Rough?

Was it because Canonical and friends kept Ubuntu in such a decent state from 8.04 through to 9.04 that things went a little quiet in the blogosphere on the subject of the well-known Linux distribution? If so, 9.10 might be proving more of a talking point and you have to wonder if this is such a good thing with the appearance of Windows 7 on the scene. Looking on the bright side, 10.04 will be an LTS release so there is some chance that any rough edges that are on display now could be resolved by next April. Even so, it might have been better not to see anything so obvious at all.

In truth, Ubuntu always has had its gaps and I have seen a few of their ilk over the last two years. Of these, a few have triggered postings on here. In fact, issues with accessing the BBC iPlayer still bring a goodly number of folk to this website. That may just be a matter of grabbing RealPlayer, now helpfully available as a DEB package, from the requisite place on the web and ensuring that Ubuntu-Restricted-Extras is in place too but you have to know that in the first place. Even so, unexpected behaviours like Palimpsest seeing every partition on a disk as a different drive and SIL Raid mappings being seen for hard drives that used to live on the main home PC that bit the dust earlier this year; it only happens on one of the machines that I have running Ubuntu so it may be hardware thing and newly added hard drive uses none of the SIL mapping either. Perhaps more seriously (is it something that a new user should be encountering?), a misfiring variant of Brasero had me moving to K3b. Then UFRaw was sluggish in batch but that’s nothing that having a Debian VM won’t overcome. Rough edges like these do get you asking if 9.10 was ready for the big time while making you reluctant to recommend it to mainstream users like my brother.

The counterpoint to the above is that 9.10 includes a host of under the bonnet changes like the introduction of Ext4 hard drive formatting, Xsplash to allow the faster system loading to occur unseen and GNOME 2.28. To someone looking in from outside like me, that looks like a lot of work and might explain the ingress of the annoyances that I have seen. Add to that the fact that we are between Debian releases so things like the optimised packaging of ImageMagick or UFRaw may not be so high up the list of the things to do, especially with the more general speed optimisations that were put in place for 9.10. With 10.04 set to be an LTS release so I’d be hoping that consolidation is the order of the day over the next five or six months but it seems to be the inclusion of new features and other such progress that get magazine reviewers giving higher ratings (Linux Format has given it a mark of 9 out of 10). With the mooted inclusion of GNOME 3 and its dramatically different interface in 10.10, they should get their fill of that. However, I’d like to see some restraint for the take of a smooth transition from the familiar GNOME 2.x to the new. If GNOME 3 stays very like its alpha builds, then the question as how users will take to it arises. Of course, there’s some time yet before we see GNOME 3 and, having seen how the Ubuntu developers transformed GNOME 2.28, I wouldn’t be surprised if the impact of any change could be dulled.

In summary, my few weeks with Ubuntu 9.10 as my main OS have thrown up no major roadblocks that would cause me to look at moving elsewhere; Fedora would be tempting if that situation were to arise. The irritations that I have seen are more like signs of a lack of polish and remain peripheral to day-to-day working if you discount CD/DVD burning. To be honest, there always have been roughnesses in Ubuntu but has the lack of sizeable change spoilt us? Whatever about how things feel afterwards, big changes can mean new problems to resolve and inspire blog posts describing any solutions so it’s not all bad. If that’s what Canonical wants to see, they might get it and the year ahead looks as if it is going to be an interesting one after a recent quieter period.

A multitude of operating systems

Like buses, it seems that a whole hoard of operating systems is descending upon us at once. OS X 10.6 came first and it was the turn of Windows 7 last week with all of the excitement that it generated in the computing and technology media. Next up will be Ubuntu, already a source of some embarrassment for the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones when he got his facts muddled; to his credit he later corrected himself though I do wonder how up to speed is his appreciated that Ubuntu has its distinct flavours with a netbook variant being different to the main offering that I use. Along with Ubuntu 9.10, Fedora 12 and openSUSE 11.2 are also in the wings. As if all these weren’t enough, the latest issue of PC Plus gives an airing to less well-known operating systems like Haiku (the project that carries on BeOS). The inescapable conclusion is that, far from the impressions of mainstream computer users who know only Windows, we are swimming in a sea of operating system options in which you may drown if you decide to try sampling them all. That may explain why I stick with Ubuntu for home use due to reasons of familiarity and reliability and leave much of the distro hopping to others. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Windows is the choice of where I work with 2000 being usurped by Vista in the next few weeks (IT managers always like to be behind the curve for sake of safety).

Ubuntu upgrades: do a clean installation or use Update Manager?

Part of some recent “fooling” brought on by the investigation of what turned out to be a duff DVD writer was a fresh installation of Ubuntu 8.10 on my main home PC. It might have brought on a certain amount of upheaval but it was nowhere near as severe as that following the same sort of thing with a Windows system. A few hours was all that was needed but the question as to whether it is better to do an upgrade every time a new Ubuntu release is unleashed on the world or to go for a complete virgin installation instead. With Ubuntu 9.04 in the offing, that question takes on a more immediate significance than it otherwise might do.

Various tricks make the whole reinstallation idea more palatable. For instance, many years of Windows usage have taught me the benefits of separating system and user files. The result is that my home directory lives on a different disk to my operating system files. Add to that the experience of being able to reuse that home drive across different Linux distros and even swapping from one distro to another becomes feasible. From various changes to my secondary machine, I can vouch that this works for Ubuntu, Fedora and Debian; the latter is what currently powers the said PC. You might have to user superuser powers to attend to ownership and access issues but the portability is certainly there and it applies anything kept on other disks too.

Naturally, there’s always the possibility of losing programs that you have had installed but losing the clutter can be liberating too. However, assembling a script made up up of one of more apt-get install commands can allow you to get many things back at a stroke. For example, I have a test web server (Apache/MySQL/PHP/Perl) set up so this would be how I’d get everything back in place before beginning further configuration. It might be no bad idea to back up your collection of software sources either; I have yet to add all of the ones that I have been using back into Synaptic. Then there are closed source packages such as VirtualBox (yes, I know that there is an open source edition) and Adobe Reader. After reinstating the former, all my virtual machines were available for me to use again without further ado. Restoring the latter allowed me to grab version 9.1 (probably more secure anyway) and it inveigles itself into Firefox now too so the number of times that I need to go through the download shuffle before seeing the contents of a PDF are much reduced, though not completely eliminated by the Windows-like ability to see a PDF loaded in a browser tab. Moving from software to hardware for a moment, it looks like any bespoke actions such as my activating an Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner need to be repeated but that was all that I needed to do. Getting things back into order is not so bad but you need to allow a modicum of time for this.

What I have discussed so far are what might be categorised as the common or garden aspects of a clean installation but I have seen some behaviours that make me wonder if the usual Ubuntu upgrade path is sufficiently complete in its refresh of your system. The counterpoint to all of this is that I may not have been looking for some of these things before now. That may apply to my noticing that DSLR support seems to be better with my Canon and Pentax cameras both being picked up and mounted for me as soon as they are connected to a PC, the caveat being that they are themselves powered on for this to happen. Another surprise that may be new is that the BBC iPlayer’s Listen Again works without further work from the user, a very useful development. It very clearly wasn’t that way before I carried out the invasive means. My previous tweaking might have prevented the in situ upgrade from doing its thing but I do see the point of not upsetting people’s systems with an overly aggressive update process, even if it means that some advances do not make themselves known.

So what’s my answer regarding which way to go once Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope appears? For sake of avoiding initial disruption, I’d be inclined to go down the Update Manager route first while reserving the right to do a fresh installation later on. All in all, I am left with the gut feeling is that the jury is still out on this one.

Whither Fedora?

There is a reason why things have got a little quieter on this blog: my main inspiration for many posts that make their way on here, Ubuntu, is just working away without much complaint. I have to say that BBC iPlayer isn’t working so well for me at the moment so I need to take a look at my setup. Otherwise, everything is continuing quietly. In some respects, that’s no bad thing and allows me to spend my time doing other things like engaging in hill walking, photography and other such things. I suppose that the calm is also a reflection of the fact that Ubuntu has matured but there is a sense that some changes may be on the horizon. For one thing, there are the opinions of a certain Mark Shuttleworth but the competition is progressing too.

That latter point brings me to Linux Format’s recently published verdict that Fedora has overtaken Ubuntu. I do have a machine with Fedora on there and it performs what I ask of it without any trouble. However, I have never been on it trying all of the sorts of things that I ask of Ubuntu so my impressions are not in-depth ones. Going deeper into the subject mightn’t be such a bad use of a few hours. What I am not planning to do is convert my main Ubuntu machine to Fedora. I moved from Windows because of constant upheavals and I have no intention to bring those upon me without good reason and that’s just not there at the moment.

Speaking of upheavals, one thought that is entering my mind is that of upgrading that main machine. Its last rebuild was over three years ago and computer technology has moved on a bit since then with dual and quad core CPU‘s from Intel and AMD coming into the fray. Of course, the cost of all of this needs to be considered too and that is never more true than of these troubled economic times. If you asked me about the prospect of a system upgrade a few weeks ago, I would have ruled it out of hand. What has got me wondering is my continued used of virtualisation and the resources that it needs. I am getting mad notions like the idea of running more than one VM at once and I do need to admit that it has its uses, even if it puts CPU’s and memory through their paces. Another attractive idea would be getting a new and bigger screen, particularly with what you can get for around £100 these days. However, my 17″ Iiyama is doing very well so this is one for the wish list more than anything else. None of the changes that I have described are imminent but I have noticed how fast I am filling disks up with digital images so an expansion of hard disk capacity has come much higher up the to do list.

If I ever get to doing a full system rebuild with a new CPU, memory and motherboard (I am not so sure about graphics since I am no gamer),  the idea of moving into the world of 64-bit computing comes about. The maximum amount of memory usable by 32-bit software is 4 GB so 64-bit is a must if I decide to go beyond this limit. That all sounds very fine but for the possibility of problems arising with support for legacy hardware. It sounds like another bridge to be assessed before its crossing, even if two upheavals can be made into one.

Aside from system breakages, the sort of hardware and software changes over which I have been musing here are optional and can be done in my own time. That’s probably just as for a very good reason that I have mentioned earlier. Being careful with money becomes more important at times like these and it’s good that free software not only offers freedom of choice and usage but also a way to leave the closed commercial software acquisition treadmill with all of its cost implications, leaving money for much more important things.

Firefox 3, RealPlayer, Ubuntu and BBC’s iPlayer

With the record attempt due today for Firefox 3 downloads, I thought that it would be a good time for me to update my advice for getting BBC’s iPlayer going in Firefox running on Ubuntu. First, you need RealPlayer 11 for Linux. Once downloaded, the file RealPlayer11GOLD.bin needs to be made executable before running it with administrative privileges. The following command do this:

chmod +x RealPlayer11GOLD.bin

sudo ./RealPlayer11GOLD.bin

There is a catch though and it is that while the RealPlayer 11 installation is seamless for Firefox 2, the same cannot be said for Firefox 3 because directory locations have been changed such plugins are now found in /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins. The result that copies of or symbolic links to nphelix.xpt and nphelix.so are needed in that location. The following commands do the trick:

sudo ln -s /opt/real/RealPlayer/mozilla/nphelix.xpt /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins/nphelix.xpt

sudo ln -s /opt/real/RealPlayer/mozilla/nphelix.so /usr/lib/firefox-addons/plugins/nphelix.so

To cap all of this, I have seen advice that libtotem-complex-plugin.so needs to be removed from the Firefox plugins directory as well. I am not sure about this but I did that and all is working well for me. Let’s hope that continues to be the case.