Saturday, September 26, 2009

Distro Hoppin`: PCLinuxOS 2009.2

I know, I know, it's been a while since the latest release of PCLOS, but I didn't have the chance to test it up until now. Did I enjoy it? Will it find a permanent place in my CD Wallet-of-Fame? Embark on this new epic edition of Distro Hoppin' and find out!

PCLOS 2009.2 is shipped to you as a 690 MB ISO via worldwide servers, ready to be burnt on a single CD. The main edition comes with the not-so-recent-but-oh-so-responsive KDE 3.5.10 so I went with that. The Live environment booted in about 1 minute and 30 seconds - a decent wait - and, happily, the resolution was set at my monitor's native: 1440x900. I immediately reached for the "Install" shortcut on the Desktop and, a few moments later, I was asked to remove any unused video drivers (PCLOS comes with out-of-the-box support for a bunch of GPUs), an automated process once you accept. The rest of the installation is identical to Mandriva's, meaning you won't have any trouble going through the steps. It took about 15 to 20 minutes to get PCLOS on my HDD, after which I restarted the system, removed the disc and chose to boot the new system from the beautifully designed GRUB. Before taking the plunge, have a look at the Crash Test Dummy I call computer.

  • Pentium 4 @ 2.4 GhZ
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • NVIDIA GeForce FX5200 with 128 NVRAM
  • Samsung WriteMaster DVD-RW

The desktop presents itself with an elegant, out-of-your-way wallpaper and a single, thick panel on the bottom. There are initially six shortcuts icons on that panel: the Main Menu, Home, Control Center, Administration Center, Synaptic Package Manager and Firefox. Next to those, workspace selection, the application switcher and the notification area, featuring a nice, easy-readable digital clock + calendar, the Klipper clipboard tool, volume control, network manager and a nifty little arrow that allows you to pull the whole panel off the screen in case you ever need more vertical space.

The theme itself looks good enough, what I don't like is the Vista-like window control buttons. They are nice and all, but come on, why copy? Anyway, that's not a reason to diss PCLOS, so let's carry on, shall we? Who would've thought that KDE 3.5.10 will still be used so late after the 4 series was released... But here it is, boldly setting a solid bridge between the user and the OS. The sheer speed of it, the responsiveness and stability still manages to surpass KDE 4.3.0, at least on older machines.

One of the first things I've tried was my multimedia keys on the very basic (cheap) A4Tech KL-23 keyboard that I have. I was so sure they would work, but my certainty was shattered when realizing the harsh truth: they DON'T work. I've tried configuring the keyboard shortcuts but PCLOS wouldn't want to pick the signals from the keys. I did a bit of digging with the help of my good friend, Google, and stumbled upon this post from Yet Another Linux Blog. (). So I opened Synaptic, looked for KeyTouch and there it was. Once installed, I had to choose the keyboard model and lo and behold, the (approximately) exact same model was in the list! Yuppi! Still, I could only use Play/Pause, Next and Previous, the volume keys were still dead. Fortunately I found a plugin for controlling KMix, downloaded it, expanded the archive, ran the "make" command and imported the .so file into KeyTouch, allowing me to configure the volume keys the way I wanted. Certainly not an out-of-the-box experience, but it wasn't too hard to figure out either.

Speaking of sound and music, the version of Amarok included is 1.4.10. As I am more of a Rhythmbox fan, I fired up Synaptic yet again and was amazed to see the LATEST version of Rhythmbox (0.12.5) available. But, upon downloading the packages, a few errors led me to think there was a problem with the server hosting the repositories, so I went into Synaptic's settings and chose another one from the large stack. Sure enough, everything returned to normal after that. Seeing such an up-to-date application, I wondered what a full system update would do, as Firefox was a bit lagging behind. As expected, there was a large quantity of updates waiting, so half an hour later it was done. And, again, total satisfaction as I launched the brand new Firefox 3.5.3 with all its goodies.

Kopete did a pretty good job at handling my Yahoo account but I was tired of seeing the old version notification from Yahoo whenever I would connect, so I did yet another search for my good ol' friend, Pidgin. Bam! another pleasant surprise: Pidgin 2.6.2. I was starting to really like this distro.

Another application that I use a LOT is Dropbox (awesome online storage service with sync and share capabilities), but I knew that support for KDE was problematic. Fortunately, before trying out the complicated tutorials around the web, I remembered seeing something about Dropbox on the PCLOS homepage. What? Dropbox available in the repositories? You HAVE to be kidding. Nope, they were not. I installed Dropbox with just a few mouse clicks and the app got its entry in the Internet --> Remote Access category. Nice!

Among the bookmarks set by the team in Firefox, one especially caught my attention: App Store. Hmm... sounds interesting. This place allows you to easily install different programs through a nifty little feature recently implemented in PCLOS: apt-url. Sure, the "store" is still rather empty but it works as advertised. Click Install, type in the root password and let Click2Install do the rest.

One of the icons that are present on the Desktop is a folder called "Utilities", that contains a handful of useful... err utilities. :) One can add various locales to the system, create Live Remasters, install PCLOS on an USB drive, repair the bootloader, install the latest suite (you have Abiword on the default installation), etc.; overall, a great collection designed to ease some of the tasks that need to be performed on a fresh install. Flash and Java come pre-installed for a complete WWW experience, while MP3s and popular video formats will also play just fine, no extra work involved.

My Canon A550 digital camera was picked up by DigiKam and, though the first few times I couldn't access the pictures on it, once the system was fully updated, it was all working fine. The HP Deskjet 3845 printer is also fully functional (within the limitations that seem to come with every Linux OS) and the HP 2100C scanner scans flawlessly with the help of Xsane. Even the Huawei 3G modem was detected by PCLOS. For a bit of a more interactive fun, PCLOS has a lot of small, casual games but you can also look for and install some of the "big" titles like OpenArena, which worked great on my low-end graphics card.

Final say

I've always felt that PCLOS was receiving too much hype for what it was worth, but man was I mistaken. I love living on the bleeding-edge of software and PCLinuxOS 2009.2 certainly caters to that. This distro deserves its own CD-R. :)

Pick a mirror and download PCLinuxOS 2009.2 from here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Distro Hoppin`: moonOS 3

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie... Ah, I love that song. What I also love are Linux distributions that try to make computing a bit less serious and add a bit more “life” into it. moonOS, that recently reached version 3, is one of those distros that can light up your office days. Based on the latest version of Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope), moonOS 3 stands up from the crowd by using the artful Enlightenment desktop environment. Ready to download in a 691 MB Live ISO, moonOS 3 can also be taken for a spin straight from the CD without messing your partitions setup. If you do like it and decide it's deserving of your precious GBs, you are, of course, able to permanently install it.

But first, let me introduce you to the specifications of the beast that is my PC. :)

  • Pentium 4 @ 2.4 GhZ
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • Asus ATI AH3450 with 512 VRAM AGP
  • Samsung WriteMaster DVD-RW

Booting the Live environment is quite fast, no complaints there. But being the serious Distro Hopper that I am, I obviously chose to first install moonOS 3 to the HDD and then dive into the experience. Either you used Ubuntu before or you didn't, the installer is super easy and straight-forward. A few steps and you're done, regardless if you choose to use all the space on the HDD or decide to put moonOS alongside other OSes.

Once you are past the pretty bootsplash design, you get to the gorgeous and functional login screen, that unlike Ubuntu's, you can simply click on your username inside a list on the left and only type in your password. But it's quite possible that you checked the autologin box during install, in which case you won't see that screen at all and start straight from the desktop. Well, not exactly, cause the first time you boot moonOS, the Assistant will come up, asking a few questions such as whether you want to enable a root account or if you want “fortunes” inside the terminal.

A few seconds later, Enlightenment loads up and you're ready to explore! The wallpaper is an absolute pleasure to look at. With floral motifs, wavy lines and optimistic greens, your eyes will love it. On the top left of the screen, you'll find a “module” containing three huge icons (Home, Root and Desktop - you'll find the Install to HDD shortcut here) on top of an overview of all the partitions, mounted or not. The three icons are very useful, as Enlightenment, by default, won't let you place any files on the “real” desktop. Right-clicking will open a list with favorite applications, while the left click gives you access to a bunch of app and configuration menus. On the bottom of the screen, a panel (or shelf) allows you to switch between the four workspaces, access the main menu, check the time, increase/decrease the volume or switch between open applications. The right-hand side is occupied by a “dock-like” panel hosting app shortcuts, a nifty calendar, the battery meter and the Trash. It would've been nice if moonOS could actually detect whether you're using a laptop and display that battery meter in those cases only, as it is pretty useless to me. Of course, a right click + remove this gadget easily takes care of that. :) Like all the menus in the system, the dock is nicely animated as you hover the pointer over the shortcuts.

But, as I was opening different applications, I noticed that there are some serious graphical glitches. That's what I get for buying an ATI card. I deserve this! To my defense, this was the best I could get for my ancient AGP slot, so don't judge me too hard. Anyway, at least there are official drivers available for Linux, so I grabbed them, installed them and restarted the computer. Thank God (or any other deity), everything was working fine after that. Well, almost everything... Let me elaborate on that. This “HD” capable graphics card also has the ability to stream sound through the HDMI cable. Problem is, the drivers package also includes sound drivers so, somehow, they messed up the perfectly working on-motherboard Realtek sound device. The result? Stutter and high CPU usage whenever I was trying to listen to a song or watch a YouTube video. And that's not a moonOS issue, mind you, it affects all other distributions on which I have installed the proprietary driver. But, fortunately, digging on the Internet led me to a solution: blacklisting the ATI sound device; all seems to be in perfect order now. Phew!

Enlightenment is a very good desktop environment, but I do have some grievances with the default configuration. First of all, the focus follows the mouse, so if you have two windows open, like an OpenOffice document and an IM window, and the document is on top, moving the pointer above the IM window will “channel” the keyboard input to that. You might find yourself passionately writing a hateful email to your imaginary friend, knock the pointer to the conference you're having with your boss and... DISASTER! :) Then, to bring a window on top of another, clicking inside it won't work, you have to click on the titlebar. But, a trip to the focus settings takes care of all those problems. :) Being as configurable and customizable as it is, you can't really complain too much about Enlightenment.

But let's take a look at the software included in the default moonOS installation. First of all, MP3s and most video formats (including Flash in Firefox) play out of the box. Speaking of Firefox, 3.5.2 is not the latest, but I'm glad that it's from the 3.5 series. Pidgin 2.6.1 lets you voice- and video-chat with your XMPP buddies and also solves the Yahoo connection problems and XChat takes you directly to the official Ubuntu help IRC channel. Exaile handles all your audio files, but the non-functional Last.FM and Shoutcast Radio plugins were a big issue for me, so I had to install Rhythmbox. And how did I do that? moonOS borrows a few things from Mint, including the awesome software manager, here named moonSoftware. User reviews, comprehensive categorization and screenshots make choosing the right piece of software a pleasant task.

We also have OpenOffice 3.1.1 (complete with an inspired splash screen), Mozilla Thunderbird, an awesome virtual keyboard and per-application volume control. Thunar 1.0.0 handles file management in a lightweight, yet complete, manner and, to make things easier, the developers have included the “Open Terminal Here” and “Open Folder as Root” scripts in the context menu.

If you happen to get bored with all the green, there are dozens of cool looking themes online, easily accessible via the “Settings → Look → Themes” menu.

Screenshots are an important part of a Distro Hoppin` article, and I was quite disappointed to see that the PrtScr button does not link to the screenshot taking app. But, again, the highly customizable Enlightenment allows you to create key bindings for almost anything that crosses your mind so I simply linked the PrtScr key to the gnome-panel-screenshot command and the ALT+PrtScr combination to the “gnome-panel-screenshot –delay 5” one and I was set. Still, this definitely should've been added by default.

The resource consumption manages to stay within normal limits and 512 MB of RAM should be enough for day to day activities.

As good as the song?

Though you're probably tired of all these Ubuntu-based distros, don't hesitate to give moonOS 3 a try. The Enlightenment desktop environment has matured a lot and can provide a solid production platform if you're willing to forgive its bugs here and there. Also, a big plus is the fact that you can tinker with it in so many ways to best suit your computing needs. Last but not least, it's simply b e a u t i f u l, without asking for a monster machine.

Download links: moonOS 3 and MD5.