Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quick Tip: Auto Shutdown Your Linux Machine

Though I don't have any problems getting myself to sleep at night, I always like to have some music or a podcast or something else to accompany me through those few minutes from the moment I put my head on the pillow and until I "pass out". Of course, leaving the computer on all night long for that is a bit unnecessary so auto-shutdown is the best solution. And on Linux, it's super easy to set up.

But enough with the introduction, here's how you do it.

Open the good ol' terminal and type the following command: sudo shutdown -h -P hh:mm (replace hh:mm with the time in 24-hour format - e.g 22:45), press Enter, type in your password if necessary and that's it. Your machine will shut itself down at the scheduled time. No questions asked, no nothing. If something happens and you want to cancel the countdown, press CTRL+C in the same terminal. If you closed the window in which you initiated the shutdown procedure, type sudo shutdown -c to cancel. Simple!

Buuut, as simple as it is, I know that there are many of you who suffer from severe command-line interface allergy, thus I will also show you a graphical alternative: GShutdown. If you're running a Debian system, you will find it in the repositories, otherwise download a package suited to your distro here.

In GShutdown you can select from three ways to turn off your PC: at a specified time AND date, after a set delay or "now" (a bit useless this last one, no? - except for testing purposes that is :) ). If you simply want to restart or end the session, you can also do that from the bottom drop-down menu. Select the date from the calendar, set the time and press start. Everything should work just fine, but if something is acting up, you can go in the Preferences and manually specify the desktop environment and display manager that you're currently using (if GShutdown fails to detect them) or type in a command to perform before the shutdown procedure begins. Moreover, you can set GShutdown to warn you a few minutes before executing the action, just in case you forget.

Well, I hope this was at least a tiny bit helpful. Now if only the good guys at Canonical would fix the damn PC Speaker bug so the dead won't rise from their graves every time an Ubuntu machine is shut down. But that's another story. :)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Distro Hoppin`: antiX MEPIS 8.2

After taking a look at Pardus, a full-blown operating system, it's time to return to lighter alternatives. And not that I randomly decided to do so, it's because antiX MEPIS 8.2 was recently announced and I couldn't miss the chance to try it out.

For those of you who don't know, antiX MEPIS is the resource-friendly version of SimplyMEPIS, a great Linux distribution based on the even greater Debian. With a bit of extrapolation, it's obvious that antiX is built upon Debian.

The main difference between the two MEPIS distros is at the desktop level; antiX is using the light IceWM manager, so old computers will feel at least 5 years younger, thus performing much better.

antiX MEPIS can be downloaded from the official website as a 466 MB ISO and can run straight from the CD, leaving your precious HDD partitions untouched. But I didn't want to linger much in the live environment, so I went ahead and clicked the Install button from the antiX menu. When I instructed it to use the whole hard drive (my most important files live in the cloud anyway), it went ahead and deleted all the partitions I had but failed to create new ones. Happily, the installer gives you quick access to GParted. I decided to create only the two mandatory partitions this time around: root (ext4) and swap.

Though the version of GParted that comes with antiX supports ext4, in the installer I could only choose between ext3 and reiserfs, so the partitions were reformatted and the installation process began. About 5 to 7 minutes later, it was already complete and I had to configure some aspects of the OS. Network, system clock and the usual username/password/root password selection. antiX MEPIS was also kind enough to install and configure a bootloader, so I could choose between it and other systems, if they were there.

Once installed, starting the system is very quick, about 30 seconds from the boot menu to the fully loaded desktop. Not the fastest (Puppy is quicker, for example), but you certainly won't have time to make yourself a cup of coffee. The first thing I wanted to change was the weird resolution (for my screen) that was set by default. After a minute of going through the menus, I stumbled across the awesome antiX Control Center which is pretty self-explanatory: a portal, if you wish, to most of your OS settings.

As I looked through the tabs, I eventually arrived at the last one: Hardware, containing my destination: Set Screen Resolution. I clicked on it, typed in the administrator password and surprise, surprise, no 1440x900. Oh well... What to do? The XWindow tab also looked promising so I went back to it: Configure X Server. Yep. This sounds legitimate. Again, administrator password and poof the X-Windows Assistant popped up and within it, the glorious NVIDIA tab, waiting for driver installation instructions from me. I had two choices: nvidia (new) and nvidia (legacy).

Usually, there are three of them, high (latest), mid (173 series) and low (96 series), but now there were only these two. Well, as my GeForce FX5500 certainly doesn't fit in the "new" category, I humbly checked the legacy box, clicked apply and waited for it to download and install what was needed. A few minutes later, I had to reboot the system in order for the proprietary NVIDIA driver to take over... the WORLD!!! (no, not really, just the OS). Everything went fine, but, again, the Holy Grail of resolutions still wasn't listed in antiX control panel. There was only one (easy) thing left to do: open the nvidia-settings. But how to do that if it isn't installed? Open Synaptic (I love it!), search for nvidia, scroll to the nvidia-settings entry, select it, install it, run it. And voila: 1440 was there! Phew! With that out of the way, I was fully prepared to explore antiX MEPIS 8.2.

The desktop is very clean (well, duh, you can't put any icons on it :) ) and welcomes users with an atmospheric image showing some serene sun rays and a bunch of scary looking clouds hovering across a water landscape. In the top left corner of the screen there's some Conky action going on, displaying the Linux kernel version (quite old by the way - 2.6.27), total uptime (aka geek bragging tool), date and time, various system monitors and the free space left on disk.

Whether you right click on the desktop or you open the bottom left antiX menu, you'll get the same options. At the top section: home, App killer (very useful), Screenshot (absolutely horrid, more on it later) and search (I never use search really...). Going further down the line, we see the following: Applications, Games, Graphics, Multimedia, Network, Office, Desktop, System and Help. From what I could gather, extra applications that are installed from the repositories will only appear in the Applications entry, which also has several subcategories. Quick example: I have installed GIMP but its shortcut never appeared in the main Graphics section, instead I could find it in "Applications --> Applications --> Graphics". It's a bit of a mess, but you'll get the hang of it.

As I promised, I will say a few words about the included screen snapping tool, generically named antiXscreenshot. Well, if you take a snapshot two times a year, sure, go ahead and use it. But if you need to take more than 1 in a row, you'll definitely want something else. Why? Because it doesn't remember settings! Not even one. So you open the program, set any delay if necessary, name the image, select the image file type and browse to the directory in which you want to save it. Click ok, wait for the picture to be taken, click ok again and it doesn't pop back up. Oh, no. You have to reopen it and surprise, surprise, you have to set all those things again. Moreover, it doesn't have the ability to rename images in order, so if you forget to change the name field, your snaps will consequently be replaced, leaving you with one lousy image instead of 20. :)

Luckily, it's a Debian system we're talking about here, so you will be able to download and install GNOME's or Xfce's screenshot tools. The web browser that comes pre-installed in antiX is Iceweasel 3.0.11. For chatting, XChat and Pidgin 2.5.8 are there to accompany you.

One of the coolest elements, which I found extremely useful, is the simple, yet powerful audio mixer, aumix. There are a lot of tutorials and forum threads instructing you how to record "stereo mix" in various Linux distributions. Well, with the help of aumix, antiX MEPIS provides the easiest way to do that. Simply click the "rec" button at the left of the main volume bar and that's it! Really, that's it. Start an audio stream, open up Audacity, click record and you'll be able to save it for eternity!

You'll probably want, at some point, to browse the contents of your HDD. To do that, antiX MEPIS provides you with two file managers. If you open the home folder from the quick launch bar, PCMan will open, if you decide to open it from the antiX menu, ROX Filer will pop up. A bit inconsistent, but hey, choice is good!

There are also a few games available out of the box, just to chase away those boring hours: Gweled, Breakout and XMahjongg. For some quality old-school gaming, DOSBox is a great place to start.

Office productivity doesn't have to suffer while you're running antiX MEPIS, and you'll find the Abiword / Gnumeric duo to do a pretty good job at handling your tasks. Of course, you can always install OpenOffice from the repositories, no problem. Your email account will be taken care of by Claws Mail.

If you get bored with the looks of antiX, you can choose from a rather big selection of themes and wallpapers. Speaking of boredom, you will want to maybe listen to some music, or watch a YouTube video... For that, antiX MEPIS 8.2 comes preloaded with MP3 support and the latest version of Adobe's Flash Player integrated in the web browser. If you're like me and your music collection comprises handful of titles, you'll be happy to hear that the included Streamtuner is a great place to look for radio stations, be they political debates or the newest Rap tunes. Once you find a station to your liking, double click it and XMMS will connect to it.

Other than that, you have the Transmission BitTorrent Client, gFTP, a DVD player, some programming tools, backup software, CD/DVD burning solutions, Fluxbox as the alternative window manager and many more.

The verdict

I am really enjoying the time spent with antiX MEPIS 8.2. It's speedy, it's responsive, it has plenty of useful tools, it looks as good as an IceWM system can look (oh, I forgot to mention... I absolutely love the icons!) and it's very flexible. Good stuff, really! :)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Distro Hoppin`: Pardus Linux 2009

Conclusions should end an article, not begin one, but I have to say this from the start: Pardus 2009 is one of the most impressively well-done Linux distributions that I've put my hands on for a loooong time. Coming from Turkey, Pardus Linux 2009 was released on the 18th of July and to be honest, my knowledge about this particular operating system was limited to recognizing its logo and knowing the fact that it has Turkish origins. That's pretty much it.

I absolutely love loading unexplored, lesser-known distros, but, most of the times I am quite disappointed and return to the big names, mostly because they come with all the features and functionality I need straight out of the box (or just very easy to add). Needless to say, I wasn't quite so optimistic about Pardus, especially given the fact that it came with the K desktop environment (KDE). Certainly, it is at its latest 4.2.4 version but my previous experiences left a bitter taste.

Obviously, I can't ditch an operating system without first trying it. Reboot time! Pardus doesn't benefit from a Live environment, so be prepared to modify your partitions before getting a glimpse of it. The main color that will accompany you during the installation process and many parts of the OS is a beautiful, smooth dark red, surely inspired from Turkey's flag.

The first thing you will want to do is change the language to English when the CD bootloader appears, as the default Turkish one will automatically be activated in 10 seconds. (I've just been informed by a reader that there is also an international ISO available which defaults to the English language) If you're from Turkey, disregard that. :) The next steps are super easy to go through: keyboard layout, timezone selection, user creation and administrator password input. Partitioning can be done either manually or you can let Pardus handle all the work, either by using the whole HDD or resizing existing partitions to make some room. Ext4 is used as the default filesystem and Ext3, Reiserfs and Xfs are also available. The last step is a quick overview of all your preferences, and, if everything looks OK, click Begin Install and make yourself a quick espresso while Pardus does its job.

With the system installed permanently on the HDD, I was congratulated for a process that a six-year old could easily do. :) Anyway, I thanked the developers for their kind words and procedeed to the mandatory reboot.

KDE is a bit slow to load the first time, but it's not that bad. Even before I could start snooping around, Kaptan Desktop popped up. What's that, you ask? It's a really awesome tool that allows you to configure a lot of aspects of the system in a single run: themes, menu style, wallpaper, desktop search and more.

No matter where you are in the system, you will know that you run Pardus and not some generic distro. The folder and file icons are customized, the menu button is customized, even the ethernet connection icon is different, displaying two blinking lights, green and red, whenever there's network activity.

Let's move on and check out Pardus' software selection. I was delighted by the fact that the default web browser is Mozilla Firefox... 3.5.1!! YAY! Up to date software for the win! And not only that, but it also comes with the latest Flash plugin from Adobe and a really nice, minimalistic theme.

OpenOffice and GIMP 2.6.6 have personalized splash screens that add to the consistent feel of Pardus. Google Gadgets, though already present in the Internet category, couldn't start because of the js-script-runtime module that failed to load. As Pidgin is the only IM client that I can live with in the Linux world, I was pretty disappointed to see only Kopete present. But it was a great time to see how I can install extra programs from the repositories. Pardus handles PiSi (meow!) packages which can be found through the "Package Manager" graphical frontend. There aren't a truckload of programs, quite a small number actually, but, for 99% of the tasks you will need to do, they are more than enough.

By now, I was able to assess the performance of my machine, and honestly, Pardus has to be the fastest KDE 4 distro. Granted, it's still kind of slow with a lot of applications active (I have a pretty old computer...) but I can wholeheartedly say that I'm actually enjoying KDE.

Upon entering the Display control panel, I was recommended to install the 173 series Nvidia drivers for my GeForce FX5500. A trip to the package manager and a logout later and I was ready for some eye-candy. Yep, the desktop effects were automatically enabled; I especially like the beautiful transparency applied to the bottom panel and the blueish drop-shadow of windows. And happily, it desn't even grind my computer to a halt, as it performs reasonably well.

Pardus picked up my USB-connected digital camera immediately after plugging it in and the HP printer was automatically configured so I was ready to view and print my images in no time. Another big plus for Pardus.

Multimedia files, including MP3s, WMVs or MOVs can be accessed from the moment you install the OS, so you won't have to worry about searching and installing suitable codecs. You also have many players to choose from, such as: SMPlayer, GNOME MPlayer, Dragon Player, Amarok or JuK.

Final thoughts

The fact that Pardus made me actually enjoy using KDE 4 is by itself an indication of the overall quality of this operating system. It's easy to install, easy to configure, 100% up-to-date and more importantly, very stable. I've used many distributions that shipped with ages-old software "for improved stability" that performed much worse than Pardus. Hopefully, the future will bring a bigger software repository and maybe support for other desktop environments.

Turkey, you've got yourself one of the finest OSes out there!

Oh, for more information and downloads, visit the Pardus Linux official website.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ubuntu 8.04.3 (LTS) Released

Don't you hate when you have to reinstall a Linux distribution a few weeks before the next release comes out? If in the first month or so, the clean installation can be used almost right away, with only a few updates to be downloaded and applied, as time passes, the update pile gets bigger and bigger so the usual 10-minute install transforms into a time consuming process. Add that to a really low-speed Internet connection, and you've got yourself plans for a whole afternoon.

The regular version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution doesn't benefit from maintenance releases, but it's not that big of a deal, given the fact that every six months a new version comes out. But Canonical also has the LTS version of their operating system, offering three and five-year support for desktops and servers respectively, so, in this scenario, regular updated ISOs are almost mandatory.

Ubuntu 8.04 LTS received yesterday, on the 16th of July, the third maintenance update. Thus, Ubuntu 8.04.3 images can be downloaded from the official mirrors.

Steve Langasek of Ubuntu:

"80 post-release updates have been integrated, and a number of bugs in the installation system have been corrected. These include security updates and corrections for other high-impact bugs, with a focus on maintaining stability and compatibility with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS."

And here are some of the more important changes made to the Live and Alternate CDs for both desktops and servers:
  • The persistent mode on the Live CD now works properly;
  • Solved the GPT/MBR syncing problem on the latest Intel-powered Macintoshes;
  • Handling of UUIDs on existing swap partitions during the installation process was fixed;
  • Shortcuts to SMB shares were fixed in Nautilus;
  • Fixed a connection problem with the latest ICQ protocol;
  • Assigning new users a name that is already used as the name of a group is no longer possible;
  • Fixed a kernel oops in the NFS client.
For more details and the full list of updates, check Steve's announcement.

Click here to download Ubuntu 8.04.3 LTS (Hardy Heron) or the latest and greatest 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Love Trains? Play OpenBVE!

One extremely boring day, I was frantically looking for something to entertain me, at least for a little while, so I did the obvious thing: I opened up Ubuntu's Add/Remove application and started looking through all the software available for installation. As I reached the "Games" category I suddenly realized that it's been a while since I checked on what's new in there, mostly because I knew that, apart from a few "big" titles, the list was populated by casual, simple, uninteresting games; yep, gaming on Linux is still lagging behind.

Anyway... I was scrolling down the list, almost ready to give up when a name popped out of the "crowd": OpenBVE. As this alone couldn't really spark any real interest, the one-line description put quite a big smile on my face: "Train/railway simulator compatible with 'BVE Trainsim' routes". No, I'm not a train geek, I don't own thousands of dollars worth of miniature trains and tracks and I don't need an extra room for storing my carriages collection. Moreover, I know almost nothing about how a train really works, but hey, you don't need all that to like trains. If you're a Windows users, you have quite a few titles to choose from, Trainz and Microsoft Train Simulator being the most popular.

But on Linux, this is the first time I hear about this type of game, so I was definitely very anxious to try it out. Checked the box, clicked apply and in a few moments, OpenBVE appeared in the Games category. When I opened it, a window popped up, letting me set what needed to be set before starting the game. As I am aware that simulations can have a really steep learning curve, I went to the "Customize controls" tab to familiarize myself a bit with the way this game is controlled. Seeing how almost every key on the keyboard was being used for something, I was this close to shutting it down and starting a game of Mahjongg. Fortunately, upon taking a closer look, you will realize that you'll need only a few to simply start the train.

OpenBVE has three difficulty levels: Arcade, Normal and Expert. The second is the default one, so I sticked with it. As it turned out, depending on this level, the game will either take you by the hand and guide you through the stations or will let you figure out everything by yourself. The "Options" tab in the configuration window allows you to change the language, manually set resolutions for both window and fullscreen modes, modify some quality settings like anisotropic filtering or viewing distance, and enable or disable certain elements that add to the realism of the game: collisions, derailments or topplings.

Moving on, the next step was to select a track and get going already! Unfortunately, you will be a bit disappointed by the fact that there is only one route available in the default installation. But, for the sake of diversity, you'll be able to choose whether you want sun, clouds, rain, day, night, etc. Also there are three levels of detail: low, medium and high. Speaking of the graphics, you shouldn't expect too much, especially given the fact that this project is completely free and open source. Still, most of you will find the 3D game detailed enough to be a pleasure to spend hours sliding through the beautiful countryside.

After you've selected the desired route, a whole bunch of details about it will appear on the right side: a short description, the map with all its stops and the gradient profile. Besides a route, you will also need a train (no kidding!). While the game will suggest one to best suit the track, there is really only one choice "out of the box". Once that's all done with, click start and, in a few moments, you will hear the serene nature sounds and find your train sitting quietly in a station, ready to leave once all the passengers board; the imaginary passengers that is - they have no graphical representation, but I assume you don't stop and open the doors just to let fresh air get inside the train. As you would expect from a simulation, your goals are pretty straight-forward: arrive in time (not later, but also not earlier), try to stay within the speed limits and don't cause discomfort to your passengers.

The train has four speeds: P1, P2, P3 and P4 and three brake levels: B1, B2 and B3. There is, of course, the neutral position and an emergency brake that will bring your train to a halt in the shortest amount of time. Press F and your train will go forward, press B and your train will go back. With Q you go up a notch, with Z, down a notch. As I found out just when I was approaching the next station, a train needs a LOT of time to stop. Unsurprisingly, my first run was disastrous, with me failing to stop at the platform almost every time and having to back up. How do you know where exactly to stop? Well, when you get closer to a station, a vertical bar will appear at your right and as you approach the stopping area, a line will and gradually go down towards the center of that bar; the closest to the center you stop, the better. Once the train's stopped, the doors will open and you will have to wait for the passengers to enter. In the normal mode, this is done automatically, but if you're playing on Expert you will have to take care of all the little things.

Another help you get from the game is the fact that a speed warning will appear on the screen, telling you to slow down and showing the speed limit as well as your current speed. On "Expert", only the "real" track signs will offer information about the active limits. Though undoubtedly fun, going full speed through tight turns will eventually lead to your train derailing (still fun, I know). You can play OpenBVE either from the default, cab view which can be panned around with the arrow keys, or choose an exterior camera - train or track mounted. Once you arrive at the last station, you can quit the game and see how well you performed through a panel that logs every little mistake that you've done.

If you're tired of Alien Arena or Sauerbraten, OpenBVE is a breath of fresh air and can provide hours of relaxing gameplay, regardless of your "train knowledge". Though the default package offers only one track and one train, new content can be downloaded from the Internet. Either way, you should definitely try this one out. You're not a Linux user, you say? It's ok, OpenBVE can also be installed and run on Windows platforms too! As this project is still under heavy development (there are a few bugs here and there), I expect many, many improvements to be added to this great looking, beautifully sounding, accurate train simulation.

For downloads and more information, visit the OpenBVE homepage.