A bigger screen?

A recent bit of thinking has caused me to cast my mind back over all the screens that have sat in front of me while working with computers over the years. Well, things have come a long way from the spare television that I used with a Commodore 64 that I occasionally got to exploring the thing. Needless to say, a variety of dedicated CRT screens ensued as I started to make use of Apple and IBM compatible PC’s provided in computing labs and other such places before I bought an example of the latter as my first ever PC of my own. That sported a 15″ display that stood out a little in times when 14″ ones were mainstream but a 17″ Iiyama followed it when its operational quality deteriorated. That Iiyama came south with me from Edinburgh as I moved to where the work was and offered sterling service before it too started to succumb to aging.

During the time that the Iiyama CRT screen was my mainstay at home, there were changes afoot in the world of computer displays. A weighty 21″ Philips screen was what greeted me on a first day at work but 21″ Eizo LCD displays were set to replace those behemoths and remain in use as if to prove the longevity of LCD panels and the validity of using what had been sufficient for laptops for a decade or so. In fact, the same comment regarding reliability applies to the screen that now is what I use at home, a 17″ Iiyama LCD panel (yes, I stuck with the same brand when I changed technologies longer ago than I like to remember).

However, that hasn’t stopped me wondering about my display needs and it’s screen size that is making me think rather than the reliability of the current panel. That is a reflection on how my home computing needs have changed over time and they show how my non-computing interests have evolved too. Photography is but one of these and the move the digital capture has brought with a greater deal of image processing, so much that I wonder if I need to make less photos rather than bringing home so many that it can be hard to pick out the ones that are deserving of a wider viewing. That is but one area where a bigger screen would help but there is another and it arises from my interest in exploring countryside on foot or on my bike: digital mapping. When planning outings, it would be nice to have a wider field of view to be able to see more at a larger scale.

None of the above is a showstopper that would be the case if the screen itself was unreliable so I am going to take my time on this one. The prospect of sharing desktops across two screens is another idea but that needs some thought about where it all would fit; the room that I have set aside for working at my computer isn’t the largest but it’ll need to do. After the space side of things, then there’s the matter of setting up the hardware. Quite how a dual display is going to work with a KVM setup is something to explore as is the adding of extra video cards to existing machines. After the hardware fiddling, the software side of things is not a concern that I have because of when I used laptop as my main machine for a while last year. That confirmed that Windows (Vista but it has been possible since 2000 anyway…) and Ubuntu (other modern Linux distributions should work too…) can cope with desktop sharing out of the box.

Apart from the nice thoughts of having more desktop space, the other tempting side to all of this is what you can get for not much outlay. It isn’t impossible to get a 22″ display for less than £200 and the prices for 24″ ones are tempting too. That’s a far cry from paying next to £300 (if my memory serves me correctly) for that 17″ Iiyama and I’d hope that the quality is as good as ever.

It’s all very well talking about pricing but you need to sit down and choose a make and model when you get to deciding on a purchase. There is plenty of choice so that would take a while but magazine reviews will come in handy here. Saying that, last year’s computing misadventures have me questioning the sense of going for what a magazine places on its A-list. They also have me minded to go to a nearby computer shop to make a purchase rather than choosing a supplier on the web; it is easier to take back a faulty unit if you don’t have far to go. Speaking of faulty units, last year has left me contemplating waiting until the year is older before making any acquisitions of computer kit. All of that has put the idea of buying a new screen on the low priority list, nice to have but not essential. For now, that is where it stays but you never know what the attractions of a shiny new thing can do…

So you just need a web browser?

When Google announced that it was working on an operating system, it was bound to result in a frisson of excitement. However, a peek at the preview edition that has been doing the rounds confirms that Chrome OS is a very different beast from those operating systems to which we are accustomed. The first thing that you notice is that it only starts up the Chrome web browser. In this, it is like a Windows terminal server session that opens just one application. Of course, in Google’s case, that one piece of software is the gateway to its usual collection of productivity software like GMail, Calendar, Docs & Spreadsheets and more. Then, there are offerings from others too with Microsoft just beginning to come into the fray to join Adobe and many more. As far as I can tell, all files are stored remotely and I reckon that adding the possibility of local storage and management of those local files would be a useful enhancement.

With Chrome OS, Google’s general strategy starts to make sense. First create a raft of web applications, follow them up with a browser and then knock up an operating system. It just goes to show that Google Labs doesn’t just churn out stuff for fun but that there is a serious point to their endeavours. In fact, you could say that they sucked us in to a point along the way. Speaking for myself, I may not entrust all of my files to storage in the cloud but I am perfectly happy to entrust all of my personal email activity to GMail. It’s the widespread availability and platform independence that has done it for me. For others spread between one place and another, the attractions of Google’s other web apps cannot be understated. Maybe, that’s why they are not the only players in the field either.

With the rise of mobile computing, that portability is the opportunity that Google is trying to use to its advantage. For example, mobile phones are being used for things now that would have been unthinkable a few years back. Then, there’s the netbook revolution started by Asus with its Eee PC. All of this is creating an ever internet connected bunch of people so have devices that connect straight to the web like they would with Chrome OS has to be a smart move. Some may decry the idea that Chrome OS is going to be available on a device only basis but I suppose they have to make money from this too; search can only pay for so much and they have experience with Android too.

There have been some who wondered about Google’s activities killing off Linux and giving Windows a good run for its money; Chrome OS seems to be a very different animal to either of these. It looks as if it is a tool for those on the move, an appliance rather than the pure multipurpose tools that operating systems usually are. If there is a symbol of what an operating system usually means for me, it’s the ability to start with a bare desktop and decide what to do next. Transparency is another plus point and the Linux command line had that in spades. For those who view PC’s purely as means to get things done, such interests are peripheral and it is for these that the likes of Chrome OS has been created. In other word, the Linux community need to keep an eye on what Google is doing but should not take fright because there are other things that Linux always will have as unique selling points. The same sort of thing applies to Windows too but Microsoft’s near stranglehold on the enterprise market will take a lot of loosening, perhaps keeping Chrome OS in the consumer arena. Counterpoints to that include the use GMail for enterprise email by some companies and the increasing footprint of web-based applications, even bespoke ones, in business computing. In fact, it’s the latter than can be blamed for any tardiness in Internet Explorer development. In summary, Chrome OS is a new type of thing rather than a replacement for what’s already there. We may find that co-existence is how things turn out but it means for Linux in the netbook market is another matter. Only time will tell on that one.

Seeing how things develop

One of the things that I do out of curiosity and self-interest is to keep tabs on what is happening with development versions of software that I use. It is for this reason that I always have a development version of WordPress on the go so as to ensure that the next stable version doesn’t bring my blog to its knees. There have been contributions from my own self to the development effort, mainly in the form of bug reports with the occasional bug fix too.

In the same vein, I have had a development version of Ubuntu installed in a VirtualBox virtual machine. There have been breakages and reinstallations along the way when an update results in disruption but it is intriguing too to see how a Linux distribution comes to fruition. In the early days of Karmic Koala (9.10), everything was thrown together more loosely and advances looked less obvious. It is true to say the ext4 file systems support was already in place but the interface looked like a tweaked version of the standard GNOME desktop. Over time, the desktop has been customised and boot messages hidden out of sight. Eye candy like new icons and backgrounds have begun to entice while other features such as an encrypted home folder, Software Store and Ubuntu One came into place. Installation screens became slicker and boot times reduced. All of this may seem incremental but revolutions can break things and you only have to look at the stuttering progress of Windows to see that. Even with all of these previews, I still plan to do a test run of the final revision of 9.10 before committing to putting it in place on my main home PC. Bearing the scars of misadventures over the years has taught me well.

Windows development is a less open process but I have been partial fo development versions there too. In fact, beta and release candidate installations of Windows 7 have convinced me to upgrade from Windows XP for those times when a Windows VM needs to fired up in anger. A special offer has had me ordering in advance and sitting back and waiting. With my Windows needs being secondary to my Linux activities, I am not so fussed about taking my time and I have no intention of binning Windows XP just yet anyway.

The trouble with all of this previewing is that you get buffeted by the ongoing development. That is very true of Ubuntu 9.10 and has been very much part and parcel of the heave that brought WordPress 2.7 into being last year. Things get added and then removed as development tries to fins that sweet spot or a crash results and you need to rebuild things. It is small wonder that you are told not to put unfinished software on a production system. Another consequence might be that you really question why you are watching all of this and come to decide that what you already have is a place of safety in comparison to what’s coming. So far, that has never turned out to be true but there’s no harm in looking before you leap either.

Making Nautilus work like it does in Ubuntu for another GNOME using distro

It’s a personal preference but I like the way that Nautilus (GNOME’s default file manager if you need to know) is set to work in Ubuntu by default. For some tastes, it might look too similar to Windows Explorer but having all the action happening in the same window is a convenience that users of other GNOME using distributions may not realise is there at all. By default, Debian and Fedora use what is called spatial mode with each double-clicking action on a folder icon firing up a new window. Personally, I think that clutters the desktop without good cause but it’s easy to change. All that’s needed is to go to Edit>Preferences in a Nautilus window, proceed to the Behaviour tab and toggle the Always open in browser windows tick box as shown below. Quite why this is not the default in all GNOME using distributions is beyond me but others may prefer what I dislike and Linux is all about choice, after all. Well, you can decide to use Gnome Commander instead and there are times when I do the same along with being a command line user too.

File Management Preferences