of Lubuntu 11.04, but I have been pleasantly surprised.

In plugging in my Lubuntu test box today there were lots of updates, including kernel updates as well. After the updates were downloaded and installed I decided to try out the list of previously identified broken items and see what has been fixed and what still needs work.

Here is the latest list:

  1. Simple Scan acting erratically - tests indicate that this seems to be fixed.
  2. Lubuntu does not mount our Nikon camera, it doesn't even recognize that it is connected. It does read the camera's SD card just fine in our card reader, so that is an acceptable work-around - still the case, but as noted it is workable.
  3. Even with Lubuntu Restricted Extras installed there are still some fonts not available. This is pretty minor as the default fonts are okay - still the case, but still minor.
  4. I haven't been able to get my HP 1018 printer working - fixed. The solution is to run:
    1. $ sudo apt-get install hplip
    2. $ sudo hp-setup -i
  5. The CD burning program XFburn won't burn ISOs without creating file errors. This is actually worse now, XFburn just crashes all the time. I tried installing K3B and that seems to work fine, except of course it won't blank a CD-RW as previously described. I also tried installing Brasero as it works fine on Ubuntu 10.04, but it just crashes on Lubuntu.
  6. The file manager often reads file sizes incorrectly, for instance showing a 693 MB file as 726 MB - still the case.
  7. There no native support for dial-up - still the case and not likely to change. This was more a complaint than a snag, as I am sure this won't be addressed and it isn't critical for us.
  8. Mouse settings, like acceleration and sensitivity don't seem to be saved from one boot-up to the next - fixed!

So overall Lubuntu is getting better and pretty quickly as well. This is all heartening as it is a distribution with a lot of promise.

With Simple Scan acting better I was able to also scan a document, use GIMP to clean it up and turn it into a ".tif" file and then use Tesseract to carry out optical character recognition successfully.

In other hardware testing, Lubuntu recognizes my Sansa Clip MP3 player just fine, charges it and will allow me to manage the files on it, which is good.

One thing that I don't particularly like in Lubuntu 10.10 is the default desktop wallpaper, which shows a two-tone blue wave design. It looks like the design team didn't spend any time on that, perhaps because they know people will change it anyway. I found a great new desktop image on Pr09Studio, called Glass Beauty, that seems to fit the Lubuntu blue scheme perfectly. I just added a Lubuntu logo and it was done. Pr09Studio is one of my favourite places to find wallpaper art, there are some beautiful designs there!

Lubuntu does not seem to have a file search application, although it does have search-within-a-folder feature. Tracker is available in the repositoiries, though and can be installed if needed. I have installed Tracker, but I can't seem to get it to work.

There are a lot of useful and innovative features in Lubuntu. For instance the applications menu is available in two places, from the expected pop-up menu found by clicking on the logo on the bottom panel, but also within the file manager, which is very useful.

It is worth noting that to save screen space there is only one panel and it is at the bottom of the screen by default, although it can be moved to any edge of the screen and can be made to "hide" to free up even more screen real estate.

The desktop automatically displays the contents of the user's home folder, which makes finding documents quicker, however I cannot seem to disable this. Lubuntu certainly seems to have fewer customizations available than Ubuntu, at least from GUIs.

The screenshot tool, SCROT, is very simple, just hit "print screen" and the screenshot is already in your home folder!

Another useful feature in PCManFM, the file manager, is the ability to open a file manager window as "root". This saves the Ubuntu procedure of opening a "run" dialogue box (Alt+F2) and then entering gksudo nautilus. In Lubuntu this feature produces errors, but they are spurious as it does work.

If you are a fan of Linux screen-savers then Lubuntu will disappoint, as it comes with only two very basic ones out of the box. This isn't an issue for me as I have just set the power management to turn the screen off after ten minutes inactivity instead. In many ways screen-savers are a throwback to the limitations of the screens of the 1980s and more like a tradition, than a useful feature, these days.

Lubuntu appears to be faster than Ubuntu on the same hardware, opening applications noticeably more quickly. I have had a look at Lubuntu's CPU and RAM usage. I have done some measurements of RAM usage and in general it seems to use about the same RAM on a similar task as Ubuntu. For example while running three tabs on the file manager, four tabs on Chromium, two tabs on Gedit and an OpenOffice Writer document, plus the LXtask task manager, Lubuntu 10.10 uses 399 MB of RAM, while Ubuntu 10.04 uses 384 MB with the same things open. I am sure by installing some RAM-intensive applications, like OpenOffice Writer in place of AbiWord, that I have caused my installation of Lubuntu to be a bit fatter than the designers intended. Ubuntu 10.04 idles at about 285 MB, with nothing open, whereas Lubuntu idles at 180 MB, so it is more efficient at idle. Comparing CPU usage is more difficult, but Lubuntu does seem to use much less CPU capacity than Ubuntu on similar tasks.

This all leaves this list of things I am watching to be fixed in Lubuntu in the future:

  1. Lubuntu does not mount our Nikon camera.
  2. Missing fonts.
  3. CD burning.
  4. The file manager reading file sizes incorrectly.

With so many problems that I previously observed on Lubuntu now fixed, I am very keen to see how Lubuntu 11.04 turns out. If it addresses the few remaining items, like CD burning and reported file sizes, it may be the version that convinces more people to give it a try, especially because Ubuntu seems to be suffering from some recent excessive bloat that is driving up its hardware requirements. Ubuntu's current recommended hardware requirements are a 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, with 512 MB of RAM as dead minimum. At least in Ubuntu 10.10 both Totem and PiTiVi both require much higher spec hardware than that to run right, including a dual core processor in the 2.4 GHz class. All of this means that while Ubuntu seems to be improving all the time, it is at the cost of becoming a Vista replacement, not an XP replacement. Most XP boxes were shipped with processors in the 2.0 GHz range, but with 128 MB or 256 MB of RAM, putting running the current versions of Ubuntu out of reach without serious upgrades.

Lubuntu is quickly improving with time and it may just be growing into the answer for a new operating system for all those old XP computers out there, as well as netbooks and other low RAM devices.


Video Editing with Kino

By Adam Hunt

Over the last few years I have written much about the quest for an application to edit videos with, so that they can be posted to You Tube. We have been through Avid Free DV (too complex and a resource hog), Open Movie Editor (didn't work), on line editing on JumpCut (great, but the website was shutdown), Avidemux (no support for our camera's sound codec) and PiTiVi (resource hog and crashes endlessly). In recent times on Ubuntu I have been getting by with both Avidemux and PiTiVi, though neither is ideal.

This past week I have been working with Puppy Linux and trying out video editing on that operating system. There I tried out Cinelerra (too complex) and Avidemux (crashed endlessly, still doesn't support our audio codec) and finally Kino, a Linux and BSD-only video editor.

Compared to all the other editors I have tried, Kino has actually been a bit of fresh air. The current version, Kino 1.3.4, is available in both the Puppy and Ubuntu repositories. The interface is simple but has a lot of very useful features, best of all it supports our camera's troublesome mu-law audio codec.

Kino has a fairly good on-line documentation, which shortens the learning curve, although the interface is simple enough to be rated as pretty close to self explanatory. While Kino lacks some features, such as titles, it does provide everything I need a video editor to do: assemble clips, edit clips, add transitions, if required add a soundtrack or leave the original soundtrack and render the finished product in a format that You Tube will accept. Kino will do all that!

I haven't tested out all the transitions yet but the "dissolve" transition provides a very good result, far better than Avidemux does, which tends to give jumpy results.

Kino is really designed to work with ".dv" format files, so in using the ".avi" format files my camera produces it imports and converts them to ".dv" first. This process is fairly seamless and doesn't seem to lose much quality. Clips can then be assembled on the time-line, trimmed and deleted. Once the clips are there then transitions of various types can be added using the "FX" menu. This requires slicing the clips at the points of the transition and then adding the effect to that segment. Once all complete it can render the video in ".avi" format which is easy to upload to You Tube.

Kino does have a couple of odd quirks. First it converts my 640 X 480 pixel videos to 720 X 480. The user manual explains this:

There are two kinds of aspect ratio: display aspect ratio and pixel aspect ratio. Display aspect ratio is the proportion of width and height of a picture typically expressed given square pixels. Most video is 4:3, but 16:9 is becoming increasingly popular. A 640 pixels wide by 480 pixels high image has a 4:3 display aspect ratio. However, the 4:3 DV aspect ratio is actually either 720x480 (NTSC) or 720x576 (PAL) pixels of resolution. Therefore, DV pixels are not square whereas most computer display resolutions use square pixels. Using the XVideo display method, Kino blindly assumes you are using a square pixel display resolution and compensates for the differences in pixel aspect ratio to achieve a better looking preview.

Oddly this doesn't seem to affect the final product, which looks fine.

The other quirk is that in edit mode selecting "play" causes Kino to play the video constructed at a very fast speed. The video can be advanced frame-by-frame using the arrow keys or moved back and forward at any speed using the shuttle control. None of this affects the final video speed after rendering, which is also normal.

The results are pretty good as can be seen in this, my first Kino attempt: Sneak Peek of the New Ottawa Greenbelt Pathway.

Due to the fact that Kino will do everything I need in a video editor I rate it as 10/10, although other users may want to have a look through the user manual and description of its features to see if will suit your needs, too. I am planning to do all my video editing on it from now on just to learn more about how it works.


Puppy on the Netbook

By Ruth Merkis-Hunt

Puppy Linux 5.1.1 on the Acer Aspire netbook

In the quest for simpler and smaller operating systems for my netbook, I asked Adam about the possibility of installing Puppy Linux on a USB stick for me to try on my Acer Aspire 150 netbook. I am currently running Ubuntu Lucid Lynx (or Luscious Lemming or whatever silly name it’s called this time) on my netbook and I like it. However, I was curious about Puppy anyway and so Adam moved heaven, Earth and some papers he had on his desk to get a working version of Puppy Linux on a USB stick. All I needed to do was turn off my netbook, mount the USB stick, turn the netbook on and let the system boot itself.

Ubuntu on my netbook took 51.8 seconds (yes, we timed it using a stopwatch) to boot up, which isn’t super great but isn’t horrendous either. In comparison, Puppy took 49.5 seconds so it isn’t much quicker. However, as I was booting Puppy from the USB stick, as opposed to booting from my hard drive, the fact that it took nearly a minute to boot up isn’t bad at all. I suspect that Puppy would boot much more quickly were it installed on my netbook’s hard drive - but as it isn’t installed, I’m just guessing. Adam has a desktop computer that has Puppy installed on the hard drive and it takes 30.55 seconds to boot up compared to a whopping 2 minutes and 32.55 seconds when booting from a CD so you can see the difference having a fully installed version makes. It also explains why I think a full installation on my netbook would yield similar boot time results.

There are three main bonuses to using Puppy that are worth mentioning. The first is that web pages load almost instantly no matter how image-heavy they are, such as radar images from Environment Canada. All pages load amazingly fast on Puppy.

The second main bonus is that we managed to find a way for me to network with my desktop in the basement, using ye old SSHFS. What’s more, my desktop is running Ubuntu and not Puppy so SSHFS works with different Linux distributions.

The third bonus is in the fact that, unlike Ubuntu, Puppy actually supports dial-up protocol for getting on to the net. While this is especially good for those people who have no access or cannot afford high speed, there is a use for us here as well. Occasionally and particularly during Ottawa’s world renowned freezing rain storms, we experience power failures. This means that we lose both our internet connection as well as power to our desktop computers. However, with my netbook battery charged and the phone lines working, I can still get on the Internet with Puppy Linux because it supports dial-up using an external USB modem.

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Puppy. There are a few issues that annoy me, though none is a show stopper.

The first is that there is no way to suspend or put my netbook in sleep mode. That means that the battery will discharge even if I close the lid to my netbook. If I want to save power, I have to actually shut the system down. It isn’t too nasty but it is annoying. In reading the documnetation it looks like suspend/resume can only be incorporated by recompiling the Linux kernel.

The second sticky issue is that plugging the charger in won’t result in my getting an indication that the battery is being charged for the first 30 seconds or so. That doesn’t mean the battery isn’t being charged up once the charger is plugged in but it can be rather disconcerting to see the battery indicator flashing unhappily at me when I have already plugged the charger in.

The third sticky bit is that there is no notification for things like volume and brightness. Oh, the volume of anything I’m listening to will go up as I hold down both the "function" and "right arrow" keys but it would sure be nice to see that this is working. Same goes for brightness. Again, these are not serious issues but they’re irritating at times.

The final sticky bit is that there is no ability to actually print a document. Puppy Linux does not support our HP 1018 printer, though hopefully that will change in due time. Everything always does!

So, would I switch permanently? Not at this point. There really isn’t anything that Puppy does that Ubuntu cannot do. Maybe I’ll switch one day...but today isn’t that day. In the meantime I can dual boot Puppy from its USB stick anytime I want the extra speed or dial-up internet.


Puppy Progress

By Adam Hunt

Ruth and I have both been trying out Puppy 5.1.1 in more detail this week, seeing what works and what doesn't on a test desktop PC and also on Ruth's netbook, booting from a USB stick. Mostly we have been doing this just for the sake of interest and to learn something new, but it is always good to be familiar with alternative Linux distributions, in case something happens to your favourite distro. This happened recently with Mandriva. It is also handy to have a lighter weight distro available in case Ubuntu gets too hardware intensive. I would rather switch distributions than have to go out and buy all new computers to run Ubuntu on and Ubuntu has been requiring more and more capable hardware in recent releases.

Ruth will soon be writing her own impressions of using Puppy on the netbook, so will confine this article to running Puppy on a desktop.

Overall I must say that Puppy works pretty well on the desktop. My test desktop is a 2.66 GHz Intel processor with 2 GB of RAM, so it is well above Puppy's minimum hardware specs of a Pentium 166MMX CPU and 128 MB. The current version, Puppy 5.1.1, comes with most of what you need for home computing use, as already described.

On the desktop PC I have Puppy installed to the hard drive in the traditional way. This is actually unorthodox in the Puppy world, as most users seem to run it from a CD or USB drive instead, a set-up that doesn't even need a hard drive on the PC to work. In my testing Puppy will boot on this PC in two minutes and 33 seconds from the CD, which is fairly slow. With the full installation to the hard drive Puppy boots in 31 seconds on this PC, which is pretty fast.

I do want to mention some particular areas of investigation that I got into this week and what I learned.

First off was networking and in this I was pretty successful. Our home network uses the very secure SSHFS system, based on OpenSSH. Earlier versions of Puppy came with SSHFS available for download in the repositories, but Puppy 5 doesn't, for some reason. After a couple of false starts I appealed for help on the Puppy Forum and got a very good response. Puppy Linux seems to have a good community base of people who are willing to help out and who are friendly, too. One user there, Aragon, not only provided me with useful information, but also made up the latest SSHFS-FUSE file and posted it for me and for others to download and use, a nice feature of the Puppy forum. The two-clicks-to-install ".pet" file worked great and that gave me access to the SSHFS network outbound.

"SSHFS inbound" was a more challenging problem, but it turned out to be a lack of the SSH-server utility installed. More help on the Puppy Forum turned up a puppylinux.org article on it and a prepared download of the ssh-server file. With that installed SSHFS in and out is now possible.

SSHFS into a Puppy PC is a little complicated by Puppy's lack of user accounts as SSH will not connect to Root for security reasons. When you install ssh-server it brings up a dialogue box that asks you to change the root password and set up a user account called "spot" with a new password. It also creates a new directory on the Puppy PC at /root/spot. Once you have done that and created a target directory on the PC to be linked from to put the connected folder into (here called "TargetDirectory") then you can connect to the Puppy PC by entering into a terminal: # sshfs spot@"LocalIPAddress": ~/TargetDirectory where: "LocalIPAddress" is the actual local IP address of the Puppy PC, (ie 192.168.1.XXX) and "TargetDirectory" is the name of the directory (or folder) that will be used to reach the spot directory on the Puppy PC. This does not allow SSHFS access to the /root directory, just to the /root/spot directory, so the Puppy user has to put documents in there to have them remotely accessed.

I also discovered that just shutting down the Puppy PC while connected seems to lock-up the home directory on the connected computer, so it is advisable to always disconnect the Puppy PC at the connecting PC by using $ fusermount -u ~/TargetDirectory before the Puppy PC is shut down.

I took another crack at the camera problem, since Puppy has a camera set-up utility available. In this you choose your camera from a long list and hopefully it recognizes it based on that. The problem is that even though the application contains a very complete looking list of Nikons, our model isn't on it and it didn't work. As mentioned previously, removing the SD card from the camera and using a card reader to connect the SD card directly works, so this isn't critical. This is actually why I bought the SD card reader in the first place.

The next challenge I wanted to to tackle was movie editing. Having determined that Cinelerra was not going to work for me and having complained previously that Avidemux would make a better lightweight choice instead, I discovered that Avidemux is in fact available. Actually there are two versions in the repositories as ".pet" files, Avidemux 2.5.1 and 2.5.2. The latter is the version I have on my Ubuntu 10.04 computer. It was a snap to download 2.5.2, click on it, accept it for installation and watch it quickly install. I tried opening it up and editing a couple of videos together, but it kept locking up and crashing, something it almost never does on Ubuntu. I did finally manage to make a video and even add some music using Avidemux 2.5.2. In looking though the filters for the usual transitions tools, I found that they were missing. This version must have been compiled without them, which leaves nothing but jump cuts. I decided to uninstall 2.5.2 and install 2.5.1 as it was a bigger download and thus I had hoped that it included more tools. It downloaded and installed fine but crashed on opening every time. Something isn't right there.

There is one more oddity that a couple of us have noticed on Puppy and that is the clock doesn't seem to interact well with web pages. For instance all my Gmail was indicating as being received and sent 12 hours into the future (pm instead of am), even though the clock was set correctly. Interestingly enough when reading the same e-mail messages later on Ubuntu they read correctly, so Gmail must be trying to read the system clock and not taking server time. I suspect that the websites are just not reading Puppy's clock right. This is pretty minor, but odd.

I downloaded FProt, which is an anti-virus application, but it didn't show up in the menus and so I can't figure out how to launch it.

So at this point the only things that I can currently do on Ubuntu that I can't do on Puppy are:

We will both keep experimenting with Puppy and try out its new releases as they come out. Puppy 5.2 is due out in the near future.


SRWare Iron Browser

By Adam Hunt

While checking the news about Puppy Linux I discovered that the project had created a ".pet" file for SRWare Iron, the browser based on Chromium. In Puppy Linux ".pet" files are similar to Windows ".exe" files, you just click on them, give permission to install and the rest happens automatically.

In opening Iron while I had Chromium open I discovered that Puppy seemed to just open a second instance of Chromium. Closing Chromium and then opening Iron got it sorted out. It seems that Iron uses all the same installed base files that Chromium uses, because on first opening it was all set up with my preferences and bookmarks. I think next time I do a Puppy installation I'll try Iron in place of Chromium and see how the installation goes.

SRWare's reasoning for creating the browser is explained in somewhat broken English:

Google's Web browser Chrome thrilled with an extremely fast site rendering, a sleek design and innovative features. But it also gets critic from data protection specialists , for reasons such as creating a unique user ID or the submission of entries to Google to generate suggestions. SRWare Iron is a real alternative. The browser is based on the Chromium-source and offers the same features as Chrome - but without the critical points that the privacy concern.

At first glance Iron looks just like Chromium. This version of Iron is 6.0.475.1, and so it is a bit further down the development road than the current Puppy Chromium version of 6.0.428.0 and even ahead of the current version of Chromium on Ubuntu, which is 6.0.472.62.

A closer inspection shows that there are some differences between Iron and Chromium. First off it comes with some better fonts than Chromium on Puppy does. These are similar to the better quality fonts available on Ubuntu and just makes webpages look nicer. It also increases the number of thumbnails on the "new tab" page from eight to twelve. The other differences are mostly branding, in that everywhere Chromium says "Chromium" this says "Iron" and it uses the Iron logo in place of the Chromium one. Other differences are to disable the suggestion service and the "show suggestions for navigation errors". Both of these send data to Google and Iron removes that option.

It is somewhat ironic that with Iron's emphasis on not sending information to Google that Iron includes the "synch" feature that synchronizes bookmarks, settings and themes through the user's Google account and creating a Google doc of the bookmarks. In fairness this is disabled by default and has to be enabled to work.

Probably the final difference is the F1 key, which on Chromium and Google Chrome bring up the Google Chrome help pages from the Google website. Hitting F1 on Iron takes you to the Iron home page, although there are no help files there.

Iron has been criticized as not really doing much besides disabling a few optional tracking features and adding a new logo. That is apparently quite true, but it is hardly a "scam" as some critics have complained. The Iron browser is essentially pure Chromium, which is good. There aren't many reasons for Linux users to install Iron as Chromium is generally available for most major distros. In the case of Puppy Linux 5.1.1 it gives a newer version of Chromium with better fonts, as noted. The best thing about Iron is that it gives Windows users a ready-made Chromium build as an ".exe" file that can easily be installed, a good alternative to using pure Google Chrome with its Google tracking or compiling your own Chromium version from the source code.


Puppy Linux 5.1.1 - Lucid Puppy

By Adam Hunt

Puppy Linux 5.1.1 custom desktop

Previously I reviewed Puppy Linux 5.0.0 and found that it not only worked pretty well, but that it was a great improvement over earlier Puppy versions. On a new version of Puppy, 5.1.1, was released and it is better yet in several ways.

Like all the Puppy Linux 5 series, Puppy 5.1.1 is nicknamed Lucid Puppy showing its connection to Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx whose repositories provided the binaries for many of the applications available in Lucid Puppy.

The biggest changes in 5.1.1 are in themes and appearance. Early versions of Puppy were colourful, but had a sort of "Fisher-Price" look to them with the desktop icons a riot of different colours. This new Puppy has been worked over by a graphics team and the new icon set is monochromatic and looks a lot more professional. There is also a new desktop image showing a wave design. Personally I thought it was too ugly for words and quickly switched it to another available image, as shown above. Other than the desktop image the redesign is a real improvement.

Puppy 4 came with two browsers, the very lightweight Puppy browser and Seamonkey, which were both servicable, but far from ideal for most users. Starting with Puppy 5.0.0 when you clicked on the browser desktop icon it launched the Browser Installer that gave a choice of browsers to download. In Puppy 5.0.0 this list included the Puppy browser, but with 5.1.1 it is gone and the choices are now:

Midori is a special stripped-down version that gives a number of warnings that it is not intended for web use, but instead is for showing internal files, like help pages and similar. This really means you need to be able to download a "real" browser for web use, which could take a while on dial-up.

In the past few weeks I have been working with Puppy 5.1.1 fully installed on the hard drive of a test PC and its capabilities are quite good for a distribution of this small size (130 MB). It comes with a surprising number of useful applications, including gFTP, Gnumeric, AbiWord, Rox file system and the Geany text editor.

Geany 0.18 is worth a special mention. The first time I encountered it I thought, "oh yeah, another stripped down, lightweight text editor with no features, like MS Notepad". It turns out that Geany is actually a very complete text editor, with syntax highlighting, wrapping and unwrapping lines, paragraph highlighting and a myriad of other developer-friendly features. The only thing it lacks is spell-checking to make it as functional as gEdit. I wrote this entry on Geany.

Another application that I wanted to look at from the slim Puppy repositories is Cinelerra the movie editing application. Cinelerra is not available in the Ubuntu repositories and after having a look at it and at its very extensive documentation I am starting to see why. Cinelerra is definitely not for the faint-of-heart or amateur user. As with Avid DV it is professional level software and quite complex to even get started on. I am not sure why this resource-intense application is offered for a light-weight distrbution like Puppy, when offering a smaller and much easier to use movie editor, such as Avidemux would make more sense, at least to me.

I have also had the opportunity to check out hardware issues with Puppy and there are some to report. I haven't been able to get my HP 1018 printer working. This seems to be the same issue as I reported with Lubuntu, a lack of the required Foomatic foo2zjs print driver. Not sure how to solve that one.

Our Nikon Coolpix L20 camera also failed to mount, however putting the SD card into my card reader and plugging it in resulted in it being opened automatically without any issues. I am not sure if this is just an issue with this camera type or all cameras. Other users have run into the same problem and an SD card reader seems to be the solution.

On the plus side my Sansa Clip MP3 player mounts just fine, as does our Canon LiDE 20 scanner, which scans well using XSANE. A side note here - I am not sure why Puppy is using the complex XSANE, when Simple Scan is an excellent alternative, easier to use and lighter-weight as well.

At first encounter I think many users coming from Windows or other Linux distros will find the Rox file manager a bit disconcerting. It displays much like other file managers, but is all single-click-to-open. This is probably a good thing, because Puppy has no means to change the double-click speed of the mouse or any other mouse characteristics, like sensitivity or acceleration, for that matter. Once you get used to single clicking (double clicking a document will open it twice!) the next question is how to highlight it. Rox has a pretty good help file that explains all this and highlighting a file can be done by "Ctrl+click". "Shift+click" opens the file as text, if that is possible, and backspace takes you up one directory level. Likewise deleting a file is not "delete", but "Ctrl+X", although you get a dialogue box to warn you, in case you thought you were cutting it for a paste move. Moving files from one directory to another is best done with drag-and-drop and this too opens a dialogue box, so it is hard to mess up.

I haven't figured out networking on Puppy 5.1.1 yet. Puppy 5.0.0 had SSHFS available, although it was only possible to network out, not in, due to the lack of user name and computer identification, as mentioned earlier. There is a Samba client, PNetHood, but I need to spend some more time in figuring that out.

Overall Puppy has some real advantages for users who have older hardware that won't run more full-service Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, or who don't have highspeed internet and need Puppy's great dial-up support.

Since its first version 0.1 made public on 18 June 2003 Puppy has grown and improved with each release. The last few releases have seen some great improvements, so it will be interesting to see what the upcoming Puppy Linux 5.2 has to offer.


Back-Ups With an External Hard Drive

By Adam Hunt

We have been doing our data back-ups primarily on two 15 GB USB sticks over the past few years. We got these both at Future Shop on a Boxing Day sale for $20 each several years ago, so they have served well. The biggest problem that we have had with them has been simply that our increasing collection of photos and videos have run us out of room.

In casting around for options I have found that if anything USB sticks have gone up in price, not down, in the past three years. Bigger USB sticks exist, such as 32 GB ones, but these are mostly well over $100.

One option I looked at has been just installing a second hard drive in my own PC, but in shopping around I found that external hard drives are actually cheaper than internal ones and they come with a nice case and USB cord, besides. They are also more flexible, easy to relocate from one PC to another should the need arise.

I looked at a few external hard drives and right now it is possible to get 320 GB in the $50 to $60 range. The one I found as the best bargain was the Hitachi 0S00381 320GB 2.5" External Drive on sale at PC Cyber for $53.77 plus tax. The boxes for these things all say that they are Windows compatible and some even claim to be Mac compatible. I wanted to make sure that they would work on Linux. I posed the question on our NCF Free Software discussion group and was reassured that it would work.

So Ruth and I went up to PC Cyber and picked one up. The box is quite small, paperback book-sized, and the drive proved to be equally small, only 12 X 8 X 1 cm. It runs from a single USB plug, with a second one on the same cable in case the first doesn't provide enough power, although ours works fine on one plug. The packaging and instructions were all bilingual - Spanish and Portuguese. Running it though the translator program on line helped as Hitachi don't post their leaflets on line.

In the end I just plugged it into a USB port and it worked fine. The file system was formatted in FAT32, a universal Microsoft file system that does work on Linux, but not a very good one with a number of limitations. The drive also had about 100 MB of crapware on it - assorted Microsoft and Mac junk "to help you organize your files, etc" that was easily deleted. After some discussion group talk I decided to use GParted to reformat the drive to ext4, the current Linux file system. That worked fine, but of course pulled its usual GParted trick of rendering ownership of the resulting drive to "root", meaning mere users can't write to it. This problem has come up before in using GParted and the solution is easy enough: change owners from the command line using:

$ sudo chown -R username:username /media/devicename

Chown means "change owner" and -R makes it recursive to all files on that drive.

That all worked fine and now the drive is working well in ext4.


Trying Out Lubuntu

By Adam Hunt

As part of my investigation of the video playback issue described below I decided to download and try out Lubuntu. This is a new member of the Ubuntu family, a distribution based on Ubuntu, which uses the lightweight LXDE desktop in place of the Gnome desktop. Lubuntu is not yet an official Ubuntu project, but it is the goal of the developers to have it officially endorsed in the near future.

This version of Lubuntu is considered by the developers to be a stable beta. It has lots of potential, but from my testing it seems to still have a few issues.

The focus of Lubuntu is "a faster, more lightweight and energy saving variant of Ubuntu using LXDE, the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment." That all sounds good and early testing done in September 2009 shows that it does use about half the RAM and slightly less electricity than either Ubuntu or Xubuntu do on the same tasks. To accomplish that Lubuntu uses a collection of lightweight applications such as the Openbox window manager, LeafPad text editor, Simple Scan scanner, AbiWord word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet. The default browser is Chromium, which is not that lightweight, but it is fast. So far so good, it is well on its way to being what Xubuntu had hoped to be but never accomplished. It is claimed that Lubuntu will run on a Pentium II processor (which are 266 MHz to 450 MHz) and 128 MB of RAM, which is pretty low end.

I figured Lubuntu should perform well on the test PC I have which is a Dell Dimension 2400 with 2.66 GHz Pentium IV processor and 2 GB of RAM and on that box Lubuntu is indeed fast and responsive. My first installation included the optional encrypted home directory that Ubuntu now has and that works well in Ubuntu. It is created as part of the installation process, via an optional check box. The encrypted directory creates some problems in Lubuntu. The first boot up after a smooth installation resulted in a basically non-responsive task bar. The browser wouldn't launch and no applications showed up on the menu. The file manager showed only a "Readme" file and a "show files" file. The Readme said to click on the other file to load the user home directory. That didn't work, but the Readme also suggested running a command to do the same in the terminal and even supplied the command, but with no access to any applications, including the terminal emulator that became difficult. I was finally able to open a terminal emulator window though an F4 button command, ran the command and lo and behold that unlocked my home directory and the applications menus as well. Well sort of, each boot resulted in menus that acted differently, sometimes being accessible from the main menu found by clicking the LXDE logo and sometimes from the file manager window.

Despite all the problems caused by the encrypted home directory I was able to get some things working. I got SSHFS networking up and loaded favourites into the Chromium browser. The applications opened and worked, including AbiWord and Leafpad. I actually wrote this entry on Leafpad and it is quite bare-bones, no syntax highlighting and no spell-checking. That said, the normal collection of Linux applications is available from the repositories, so Lubuntu can easily be customized, with the addition of applications like gEdit.

In my testing with the encrypted home directory installed I did run into a whole bunch of problems, that made Lubuntu pretty much unusable:

  1. Each boot required a terminal log-in to unencrypt the home directory.
  2. The first time I tried Simple Scan I wasn't able to save any images, they indicated insufficient memory. A reboot solved that one, at least temporarily.
  3. I couldn't access the package manager, which is good-old Synaptic. It just said "Unable to copy the user's Xauthorization file". I had to install some additional applications using the terminal emulator and sudo apt-get install. That worked, but only as long as you know the package names. I even tried an uninstall and that worked as well. This was related to the encrypted home directory.
  4. The file manager acted quite strangely. When I deleted a file it stayed there until the file manager was closed and reopened and then it was gone. Sometimes it turned up in the trash and other times not. Overall the behaviour was a bit erratic. It is the same when creating a new file, it usually doesn't appear until the file manager is closed and reopened. This was all related to the encrypted home directory.
  5. Applications menus can be accessed in two ways, through the logo button in the bottom left corner of the desktop and through the file manager. After some boots one or the other method didn't work, again erratically.
  6. I installed gFTP through sudo apt-get install gftp. It was able to connect to the remote web server just fine, but it couldn't read my local files, indicating that they were encrypted and inaccessible. This is obviously related to the encrypted home directory.
  7. Preferences weren't saved from one session to the next. For instance I set a new desktop image and the next boot it was back to default again. Again this was probably related to the encrypted home directory as I suspect the settings are stored there and cannot be accessed on boot-up.

After working with Lubuntu in this configuration for a while I concluded that the encrypted home directory was causing the vast majority of the problems and so I reformatted and reinstalled Lubuntu from scratch, this time without the encrypted home directory.

This installation works much better, requiring no extra sign-in to the home directory. All the menus and applications work right from the boot-up, too. The boot up is quite quick as well, timed at 31 seconds. The whole system runs fast, averaging only 200-400 MB of memory in use no matter what I have open. Unlike with Ubuntu 10.10, the CPU never runs over 50% even playing large videos offline.

I was able to access Synaptic this time and install some some additional applications, like Clam AV, GIMP and gEdit. Everything installed fine and runs well.

Lubuntu is far from perfect and calling it a "stable beta" is a bit of an exaggeration. It is more like an alpha release, with lots of bugs. I have found these outstanding issues:

  1. Simple Scan is acting erratically, sometimes not saving files, again indicating insufficient memory, other times saving only parts of files. The system monitor indicates that has lots of RAM and CPU capacity left over.
  2. Lubuntu does not mount our Nikon camera, it doesn't even recognize that it is connected. It does read the camera's SD card just fine in our card reader, so that is an acceptable work-around.
  3. Even with Lubuntu Restricted Extras installed there are still some fonts not available. This is pretty minor as the default fonts are okay.
  4. I haven't been able to get my HP 1018 printer working, as it seems to lack available drivers. This is odd as Ubuntu has no problem with this fairly recent model printer. It has drivers for other HP printers, but not the 1018. Ubuntu uses the Foomatic foo2zjs print driver. I was able to find a download for that driver, but the stated installation instructions didn't work.
  5. The CD burning program XFburn won't burn ISOs without creating file errors.
  6. The file manager often reads file sizes incorrectly, for instance showing a 693 MB file as 726 MB, which makes a big difference if you are trying to fit it on a 700 MB CD!
  7. There is support built in for wired DSL/cable, wireless, mobile broadband and VPN, but no native support for dial-up at all. (From lower right connection icon→ right click→ edit connections). This seems odd as Lubuntu is designed for older and low spec hardware and many people using older hardware are doing that for financial reasons and for the same reasons are also using dial-up.
  8. Mouse settings, like acceleration and sensitivity don't seem to be saved from one boot-up to the next.

While there have been complaints and comments about Lubuntu ("LXDE is beta software at best."), overall Lubuntu is a mostly serviceable operating system at this point in time, provided installing the encrypted home directory is not attempted. It should work well on older and lower spec hardware and especially in situations where printing and or scanning are not required. On my test PC it is noticeably fast and snappy. By the time it achieves recognition as an officially endorsed derivative of Ubuntu I am sure they will have these bugs ironed out. If I am able to solve some of the outstanding issues I will post more information.


Maverick Problems

By Adam Hunt

Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat came out on Sunday, which was , an intentional play on dates. The stated aim of this version of Ubuntu was to make it a perfect ten on 10/10/10. Sadly it has missed the mark, there are problems with this version of Ubuntu.

We are perfectly happy with Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx on our production boxes and have no intention of upgrading them to Maverick at the present time, but I did download and install Maverick on a test PC that I have. This is a Dell Dimension 2400 that has a 2.66 Ghz Pentium IV processor and 2 GB of RAM, so it is pretty capable and well above the recommended 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM. I had installed Ubuntu 10.04 on it and it runs very well.

When I installed Ubuntu 10.10 on this PC most applications opened and ran okay, but it was when I was testing out the newest version of the native video editor, PiTiVi 0.13.5, that I ran into problems. As with the last version of PiTiVi, 0.13.5 is a resource hog and won't run properly on this box, maxing out the CPU while doing playback within the application, making PiTiVi 0.13.5 mostly unusable. That I was expecting, but it was while playing back a short video on the Totem video player I noticed that the video was stuttering. A quick check of the system monitor indicated that the CPU was maxed out. I closed everything but Totem and tried again, but with the same results - the video would not play properly. Thinking it was just one video that might be the problem I put together a set of test videos in various sizes and formats and every one of them proved unplayable.

To confirm the problem I tested the same set of videos on other PCs running Lucid and they all handled the videos just fine. I also tested the original PC with Puppy Linux 5.1.1 running in RAM and it ran the video test set fine, ruling out a hardware problem on that box. The same box with Ubuntu 10.04 and also Lubuntu 10.10 ran the videos fine as well.

From this testing it looks like something within Ubuntu 10.10 is not working right and has boosted the minimum required CPU to above a 2.66 Ghz processor. There are many new bugs listed on Launchpad mentioning the CPU hitting 100% during various actions. Hopefully this problem will be quickly identified and fixed!

Update -

Further testing shows that it is not just playing videos on Totem that maxes out the CPU. I have also tested out my test video set using the VLC media player in place of Totem and that application uses only 40-90% of the 2.66 GHz CPU, but does not max it out. However even just running the Ubuntu Software Centre idling maxes out the CPU on Ubuntu 10.10. In comparison, on Ubuntu 10.04 and Lubuntu 10.10 it idles at about 0% CPU. There is still a definite problem here.

Update -

There was a big kernel update this week so I dutifully installed it on our Ubuntu 10.10 test box. The new kernel seems to have solved the problem with the Ubuntu Software Centre maxing out the CPU while idling (although it still uses 85-90% of CPU power) but not the videos played on Totem. Hopefully future updates will fix this soon.

Update -

From tracking this problem through to the end of it seems that it is not going to go away and that the hardware requirements for Ubuntu 10.10 have simply increased from those stated on the Ubuntu system requirements page of a 1 GHz processor to something in the class of a 2.4 Ghz dual core processor. My current conclusion is that if you are looking for speed and performance from your PC:

Since other than the raised hardware requirements Ubuntu 10.10 works fine, I will adjust the rating for Maverick to 10/10, with a note that it requires higher spec hardware to run well and the Ubuntu CDs we give away will note this as well.


GPRename for Bulk Renaming Files

By Adam Hunt

Here is a problem that I have run into many times: I go on a trip and take lots of photos. When I upload the photos from my camera to my PC the camera names them all with names like DSC_0001 and so on in sequence. That is fine for machine use, but it makes to hard to catalogue and later search for the photos by file name.

Of course I can go though and rename the files individually, which works if I need to make each file name descriptive of each photo, but in many cases I just want to give it a name that reflects the location where it was shot and a number. Again I can do this individually, but it takes a long time and is dull work. With a computer you would think that there should be a way of renaming files enmasse and there is.

In looking though a number of threads on the Ubuntu Forums I discovered there are several "bulk file renamers" available. Of the list GPRename seemed like a good bet and it is available in the Ubuntu repositories. It downloaded and installed smoothly and I opened it up and tried it out.

The application allows you to highlight a bunch of files and modify their names in several different ways:

GPRename also has a "preview" feature and even an "undo" button, so you don't have to close your eyes and hope it works okay. I tried it out on some files from my recent trip and it works very well. The interface is very intuitive and requires very little learning to use.

GPRename is native to Linux and will also run on Unix and Unix-like operating systems. This is what free software should be like: simple, easy to figure out and best of all it works as advertised.


Chromium 6

By Adam Hunt

Chromium 6 arrived today, in the form of version 6.0.472.53. This is a stable version and follows Chrome 6.0.472.53, which came out on . Usually Chromium for Ubuntu is out within a few days of the Chrome version, but perhaps this jump to Chromium 6 required additional testing?

I can say that Chromium 6 was worth the wait! The release notes for this version indicate that it has increased speed and stability. The speed is certainly noticeable with some larger pages loading 20% faster in tests that I have done. Stability hasn't been an issue with Chrome or Chromium, both of which almost never crash or even have tab crashes.

Chromium 6 also provides form autofill and syncing of extensions and autofill data. This allows storing address and credit card information so it can be inserted with one click. Personally I don't use this sort of feature, just due to the security concerns.

The most noticeable changes with the release of Chromium 6 have been to the user interface as the Chromium team continues to simplify. The two previous menus for "page" and "wrench" have now been combined into just "wrench". Some keyboard shortcuts have been changed, for instance Ctrl+B no longer shows or hides the bookmarks bar, now it is Ctrl+Shift+B. I suspect that collided with using Ctrl+B for bolding on some form completions, such as Gmail. Ctrl+Shift+B used to be to show the bookmarks menu, but now there is no shortcut for that and you have to resort to the menu to bring that screen up. Clearing browsing data now has a keyboard short cut of Ctrl+Shift+Delete, which brings up the dialogue box. The stop button has now been combined with the reload button, although both those can be done from the keyboard too, as Esc and F5 respectively. It is pretty clear that the design team is aiming not only for fast internet page loads, but also for fast user interaction and that means keyboard shortcuts over resorting to mousing.

In cleaning up the interface to the bare minimum the design team has also hidden the bookmarks bar and the home button by default. In that configuration the browser "chrome" (buttons, scroll bars, framing etc) is very minimal and the web page is given maximum screen space. With both those items tucked away the browser is almost Zen-like in its minimalism.

The Chromium developer team explained its aims in the beginning and it seems that they are getting very close to that:

Content not chrome - In the long term, we think of Chromium as a tabbed window manager or shell for the web rather than a browser application. We avoid putting things into our UI in the same way you would hope that Apple and Microsoft would avoid putting things into the standard window frames of applications on their operating systems...Chromium should feel lightweight (cognitively and physically) and fast.

In looking at builds of Chromium 7, which is available from the developmental channel, it looks like the user interface won't be changing much more in the near future. There probably isn't much else that can be stripped out of it, anyway!

I continue to be impressed with the progress being made on Chromium and I am not afraid to recommend that people try it. It isn't for everyone, but then Google continues to support Firefox financially to provide an alternate type of browser, slower, but with more features and add-ons available. Google seems to be happy with people using Chrome, Chromium, Firefox or any standards compliant browser, in other words not Microsoft's Internet Explorer.


Chromium Web Browser

By Adam Hunt

We started using Google Chrome with version 4.0.249.30 on 11 December 2009, just after it became available for Linux and we were pretty impressed with its speed and amazing stability. We went though several new versions of Chrome as updates became available and it got even better over time. Chrome was not available through the Ubuntu repositories and, instead, we had to install it directly from its website.

With the latest Ubuntu version, Lucid Lynx, the repositories added, not Chrome but Chromium instead. Chromium is the free software project that Chrome is based on. When compiled it provides a browser that is exactly the same as Chrome except it lacks all the Google user tracking features and has a blue logo instead of the Google multi-coloured logo. Chromium is not available from the Chromium Project as a ready-to-download browser, but rather as source-code and so Ubuntu community member Fabien Tassin compiled the initial version for Ubuntu and continues to compile updated versions, keeping it up to date with the current stable version of Chrome. It would be quite possible to provide newer versions of Chromium as there are daily builds available, but many of these lack stability and are intended for testing and so matching Chrome builds guarantees good stability.

We have now been using Chromium since we installed Lucid Lynx on . The initial version was Chromium 5.0.342.9 and today we are up to 5.0.375.125, with Chromium 5.0.375.127 on base to be delivered through the Ubuntu Update Manager soon. We both love it, it is stable, fast and very simple to use. Ruth has had a few instances on her netbook of Chromium opening up and indicating that it didn't close right for no reason and some lost favicons, which is a known issue. Otherwise we have no problems or complaints at all.

Chromium is being developed at a rapid pace through its daily builds, with new features being added all the time. The design philosophy is to simplify the interface and make it work fast, which is exactly what we are looking for in a browser. We are going to keep using Chromium and will report further on it in the future as we get newer versions.