The New Computer Conundrum

question-markI’ve been running on an aging low end laptop for close to a year now, after passing down my main system to my son after his system died. The laptop I’m on now was never meant to be my main system, but an extra for testing, or something I could bring down to the shop when I wanted (since then my Nexus 7 fills that role). It’s time to think about the next computer purchase.

And I’m torn.

It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the “tabletization” of the desktop OS. I’ve generally liked Windows 7, and also like Linux. I like how Linux works, it’s open source philosophy, and customization options. That said, I’m a support engineer, which means I spend my day fixing broken systems (in my case a storage virtulization solution, which is built on top of Linux). I am finding that when I come home, especially now that I am getting more into video creation for my other blog, I have an increasing desire to not have to fix, tweak, or jump through a bunch of hoops to “get stuff done”.

So step one is to look at user requirements. What is the “stuff” I’m looking to “get done”? In short:

  • Web (and email, but I use the web interface of Gmail, so include it under web)
  • Office apps (whether it be MS Office or an alternative such as LibreOffice)
  • Sketchup (formerly by Google, since sold to Trimble)
  • Netflix, Hulu, watching DVDs
  • Music (Play and manage local files, as well as services such as Spotify)
  • As previously mentioned, video (and audio) creation and editing

Now what are the options I am considering? I should note that I’ve been running Ubuntu 12.10 for the last couple of months on this old laptop as an experiment to see how things will work, and to see how much I would be looking to go back to Windows 7 for a task. In short it’s been pretty good and I haven’t had a huge reason to want to go back to Windows, with one exception: video creation and editing. More on this below.

Options I’m considering in no particular order:

Windows 8

I don’t like Windows 8. No I don’t like it, Sam I am… OK, I never claimed to be Dr. Seuss. Seriously though, the Start screen (aka “Metro”)  in Windows 8 is the primary reason for my distaste. I tried, using both the Developer and Consumer Previews. I won’t reiterate what I’ve already mentioned in previous posts about the new Start screen. Let’s suffice to say though I need the truck. I don’t think I should need to install third party apps, or do registry edits to make my operating system behave as the operating system with the features enabled that I use.

If I were given a free Windows 8 system now, the first thing I would do is disable the Start screen and enable the traditional Start menu, either by registry edits or third party apps (less preferable) to make it more like Windows 7. Maybe I sound like a grumpy old man, but it really seems this was change for the sake of change, not added usability. I will say it makes sense for mobile, but that then brings me back to the point I’ve made in the past that when a mobile experience is what I need, I’ll reach for my tablet or phone. When I am on a desktop/laptop, it’s because I need it to do something more. The experience on the desktop vs. mobile does not need to be the same. The one plus that Windows 8 has going for it is the reported performance improvements.

Windows 7

You can still get systems with Windows 7, or I could buy a system with Windows 8, then install 7 instead (but that then counts as buying an OEM licence for Windows 8). I said that I generally like Windows 7. My concern here is support. Officially, their site states that mainstream support ends January 2015 (extended is 2020, but this is only available to corporate customers). I generally get, and expect, more than two years of service from my systems, especially if I am paying a bit more for better than low end hardware.


I like Linux. I like how it works (navigating both the GUI and CLI), and have played with several distributions. I mentioned that I am currently running Ubuntu 12.10. I have also used to varying degrees previous versions of Ubuntu (and derivatives) and Linux Mint as my main usage distro, and others for testing them out. Unity has grown on me some, and I consider it superior to Windows 8 Start environment… at least in Unity, it still acts like a desktop. I’m not crazy about the inclusion of web in the search, but at least this is easily turned off. At times, I’ve had some sluggishness, but I would not want to pin blame on Unity, since I am running on older hardware and it could be either (or both).

I like that Linux stands for freedom of choice, customization, and the control it provides. What is an issue still though is options for video creation and editing. There are some promising projects, but they are not where they need to be yet. I’ve tried Openshot, Kdenlive, and Cinelerra. The learning curve is a bit much for what I’m looking to do when it comes to Cinelerra. I had issues with Openshot bringing in captions (using Inkscape, there is no internal way that I know of to do it), and while I did get a movie edited with Kdenlive, I found it odd that I needed to relaunch it using sudo in order to have it render the video. This isn’t exactly what I have in mind when I state I’m in the mode of “getting stuff done”. Linux is great, but for me, it’s clear there are still limitations that will prove frustrating in everyday use. I will still continue to use it though as a “hobbyist” either on a test system, and/or a virtual machine.


It’s been a long time since I’ve used a Mac. When I did, I generally liked it, although it was not my primary system. When I was in a network support/operations role, I had three systems on my desk: Windows (XP), Solaris, and Mac. Each did some things better than others. There was one other time I considered buying a Mac for my personal use. It was back in the Windows Vista days and I had issues with performance degrading on my system. But then Windows 7 came out and fixed many of those issues. I now find myself once again considering the Mac.

I’m either odd, or just part of a larger, but much quieter group of people in that I am neither a huge Apple fan and devotee, nor an Apple hater. We have iPods and an iPad in the house, but I use Android as my main mobile environment (Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus). I think Apple makes high quality products, albeit expensive, that deserve thoughtful consideration. I’ve been critical of Apple at times, for example, being “paternal” (perceived attitude that they know better than the user what they want their user experience to be), or overzealous in patent litigation (huge rabbit hole here discussion here, and they are not the only guilty party). I also give them credit though. Even though it is a more controlled (or maybe because it’s a more controlled) experience, they have an environment where it is easier for most folks to “get stuff done”, especially, it seems, in the content creation area. My thinking here is if I do purchase a Mac, I would use iMovie for the video editing, then decide later if I should move to something like Final Cut or Adobe Premiere.

What are your thoughts? Anything I haven’t considered in your opinion? Please though, no flame wars :).

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.

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!

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!

A Week Each With Unity (Ubuntu 11.04) & Gnome 3 (Fedora 15)

There are some interesting changes that Ubuntu‘s new Unity interface, and Gnome’s new version 3 bring to the table. I say “interesting” because if you look around the internet enough, you’ll find quite a mix of opinions on both.

Of course I’m interested in what all the discussion is about. I’ve decided to commit to working with each for one week so see what thoughts I come away with. The reason for a week is I don’t want to come up with impressions after working only a few hours with any particular environment, then hastily come to conclusions based on those impressions.

To level set what my Linux background is, and where I’m coming from is that I’ve played with plenty of Linux distros, usually ones based on Gnome 2.x, and therefore primarily what I am used to. I would not label myself as any sort of Linux expert, but do consider myself reasonably proficient. Most of my knowledge of Linux was self taught until recently when I took a one week class in Linux Fundamentals in February, and another one week course in Linux Administration a few weeks ago. The product I support is a Storage Virtualization solution, in which the management server and the directors run Linux instances. So most of what I do in Linux for work is in the CLI.

Side note regarding the Linux Administration class. This was a remote class I took from home, which resulted in a proud “geek dad” moment for me. My 6 year old son saw me taking the class, and was intrigued. He then insisted that I sit with him, so I could teach him “just like in Linux class” – and he was all about the CLI, since that was what class focused on. (Sorry, had to get this in there!)

So back to Unity and Gnome 3. I downloaded the iso’s for both Ubuntu 11.04 and Fedora 15 and fired up VMWare Workstation. Installed each and… ugh. The main features for both Unity and Gnome 3 will not run as a VM (at least on my systems). So it looks like my first point of concern is the hardware requirements to run these environments the way they are intended. It appears as though you will need to run these on the bare metal.

Luckily, I have a laptop that I did not have much data on, so it was pretty painless to wipe it and install these. Since last night I have Ubuntu 11.04 running Unity installed, from which I am writing this post. Next week I will wipe it and install Fedora 15. The test system in question is a Toshiba Satellite L505D-ES5025 (2.3 GHz AMD Turion II M520, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD) that I have had just over a year.

One other experiment I am doing since I will be running Linux on the hardware itself vs. a VM: I will be installing VMWare Player and will see what sort of experience I have with running Windows 7 as a VM.

So let’s see how this goes…

Disabling User List in GDM Login Screen – Ubuntu 9.10 / Linux Mint 8

I’ve been playing around with both Ubuntu 9.10 and Linux Mint 8 (just released and based on Ubuntu 9.10). One of the differences that’s noticed right away is the change in the GDM login screen. By default, it lists the users to choose from, then enter the password. This may be OK for some, i.e. perhaps a home system, but what if you wanted to not use the list of users. If you wanted to require users to type in their username to make it more secure, you can no longer just adjust this setting within the login screen settings. The login screen settings now contain just a couple of options around allowing autologin. It would be nice to have the other setting back, but here is a method that someone can use now:

  1. Logout so you are at the login screen.
  2. Ctrl-Alt-F1 to enter the CLI.
  3. Login to CLI using the normal credentials.
  4. Type: export DISPLAY=:0.0
  5. Type: sudo -u gdm gconf-editor
  6. Alt-F7 to return to the GUI. Gconf-editor should be visible.
  7. Drill down to apps –> gdm –> simple-greeter.
  8. Check box for disable_user_list. Close gconf-editor.
  9. Reboot, GDM should now show a button to login, and prompt for both username then password.

Notes on Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope)

ubuntu-logo-jackalopeI went and installed Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) onto my test system as a dual boot with Windows 7 Release Candidate, and so far so good.  This was the same system I had installed OpenSUSE 11 on before and I went back and reviewed how I tweaked my desktop there and did very similar setup for the Ubuntu setup.

I installed Cairo-Dock, and included launchers for Firefox, Thunderbird, Terminal, BitTorrent, and OpenOffice Word Processor.  As part of installing Cairo-Dock, I eliminated the botton toolbar and merged its contents to the top toolbar. I also played around some with Gimp (v2.6 comes with this version of Ubuntu) – the Jackalope pic with the Ubuntu logo merged into it was the result.  I also installed Screenlets and setup clock, calendar, slideshow, weather, and system info screenlets to launch upon login.  As expected, Thunderbird was just as easy to setup for imap to my gmail account as it was in Windows.

So those are my first notes for this version of Ubuntu.  As I play with it more and find things noteworthy, I’ll post those.

Screenshot of my Ubuntu Desktop.