Saturday, September 29, 2007

Linux explorations, Linux delight

Linux is a Linux is a Linux. If you look long enough at the 300+ Linux distributions, you begin to realize that there is only one Linux. But that one Linux can be configured to run on anything from a flip phone to a large server farm. Thus are the many configurations of Linux, called distributions, each with a particular focus. What will work on your hardware will take a little looking into. Some distros have compatibility list that document what hardware is known to work with that OS. You can always go to the forums to see what trials, problems and luck other users have encountered.
In my latest trials I have tried to get Mandriva 2007 Spring to run. The liveCD worked great, the install to disk was smooth, but the reboot after the software update proved to be too much for my machine. I have a HP Pavilion a1030e, AMD 32000 Athlon, 64-bit, Nvidia Geforce Fx5200 video card, 512MB memory and a 8 gig partition. So, I really don't have exotic hardware by any means.
It is distressing when things don't go smoothly. My Kubuntu lives!! But I in my Linux curiosity state must explore, some more. I downloaded something called "DreamLinux". Its from Brazil and of course they made an English version. It is a mix of Debian and Morphix with Xfce for the window manager. Its focus is multimedia because it has a lot of programs all set up for multimedia and even the web browsers are setup already with codecs and plugins. Dreamlinux has the icon dock bar from the Enlightenment window manager folks. It is called Engage and dresses up the desktop quite nice. The menus are simpler than in Gnome and KDE. There is less confusion when you click around. But like most desktop distros, the default look is a struggle to look at. A little wallpaper and ah!!, sweetness!! Dreamlinux has the setup for Beryl with Aiglx and requires Nvidia drivers and such. I still don't trust the stability of that setup so I will bypass that for now. Perhaps they will consider Metisse instead for a bang that doesn't require special stuff behind it. Hey, maybe I will construct my own "distro". I want to see a combination of my favorite Linux stuff I haven't seen yet, all on a CD so I don't have to look all over the internet. And that is why there are 300+ distros. Duh, duh duh, the adventure continues..........

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another day another Linux

Linux is all about choice, so I thought. Actually it is more about variety of the same thing. There are at least 300+ Linux versions out there today. Do you have to choose out of that mess? Linuxes are distinguished by the type of packaging system they use. There are only three that I know of, .rpm (red hat package manager), .deb (Debian), and .tar.gz or .tgz (tape archive something or other). Linux seems to have started with these 3 file types and then branched out by language types and then special purpose Linuxes. So, there is Red Hat with .rpm, Debian with .deb and then Slackware with .tar.gz. There are versions that branched off these main ones and became popular distros in their own right. Remember I said before that Linux is a kit of sorts. A kernel plus utilities and applications that make up a distribution. So you can have a tiny Linux like Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux or a big Linux like Red Hat, Mandriva, Ubuntu. It all depends what you put with the kernel. Once again the live CD distros are the easiest to experiment with. You just pop in the CD and reboot your computer. Some live CDs will allow you to save your system settings and personal files on a MS Windows folder. Some are so small they will fit on a jump drive. I used to be into model cars as a kid. Putting together a car kit was the most fun. Imagine putting together a working Linux distribution. It is quite a hobby. Some people really like doing this kind of thing. The reason I chose Kubuntu Linux was because it is being maintained by a group rather than one or two persons. The bug fixing and updates are available faster and the fan base tends to be larger. It doesn't mean Linuxes maintained by one or two persons are low quality, but they are often tight on time and budget to get things done.
Do I have my picks? Yes, of course. Kubuntu is my present favorite and main distro. Right now I favor the Debian distros, I've had good luck with them and I am beginning to understand how Debian things work. I also like SimplyMepis. Also Debian based, it is very much like Kubuntu with KDE desktop but still has a different flavor. I am beginning to think that after you settle on a Linux version, you will discover a Linux is a Linux is a Linux. A kernel, a number of utilities, some tools, and some applications. It's all in how it is packaged together. If you were to include all of the various functions, languages and formats in one .iso file you would need a few DVDs to hold it all. You would never not ever use or need that much Linux to meet your particular computing needs. So, it is very good that some industrious persons have packaged together different combinations of Linux stuff to meet different requirements. And as is and has been the Linux culture, the various versions or "distros" of Linux are available for download on the internet. So, go ahead and ask the big question, what would programmers do if they did not work for a company (like Microsoft)? Linux is the answer, they would do Linux. Linux is the result of lots and lots of programmers who really wanted to see a free operating system work.

Trying old new stuff in Linux.

It's getting late, I should be going to bed, but I started a couple of things here I can't seem to put down. As I was saying earlier about Metisse being so interesting I was marveling at the fact that it does it's magic without the aid of special Nvidia and Ati drivers or the Xgl graphic extensions. It is a wonder of modern programming. I got the feeling I have been there before. Back in my early Linux days there was a window manager called Enlightenment and it was pretty fancy for it's time. Many of the graphic tricks like transparency was accomplished in Enlightenment probably before Win98 was born. So, I checked it out and sure enough I found it is still being worked on. I found it listed in the Ubuntu repositories. I down loaded it, installed it and it is still a wonderful thing. Intimidating at first, yes, it has several menus of tweakable settings. But it also has a built in document that explains what the functions are. Like any interface you have to grow into it. It is not like Gnome or KDE, both seem very MS Windowish in comparison. In "E" as it is called, you have control over everything. Many users just don't care how it looks as long as it works. I have been around the block a couple of times. The stock appearance of both Gnome and KDE are OK but not great. "E" is a tweaker's paradise and various users have posted themes on the net. So you don't really have to go crazy with settings, just download a theme and go. I would post some pictures but I have not played enough with this yet. "E" has a number of things I have raved about in previous post, a graphic pager, virtual desktop, hhmmm... I wonder if background video could be playing while I working in the foreground? I also wonder why "E" isn't more popular among Linux users. Gee we are a picky lot. But it is very easy to slide into a Gnome or KDE groove because they are pre-installed in most Linuxes. Kind of like MS Windows on PC's ain't it?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Here we go again, more Linux madness.

I'm between jobs so I got a little time on my hands. While I am waiting for the Fedora 7 DVD 64-bit to magically appear on my door step, I downloaded another distro. Mandriva 2007 Spring KDE 64-bit iso. and guess what? It all fits on one CD. I couldn't wait to load it, install it and though I didn't like the colors, it was very good. Until, after I did the first system software upgrade. I rebooted the computer and got a black screen with a working cursor on it. I couldn't input commands or anything. Being still by lack of geekness, a newbie, I really have no clue what went haywire. I am a bit disappointed because Mandriva like Fedora 7 is a bit cutting edge in terms of new stuff that will eventually show up in all Linuxes. Mandriva has virtual machine services installed, so I hear. I was going to check that out. Mandriva also has this desktop paging system called Metisse. It is 3d or pseudo 3d as some say, it blows away Vista's Aero. It supposedly doesn't even need the special video drivers for nvida and ati cards. Metisse is not in the Ununbu program repositories. No one has compiled it for .deb yet, as far as I know. It has all kinds of snazzy features for the desktop. I was going to check all this out when, my screen went dark. I don't know if I have the heart to dig deeper into this problem, I am not the first to have it by internet accounts. Meanwhile, in another partition of the same machine my Kubuntu is working just fine.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Now, why you want to do that? (virtual machines)

The other day I was talking to a friend about computers. I was telling him about using a virtual machine to run one operating system inside of another. I thought I was explaining it pretty well, then he hit me with the Why? question. Man I hate when that happens. My friend is a typical computer user, he only sees what he bought, a machine loaded with MS Windows. I don't know if its XP or Vista but that doesn't matter. He is totally unaware of the wider computing world out there. That there are other choices besides MS Windows has never come up in his mind. He uses at home what he uses at work and there is no need for anything else to exist. He has never installed an operating system and admits to not being computer savvy. He is a typical user.

So, just why would you run one operating system inside of another? Isn't MS Windows sufficient?
He is asking this of a guy who has been using Linux for a few years now. Of course the Linux is free answer is weak because you usually buy a PC with MS Windows already on it, seems free too. But in my experience you have to invest quite a bit of extra funds to acquire an array of applications to do every thing you want to do. Those Windows bundle package deals are mighty skimpy. Linux comes with lots of applications to do lots of stuff all for free. Still there's some major programs people cry out for that you can only find written for one operating system and not the other, like Photoshop and Incredimail. Besides this most computer users, like my friend, being creatures of ingrained habits, prefer to use MS stuff because they are used to it. So, the answer to this twisted why question is that I don't have to dual-boot anymore. Dual-booting is when you choose which operating system to start up when you turn on your computer. You can only have access to one operating system at a time with dual-booting. With virtual machines you can run as many operating systems as you have resources for. They will run as would any program on the computer. I could start Linux, (my habit) open a virtual machine running XP, start and use Photoshop and Incredimail. It seems to be the best of both worlds.
I know this is a bit extreme for the typical computer user, but being exposed to the wider computer world has open new possibilities.
Now to answer the question, isn't MS Windows sufficient? I myself have been using computers as a user since the DOS days. I have lived through the history of using MS Windows in various versions. Sure you could find programs to do everything you want to do in MS Windows. But, a history of blue screens, crashes and costly upgrades has not made me a very good friend of Microsoft products. This is besides the cumbersome licensing agreements and how they can check your computer to see if you pass the legality test. The endless security patches also help make me wonder about the quality and safety of putting Microsoft stuff on my machine. Since I have discovered and have been using Linux, I have little concern about the problems of using MS Windows. There are only a few applications for MS Windows I really use. I could get rid of MS Windows all together. Even though XP has been the best MS Windows yet, I prefer Linux. What about Vista? I will not pay for Vista. If I buy a new PC with Vista on it (seems free) I will take it but most likely I will build my next PC myself and install Linux on it. Maybe I will run XP in a virtual machine. Yes, it is wonderful to have choices.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Almost an answer to using large .iso files

I my last post I complained and weeped about having a large .iso file and no DVD burner. Today I almost found an answer. It is called a virtual machine. A What? Let's say you are running Linux on your machine everyday and you want to use a program that's only found in MS Windows. You could install and setup an emulator which forms a so-called compatibility layer, allowing you to run some MS Windows applications.. "OR", you could run MS Windows inside of a file setup as a virtual machine that resides in the Linux file system. That means that MS Windows would run as if it were a Linux application. I believe you also would have Windows settings, internet connectivity, etc. Are there any advantages to this madness? Yes, the most obvious one is that you don't have to dual boot into one or the other operating systems. You could use both at the same time!! There are possibilities here. The second is that you don't need to burn a CD or DVD at all.
So, how does this virtual wonder work? It is hard to explain but, computers are all about managing memory and keeping one operation from crossing over into another. A virtual machine allocates some disk space and some memory space separating it from the main operating system's usage so that a second operating system could function in that space. Then through the magic of the GUI, you can interact with it as if it were the main operating system. It will turn a .iso file into a virtual disk so you can boot from it as if you were starting a program.
One virtual system is called VMware which has been around for ages. I think it is a little complicated for me but it has a lot of bells and whistles. Then there is VirtualBox. VirtualBox comes in MS Windows flavor and Linux flavors. I loaded it on both my XP and my Kubuntu installs.
It was quick and fairly painless. So, now I don't have to burn or boot from a CD.
Are there any problems, I mean since I did mention I almost had an answer? Well, yes. If you live in a 32-bit world as most do then there is no problem. If you , are running a 32-bit or a 64-bit main (or host) operating system then you can not install a 64-bit OS as a (guest) virtual machine. There is no support (yet) for 64-bit OS to run as a guest. To be a little more precise, it depends on what CPU you are using. You have to read the fine print in the docs.

So, to answer my main question, is it possible to take a .iso file copied to a hard drive and boot it as if it were a CD/DVD? Yes and No. Sure I can run a Fedora 7 32-bit .iso but I want the 64-bit one that was made for my system. I will just have to byte the bullet and buy a DVD burner.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I've got the upgrade blues, again.

"Well, I've got the upgrade blues, again."
Thanks to the wonderful Fedora 7 people, I've got to consider the cost and pay the boss. Do I really need a DVD burner? We live in a world where it is possible to save all our precious and expanding personal data, pictures and the like on optical media. We can even copy movies, which is why most people even bother with DVDs. But personal data, I can hardly fill one CD as it is. 700MB is a lot of space actually. Being from the floppy generation, I am still impressed with that. Now a DVD can hold about 4.7 Gigs (single layer) and about 8.5 Gigs (double layer) if you have that technology. I was looking at Tom's Hardware web site. You can get a DVD burner for $30-$100+, and you get what you pay for. I my self don't recommend the cheapest you can find, speed and quality does matter.
Anyway Fedora 7 folks, you have barely crossed the boarder by offering an .iso image of just 833MBs, why not just put it on 2 CDs? Hey, it's a liveCD dummy! It just wouldn't work spread across 2 CDs.
So, what can you do with a new DVD burner that you could not do with your CD burner? Besides copying movies and music. You could backup or Ghost your whole system onto a DVD. I guess the potential to do big things is there. And speaking of downloading movies, what is your download speed. I am always surprised by the number of computer owners/users who don't have cable or DSL. Using a modem is akin to using floppies in my book. What is so weird about this DVD thing is that you don't have to justify the cost because it can be reasonable. You just have to figure out what to do with the technology now that you have it. Is buying a DVD burner one of those life changing things? Hey, we do still live in interesting times.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The life and times of a Linux Learner

Been really busy these days with my pending graduation from college and all. I finished an externship at Lake Ridge Academy and am looking forward to finding full time employment. I was starting to make some noise about PCLinuxOS because the live CD looked so promising. I had some problems with PCLinuxOS and the boot loader Grub. PCLinuxOS does not give you the option of not installing Grub nor does it recognize a previous Grub installation. I fiddled with Grub until I got it to work. Then booting into PCLinuxOS I found that it wasn't saving my settings, having to re-setup internet connections and re-tweak the desktop with each startup is not good. Needless to say I am not having a good day with PCLinuxOS on my machine. So................

Here I am having downloaded a very attractive looking Red Hat Fedora 7. Now I had at one time used Fedora Core 2 which had I think 3 CDs. This Fedora 7 is now a LiveCD but to get the version that is right for my machine, the 64-bit one, the iso file is TOO BIG to fit on a single CD. It is meant for a DVD weighing in at about 833MB, a CD only holds 700MB. I guess their thought is that everybody has a DVD burner. Well, maybe a DVD player (to watch movies?) but not a burner. No Fedora folks I watch DVDs on my player that's hooked up to my television set. Hummm....... that was very Microsoftish of you to force me to upgrade my equipment or hunt down somebody to burn a DVD for me. This has lead to a the question, is it possible to run an iso file from a hard drive as if it were on a DVD/CD? You'd be surprised at all the methods and techniques posted on the internet. Not one of them is clear enough for the likes of me. The smoothest way seems to be to work from a MS Windows partition and use a boot loader that recognizes iso images. But I think you have to explode the iso image into a directory and tell the boot loader what to boot. I tried several ways from a Linux partition but it is too complex for me. I guess that puts me in the market for a DVD/CD burner.

My thought is to have one Debian based Linux version and one Red Hat type version so I can gain experience with them. Fedora 7 is closer to the commercial Red Hat used in business but is cutting edge. Debian (Kubuntu is Debian) uses .deb files and Fedora uses .rpm files. Both systems have improved over the years. It is said that the .deb system resolves the dependency problem better than the .rpm system. Dependency is when one file or program needs another to operate. This is why when one program is installed, companion files are installed with it. Microsoft does the same with .dlls. You gotta love computers. So far this cyber adventure has taken me far, far past point and click computing. Although you can be quite happy with point and click computing, you also miss out on the power to do things the GUI just can't do. On a Linux system it is very useful to get over command line fears. You will become a powerful Jedi.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Further adventures in Arno's Linux world

I really, really hate eating my own words but, maybe I was a bit hasty proclaiming PCLinuxOS as equal to a little better than Kubuntu. At least considering how I multi-boot several operating systems. Something a normal computer user would probably not do. So, PCLinuxOS might still fit the bill for single boot machines, but for multi-boot it sucks because it loads GRUB (Grand Unified Bootloader) in a place that causes problems. It does not give you the option to not install it nor recognize that GRUB might already be on the machine. Needless to say my system was non-functioning for a while, forcing me to look deeper into the mysteries of GRUB and multi-booting. If you are at all familiar with boot loaders, first there was LILO and then there is GRUB. GRUB is more flexible of course than LILO but still a bit of a tweak to manage. There are programs to manage GRUB called Grubed and Start UP Manager (SUM) but you still might have to learn to edit from the GRUB menu screen or the config file. If you want a sweet explanation see the article entitled "Guru Guidance, A better way of booting" in Linux Magazine, April 2002. It gives a quick but through run down of GRUB and how to edit/understand the menus and config files. So, armed with new knowledge I will attempt to tweak GRUB to make it work for me. Yeah, it is probably too much for most computer users but, I'm "learnin linux" folks. I am hoping one day a single boot/multi-boot option would be put right in the system rom on the motherboard and be quite automatic once selected.
Well, does this deter me from using PCLinuxOS? Not yet, but it is quite a let down, the LiveCD was so inviting. But why on earth would anyone want to have more than one operating system on one computer? For me it is looking first-hand at the fresh ideas that drive folks to put together different Linux distributions. Linux is really a "Kit"of lots of pieces that fit in various ways. Some distributions are for different purposes. General use, desktop style Linux has been fully reviewed and experienced by their many users and documented on many web sites. It is all waiting for you to look into it.

It's been at least a half an hour since I typed the above story. I have edited my GRUB config file, deleting a couple of old entries and adding a new one for PCLinuxOS. I am now triple-booting MS Windows XP, Kubuntu, and PCLinuxOS. It is not rocket science to learn about Linux, we'll leave that to the programmers. But users can benefit from learnin a little linux.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Living the Linux life in Arno's world

I have to say that I never thought of myself as being a fanboy of anything, but recently I downloaded a copy of PCLinuxOS. It is a live CD Linux distro and when I popped it in I immediately started comparing it to my experience with Ubuntu Linux. I was negative and skeptical and nit-picky. I could not believe I was having this reaction. Have I really been a Ubuntu fanboy all this time? Imagine what MS Windows users go through looking at Linux. This brings to mind a couple of thoughts on Linux. When looking at the Linux world, the MS Windows user sees the confusion of choices. How does one make a good Linux choice? I look at what other people are downloading (Distrowatch) and the many reviews on each of the top versions. Is the most popular version the best place to start? I think it is safe to assume that, at least until one is more knowledgeable. Then if it doesn't come as a live CD then it is a little more riskier to install. I'd stick with the live CD's.
I think more and more the live CD is popular because you can try it before you commit it to your hard drive. If Linux could do as AOL did, Linux disc would be all over the place (not going to happen).
So, having downloaded PCLinuxOS, what did I find? I find that it doesn't take a well moneyed backer to put together a well thought out Linux distribution. Well, being Debian based and using KDE desktop makes it very close to how Kubuntu looks and feels, BUT. PCLinuxOS seems faster, snappier. The config tools are a little better and compressing the software archive and putting it on the CD is a great idea. It has some Windows XP looks for you transition types and can be changed to look very different. PCLinuxOS has one flavor, not one for 32-bit and another for 64-bit CPU's. This means you don't have to get special 64-bit drivers and codecs or use "wrappers" to get 32-bit plugins to work in 64-bit programs. I'm not clear on the legal/illegal inclusion of propietary code in free software. All I know is PCLinuxOS worked on my hardware pretty good. The rest of the review will come from living with the day to day use and perhaps I will even put it on a spare hard drive on my main box. This Ubuntu fanboy has to say that I have seen something that appears a little nicer than Ubuntu (what am I saying!!). There are still some lingering questions concerning updates, security support and the like. These things are of interest especially if you are a business user, but I am a single user so I can let those questions slide for now. I could recommend PCLinuxOS with the same fervor as Kubuntu. They are very close but PCLinuxOS seems better, this I will explore further.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Desktop revenge of the nerds

Well, as of now all is well on my Linux desktop. Previously I got a little greedy for desktop video playing in the background of my near perfect setup. I changed the video drivers to accommodate the fancy graphics and boom! my Linux wouldn't boot at all. I tried all kinds of rescue boot disks to no avail, the system was hosed. There is something to be said of non-programmers waiting for stuff to reach the mainstream. I heard that both Mac and even MS Windows could do background video, I thought surely Linux could do it too. I am not alone in my quest. Others are seeking this in Linux also. It is possible but, I want to see it without adding both extreme hardware and software. After all, I am a man of modest means.

Hosing your system brings on a whole slew of lessons to be learned. The biggest one is to backup both personal data and settings. It also gave me a chance to practice things only a Linux user can appreciate. I am talking about using the dreaded command line. It does come in handy when a Gui just can't be summoned. I can not understand the gasp! at the thought of using a command line. A little knowledge goes a long way in Linux and there is very little to figure out if some helpful person gives you the script to type in and shows you what to expect on a web page. I think command line fear is over rated. I also use the command line in MS Windows because some things you just don't have access to in the Gui.

I figured a few hours of downloading and tweaking and playing around and all is restored on my Linux desktop. I even found a program to dress up the boot loader with color. My Linux desktop now plays the Airwolf theme song on startup and the Knightrider theme on shutdown. Dumb but cute. There is quite a list of software packages to explore in Linux, all for free. Finding the ones to do what I want to do is a job in itself but, part of the fun of computing. Do I have a wish list of things I'd like to see in Linux? Well, the desktop background video for one, but also I would like to see something like Incredimail, a Window's program that has full color email, for Linux. Gee, I'll have to give some time to XP one of these days just to visit the few programs I miss.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Taste and Choice on the desktop

With all the kinds of people out there it is very, very hard to satisfy all the different taste people have. We users are very choosy when it comes to the look and feel of our desktop or not. Some are just comfortable with what is offered and others must tweak and adjust until out desktop is just right. The problem has always been for software writers, just how much tweaking can you allow users to do before it becomes a headache to manage? You know, you don't want your upgrade package to wipe out the after market add-ons if you can help it. This I experienced when I tried to install the FlyakiteOSX desktop in MS Windows XP. The program produced a DLL relocation error because it was incompatible with some security patches. So in the quest to tweak the look and feel there are some pot holes to navigate around.

Well, what is hot and what is not? These days it seems that the Mac desktop is the one to emulate. The Mac desktop in my humble opinion is simply the most functional thing I've seen so far. The Mac desktop is clean and not littered with shortcut icons and desktop folders. Of course the clutter option is always present, but I myself like the clean look. Here are some screen shots of my desktops.
This shot is my Kubuntu Linux Desktop. I made the row of icons on the bottom smaller than the ones on the Mac screen so they don't get in the way. The icon dock program is called KoolDock and it works in the KDE desktop environment, nicely.
Now, this is a shot of my MS Windows XP desktop. It has a skin applied that has a decided Mac look. The icon dock on the bottom is called RKLauncher. Again I put all those many desktop shortcuts into a desktop folder so I can get at them when I need them. The launcher cleans up the desktop rather nice. The icons on the side still are double-click to use but the ones on the bottom are single click. MS should give you a choice to single click, my fingers don't always get double-click on the first try.

So, is Mac emulation flattery or envy? You have to decide for your self. Desktop arrangements are just tools to get at the files and programs on your machine. Look and feel is a very personal thing if you discover you can do something about it. The question you are all dying to ask is, what do I think of the new MS Vista look and feel? I think it is more of the same Microsoft you know and love. But fear not, there are already tweakers at work extending the look and feel of Vista into personal statements of otherworldliness. Why? Because they can. Do I have a favorite desktop? At this point, I still favor the Kubuntu Linux desktop mainly because of the crisp response to my mouse clicks. I like the way windows pop in and out, not fading in and out of existence in slow motion but, crisp and snappy. I like another feature Kubuntu has, the desktop background can be set to change every so often, your choice, so that you don't see the same constant view. Now if some enterprising tweaker can get movies to run as the background image, full screen, that would be interesting.

Are there more desktop ideas to be exploited in the future? Why yes. I have seen on the web several desktop arrangements in the works. Apple is improving on the icon docking system for sure making it even more functional. Linux has had desktop docking applications for a long time now in different window managers but a serious overhauling would be needed if that idea would be explored again and integrated into the popular Gnome and KDE desktops. It is all very much like cars, same function, different look and feel (and price).