Vlad Ioan Topan

My playground

Switching to Linux (1)

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Since my first Linux “experience” (which happened some eight years ago during a CS lab at UTCN), every couple of years I spend somewhere between a few days to several weeks trying to switch over to “the other side”. The reasons behind these (as of yet futile) attempts revolve mostly around the concept of “freedom”, and are beyond the scope of this writing. What I find of greater interest is the evolution of Linux-based OSes, and in particular of their target audience, which shifts more and more from hardcore enthusiasts willing to spend countless hours setting up a new machine toward average computer users (even the ones of the “point-and-clicky” variety).

The “sparse” look

My first Linux (Mandriva) was text-only; X-Window was in an “almost-working” state (crashing often, and even more often not being able to start at all) on most Linux machines I touched back then. Some time later most distributions had GUIs, but all the relevant work was still done beyond the scenes by console programs, which is still the case today. The myriad of “flavors” (and window managers) has made it practically impossible to write even remotely portable GUI interfaces for Linux, so graphic interfaces get “strapped” (pardon the low-brow hint; it truly feels like le mot juste) on console programs.

And that’s precisely how most Linux GUIs look and feel like: painful. Most of the window space is simply wasted: text is larger than necessary (for most people) and controls are separated by vast amounts of empty space, giving the interfaces a very “sparse” look. And deeper on the causality chain of problems is the fact that there simply isn’t that much exposed functionality in most Linux GUIs. Although to a much lesser extent than it was the case years ago, you still have to drill down way beyond the graphical interface in order to accomplish most non-trivial tasks. And then there’s responsiveness. After being spoiled by native graphical interfaces (some optimized to the point of writing machine assembly-level code) with excellent responsiveness (as it is more often than not the case on Windows), the sensible lag experienced on most interactions with Linux GUIs tends to annoy me in a very subtle manner. Then there’s Java and Java-based GUIs, which make Linux GUIs feel lightning fast, but I won’t go there.

Along came Ubuntu

My most recent attempt at Linux started a couple of months ago, but was interrupted by even-more-work-than-usual at the job, and would have been completely forgotten and abandoned if not for a Linux-vs-Windows themed conversation with my coworkers. I complained about most of the things that annoyed me about Linux (no decent music player is near the top of my list), and after getting many answers along the main theme of “software X has come a long way since then“, I decided to actually give it (yet) another chance.

My previous experience with Ubuntu (8.04 I think) had been almost pleasant, by far more so than any other previously-tried flavor (most notable being Mandriva back when it was called Mandrake and Red Hat at home and CentOS at work), so Ubuntu 10.10 felt like the way to go. After some research regarding “the most popular Linux”, Linux Mint popped up as a tempting Ubuntu/Debian-based alternative. The sheer volume of documentation / user-assistance available for the vanilla Ubuntu convinced me to stick with it, and so far it has been the right decision: as I’ve become accustomed when setting up a Linux OS, I’ve had problems requiring “workarounds” from the first day.

The good

In spite of the minor technical “misadventures” during setup, the Ubuntu 10.10 GUI finally feels mature (and almost responsive *enough*). The themes look good, the fonts are readable even at smaller sizes etc. And then there’s the repositories: thanks to my recently-acquired 100Mbit Internet connection, in a few hours after the installation I was already playing a pretty good-looking FPS (Assault Cube) and enjoying it. I’m not much of a gamer, but on one hand I was curious how far free games have come along, and on the other I had a lot of blood-spill-requiring-frustration left over from working out what should have been minor kinks and turned into major research themes.

I actually managed to set up both my PPP Internet connection and a VPN to my workplace without much hassle, which is a notable first. The VPN actually works better than on Windows because I have a convenient checkbox option to only route traffic going towards the VPN server’s network through it (as opposed to manually deleting the route through the VPN server on Windows, because some clever bloke figured I *must* want *all* my Internet traffic to be routed through a gateway which only knows private addresses).

The bad

The NTFS driver (ntfs-3g). It’s not bad per se, in fact it also has “come a long way” and when it works, it works fine. But in one instance it *chose* not to work for me, which I found very frustrating and annoying. My problem (and it seems to be a rather common one) is that on a recently-acquired USB hard-disk Windows appears to have messed up either the partition table or the NTFS filesystem; the problem is that it only appears that way to the ntfs-3g driver. Which is not to say that it’s wrong (from what I could gather, the size of the filesystem is set to a larger value than there actually is room on the disk, the difference being of a few sectors = a few KB); it’s just that Windows doesn’t seem to mind and reads from/writes to the disk without problems. I imagine that if I were to write to those last few KB on the disk the data would be lost, but at least I can access the data on the disk, which ntfs-3g won’t allow, because it wouldn’t mount the disk even in read-only mode. Adding insult to injury, the “Tuxera CTO” (an otherwise friendly and helpful person) suggests (here) that the only solution to ignore the warning is to “change the sourcecode”. Booting back into Windows, backing up the data and reformatting the drive to a smaller size fixed the problem, but it shouldn’t have been necessary, and the “I know what’s right for you better than you ’cause I’m the pro” attitude was somewhat disappointing.

Another problem is the lack of a decent file manager. After using all the “commanders” (Norton Commander, then the amazing Dos Navigator and nowadays Total Commander), I’m used to having a software which can handle all file-related operations (and I do a lot of them for my day job) easily and efficiently. TC, which I wholeheartedly recommend on Windows, handles everything just fine. On Linux, so far I haven’t even been able to find a (GUI) file manager with an actual “brief” view mode; all of them insist on giving me a long line of information about each file, whether I actually need it or not, and waste about two thirds of the available screen space in the process. All the features offered by TC, not to mention the plethora of plugins available for it, are still far, far way. And since we’ve hit the sensitive point of software equivalents for Linux, here’s what I’ve managed to find so far.

Software alternatives for Linux

File manager

As mentioned above, I’m profoundly dissatisfied with what I’ve found so far. MC is a must, but lacks many features. Double Commander seems be the best contender, and is built to be similar to TC (going as far as plugin interchangeability, if only there were any ELF plugins for TC…), which is a plus.

Music player

After finding a decent music player (i.e. one which is stable and has a compact interface like WinAMP and the other *AMPs on Windows) has been a seemingly impossible feat for years, along came Audacious, and all became well.

Image viewer

If good file managers and music players are hard to come by in Linux, image viewers are far more challenging. Neither one seems to grasp the basic concept of viewing a folder of images; all of them insist on “organizing my collection of photos” (’cause it’s trendy to index collections of stuff), and offer either very cumbersome methods of simply browsing image folders, or simply no way at all (except for, of course, indexing/organising the folders into a collection). The excellent XnView image viewer for Windows has a multi-platform version aptly-called XnView MP, with the downside that development is favored for the Windows version and Linux builds don’t come for each version.


I’m still looking into options for a development IDE (for C and Python in particular), with no luck as of yet.

As far as web browsing is concerned, all the relevant alternatives for Windows (Opera, Firefox and Chrome) are present on Linux, and from the order of the above enumeration my browser of choice should be obvious enough.

For an office suite I use OpenOffice on Windows, which is also available on most platforms.

I strongly recommend Guake as a terminal and Gnome Do as a generic application/document opening method.

[To be continued]

Written by vtopan

November 11, 2010 at 2:56 AM

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