Computer Conundrum Solved

A couple of months back, I was weighing my options for a new system. After I wrote my past post, I went and installed the evaluation version of Windows 8, and chose to use as my primary system, which turned out I did so for about three weeks. After all, I did want to give it a fair shake since I had not really used it since Consumer Preview. I’ll be honest, I am not quite as negative on Windows 8 as I was previously – there are noticeable performance improvements, and I started getting a little more used to the Start screen (once getting in the mode of hitting the windows key, then typing what app you want – ala Unity in Ubuntu). I still find it odd though that some system settings are in Metro, while others are still in the traditional Control Panel area. In the end, it still feels pretty disjointed. I’m hoping that Blue, now to be officially Windows 8.1 will solve some of this.

So in the end I chose a Mac, and purchased one about a month ago. Specifically a MacBook Pro 13″ – the base model, but had the RAM upgraded to 8GB. This was partially due to budget, and partially I found I like a smaller to medium footprint in a notebook, but still wanted decent hard drive space.

Now, I was still playing with Windows 8 some on the old system. I attempted to configure it for my son to use while we were going away for the weekend, but it had an issue with Minecraft complaining about video drivers. Once I installed what was supposed to be Windows 8 video drivers (ATI), Minecraft would run, but then the system would “blank out” after some time, and then not respond until you hard rebooted it. Time was running short, so for that trip, I had to revert back to Windows 7.

So back to the Mac. I like it. I am still relearning some things, but honestly remember quite a bit from when I used one last several years back. My setup is a 24″ monitor, keyboard, and mouse, with the laptop to the right opened as a secondary monitor. I’ve also moved the dock to the left side of the screen, as I’ve done in Windows when I use it, and as Unity does by default in Ubuntu. There is also a monitor to the left of the 24″ monitor, but that is hooked up to a cable box to use when I want to watch some TV.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve needed to make is using Command instead of Control with keyboard shortcuts, i.e. Ctrl-C becomes Command-C in OSX. Once nice thing about having a mechanical keyboard is that I was able to physically move keycaps on the keyboard to match the remapping of keys I did. Note the Ctrl, Alt (equal to Option in OSX), and the blank “Windows” meta key used for Control.

To raise the laptop up so the screen is closer to the height of the main monitor, and also give some more room for the external mouse, I found Bench Cookies work quite well!

Some of you may be thinking, “once someone gets a Mac, they’ll want all their devices to be Apple”. This is true for some – one person I know also switched recently to Mac, then he quickly followed by getting an iPhone, replacing his Android. I tend to be a person who says “never say never”, but at this time I just don’t see myself adopting all things Apple or migrating into the Apple ecosystem. I am using OSX as an OS that gets out of my way. My wife has an iPhone, which I think is a great fit for her, but I personally still am more drawn to Android for my phone and tablet. I use Google products and really like how Android works with those products. My approach as I see it is very similar to Lamarr Wilson, with the difference being I have and like my Nexus 7 while he enjoys an iPad for a tablet. (If you are not familiar with Lamarr, check his channel out. He’s a very funny dude.)

So there it is. You can probably expect posts in the future that will include Mac, as well as Windows and Linux when I discuss OS related topics. Isn’t variety great?

Let The Truck Be A Truck

Let The Truck Be A Truck

A few posts back I made reference to “tabletizing” the desktop/laptop OS. Since that post, Linux Mint has remained at the top position on Distrowatch, followed by Mageia, then Ubuntu. Distrowatch may not be the “be all end all” of distro ratings, but seems to be one of the best indicators of at least interest of a particular distro.

Linux Mint’s main offering of their latest version (13, an LTS or Long Term Support release) comes in two main different desktops: Cinnamon, and MATE. Cinnamon is an offering to make the Gnome 3 desktop a more traditional desktop, while MATE is a Gnome 2 fork for those that really want to stay with that experience. Mint also offers an xfce and KDE edition. I am currently running the xfce variant of Linux Mint 13 on my Linux box.

I have not followed Mageia closely, but understand it to be a community fork of Mandriva that came about when Mandriva fell on some difficult times financially. They have a default environment of KDE, but also offers Gnome 3, xfce, lxde, and a couple of others.

From various places I’ve read around the net, folks seem to be still critical of Unity (the default Ubuntu desktop environment), as well as the desktop formerly known as Metro for Windows 8. Of course there are some folks that seem to like those interfaces, but to my unscientific observations, there seem to be more folks critical of these “tablet oriented” interfaces on the desktop/laptop than those embracing it.

My take, and it seems there are others who may agree, is when a tablet experience is all I need, then I will reach for my tablet. When I am on a desktop or laptop though, it’s because I need it to do something more. Something the tablet either cannot do, or do as well or efficiently as a laptop or desktop.

The late Steve Jobs made the analogy that personal computers are like trucks. At one time, when the US was much more of a farming nation, most folks had trucks. As that trend changed though to less farming and into other occupations, less trucks were used in favor of cars. Of course, trucks never went away, and similarly, I don’t see personal computers completely going away anytime soon.

So why “tabletize” the experience of a personal computer? I know in the case of Windows 8, I can click on the “Desktop” tile to get to a more traditional, Windows 7-like experience, or do some registry hack. When looking at the case with Ubuntu, I can install a different evironment.

But I shouldn’t have to.

Why take the truck (in this example, let’s assume the standard pickup), and cut 6 feet off of the 8 foot bed, taking a key function of the truck and reducing it to a significantly less function? It seems to me that the truck functions as a truck when, well, we let it remain a truck.

New Keyboard – Goin’ Mechanical!

I remember some 15 years ago or so, I had an IBM Model M keyboard on my desk at the job I had at the time. I really enjoyed using that keyboard with its tactile feel. I could type like a madman on the thing. Since then of course, with companies reducing costs, the keyboards that were produced were a cheaper rubber dome technology as opposed to the mechanical switch type that the Model M used. Some were pretty good, others less so.

Well, I recently learned there are a few companies making keyboard with mechanical switches. After some research on price, availability, and on forums such as geekhack.org, I picked up the Leopold tenkeyless in Cherry MX Brown switches from EliteKeyboards. There were a few factors that went into my decision to go with this particular keyboard:

  • Cherry MX switches come in different “colors”, each with their own characteristics. I chose brown since it has a tactile feedback, but not the potentially disturbing click of the blue. I’ve also heard of red and black switches, but these appear to be more for gamers. I’m not a PC gamer much these days. When I am playing a game, it’s usually on the Xbox, or if on the PC, usually a more relaxed game like Civilization V.
  • Tenkeyless: I’ve gotten used to not using the ten keypad since my work laptops have not had them. Really the only time I did use them is to put in some numerical data in Excel, or typing in an IP address. I don’t need to do this in Excel that often, and I’m almost as quick putting in an IP address using the standard number keys. Honestly, I value the real estate gained on the desk by using the smaller form factor, as well as having the mouse a bit closer.
  • Leopold: They are readily available in the US from EliteKeyboards, and at a decent price as far as mechanical keyboards go. Expect to pay more for a mechanical keyboard than for a rubber dome keyboard. That said the Leopold is much less expensive than the Happy Hacking and Realforce keyboards that Elite also sells. They used to sell Filco, but apparently had supply issues. Amazon has some Filcos, but they are a little bit more expensive, and what mostly seems to be available are different color combos (camo body, or yellow keys, etc.). I like the (mostly) basic black (more below). Also, while both Leopold and Filco have keyboards where there is no printing on the top of the keycaps, Amazon seemed to only really have the nonprinted version (what they call Ninja). I’m not that good of a typist (yet?).

The keyboard came solidly packed in the box, with a plastic tray like sheet over the top that you could use as a dust cover if you wanted to. It shipped with the black escape key, but also a red one. I switched out the black for the red. Why? Because having a red escape key is just cool. I guess I’m admitting my geekiness here. I also ordered along with the keyboard blank meta (Windows) keys. Why?  I like both Windows and Linux, so why not make the keyboard platform agnostic, right?

It’s the red, candy-like button

Blank Meta Keycap

I’m giving the keyboard its first workout as I type this blog post. I’m liking the typing experience. The browns are a little louder than the rubber dome keyboard it replaces, but not too loud. Caps Lock and Scroll Lock indicator LEDs are built right into the key itself. Other aspects I like about the keyboard is it has three channels to route the detachable usb cable: left, right, and center. Included is a velcro strap for cable management as well, which I use since the usb port I am plugged into is only about two feet away. The keyboard has a good solid feel, and you can tell it weighs a bit more than your typical keyboard. There are rubber feet placed on the bottom such that it hold without moving on the desk whether the back flip down pieces are out or retracted.

So the verdict is that it was money well spent. I may just get a second one for work.

Some more pics:

Cherry MX Brown Switch

Indicator LEDs

Original Keycaps

Underside – Cable Channels & Rubber Feet

To Tabletize Or Not to Tabletize… & Linux Mint Overtakes Ubuntu On Distrowatch

If you’re a regular follower of Distrowatch, you know that Ubuntu for the most part has held the #1 spot for a long time; according to Distrowatch, since April 2005. Recently Linux Mint has taken over that spot.

I think one of the main reasons, is that most folks, especially experienced Linux users, don’t necessarily embrace what I call the “tabletization” of the desktop OS. I believe that most people, tech folks, along with everyday users, do expect two different experiences when they use a tablet vs a full desktop/laptop OS. According to Distrowatch, Linux Mint 12 will have many tweaks to Gnome 3 to allow for a more traditional experience; I’ll be looking forward to trying it out.

I am not sure why there is such insistence on “tabletizing” the desktop/laptop – other than the generic thought of “it’s the future”. This is not just Linux, but Windows 8 developer preview (which by definition of developer preview, I won’t pass final judgement), and Mac OS Lion, which to my knowledge, for those folks I know with Macs that use this version of Mac OS, do not use the tablet-like features. My wife, who is the epitome of the everyday user, saw the Windows 8 developer preview and had that one eyebrow raised “what thaaa?” look. I know, it’s premature, but still noteworthy.

It will be interesting to see the new version of Mint, as well as if the tabletization of the desktop/laptop is something that will stick or not. I’d love to hear others thought on the topic!

RIP Dennis Ritchie 1941 – 2011

RIP Steve Jobs 1955 – 2011

Wrap Up Of A Week Each with Unity and Gnome 3

Somehow I knew that when I wrote my last post about working for a week each with Unity and Gnome 3, that this post would not necessarily come two weeks after. Daily activities and the Stanley Cup finals sort of sidetracked me (well worth it though  – Woooooo! Bruins! Congratulations!)

The good part is I did take down some notes so that I would hopefully not forget any point I wanted to make, one bad thing is that I forgot to get screenshots. That said, I did not change the default interfaces other than the background image, so if you are familiar with either interface, or have screenshots, those default setups are what I worked with. I’ll also mention here that my side experiment I mentioned in the previous post of running Windows as a VM were mixed under both environments, but I think this was due to subpar video on the laptop I was using.

My goal was not to do a full technical review, but to look at each of these interfaces from a usability perspective. Not to get ahead of myself, but it does seem clear to me that both of these interfaces are meant for newer folks to Linux, or not as technically oriented people who just want to use a computer. I did try to keep this in mind as I worked with these environments, but I found it tough at times since I am a more than average technical user. Hopefully I don’t come across as unfair at all. Also, as mentioned in my previous post, my other concern is the higher hardware requirements needed – neither one would run as a VM.

Unity (Ubuntu 11.04 Default Interface)

When you first enter Unity, the first thing you notice is the launcher bar on the left side of the screen. This wasn’t really foreign for me, since I’ve actually been experimenting with the taskbar on the left side of the screen in Windows for about three months now. There is also one master menu in the upper left (as opposed to the gnome 2.x default 3 menu bar). The launcher bar is fixed in size, which could take up a large amount of real estate on some smaller resolution screens. I did install a package that allows you to change the launch bar size – compizconfig-settings-manager. When you click on the menu, it brings up what I found to be a bit too simplistic grid of large icons for apps. If you don’t see the app you want, and know that it is installed, the fastest way to get to it is to type the name, and hope you have it correct so it finds it. Otherwise, you’re typically left with quite a few mouse clicks to get to where you need. Once you find it, you can add to the launcher for quicker access. This grid of icons, along with the square icon look of the launcher, seem to lend itself to a mobile OS rather than a desktop OS. I found it interesting that as I was doing some things under Unity, my 6 year old came up to me and asked if the laptop screen was a touchscreen.

A while back, Microsoft tried to cram a desktop OS into a mobile platform (Windows CE, and Mobile 6.x and before – I don’t have any experience with Windows Phone 7 OS). This didn’t work great then, and I’m not sure it works great going the other way – taking elements of mobile OS’s and bringing them to the desktop to the point where it resembles a mobile OS. I expect one experience from a desktop OS, and another from a mobile OS. Or maybe I’m just a bit too old school and haven’t warmed up to the idea, yet… time will tell.

Some minor things I noticed in Unity:

  • To re-position an app in the launcher, you need to drag it out of the launcher bar, then back into it in it’s desired location.
  • The previous mentioned need to install a package to adjust the size of the launcher bar.
  • Some inconsistencies with how apps are maximized – some maximize so their close button, etc are in the title bar of the OS, others remain in the title bar of the app.
  • When I did launch apps via VMWare Unity (not the same as Ubuntu Unity), it did not create an icon in the launcher for that app, where it does create an entry in the taskbar of Gnome 2.x.

Gnome 3 (Default Interface in Fedora 15)

The first thing I ran into with Fedora 15 is that wireless network did not work. But since this isn’t a technical review of the particular distro, I simply did not put in much effort to fix it. I plugged in my ethernet cable, and moved on.

My first thoughts about Gnome 3 were “same, yet different” when compared to Unity. Because of this, this section may be a bit shorter than the Unity section, mostly because it will be comparison.

There is still the menu at the top left, call Activities. The difference here is that the launcher, also on the left side, does not appear until you click on Activities or activate a hotspot corner. This is a bit of a minus in my book. When you click on the Activities menu, you are presented with a similar set of large grid icons for apps, where if you don’t see the app you want, you are now in the situation of typing the name, or on a too many mouse click trail to get to the app. Again, here, perhaps a little too “mobile OS like”.

The other things I noted in Gnome 3:

  • The same app re-position issue as in Unity, you have to move the app outside the area to then move it back in to desired postion.
  • I am not sure if this is a Gnome or Fedora issue, but to shut down the machine, it appears like you need to log off first. Shut Down does not appear to be an option under the user action menu that is in the upper right.

Final Thoughts

I probably sound like I’m coming down a bit hard on each. I do think they are fine environments for the non-technical user who wants to check their web based email, do general web browsing, occasional access to office apps (using Libre Office), etc. That said, I can’t help but think there were really designed for mobile (especially tablet) platforms, and are being forced on the desktop. Most folks that think of using Linux tend to be more technically savvy, and therefore, I think, expect a different, and more robust, experience from their desktop than with a mobile platform. Ubuntu does offer to change your selection to Ubuntu Classic, which is Gnome 2.x. I am not aware of a similar function in Gnome 3, but if you didn’t have the hardware to run Gnome 3 default, then it will revert to an interface similar to Gnome 2.x.

I do tend to try and have an open mind about changes like these – at least developers are trying to innovate. So perhaps these environments will grow on me over time… or not.

But what say you? Let’s do a “Science Attic” first and do a poll! Please leave comments too, if you’d like, especially if the poll misses your point of view!