Tuesday 31 May 2011

My Nokia N800

I've recently purchased a Nokia N800 Wi-Fi-only internet tablet. I've wanted one for quite some time since I read an article in Linux Magazine on it when it was originally released back in 2007.

This one has been very well looked after, boxed, has a spare stylus, original paperwork and original 128MB memory card. Of course the first thing I did was replace that with a couple of 2GB SD cards (it takes one internally and one externally, up to 32Gb each). I haven't fully tested the battery life on it yet but it seems pretty good.

The N800 runs Maemo, a Debian based OS that Nokia used to use all the time on it's phones. It has the 2008 OS and third party repositories installed. It's built in Application Manager reminds me of that of a 'proper' Linux distro and of course it already had an X terminal installed. Since it's based on open source software there is still a thriving community for apps and mods for Maemo devices.

My favourite app for it by far is Pidgin (instant messenger), it's great to having it on all my Linux PCs (along with Adium on my Macs) and my N800. There are also various useful plugins for it in the package manager. You can also install apps using apt and dpkg just like a Linux distro.

I also love the built-in email app, it was easy to setup Gmail with IMAP and I like the way it notifies of new messages in the left panel and by flashing the 4-way pad blue, although I couldn't quite get GMX to work with it. The N800's web browser is based on Mozilla and works pretty well, and I've had no problems browsing my usual sites. It's perfectly happy browsing quite a few full sites too, like Facebook, rather than the mobile version . It also came with Skype for it's built in VGA camera which pops out the left-hand side of the unit and swivels 180 degrees. For video playback though, Mplayer is far better than the old media player it comes with, as it plays higher quality videos and newer codecs with ease. Other useful apps (along with many others) I have installed are VNC Viewer, ssh, gFTP, x11VNC, mCalendar, MediaBox and Canola (two very swish media suites) most of which can be installed either from maemo.org or from the App Manager on the device.

I'm very pleased with it to say the least, it's what I've always wanted and it suits me nicely since I don't use 3G and always wanted a portable Linux device for Pidgin, VNC and ssh, the only thing that's missing is a usable Twitter client since most of the ones that are around have fallen because of the oAuth-apocalypse.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Attempting To Make Gnome 3 Fallback More Usable In Fedora 15 (updated)

I recently upgraded the hard drive on my Dell Latitude D505 from 30Gb to 60GB, so I thought i'd try Fedora 15. I had F14 on the 30GB and it worked OK but certain things were annoying me like not being able to get Hotot to work properly (I basically had to run it without installing it, which was awkward). Anyway, I installed Fedora 15 using the full DVD version, since it offers more options. After setting up user accounts, and first login I was expecting to login to a beautiful Gnome 3 desktop, however I'm now stuck with Gnome Fallback, as apparently my system isn't good enough for it. This I find strange since I should have hardware acceleration, and for playing video I do. I've found a number of things I miss from Gnome 2.

Here's what I miss from Gnome 2 and any fixes and workarounds I'm using.

1. Startup Applications missing from the Gnome menu.

Workaround: Ctrl + F2 and run 'gnome-session-properties' (I found this here) Edit: You can re-enable it using alacarte (yum install alacarte) and navigate to System, Preferences, and tick in the relevant box. Why this was disabled in the first place baffles me.

2. Unable to add applications or applets to the Gnome panels.

Workaround: Since I needed quick access to my favourite apps, I installed Cairo Dock with these instructions.

Although you have to add apps from within Cairo Dock by right clicking an item then 'Add' then 'Custom Launcher' since you can no longer drag and drop apps from the Gnome menu.

3. Poor quality fonts and there seems to be no appearance settings in the main menus.

There doesn't seem to be any way of changing the fonts in Googsystray, it looked so much better in Gnome2. Edit: I've found Gnome Tweak Tool (yum install gnome-tweak-tool) to change fonts, it can also change other things like icons, titlebars etc .

3. Seemingly no customisation options for the Login screen. I want to remove the user lists but can't even with gconf-editor.

4. Dialogue boxes open way too large and don't fit-to-screen which makes apply buttons and options off screen on my 1024x786 resolution desktop. Also some dialigue boxes keep popping up under the window I am using when they should appear on top.

Here is how my Gnome 3 desktop looks at the moment:

Some things I like about Fedora 15

1. Fast booting and shutting down - it shuts down in only a few seconds and boots pretty quick (although sometimes I think it does a fsck without notifying me).

2. Yum package manager seems to be slightly faster with less messing up, although it's still not as fast or as tidy as apt in Debian/Ubuntu.

3. Despite the usability problems, it does look good, it just needs plenty of bugfixes and smoothing of the rough edges. As usual, every Fedora release seems to be an alpha or beta for RHEL at the expense of the average home user's experience with the distro.

4. Some of the apps that didn't work in F14 now do work in F15 such as Hotot.

If you have any fixes or workarounds for the problems I have been having here then please do mention them in the comments below.

Update 05/06/11
I have wiped Fedora 15 out having tried that for awhile and thought I'd try out the iQunix re-mix of Ubuntu 11.0.4 (with Medibuntu repos already installed and a bare minimal Gnome desktop) and surprisingly it actually works without any modifications to GRUB. The most annoying thing about Gnome3, that was the final straw, was the wallpaper kept changing to 'scale' every time I switched desktops, every time I tried to change it, it would change back on the next switch or next login - highly frustrating! Oh and also it's impossible to disable the screensaver, you have to uninstall it!

Update 27/10/11
I've now done a clean install on a 'new' hard drive with Ubuntu 11.10, see my review here.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

My brief flirtation with the Kubuntu 11.0.4 KDE4 desktop

I used to love KDE, back when I first used Linux, in the KDE 3.5 days. After a brief flirtation with Red Hat 9, I used many distos with the KDE desktop such as Mepis and Vectorlinux (a Slackware derivative) and last of all Kubuntu, until KDE 4.0 was released. I got tired of KDE since the KDE 3.x on Kubuntu at the time was getting buggy so I switched to Gnome and have used it ever since. Just recently with all the Unity stuff going on quite a few users have been trying out KDE4 again. So, just on a whim, maybe just out of boredom, I thought I'd try the KDE4 desktop.

Installing KDE4 on the Ubuntu desktop only took about an 80MB download and not long to install using sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop. I selected GDM when prompted since that's what I prefer, rather than KDM. After a short time I logged out of 'Ubuntu Classic' and into the Kubuntu desktop. Login took what seemed like a long time and with many errors, such as the the desktop effects were 'too slow' and so were disabled, strange since compiz works perfectly fine on Gnome 'Classic'. I had to wait awhile for the messages to subside and I noticed when I ran Kopete, I had no net access. I did not see an error message for this and couldn't see a tray applet. The tray looks pretty cluttered and messy. I had to scour the menu and search for 'network' and after several goes I found the KDE network config tool that I needed, which is a sizeable thing just to configure my network. It worked though. I also had to deal with the "KDE Wallet" which I've always hated since the KDE3.x days!

I managed to get my wobbly windows back by enabling effects with "ALT+Shift+F12" and they were OK, also it did not seem obvious how to change the default KDE4 theme, since the grey looks a bit tacky. Talking of shortcuts, my laptops Fn keys didn't work, as i wanted to lower the screen brightness, they work just fine in Gnome. I also found the widgets and 'new activity' thing a bit confusing at first. I added a few widgets and liked the Facebook widget. A lot of widgets look a bit big, at least in their default size on my small screen. I do like the way you download widgets without having to go to a web page in the browser. I don't like the default browser, Rekonq, it's a bit too minimalist for my liking even more so than Chromium which is OK for a quick browse but I'm mainly a Firefox 4 user.

My overall impression of KDE4 is that it's a bit messy and cluttered, at last on a 12 inch screen. Settings and buttons seem to be all over the place. I'm also not keen on that main menu, not helped by it's resemblance to the menu that Suse introduced. Perhaps a fresh install might have avoided the numerous errors I was getting but in the end I removed the Kubuntu desktop and went back to Gnome after about 30 minutes of KDE4. To remove KDE4 completely I followed the instructions at the bottom of this page.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Synchronize Tomboy Notes With UbuntuOne on Fedora and other Linux Distros

Having installed Fedora 14 on my Dell Latitude (after finding Ubuntu had issues with the i915 graphics, causing freeze-ups and random reboots) I was only missing a couple of little things I liked from Ubuntu. Firstly I really like the Hotot Twitter client but I cannot get it to run properly in Fedora, and have resorted to using the Chrome/Chromium App version for now. Secondly I missed having my Tomboy notes synced with UbuntuOne. Now this I was able to resolve with the following steps. The steps to set-up Tomboy Notes on Ubuntu can be found here. These steps are similar but with some slight modifications.

1. First install Tomboy as root if it is not already installed with "yum install tomboy" or selecting it in System, Add/Remove Software and clicking Apply.

2. Run Tomboy Notes either from the menu or a run dialogue with tomboy.

3. In Tomboy, go to Edit, Preferences, Synchronisation

4. In the Service drop-down box, select Tomboy Web

5. In Server, type: https://one.ubuntu.com/notes/

6. Select Connect and it will open a browser for it to authenticate in UbuntuOne, you may need to login and you'll need to give it name.

7. If all is well you should be able to click Synchronise and we're done :)

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Unity, The Future Of Ubuntu And The Alternatives

I've used Linux since around 2003, starting with Red Hat 9 and early Fedora Core, followed by Mepis and various other distros until I finally settled on Ubuntu (7.10 at the time). It was the first distro that I found to be easy to install and use. Codecs, graphics card drivers and the browser flash plugin all installed smoothly and automatically and it worked so well on my computers. With only minor hiccups along the way, Ubuntu kept getting better and better. I felt that nearly every release had something interesting and was stable. I generally stuck with 8.0.4 LTS for a long time on my main desktop and servers, but experimented a bit more on my laptops. For me 10.0.4 LTS was a landmark release, and still my current favourite distro. 10.10 added extra features but was still just as stable as 10.0.4, which is why I was so disappointed with 11.0.4.

Ubuntu 11.0.4 and Unity

I was already a little worried even before 11.0.4 was released, having watched from a distance as Unity was being developed and then what The Register described as "the worst beta Ubuntu ever" I was really hoping Canonical could get it sorted for release day. As you may have read in my review, I found only a little I could really praise about 11.0.4, such as Firefox 4 and LibreOffice installed by default (both of which I was already running both on 10.0.4 and 10.10 via PPAs). The installer seemed a little more polished perhaps, but overall not much better. The biggest downer though of course is Unity and generally how flaky 11.0.4 seems to be. Various people have mentioned on Twitter or on various sites that it either runs fine or it won't run at all, depending on hardware etc. I think I was lucky with when I upgraded my HP nc4400 (Intel graphics) that it runs OK, as long as I don't run Unity! However, on my Toshiba Portege M200 (which ran fine with 10.0.4 and 10.10) it ran like an Alpha release. It installed fine but, either with or without proprietary Nvidia graphics drivers, I was getting all sorts of graphical glitches, I couldn't even CTRL+F into another screen to kill processes as all I got was a colourful mess and it kept crashing!

The Interface

I don't quite get this obsession with ever newer snazzy interfaces, as most people, I think, particularly those who aren't power users, use their chosen OS because of the apps, often not caring what the rest looks like. They don't need the interface to get in the way of quickly launching those apps which is what Unity feels like. They want a web browser, Photoshop (or something as good as it), music player, office suite and games or whatever and a way to search for documents like Spotlight on OSX. And if you going to make a snazzy interface at least make it customisable! If I want the dock on the right then that's where I want it! "Easy to use" does not mean nailing everything in one place so you can't move anything! At least on OSX you can have it on the left/right or at the bottom of the screen! Also I've heard that to get the best out of Unity you need to know all the keyboard shortcuts which is hardly suitable for new users (which is who Canonical targeted it at), particularly if they are new to computers and mostly use a mouse. And the global menu system isn't really suitable for dual monitors, as it means too much mouse mileage - just because OSX has it, does not make it good! The only place I think Unity could possibly work well is on a tablet or small screened netbook and that's where it should stay, on a netbook version of Ubuntu, not the default login for the main release!

Only a few power users are all 'look at my shiny desktop effects', many just want things to work and be reliable, never crash. I like the Compiz effects (mainly the cube and window previews) multiple desktops and dual monitors not just because it looks good but because it actually helps me be more productive. All I need other than that is a decent dock (I prefer Cairo Dock) to launch my most used apps. What Linux really lacks for me is smooth MIDI / JACK setup, and the sound system sorting out so it's less of a mess, oh and proper gapless mp3 playback with Gstreamer.

my current dual monitor setup with Ubuntu 10.0.4 with Cairo Dock on the right

The Future Of Ubuntu and The Alternatives

For now I'm suggesting, to those who I recommend Linux to and new users in general, to stick to the Ubuntu LTS releases. Hopefully the next LTS will be back to being as stable as 10.0.4, and maybe they'll have abandoned Unity by then or at least made it into a separate Netbook release, which is what it should have been in the first place. I really do hope they change their plan to have no 'Classic Gnome' login by 11.10. Perhaps Gnome 3 will be mature enough to take over being the main desktop. If not, then many, may switch to Debian (or an Debian or Ubuntu based distro), being familiar territory, as I will once 10.0.4 is no longer supported. On some laptops I've already switched to Fedora and Debian. In fact many have already starting to abandon Ubuntu 11.0.4 already, and moved back to 10.0.4/10.10 or switched to another distro.

As for Ubuntu itself, I doubt it would die completely (unless they run out of both support and money) but it could quite easily be pushed aside by other distros, just like when Ubuntu itself climbed to the top of the list of the most user-friendly distros such as Fedora, (which will use Gnome 3 in Fedora 15) and the Ubuntu and Debian versions of Mint which will be sticking with Gnome 2, and will not use Unity. Debian, from which Ubuntu is based on is also an option, it's rock solid but isn't quite as user-friendly to new users, particularly with installing drivers and codecs (you have to add the Debian Multimedia repo and install what you need). The good thing about Linux is it's all about choice, there are plenty of distros to choose from.