LinuxMint 3.1

I haven’t posted much of late on my Linux dabblings, but have been running various versions of LinuxMint 3 for the past few months. I just (as in yesterday) moved two of my boxes over to the newly-released version 3.1 and it went flawlessly. I’ve been running the past couple of betas for a month or so without any trouble, so I really didn’t expect any issues when 3.1 was announced.

As has become my practice, the first things I typically did after installing was to switch to stock installations of Firefox (Gran Paradiso aka Firefox 3 alpha 8, in this case) and OpenOffice, rather than the versions installed from the distro’s repositories.

Num-Lock in GNOME

I finally convinced Deb to start using Linux recently, and for the most part the transition seems to have been reasonably smooth. Part of that is because we have been using Firefox and Thunderbird for several years on both the WinXP and Linux side of our primary computer. Part of it, too, is that GNOME is intuitive enough for most people in moving into Linux that the user interface doesn’t present a significant hurdle.

She recently made a comment about a small annoyance that hadn’t ever registered on me. “The number pad doesn’t work”, she said. “Just hit the ‘Num-Lock’ key”, I responded. “Yeah, but I don’t have to do that when I use Windows!”, she fired back. And, thus, the gauntlet had been thrown down.

After some rooting around in all of the nooks and crannies of the GNOME interface, configuration, and settings, and following a bit of Googling, I came up with this:

  1. Install package “numlockx”
  2. Open the GNOME “Sessions” applet (usually found under “Preferences” in the GNOME menus)
  3. Select the “Startup Programs” tab
  4. Add a new startup program called “Turn on Num-Lock” that runs /usr/bin/numlockx on
  5. Close the Sessions applet
  6. Sign out; sign back in

Et voila! Annoyance gone… of course, you have to do this in each account where you want the Num-Lock key enabled by default.

Now we wait and see if she notices…

Firefox 3 Alpha 7

With the announcement of the next alpha-level release of Firefox 3, I went ahead and installed it on one of my Linux boxes to give it a quick test. As I run the stock Mozilla versions of the apps, rather than the versions from the Linux distro’s repositories, and use update-alternatives to point to the versions I want use, installing it alongside my stock was quick and easy.

The bottom line: generally positive. Much of the work so far on this new version still remains behind the scenes, but some of the underlying work on the interface is starting to show through. I noticed, for instance, that it seems to be paying attention to the theme I have installed on my GNOME desktop in how it renders form controls like checkboxes, radio buttons, and buttons — in some cases (but to be honest, I haven’t looked at where, because it’s clearly not everywhere — maybe only where the Web app/site in question is not providing any styling on the controls?). There are some (mostly) subtle changes in the appearance of some pages that I visit often enough to make them noticeable (e.g., Google’s Gmail and Reader apps). So far, I haven’t found anything that feels like a show-stopper, and all of the plugins I normally use seem to work OK.

I do have a big caveat to throw on this, however: I don’t have any browser extensions installed on my normal Firefox installation, so I can’t really indicate whether there are significant incompatibilities that might get me there. More to come as I try this on a couple of other systems.

Zenwalk 4.2

I have been playing with a different Linux distro on a couple of my systems for the past couple of weeks or so. I had installed Zenwalk Linux about 3 months ago, and had mixed feelings at that point about then-current version 4.0 of this distro. Version 4.2 was released earlier in January and after seeing some generally positive reviews, I decided to give it another look. Generally speaking, my experience with it has been pretty positive. Some quick thoughts:

The Good

  • Size: It’s a fairly lightweight distro, in several different ways. Single CD ISO for installation. Fairly fast to install. Fairly quick to boot (less than 30 seconds from power-on to desktop, including sign-in, assuming I don’t hork up my password). Very responsive in starting applications.
  • Hardware/System Support: On both my systems, so far it just works in terms of the hardware (video, sound, USB, network), recognizing that the typical tweaking for stuff like wireless networking and Intel i810 video cards has to be done. It has also been very easy to add stuff that I typically use (stock Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Eclipse WTP and CFEclipse, Sun Java, Flash plugin, jEdit).
  • XFCE: I am an admitted GNOME bigot, and the first thing I did was go look to see if GNOME was available (it only sort of is at this point, but based on what I see in the distro’s forums, work is on-going there, and E17 is also available), but so far I am reasonably impressed with XFCE. It is running an RC for the new version 4.4 (as of this writing, 4.4 is only in a testing repository). I will admit that I have been a little surprised with how well the XFCE environment works.
  • Basic Stock Configuration: Video, music, digital camera stuff all seems to work great based on the stock system configuration.
  • User Support Forums: The forums have a number of active users that have provided timely and accurate responses to questions posted there. The user community, as is typically the case from my experience with distros like this that aren’t (yet?) mainstream, is pretty committed. And watching the forums over the past couple of days, there is clearly work going on to expand the forums to cover additional areas that have potential to address some of the things that I see as weaknesses.

The Bad

  • Packages and Repositories: It seems that the project is in a state of transition with respect to the management and location of the various package repositories for the system. There are several applications that are important to me (Firestarter and gThumb, for instance) that are not part of any repository, but are in fact maintained and available for the distribution. Finding them for installation, however, involves finding a reference to a fellow ZW user and their URL for downloading them. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of central listing of where I might find something that isn’t part of the distribution or its “extras”. The fact that applications like this aren’t part of any repository that can be managed with the distros package management tool “netpkg” presents something of a hurdle when someone new to the distro comes in. (I, for example, have a list of at least 8 different URLs from which I have pulled packages for installation, just in case I need to start over or go get updated versions.)
  • Documentation: The documentation for the system is a little sparse, especially in comparison to some of the other mainstream distros, and seems to be in need of a major overhaul and expansion. This appears to be an initiative that is gaining some inertia, though, with the presence of a new area in the user forums.
  • Transparency of Process: I can’t really seem to find anything that describes how the project itself is managed or maintained. How do issues that are identified as problems with a particular package that is in the distribution get addressed and factored back into an updated version of that package? How do new versions of packages go from being under development to “snapshot” (new and untested, not necessarily ready for general consumption) to “current” (generally considered ready for use) to “iso” (the most recent system release)? How, if there is a means other than the user forums, are issues identified, assigned for resolution, and resolved?

But all of that aside…

I am still very impressed with this distribution in general. It has proven to be very usable right out of the box; the package management tool, so far, has caused me no problems; it has tools to do all of the stuff I need to do on a day to day basis; it has been easy to add other applications that I want to use; the user community is fairly active, responsive, and knowledgable. Additionally, watching the forums as mostly an outsider, there is obviously energy being expended to address some of the things that I have mentioned above to support the distribution and make it easier to find needed applications.

An Eclectic Mix

I am in Washington, DC this week for work. Some (likely not related) thoughts:

  • I typically don’t talk to fellow air passengers much when I travel alone, so I found a comment made to me by the lady sitting next to me on the first leg of my flight yesterday vaguely amusing: “Thanks for not talking my ear off.” It made me wonder about the person she last sat next to on a plane…
  • Guinness lamb stew, accompanied by a pint of Southwick’s and a couple slabs of brown bread, at Mackey’s Public House in Crystal City for dinner last night. Simple and very good.
  • I have been playing a little with Google Reader the past few days. Very cool.
  • I have been running Fedora Core 6 on a couple of my Linux boxes for the past week or so, after having been almost exclusively on Ubuntu for a couple of years (and having had a bad experience with FC4 once that clobbered a Windows partition on a dual-boot box). I like it. I have always been reasonably impressed with the UI polish of the FC project, and this one is no exception. I toyed briefly with openSUSE 10.2, but Gnome felt like it wasn’t all that well integrated there — certainly not to the same extent as on Ubuntu and FC6. I relied heavily on the guidance from Muriat Miranda to get some of the bits configured and working. The only other piece I had to do was install the firmware for my laptop’s Intel WLAN NIC.

More to come this week, I am sure.