Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fedora 12 and Ubuntu Karmic in the lead!

After a few days online, the latest Linux distro contest is showing a strong leadership from Ubuntu Karmic Koala 9.10 and Fedora 12 Constantine. Mandriva 2010, OpenSUSE 11.2 and Linux Mint 8 follow, but far from the leading two.

Thanks to all who voted and please keep those votes coming!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The dangerous myth of Linux virus invulnerability


I read an article recently about an easy way to create a virus against Linux. To be more specific, the article shows a very simple method to create a virus which takes advantage from a GNOME/KDE vulnerability. Here's the article, highly recommended for all KDE/GNOME users.

I started using Linux just over a year ago, but security and its alledged virus invulnerability were some of the reasons why I chose switching from Windows. Therefore, having read so many times that one is immune to viruses as long as one is using Linux, I was very scheptycal about that article. However, as I read more about it, my concern started growing.

It is true that the afore mentioned "virus" is more of a Trojan horse attack, and that it can't really do any harm unless the user makes a mistake, but the mere possibility of it happening is already worrying. Even more concerning is the fact that it is so easy to create and implement.

As I said before, this vulnerability seems specific to KDE and GNOME ".desktop" launchers, but these are probably the most extended desktop environments in the Linux world. It is important to understand that while Linux itself remains invulnerable to such problems, most desktop users do use one of these two desktop environments, so they are still vulnerable to attacks of this kind in the end. For the very same reason, Linux servers are not (as they do not use a desktop environment).

As the author of the article rightly puts it, the attack is limited as long as the user does not save and execute the launcher, and it could be argued that Linux users are somewhat more technically inclined and aware, but still it feels to me like something that could impact tons of users, even more as Linux keeps growing.

I agree 100% with the author that we Linux users should be critical instead of self complacent. We should not rest in our laurels assuming that we are free from attacks or security breaches, because that's not the case.

I encourage you all to contact GNOME/KDE developers so they take care of this potential security problem.

As for potential solutions to this kind of problem, prevention, as usual, is always best. Here are some suggestions:

1.- As a rule of thumb, avoid running any email attachment which can be executed, even if it comes from someone you trust (they could be infected).
2.- Never save and execute anything unless you are 100% confident it is safe, much less a ".desktop" file.
3.- Monitor your .local/share/applications folder to ensure whatever custom launchers are in there are doing what they are supposed to do. Just run this simple command from a terminal:

less .local/share/applications/*.desktop | grep Exec

4.- Understand that your PC can only be as smart as you are. It will not prevent your misuse.

Good Luck!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Songbird 1.4.3

I know, I know, Songbird is a very heavy, resource-eating music player, but I LOVE IT.

To be honest, even if there are many good players available for Linux, Songbird is the only one looking half ready to take on iTunes. I like Amarok, Banshee, Exaile and even Rythmbox, but they all look prehistoric, and looks matter to me.

I have to say, though, that Songbird is far more than just the looks. This latest release includes new components, and the fabulous Mashtape is now accompanied by LyricsMaster, a great looking lyrics retriever, which by the way, works great.

Just take a look at this screenshot...

Aaah... Ubuntu, Songbird and Dream Theater... What's not to love? ;-)

Talking resources, it is true that Songbird eats some 80-90MB of memory while playing, but that's not such a big tragedy, not for me at least.

Get Songbird and enjoy your music even more!

Fedora Google Chromium SELinux problem


Quick entry to discuss a problem I have experienced lately on my Fedora 12 laptop. As I came back from a short vacation, I updated my fedora installation and downloaded a bunch of stuff, including a Google Chromium update.

When I tried to run Chromium, SELinux displayed an error an locked the browser, which would not start. Basically, the error message goes like this:

"The chromium-browse application attempted to load
/usr/lib/chromium-browser/ which requires text relocation. This is a
potential security problem. Most libraries do not need this permission.
Libraries are sometimes coded incorrectly and request this permission."

I tried a few things with SELinux policies, as I read disabling it was not recommended unless completely necessary (it really is not and you should follow this recommendation, as you have many other internet browsing options, starting with Firefox).

In my case, I was unable to find a policy that would fix this problem, so after a bit of google searching, I found that this issue had been filed as a bug and acknowledged as such by developers. In fact, they proposed a working workaround. From a terminal, run the following command, which will likely require admin access:

chcon -t textrel_shlib_t '/usr/lib/chromium-browser/'

Once you complete that step, you should be able to open Chromium again. You may still see the SELinux error message, though.

A long term solution is in the works and will probably come in the next SELinux update.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

GRUB2, TestDisk, LiveUSB Creator and learning your way through issue resolution

Hi again,

Other than through active reading and studying, I would say that most of my (limited) Linux skills were attained through issue resolution, and the research involved in that process.

This has been the case lately, as I faced some issues with GRUB2 and LiveUSB Creator. I had issues with both, not because they were not working as expected, but because of my ignorance and misuse of them.

Basically, GRUB2 is quite different from GRUB. The old easy way in which GRUB could be configured is no longer there. The old /boot/grub/menu.lst file that we could easily tweak is gone, now apparently substituted by /etc/grub/grub.cfg. However, as I quickly realised, GRUB2 is a whole different game.

Essentially, my desktop PC is a triple boot setup. I use two internal hard drives with 250 and 500GB respectively. The 500GB disk contains Ubuntu Studio 9.04 and Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope. The 250 GB, which was installed last, holds Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic. Because of that order, it is GRUB2 who´s in charge of the boot menu.

Initially, my setup was fine, but as I started to get Kernel upgrades into Ubuntu 9.04, I wasn´t seeing them updated on my boot menu. As a result, I was bound to boot into old versions of the Kernel. Not that this was a dissaster by any means, but I wanted to keep my system up to date. In addition, since my boot menu shows three OS entries, I didn´t want it to show obsolete entries, as it is complex enough already. Here´s how I got my way around these problems:

/boot/grub/grub.cfg is a read only file. It is not meant to be manually edited. As a result, just run sudo update-grub to get it up to date and include all OS entries available. This action got my grub menu up to speed, and so I could now boot into the latest Kernel entries for all three OS. However, as you can imagine, there were many entries for all obsolete kernel upgrades, so I needed to clean up my menu. In order to do so, I temporarily granted write priviledges to grub.cfg and commented out those entries I didn´t want to see. Note that that type of entries will get back in there next time you run update-grub. In addition, please remember to set grub.cfg file to read only again after you tweak it.

Then I had another problem just a couple days ago. I got myself an 8GB USB pen drive and wanted to set it up with a Live installation. I used the great Live USB creator application which can be found under Ubuntu System > Administration menu. The problem was that I had two USB drives hooked to my desktop at the time. My mini USB drive, and a 1TB drive I use for my own storage.

The application selected my 1TB drive, and I didn´t realise until it was too late. It prompted me to accept a drive format before it started the process, and I accepted. Dumb ass, I know. Anyways, the drive was quick formatted (luckily it was nothing too serious), but I was faced with losing 180GB of data. Movies, music, my own recordings, documents, etc. I was devastated. Initially it was shocking, I thought there was no way to recover my data.

Luckily, after some minutes, hope sunk in again and I started searching for data recovery tools under Ubuntu. I found people highly regarded TestDisk. I downloaded it and started playing around with it. It took me a few minutes to get to understanding it, and as I wasn´t sure what kind of damage my 1TB drive had, I wasn´t sure what exactly I had to do. Eventually, I cleared my partition table and added a FAT one, which allowed me to browse the drive again using TestDisk. I then copied all of the drive info to my internal drive (Lucky that I had enough space!). Once the copy was successful, I formated my 1TB drive and then copied all info back to it.

Phew! That was close! After I recovered the whole thing, the smile on my face was biiiiiiiig...

So yeah, it was scary for a while, but I ended up learning a lot in both cases. Hope you can use the solutions I found yourself!

About KDE and its bright looking future


Lately I have been working more and more on my Mandriva 2010 and Fedora 12 KDE desktops. Both of them are KDE4.3.3 and both of them rock hard in my opinion.

Back in the day when I started using KDE, it was KDE4 that got my attention. I never used KDE 3.5, though I have read that it was great. Anyways, when I started using KDE4, it felt bloated, resource eating, and buggy. Plasma was still not mature enough, many of the widgets didn´t work as expected, the menu tray was simply terrible, and it was frequent to see applications crash or behave unexpectedly. Needless to say, I stuck to Ubuntu and its awesome GNOME implementation. Under GNOME, everything felt right and doing what it was supposed to do, and with the right settings, it looked even better than KDE4 in my oppinion.

Now, come October and Mandriva and Fedora go live with their 2010 and Constantine releases, both of which sporting KDE 4.3.2, which I quickly upgraded into 4.3.3. I must say that I was blown away. The KDE desktop has improved a lot in a short time. It feels very responsive and light now. Most widgets work great and look awesome, and applications are as solid as their GNOME counterparts. Compiz effects even perform better and feel smoother under KDE 4.3.3 than they do under GNOME 2.26 (comparison run under the same hardware). On top of that, monitoring resource management does not really give any significant edge to GNOME, as used to be the case. Both desktops are now optimised and, while obviously heavier than XFCE and other lighter desktop implementations, they perfectly balance performance with functionality.

I still think that GNOME may have a slight edge when starting certain applications. Especially the latest Ubuntu implementation, Ubuntu 9.10, is lightning fast when opening Open Office. However, I can see a significant drag on both Mandriva and Fedora when opening the same application. That could be down to the GTK libraries, which are native to GNOME, though.

In any case, I wanted to share that I am a lot happier with KDE these days, and that it no longer feels to me like an inferior product when compared to GNOME. Back when I started using KDE, I was faced with issues that got me frustrated, and I always ended up going back to my Ubuntu or Mint desktops. However, I saw lots of potential in KDE and kept trying their new releases.

I am now glad that I did, because I finally feel at home and happy with KDE4.3.3. I no longer feel the need to use any GTK applications (with exception of gnome-system-monitor) and I love my KDE desktops more every day. I am looking forward to enjoying KDE4.3.4 soon, and can´t wait to see what they pull off with KDE4.4.

In addition, judging by the GNOME3 mockups I have seen, It feels like KDE will be a keeper. On the other hand, I hope the GNOME team listen to the community and don´t continue down the suicidal route they have taken. I would definitely like to keep using both KDE and GNOME, but not if GNOME 3 becomes a netbook tipe of desktop!

On the negative side, or maybe on the side I personally don´t like, I must say that KDE still has a lot of work to do when it comes to Kwin themes, color schemes, and control themes.

Kwin themes are all looking terrible, in my opinion. I always end up using Emerald, because there is not a single Kwin theme that looks half decent to me. GNOME window themes are much more abundant, and the average quality is much higher, I think.

Color schemes are also limited under KDE, and their editing tool is not nearly as intuitive as that of GNOME. Finally, there are just a handful control themes, and all look terrible to me. I end up using clearlooks all the time, which is the only one that looks sharp, I think. I don´t understand why there are so few control themes, and why there is no tool enabled to include more, as is the case for many other look and fell features.

All in all, with the exception of these little annoying (and completely subjective) look & feel issues, it is clear to me KDE4 has become an awesome desktop experience, and I very much recommend it!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Use the pen, it´s your friend

Pen drive, that is.

I wanted to share my experience on booting Linux from a pen drive. I find it extremely useful and convenient. It is a very good solution for those who may not be confident enough to run a native installation of Linux, but also for those who want to carry their computer with them any time, any where.

First off, for those who don´t know, how do you get this to work? Well, there a number of ways to make it happen. I used the USB drive creator available from Ubuntu, but that requires a full Ubuntu installation, of course. For those wanting to complete this process from a Windows PC, you can find all kinds of info and step by step tutorials in this great site:

As for the Ubuntu way, simply go into System menu > administration > USB live creator. That brings up a very convenient and simple application that will ask you two things: The location of the ISO you want to create your USB drive from, and the location of the USB drive itself. After a few minutes you will have your bootable pen drive.

The cool thing about this setup is that you are essentially using your pen drive as you would use any hard drive. Unlike a LiveCD, you can actually store info on your pen drive as you would in a standard drive, so all your settings stay were you left them. In other words, wireless settings, installed applications, themes, icons, wallpapers... Everything you customise to your liking will be there next time you boot!

What´s even cooler is that you add a layer of abstraction that way, as your Ubuntu session is now independent from the machine you use. As long as you use machines with kernel supported devices, you will be able to freely jump from one machine to the next, always using your very same Ubuntu session!

I personally find that very convenient. I run Linux at home, but the company I work for uses Windows. Because of security policies, I am not supposed to install linux on any corporate machine, but this solution allows me to use my company PC with Linux with absolutely no impact to the corporate build. I can use my Ubuntu anytime I want by simply booting my PC from my pendrive, and it is the same session I used elsewhere. No need to use UbuntuOne or Dropbox, or need for an internet connection to keep things in synch, everything is right there where I left it!

Anyways, I have found this little feature to be just perfect for my needs and wanted to share it. Hopefully you will get a kick out of it too!


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Several things Linux


After a while without an entry, I was thinking I would write about a few things Linux that have been happening lately.

Google Chrome OS - Google knows how to make lots of noise with everything they put out there, and I am pretty sure it's got a lot a lot to do with their success story. Not to say that their products are not good, I think they mostly won over people because they were great, but noise is always good.

As far as I am concerned, I think Google is still trying to figure out what to do with Chrome OS. The presentation they put together some days ago was a bit of a strange thing. Usually, when Google presents something new, most people, professionals or not, tend to be amazed at that new great application or feature. Gmail, Google Maps, Waves... Lots of examples out there. However, the story was different this time around. The reaction was a bit mixed as nobody really understands a product that very much feels like a step backwards.

Indeed, Google Chrome does not offer anything that Android doesn't. If anything, it offers less. In fact, it's been so badly stripped out of functionality that it could be considered a browser with a few shortcuts around. Google will claim that you don't need anything else, as all you need is out there in the cloud, but I feel that concept is still not mature enough. Not having storing capability, not having any customization available or strong hardware dependencies are some of its biggest drawbacks now, the most obvious one being its extremely limited functionality as a standalone device.

In fact, spending a few hundred euros on a device that is useless unless connected is not something that most of us would like to do. However, I also believe that this model is very intrusive and really concerning from privacy standpoint. If you want to store any sensitive personal information, you have no choice but to do so on a remote machine owned by a corporation. Of course there are privacy agreements, but which company stands by them? Should we really move to a computing model that allows a third party to track each and every move we make in our PCs? I personally don't buy the idea.

Anyways, lots of doubts around this OS. Let's wait and see what Google makes out of it.

Linux based Smartphones:
November was a great month when it comes to Linux powered Smartphones. The motorola Droid and the Nokia N900 are probably the biggest announcements, but several other Android phones from different brands were announced. I think Android is very well positioned to take over this market, as it has made a very smart move by building an open OS that is available for many makers. Soon, the amount of people using Android phones will overtake that of iPhones, and it will quickly become the "standard" way we use such devices. I think other OS will keep niche markets, though.

In terms of the N900 and the Droid, I have read several reviews and they both seem to be closely matched. It seems the N900 has a better camera and keyboard, while the Droid seems to be more mature from a functionality standpoint. I have seen many reports from members of forums complaining that things are not smooth enough on the N900. This is specially bad considering its really high price tag and the fact that Maemo5 is actually considered somewhat of a middle step before Maemo6, which should be the unleashing of all its capabilities. A wrong start could easily build a bad name to this OS, and discourage people from giving Maemo6 a go. I think Nokia must be very careful now and respond quickly to any issues if the want to have any chances at competing against the iPhone and even the Droid.

In any case, it is good that Linux is becoming a standard for this type of devices. The amount of development around them will surely have a knock on effect on all kinds of elements Linux, from Server to desktop. In fact, Linux is becoming very popular on the Netbook market, reportedly holding 25% of the share of preinstalled devices, with Ubuntu leading the way.

So the end of 2009 seems to be bringing great news all around. My tests with Mandriva 2010, Fedora 12 and Ubuntu 9.10 have all been very positive, and I believe they are all great releases in their own right. So go get any of those Linux flavours and never look back! Choice is now better than ever!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The coming of Constantine: Fedora 12 first contact


I downloaded Fedora 12 yesterday, right after it came out. I have a laptop solely for testing distros, so I never have to worry about the risk implied in installing a new OS.

I just spent a few minutes installing Fedora 12, so I can´t provide a thorough review, that will come later. This is just about the first minutes with it.

I downloaded the ISO file from the release entry, using the torrent file (always recommended, as it will most probably be faster than the actual download, and you contribute to not overload the download mirrors).

Booting from the Live CD allows for a first preview of what you are in for. The initial screen is very similar to the one used in Leonidas. Once again, the booting process is very smooth, aesthetically tasty. The transition from one screen to the next is very smooth, no plain text screens in sight.

The installation wizard has not changed much since leonidas. It is not as professionally looking as the one in OpenSuSE, but looks good enough. The partition section seemed revamped, clearer and easier. just for the sake of trying, I wanted to use the encryption option on my hard drive. I wanted to compare how an encrypted machine would perform against a standard, non-encrypted one. Installation completed pretty quickly, with no errors nor warnings.

Upon restart, I was prompted to enter the passphrase I had chosen for the encryption process. The booting process didn´t feel slow whatsoever, I was very pleasantly surprised. I am not sure if it is down to the fact that it is a brand new installation, but Fedora booted very quickly, perhaps even quicker than my Karmic machine. Considering that my test machine is an old laptop, that was very impressive.

The login screen has been updated, and it was a pleasant surprise. Once you enter your credentials, another beautiful screen shows up, with a nice loading progress animation. Very good looks throughout.

Once in the desktop, it´s all the usual Fedora goodies, plus some more I am yet to find. Using Yum is always nice. I like the application. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and does it very well!

One of the things I love about Fedora is using the latest of every application. KDE 4.3.3 looks great and my feeling is that it keeps improving performance. The KDE desktop now feels almost as responsive as GNOME. GREAT!

All in all, I think Constantine is the best Fedora release ever. I still need more time to be able to confirm such a bold statement, but I think I am right!

Friday, November 13, 2009

OpenSuse 11.2 - First Contact

Hi again,

I downloaded Opensuse 11.2 yesterday, and was eager to check it out.

Using the LiveCD, you can either install directly or run the LiveCD "demo". I wanted to install, so I chose installation. I was very pleased with what I saw. I can say that the installation wizard that comes with Opensuse is by far the best I have seen in Linux. Very good looks, easy to understand, and conveying a very professional feel all over the place.

Not being an Opensuse fan myself, I was surprised. I entered all the necessary parameters and left the installation running. Unfortunately, all the hype was gone very soon, as the installation hung. I was very disappointed with this strange error, specially because the machine I was installing in had been running many different Linux distros in the past.

I then tried booting to LiveCD, hoping that I could install from the desktop shortcut available. Oddly enough, it worked that way.

My concern is that such errors are very critical, because a non-experienced user would have probably given up after the first try thinking that Linux is crap, a waste of time, and all the usual ranting. I hope my error was a one off, but I can't really tell, as I have not tried again. If it is an actual bug, people are going to get mad about it.

In any case, I have to say I am not feeling like I will be an Opensuse fan anytime soon. I don't particularly like the way it works, don't like Yast much, and many applications were outdated (come on, OpenOffice 3.0 and Amarok 2.1?).

Anyways, mostly subjective stuff, except for the outdated apps and the installation error, but I think I will stick to Ubuntu and Fedora.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Releases and User Responsibility

Hi all,

I thought I would type some lines about some noise coming out of recent reviews of Ubuntu. I have to say, though, that these concepts apply to all Linux distros out there.

It seems Karmic Koala is not having an easy landing, and many users are complaining of a bumpy ride as they upgrade or install this new version. I want to provide some simple suggestions to make that ride more confortable, but will also discuss what I consider is part of the responsibility of the community.

Some easy steps to make your transition to a new release easy and safe:

1.- "If it ain´t broken, don´t fix it"
: In other words, do not upgrade/install a new release unless it is necessary. Obviously, this does not apply if you are installing a new release just for fun, but if your machine is used for work/studying, and it contains applications and information that is important to you, then you need to think twice before upgrading.

If you positively know that a new release will bring more stability to your system, or perhaps detect hardware that your current release cannot, by all means go for it, but understand this is not a trivial sudo apt-get update thing.

2.- Do backup your data before you upgrade!: Lots of people just blindly trust an upgrade process, unaware of its complexities. Even Windows and Mac have a tough time with upgrade process (Just read about the nightmare it is upgrading Windows Vista into Windows 7). These processes involve quite some risk, so you should prepare yourself to recover your info in case anything goes wrong. Not only there are great applications for backing up your information, but you can also create a live CD with your current installation, so restoring it can be a piece of cake.

By the way, these activities are best practices anytime, not just when you are about to upgrade.

3.- Try to avoid upgrading!: If possible, try to run a clean installation instead of an upgrade. Like I just said, an upgrade process is always delicate and complicated, so avoid it if you can.

Another reason to avoid upgrades has to do with the very concept of moving to a new release. By definition, certain upgrades cannot be made effective. For example, if you upgrade from any previous release of Ubuntu to Karmic, you will not be able to enjoy GRUB2.

4.- Do NOT upgrade/install right after release date!: I know, I know, you´ve been hearing about that new release, about its promising enhancements and you just can´t wait... well, DO WAIT!.

Let´s be honest, the involvement in Alpha and Beta testing for most, if not all, releases is really below what is needed to guarantee a proper release stability. The only true testing time a Release gets happens after GoLive, so be sure you are ready for a bumpy ride if you decide to update on release day.

On average, I would recommend to install a new release about a month after release date.

Remember, you have a choice. If you decide to upgrade/install early on, please do not rant about how bad that particular release was, but help fix bugs instead.

5.- Smile!: A positive attitude will take you a long way. Remember we are a community, so unleashing your frustration with mindless rants won´t really help. In fact, it will probably create a lot of noise that really has nothing to do with the actual quality of a release.

After all, even if you had a small issue (very very few people actually have serious problems), you are getting a wonderful OS for free, so you might as well breath deeply a number of times before biting the hand that´s feeding you.

In summary, please do take a new release seriously. It is a step that involves risk and you should only take it if you know what you are doing and are willing to accept that risk.

In addition, all users in the community are directly responsible for the quality of any release. The more people who seriously apply for Alpha and Beta testing, the better off we will be, so I encourage everybody to do so in case you haven´t already.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mandriva 2010 Review - When the smoke clears


I thought I would type a little more now that I have had a chance to work a bit longer with Mandriva 2010. I want to try and keep it short this time!

My thoughts on the startup and shutdown processes have not changed. I believe they lack the progress I was expecting from them. The startup bit was a disappointment, as it is far from the smooth feeling they had been "advertising". The KDM login screen looks horrible, obsolete and amateur. I know most of these things can be tweaked or changed, but I was honestly expecting a lot more from this release on this subject. To be honest, Fedora 11 was already a very good example of the kind of smooth startup process Mandriva was going after, and that's what I was hoping to see on Mandriva 2010, only I guess we will need to wait a bit longer.

The overall experience on the desktop is OK. No more, no less. It is somewhat faster than 2009.1, but don't expect any radical improvement. Most of the system control applications that were there in previous releases return unchanged (at least I haven't noticed any change, so they must be subtle if they are there).

Once again, I was disappointed by the wireless network detection issue (read previous article). Sometimes you see people complain about new releases, when they are upgrading from a release 2 or 3 years old, and using a piece of hardware that is very obsolete. You can only think there was a big risk it went wrong... However, in my particular case, this was a machine that had no issues with Mandriva 2009.1, and it is barely two years old, so...

If anything, most of the enhancements that caught my attention are down to the work the KDE project is putting together. KDE 4.3.2 is a very nice step forward, definitely in the right direction. I am eager to see what 4.3.3 looks like, and very excited about 4.4...!

All in all, I would recommend those using Mandriva 2009 to stick to their current versions. Upgrading involves a risk, and there is not much to be gained from this release. If your only driver is getting your hands on new versions of applications or even on KDE 4.3.2, you can always do that from your current version, no need for upgrading.

In hindsight, I recall that Mandriva 2009 spring was quite an improvement on 2009, so perhaps it is 2010 spring that we should still wait for. I will probably stick to Fedora 12 Constatine, though.


Mandriva 2010 - First impressions PART 2

Hi again,

This is a continuation of PART 1 of my Mandriva 2010 review. If you are interested, please read the first installment first.

Now, let´s pick it up right where we left it.

When I got to the desktop, my first thoughts were more towards Karmic Koala than to Mandriva, and how Ubuntu have been taking giant steps to becoming an incredibly good distro. It´s difficult and not exactly fair to compare distros without taking into consideration several factors. However, I believe that overall user experience is an important element, and probably what most users will care about eventually.

Mandriva 2010 does not look like much of an improvement from 2009.1. It does feel slightly faster, but not in a noticeable way. Compared to my installation of Karmic, it feels slow and bloated. Icon and window themes are the same, and so are fonts. The Mandriva menu looks the same as well, more of a traditional "windows like" kind of menu, as opposed to the standard KDE menu. Completely a personal thing, but the default Mandriva themes, as well as the default wallpaper are ugly in my opinion. I quickly changed them and started using Oxygen theme. I then enabled compiz effects so I could use some emerald window themes (much nicer than any kwin theme, IMHO).

All in all, the desktop experience was a bit of a disappointment for me, as I expected quite an improvement, and it isn´t there, I think.

The problems started when I wanted to connect to my Wireless network. The usual check on network connections showed that wireless was down. ifconfig command didn´t even show wlan0, and ifconfig wlan0 up failed, showing a SIOCSIFFLAGS: The file or directory does not exist type error. That bit was very frustrating, as it´s been a while since I have had a similar problem. In fact, considering that this is the same machine where I installed Mandriva 2009.1, and it picked up the wireless network flawlessly back then, it almost felt like a step backwards.

In any case, the usual googling magic worked again, and I could find a solution. For those experiencing the same problem, here´s how to fix it (solution for Intel on chip wireless cards):

1.- Open up a virtual console.

2.- Run dmesg | grep firmware

3.- You should get lots of entries. Download firmware from based on the results you got from step 1.

4 .- You should download a compressed file containing few other files inside it. Just extract the one whose name is exactly the same as what you got in step one into /lib/firmware.

5.- Run ifconfig wlan0 up and that should bring up your wireless interface. Your network applet should now be detecting your wireless network among others in your area.

NOTE: You may need to perform some of these tasks as root or by running sudo.

Once the process was finished and I was connected to my wireless network, things were pretty smooth. I downloaded my favorite ttf-droid fonts and set them up, along with a few compiz and system shortcuts of my liking.

I gotta say the guys at KDE are doing a very good job at improving this desktop environment. I personally favor GNOME myself, but have to admit KDE is becoming a very nice piece of work.

Anyways, after more tweaking than initially expected, I got Mandriva working smoothly. It is an OK release, in my opinion. I was expecting a lot more from it, and considering how Fedora and OpenSuse come with very promising releases, Mandriva may be losing some ground to them very quickly.

Let´s wait and see.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mandriva 2010 - First impressions PART 1

Hi all,

End of October and beginning of november are always happy days for Linux lovers, as many of the most important distros will release their new versions. Ubuntu unleashed the Karmic Koala a few days ago, while Mandriva released its brand new 2010 version just two days ago. Fedora 12 and OpenSuse11.2 are right around the corner as well, so damn right, pretty exciting times!

I wanted to share my first impressions on Mandriva 2010, I just installed it yesterday.

As usual, I downloaded the Live CD (I like to use Mandriva KDE implementation) from their site and burned the ISO into a CD. Insert the CD and Voila, the installation kicks in. Actually, I should say that Mandriva is slightly different to how Ubuntu Live CD works. Whereas the former forces you to boot into the LiveCD before you can install from a shortcut in the desktop, the latter allows you to jump straight into installation. Initially I thought that Mandriva´s way, while more conservative, was probably better considering how many users are complaining about faulty installations of Karmic. I was thinking it would help to enforce all users to run the live CD and see how compatibility plays with their PCs before they do run the installation.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

When you run any LiveCD, you get the operating system loaded from the CD, changing absolutely nothing on your PC. That is a very nice feature for many reasons, but probably the most important is that you can see how the Kernel in that particular LiveCD likes your machine´s peripherals. For example, if the liveCD does not detect your Wifi card, you will surely have the same problem when you install. At least, that´s what the theory says.

However, I got the opposite. I could see my Wifi card perfectly detected when running the liveCD, only to find the firmware was missing after installation. That was a very low point in my opinion. But anyways, let´s backtrack a bit and go through the installation process.

Like I was saying, after running the liveCD, there is a neat icon on the desktop that will start the installation process. The usual wizzard comes alive and the installation was pretty smooth, with a visual partition editor that made live particularly simple (although I think it can still be improved, I don´t find it intuitive enough for a new user). The installation went fine and the usual final message came up. Remove the CD from its tray and restart the system.

Mandriva has a particular way of doing things, which is a bit of a love/hate thing for me. For example, this particular release had made a lot of noise about the use of Plymouth along with Grub2 for a very visual, smooth transitioning start. My expectations were high, obviously, expecting a very cool looking interface at the start. There´s no denying, the Grub2 menu is more appealing than Ubuntu´s, as it is somewhat visual. However, after you choose to start Mandriva, transitioning is anything but smooth, jumping straight into a plain text screen which shows several components loading. The next screen is a visual one, with a neat animation displaying loading progress. I think it would have made more sense to use this screen all through the startup process, not letting any plain text screens visible. In any case, this visual screen is no breakthrough, nothing about its artwork is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, it felt to me a bit like a step back, as I loved the artwork in 2009 spring, and this one felt like a poor version of that. Even poorer was the KDM screen. I really think it is about time Mandriva updates it, it really looks obsolete and low quality. Everything from the graphics to the fonts looks pretty amateur.

Before I go into the desktop, let´s cover one thing about Mandriva´s installation that I hate myself. Before you even get to the login screen, you are asked to enter Root´s and a master user´s credentials. That much is fine. What I hate is that you are asked to setup your network connections at that stage, which has NEVER worked for me. There is a wizzard which initially looks harmless, and it could be a good idea if the wizzard actually worked as it should. Invariably, all through the last three releases, it always fails to detect any of the available networks automatically, and then you can either enter your network´s information (SSID, Encryption, etc) manually or cancel the process. I personally think this is an epic failure. Any non-advanced user will be puzzled if asked to enter their network parameters manually ("Oh, wait, the guy who set up my router gave me that info... Where did I leave that paper?"). Eventually, even if you know your parameters, as I did, the wizzard couldn´t connect to the network. Why? Because the firmware was missing!...

I will cover the rest of that problem and my impressions on the desktop on part 2 of this review.

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala

Hi everyone,

I couldn´t resist. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu version, codenamed Karmic Koala, as soon as it was available, freed up one of my hard drive partitions and started installing the October version for 2009.

Because release time is always busy and frantic, I wanted to give it a few days before I shared any thoughts on this release. I have been using Karmic for about a week now, mostly applying updates, learning a bit about the latest changes, browsing and emailing intensively, and even doing some work with OpenOffice.

I want to try and share a user like experience, not so much technical details that you may or may not be interested in. As a result, let me start from the beginning, when clicking the power button.

I happen to have Karmic installed on a machine with triple boot, in which I have Ubuntu Jaunty and Ubuntu Studio 9.04. Despite my initial fears that Grub2 could create trouble when sharing booting duties with previous versions, it all went fine. As usual, right after BIOS start, I can see the typical menu showing my OS list, with three entries as expected. The only thing I can report here is that it was a bit of a letdown, as the menu is plain text as it used to be, and I was expecting more of a visual thing. In fact, it was strange not to have it, considering that other distros like Mandriva had that visual menu since 2009.1 release. I have the feeling Ubuntu developers overlooked this matter.

Anyways, no big deal, I chose the default entry, which was obviously assigned to Karmic, and off I went into Koala Land!. As soon as the loading starts, I was pleasantly surprised with the splash screens. Basically, there are no more plain text transitions, all you see are dark and very stylish graphics that give it a very professional vibe. Very, very cool.

Once the GDM screen comes, it is a simple one, but once again stylish and dark. I like the many options available at the bottom. The overall feeling is solid and professional.

After logging in, the transition is once more very smooth, no plain text screens. The first look at the desktop is impressive. There is a definite improvement over previous releases that is very obvious this time around. The new window and icon themes look very nice. There are lots of wallpapers available, all of which are very high quality. One thing I disliked, though, is that the menu has been rearranged, and I guess it took me a while to get used to the new distribution, I still like the way the menu was arranged in Jaunty (or in previous GNOME releases), but that is obviously very personal.

I could quickly realise functional improvements as well. For the first time since Intrepid (when I started using Ubuntu), Koala has fully detected my Draft N wireless card. No need for compat-wireless this time around. Other improvements that are very noticeable involve overall speed and responsiveness on pretty much everything. Even heavy applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice start faster than ever before. Nautilus is also clearly faster. The overall feeling is that of a very responsive desktop (specially when having to deal with a bloated WinXP one at work!)

Some applets, like the Sound manager have been reworked, and look much better. The network applet has been reworked as well, and looks better and simpler.

After all the noise around them, Rythmbox and empathy are the chosen ones when it comes to default audio player and IM applications. I have never been particularly attached to Pidgin or any application per se, so no big deal to me. Both do what they are supposed to do quite well, so no complaints here. In fact, I find it hard to understand why people complain about this, because it takes about a minute to have the applications of your choice installed in case you prefer others, so... The rest of the "usual suspects" are there and working fine. Evolution is handling email as usual, and as usual, it is doing it superbly.

I could also notice how some of the KDE applications have been updated in the Karmic repositories. As a result, K3B now shows its latest improvements and new QT4 face. Amarok 2.2 is also available, and working better than ever, in my opinion.

When shutdown time comes... Well, it comes and goes faster than you would expect. Startup times have been improved further for Karmic, but shutdown time is incredibly fast! Once again, transitions are very smooth and no plain text screens show up.

All in all, my Karmic experience has been very good so far. If you want to enjoy the latest from Canonical, do install/upgrade to the Koala. Having said so, it´s always wise to backup your data, as well as trying the live CD before installing. That should save you any potential unpleasant surprise!

Hope you enjoy Karmic as much as I currently am!