Tuesday 19 September 2023

From KDE Neon to Manjaro KDE on my Acer Chromebook 14

So, I only had KDE Neon on my Acer Chromebook 14 CB3-431 for a short time but there was no way round the performance issues with YouTube at 1080p. You can't really install another DE on Neon because the way it's built it would break it trying to install Lubuntu or other desktops. I decided to install Manjaro KDE, since it is running so well on my old Dell Vostro. Also, on Manjaro (and Arch) it has the most supported desktops, either unofficially or through the community, so if I need to choose a different desktop, that's lighter on resources, it's easy enough to switch between them...or so I thought... 

As with KDE Neon, I used my Dell Vostro laptop to put the Manjaro KDE ISO onto a USB stick using OpenSuse Image Writer.  Installing was a Breeze, just a USB boot and install from the live desktop as with Neon, since the tricky bit of replacing the bootloader on my Chromebook was already done as per my previous post. And, also as before, the first thing I did after install was set shortcuts for the Display brightness in KDE Settings, and set it to Breeze Dark theme so I wasn't half blinding myself on every boot! I also set all the other shortcuts again while I was there. And yet again re-adding the Leave option to the right-click desktop menu. I am not going to install too much, as it only has a 32GB onboard eMMC, and there's currently only about 8GB left. As with KDE Neon, all the hardware works fine, including sound, trackpad, suspend and resume, webcam, etc. Also one quick fix that needs doing on Manjaro is getting ssh enabled, since for some reason when you install the service it isn't enabled by default, and I found a fix here.

Then I installed Google Chrome using this tutorial (I used the second option of installing it using the AUR Helper, yay, which can be installed from the package manager if required) and made sure that YouTube played 1080p without stuttering or stopping completely, which it did just fine. Hurrah! I also installed any updates available through Manjaro's package manager. After a reboot for the kernel update, I then installed my favourite apps again, such as Audacious, GIMP, Filezilla, etc, though I didn't have to install VLC this time since it was already there. I have found that if I want to watch YouTube videos with as little jitter as possible, it's best to only have YouTube open, and absolutely no Facebook tabs! Facebook uses way too much memory and CPU. 

I also tried to install Lxqt desktop, just to see if I could save some resources, using these instructions, with no success, it does not load the whole desktop, just openbox itself, and caused a very slow boot too for some reason. I then tried Fluxbox desktop but the extra packages listed on that tutorial were unavailable to install and I couldn't get any apps to run. And on the reboot, it failed to boot. So very frustrating. So it turns out switching desktops on Manjaro is not as easy as I thought! I then had to reinstall and setup everything again.... It's a good job installing is so quick! So if you do want to try other desktops with Manjaro, it's best to just download the specific ISO for that desktop. 

So Manjaro is now running fine again. I could have used Google's ChromeOS Flex to extend the life of this Chromebook but I don't really want to go back to ChromeOS after the flexibility and freedom of running Linux on it.  It has a nicer screen for photo editing than my Thinkpad so that's what it will get used for, when not using my main desktop. The only slight downside is the lack of storage space, have to be careful not to use too much of the 15GB or so left on the drive. I have put a little USB stick in the side just in case I need it. I'll keep Manjaro KDE on it for as long as it continues to work well on it. Feel free to suggest any other distros that might suit it better. 

Sunday 17 September 2023

Installing a full Linux distro on my Acer Chromebook 14 CB-431

 So I was having trouble with my Chromebook. When editing photos with Google Photos it would slow down then freeze. After testing in another user account with no extensions or add-ons, it still had the same issue. I then went last resort and powerwashed it. This is simple and quick way of wiping back to factory settings....and then I decided to install a full Linux distro on it.... 

My Acer Chromebook 14 has been End of life for awhile now, (it was released in 2016) which means no more fixes for issues, and no new features. I'd already removed the hardware write protection screw inside the base in preparation for possibly putting Linux on it awhile ago, I had just put off doing it until now. Luckily there's very useful guides on the Arch Linux Wiki on how to put Linux on a Chromebook. I used the guide for my specific model, here.  It is a CB3-431, 4GB RAM, 1080P screen version (Acer also did a 2GB, 720p screen version). 

There's a couple of different options on the Arch Wiki, and I chose the Coreboot route. Linux only, no dual boot. After installing the custom bootloader, I went ahead with installing Linux as normal, wiping all the internal 32GB storage. I used my favourite distro, KDE Neon, which is basically Kubuntu LTS but with the latest version of KDE. I wrote the ISO to a USB stick using OpenSuse Image Writer, which worked perfectly, it's the first time I've ever used it. 

After a normal uneventful install, KDE Neon used just under half of the Acer's 32GB internal storage. It still boots pretty quickly. The main thing I noticed after logging in for the first time, was the display was on full brightness and of course in ChromeOS the Brightness keys are on what would be the normal F keys in Linux. You can use change shortcuts in KDE settings, and create custom ones. For Brightness Up and Down I used Ctrl + F6 and F7. For for the Volume keys I used Ctrl + Shift + F8 and F9  (which were the Volume keys in ChromeOS). The Fullscreen key is F4 so I added Ctrl and Shift for that too. There's a smaller number of F keys to standard so I had to choose another shortcut key for my favourite drop-down terminal emulator, Yakuake. As expected, the Google/Search key becomes the Super Key aka The "Windows key".  

Some of the fixes on the Arch wiki were not needed, such as those for the sound and touchpad. The trackpad seems to work fine, though right clicking only works with the default setting, clicking on the bottom right corner of the trackpad, instead of the two finger clicks that I am used to. Just a case of getting used to that, along with the new keyboard shortcuts. 

The sound works out the box and one advantage of running Linux on this Chromebook is you can increase the Volume beyond 100%, which you cannot do on ChromeOS, as the audio was far too quiet, in headphones or from the speakers on this machine. I used to have to use a Chrome extension called Volume Master to boost the volume on ChromeOS, but its downside was that YouTube couldn't run fullscreen while it was in use. Although having said that, sometimes after boosting the audio for some time, it sometimes goes to just playing a tone.  Another option I can now use is a USB audio interface, like my M-Audio M-Track Solo, which is something else I couldn't use with ChromeOS. 

After all the main tinkering, it was just a case of installing all my usual favourite apps, such as VLC, Audacious, Cantata, FIlezilla etc. And finally, bringing back the Leave option in the Desktop right click menu and removing the silly offline updates feature.  Performance is fairly snappy on first impression, considering it only has 4GB RAM. Lm-sensors reports the normal temperatures as 45 Deg C at idle, rising to just under 50 under heavier loads. Suspend and Resume work fine and battery life doesn't seem to be impacted. It does struggle with 1080P YouTube in Chrome, but it plays a little bit smoother in Firefox. I'm not using Latte Dock as I would usually, because that uses more resources than it should. KDE isn't as heavy as it used to be but I might have to install a distro with a lighter or minimal desktop environment.

 I've been impressed with the full 1080P screen on the Acer ever since I first got it, and KDE looks fantastic on it. I have always preferred to edit photos in Google Photos on the Chromebook instead of on the dull screen on my Thinkpad T430s, the colours are more accurate.  

So far, I am pleased with full Linux on my Acer 14, and I am not missing running ChromeOS yet. It can't run Android apps the same way as ChromeOS did, but that's something I rarely did. They often felt a bit awkward on the desktop. It boots pretty fast, getting to the logon screen not much slower than ChromeOS did. I only wish it had a backlit keyboard, but then at the price it was originally that was to be expected. Installing Linux has basically extended the life of this Chromebook and I'll keep using Linux on it until the device dies, which will probably be whenever the 32GB eMMC onboard storage is dies. It is soldered to the main board so it's not really upgradeable/replaceable. Until then, this Acer will get plenty of use, probably mostly YouTube and Google Photos when I am away from my main desktop. I just have to decide whether to stick with KDE Neon or switch to a lighter weight distro.  

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Rant: Google Has Ruined Google Photos On The Desktop

 It's not often I complain about free services, but Google Photos used to be good, other than the occasional glitch it was very useful. That is until very recently when Google made the web app more like the mobile app, including making the image Aspect tool more like the Android app, which is mildly annoying to use with a mouse. And with every single image I have to choose the aspect ratio, otherwise it stays on Free! It used to stick to whichever aspect was used last. 

Oh and putting every quick edit tool behind a Google One paywall is annoying too, particularly when those same tools are available in the mobile app for nothing. The Enhance button usually makes photos far too cool by lowering the Warmth level for some silly reason.

But no, that is not the most egregious change. No, that prize goes to the removal of Copy and Paste between images. You used to be able to edit one image to how you wanted it, CTRL+C the changes, then move left or right, without clicking Done, to the next image and then CTRL+V those image settings. I could get through dozens of images in no time at all with this method, with maybe a slight alteration to the settings throughout. But no, now you cannot move to the next image without clicking Save. So that's one hurdle to productivity, and you cannot copy and paste, so that slows me down even more! Just why were these removed? Does Google even use their own software? This is just the worst change to Google Photos I have ever encountered! And they still have not fixed odl bugs like after archiving an image, the web app refuses to move to the direction of the next image, so i have to go back out to all images and in again. I shall now continue editing today's photos, which will take about 4 times longer than it did before!  

/Rant endeth

Update 14/10/2023:

Copy and paste of edits is back, but you still can't move form image to image without exiting edit mode.

Thursday 13 July 2023

Linuxiversary... Three Years With LinuxMint.

Today is my third ‘linuxaversary’, that’s three years using Linux full time, leaving a twenty year relationship with Apple behind in 2020 and what a journey it has been.

I wrote an article on the first anniversary and on the second anniversary and I have to say this year has been a lot better.

While I had played with Linux while still in the Mac world, jumping in to it full time for all my computing needs was a daunting task. I had to make sure it was capable of doing everything I needed – and I was fairly up to speed with it - with as little down time as possible. I’d already been using a lot of cross platform open source apps on my Mac so it was mainly the OS swap I had to cope with.

The first year was a steep learning curve. While Mac and Linux are quite similar, there was still a lot to learn and a handful of times I did question whether I had done the right thing. I get very frustrated when I can’t do something or work something out. The second year was a lot smoother, I had settled in quite well, with only a few minor issues which were easily fixed. This last year has been a breeze, an absolute joy to use and now I cannot see myself using anything else.

Linux Mint Cinnamon is my distro of choice and is fantastic. I have run it on a few different laptops over the last few years but currently (and for quite a while now) I am using it on a Dell Latitude E7250 – a rather modest fifth gen i5 machine, maxed with an mSATA drive and 16GB of RAM. It more than copes with my daily life – which consists of web browsing and video editing.

Linux and the choice of desktop environments have come a long way in the last ten years. Very rarely would the average user need to dip in to terminal and a lot more software is cross platform and if not there are software managers – like App Stores – where even a non-technically mind person can browse and install what they need. I certainly think in terms of Linux Mint and Ubuntu they are easier, less complicated, less intrusive and far more stable than running Windows.

That is the beauty of Linux. There are distros suited for everyone – new users, pro users and those with specific needs. And while Mac and Windows really need modern hardware to function fully, Linux can be tailored to run on modern hardware as well as less capable hardware and even very low end kit – depend on which distro and desktop environment you choose – making it fantastic for just about everyone.

So I am happy. I won’t be writing an anniversary article next year. I have reached that point from initially switching where I had minor hiccups and learning new Linux related things daily, to just being able to use my laptop for what I need without anything getting in the way. After all, I just want to get done what I need to. But if I need to I can comfortably install new software, dip in to Terminal and fix any issues – although finger crossed I haven’t had any in the last year – without it eating up an entire afternoon.

On a small side note, for anyone who relies on Windows software – there is always the option to run some of these inside Linux. I do a lot of gaming on portable devices and I like to mod them or run hacked games which need specific small piece of software or patching tools, which are generally developed for Windows only and I have had great success running these using WINE – which is a great tool (available for Mac as well as Linux) which adds a compatibility layer and emulates the Windows environment (although it does stand for Wine Is Not an Emulator) allowing a lot of Windows only software to run.

So I am going to finish this article (and mini series) with one piece of advice. If you are fed up with the constant chase of new hardware with Apple, or hate the intrusiveness and downright awkwardness of Windows, you should give Linux a serious thought. There is a distro and a desktop environment to suit everyone's needs and while it might be a little more complicated initially – if you don’t rely on Mac or Windows only software – then I highly recommend giving Linux some consideration.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Shotcut Video Editor: How To Create a Simple YouTube Video With a Still Image

Here's just a quick and simple tutorial on how to make a basic video from a still image and some audio. I usually make these simple videos for uploading my own music to YouTube. I used to use web apps or command line stuff for this but i find it a lot easier, better, to use a decent video editor. Shotcut can usually be found in your Linux distro's package manager if it's not installed already. I am using KDE so i usually use Discover to install Shotcut. That usually works best though if there's an issue you could also try the Appimage, or, as a last resort, the Flatpak or Snap packages but they won't integrate as well with your distro. Shotcut is also available for Mac and Windows.

1. Click Timeline, if the Timeline is not showing. 

2. Right click on the Timeline, select Track Operations and then choose select Add Audio Track (or use the keyboard shortcut)

3. Drag an audio file onto that track, so now you should have an audio file in like so:

4. Right click on the Timeline, select Track Operations and then choose select Add Video Track

5. Drag an image from the file manager onto the Timeline, Hover over the edge of the image in the TImeline, drag so it fills the whole line, making sure it lines up with the audio track at both ends. You may also like to experiment with adding effects - click on the image or audio and then click Filters, click the plus symbol and choose some suitable effect, I often use the Fade Out Video and Fade Out Audio filters, 

6. Click Export File, choose a name and press enter to save it. By default it saves as an H.264/AAC MP4 video, which is suitable for Youtube. 

And that's it, just drag the resultant file into Youtube's upload box and it should work just fine. 

Here's a YouTube upload of mine that I made using Shotcut. 

Tuesday 28 February 2023

Returning to Music Player Daemon - Cantata vs Mpdevil

A while ago I tried Music Player Daemon (MPD) with my music, but found it wouldn't see half my collection and I gave up on it. That was a long time ago so I recently decided to try it again to see if it had improved and also I have recently been getting annoyed with usual music players, Clementine and Strawberry. Clementine is basically no longer maintained but it's one of few players that can cope with 80 thousand tracks! And it has a nice Android app to control it from my phone. But it's got some annoying bugs that will never be fixed so I have been trying to look for alternatives. Strawberry is a fork of Clementine but doesn't fix the bugs that bother me and there's no Android app for it, so I decided to give MPD another go since I haven't tried MPD for years.

This time when I installed MPD, I made sure it ran properly as my user rather than its own user, with the config in my Home folder. And this time it seems to see all my collection, and has clearly improved since I last tried it.  I used the brilliant guide on the Arch wiki and adapted it for KDE Neon (a distro of sorts based on Kubuntu but with latest KDE). Most of the guides I used before were for Ubuntu but usually they would create an MPD user, which is where the problems had begun.  Apart from setting the music directory, I have enabled Replaygain for audio normalisation. The sound was also distorting slightly on my desktop machine without Replaygain enabled. I haven't yet worked out how to make MPD run on startup in KDE, I usually just run it in my favourite drop-down terminal, Yakuake. Edit: you can set mpd to run automatically by adding it as a service with this command: systemctl --user enable mpd.service

The great thing about MPD is it runs in the background consuming very little resources, and then you control it with a front-end of your choice, either lightweight or heavy and control it from anywhere on the local network. At first it had problems choosing the right soundcard, as I use a USB interface, but changing it to use Pulseaudio instead of ALSA fixed that. One slight annoyance with MPD is it does not remember the previously played track or playlist the next time MPD is started.

This time round, after looking round at other front-ends, I ended up choosing Cantata as it seemed to be the best of thea KDE friendly apps, it works well  apart from the 16,000 track limit on playlists is a bit annoying. I have now got into a habit of just listening to albums in full or all of one artist etc, whereas in Clementine I would just have all my 80,000+ in a single playlist on Shuffle! 

I then discovered Mpdevil, which although a fairly simple player, it looks more modern than Cantata. I have Mpdevil running nicely on my main desktop and my main laptop, both are running KDE Neon (a distro based on Kubuntu but with the very latest KDE version). I also have MPD on my old Dell Vostro, which runs Manjaro,

One very noticeable difference between the two is that Cantata has a "locate in Library" option in the right click menu whereas Mpdevil only has the option of "Show" which locates the track in the file manager which is far less useful to me. I usually want to find the album a track is from and play it. 

Mpdevil 'Show' which opens a location in a file manager

Cantata 'Locate In Library' which shows where the track is in the app.

One other thing I really like in Cantata is it's easier to find and switch between MPD servers in the settings with it's Discover button. It isn't as simple to do that with Mpdevil. 

Mpdevil is basically a more minimal player, it lacks Last.fm support and, as far as i can tell, doesn't fetch missing covers, whereas Cantata has both of those features. As far as I know, there isn't an easy way to get Scrobbling in the MPD backend itself so it's useful to have that in the front-end. If you want a great looking player and don't need advanced features, mpdevil does the job fine but if you need the advanced features, Cantata does a better job, so I will stick with Canatata for now. I am open to suggestions though for an even better KDE-friendly MPD client. 

Tuesday 17 January 2023

I got a Dell Vostro 3300 for a bargain price and it works just fine after a few upgrades.

 A charity I used to volunteer from put a Dell Vostro 3300 on their eBay and idly just put the minimum bid on, 20 quid, thinking I would probably not get it, got outbid once, but then put a bid on an hour before it ended, won it with that 22 quid bid, absolute bargain! It's got a 2.27Ghz i3 CPU, and arrived with a single 2GB RAM stick and 320GB HDD installed. 

There's just two screws to remove to release the bottom panel to access Memory and hard drive and two screws to release the HDD. There's a Windows 7 COA under the battery but I doubt I will ever need that. I run Linux on all my laptops.

I then did a bit of musical chairs with parts in my other laptops. I took 8GB of RAM from a poorly Thinkpad X201 and put that in my 2012 Macbook Pro (been meaning to do that for a while) and put the MBP's original 4GB in the Vostro. Then I replaced the 320GB hard drive in the Vostro with the SSD from my Dell Latitude E6500, which has Manjaro KDE on. The E6500 is one of the oldest laptops I have in use and is a bit tatty, so the Vostro makes a good replacement for it. I won't bin the E6500, it'll go on the spares shelf. Once the SSD was in and everything put back properly, it booted up the Manjaro KDE install with no issues.      

The only slightly annoying downgrade from my other laptops, but particularly the E6500, is it only has VGA out rather than DisplayPort. There's an eSATA port which I doubt I will ever use, 2 USB 2.0 ports (one either side) and an Ethernet port. The trackpad is good, just as good as the one on my ThinkPad T430s and the keyboard is decent (though has no back light, like the Thinkpad does, though Dell did have one as an option on a slightly better spec model). 

The Vostro has a reasonably decent 13.3 inch anti-glare screen with a default resolution of 1366x768, which is a bit low compared to the 14 inch on the Thinkpad T430s, which runs at a very nice 1600x900 resolution. The Vostro was basically a midway point between the consumer garbage Inspiron range and the Latitude business range, so this laptop doesn't quite have the best components compared to Latitudes but is still a solid machine. In terms of other specs, it has a slightly slower i3 M350 CPU than the i5-3320M in the Thinkpad and a few less ports, and no USB 3. There's an SD card slot but no Express Card slot to add more ports. Overall, it's a handy little laptop, especially for just 20 quid! It runs Manjaro KDE perfectly fine, and is a useful replacement for the E6500, so I am pleased with it.

Monday 2 January 2023

Samsung Galaxy A12… It’s Quite Good, But It’s A Samsung

After my recent debacle with my Motorola Moto G22 and the retailer agreeing to take it back, I was left in a familiar position of not having a phone to use. I was in need of one quickly, so rather than spend money and take a punt on a used one I remembered my daughter had her old handset sitting in a draw.

The only problem was, it is a Samsung Galaxy A12. I have never been a fan of Samsung phones because of the overly-skinned UI. Admittedly, since the says of the S2 and S3 (and the TouchWiz interface) Samsung has scaled it back a bit. The newer One UI isn't too bad. It is one of the reasons I preferred Motorola phones, because of their near vanilla Android – but beggars cannot be choosers.

So, I set about moving everything over from the Moto G22 to the Galaxy A12. I used the Samsung Switch tool which took a little while to get working, but it did its job and 2 hours later the A12 had an almost identical feel to my G22 – minus a few apps that didn’t come across. At least it pulled call history and text messages across, something previous phone moves never did.

Spec wise, the Galaxy A12 (released in 2020) is still pretty decent featuring a MediaTek Helio P35 octa core processor, PowerVR GPU, 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, fingerprint sensor, MicroSD card slot and 3.5” headphone socket, plus a 6.5” screen, 5000mAh battery and running Android 11.

I have to be honest. I was hoping not to like it, not to expect it to perform well and just to use it short term until I found something else. However, spending the next few hours finalising apps and logging in to them, this thing didn’t miss a beat, sometimes with 6 or 7 apps open at once.

OK, the elephant in the room was the Samsung UI, which as I have already said is seriously scaled back from the overly kid like and totally different feel from older Samsung Android phones. Yes, it has a different look to stock Android but it still felt familiar. There are a few things I have yet to get used to such as the different placement of the three buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Overall I have been quite impressed. I still have a few niggles about the UI, but performance and battery life have been superb – especially considering this is also a budget handset, it was released two years ago and my teenage daughter has used it for a year.

One addition point to make is it was released in 2020 shipping with Android 11, got the update to 12 and Samsung has announced it will get 13 in the near future. In contrast my Moto G22 released in 2022 has Android 12 but won't be getting 13.

I might just cut my losses, save some money and keep this Samsung. It does what I need and it does it very well and it is just laying in a drawer not being used, but it is a Samsung.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal