Sunday, June 27, 2010

Distro Hoppin`: Peppermint OS 2010.06.17

Bah, I've been using peppermint for years... as my favorite chewing gum flavor. HAHA, got you there, didn't I? Of course I did.

Wow, gotta tell you, I have the best excuse for not spending more time with you, my awesome audience. The weirdest thing happened: as I was hoppin` around the Linuxland, I stumbled onto a springboard which threw me waaaaay up into the air, right in the middle of the cloudy cloudosphere (what? it sounds like a word... right?). As we all know, there is still a pretty poor visibility up there, but thankfully, all sorts of awesome software projects guide us through the haziness. One of which is Peppermint OS, receiving a LOT of attention from tech writers everywhere. What I tried to find out was if this OS is really providing a bridge between users and the cloud or it simply clinged to the concept just to enjoy some undeserved publicity.

It's really hard nowadays for distro creators to not use Ubuntu as their building blocks, so, yes, Peppermint OS is indeed based on the distro a lot of people love to hate. With that gory detail out of the way, let's move on. 444 is a really nice number and besides symbolizing "the first divine woman" and the "number of Lillith, female demon of Assyrian legend", it also is the number of MBs in which Peppermint was carefully packed. Though my Internet connection was not feeling too well, it still managed to fetch the ISO in a reasonable amount of time. Enjoy these days people, as I sense that in the near future the major distros will finally realize that they can't suck their bellies forever and will decide to get a larger pair of jeans.

The Live environment loaded up pretty quickly and the screen resolution was set to the optimum value for my monitor. Sadly, while running from the CD, I wasn't able to mount my Windows partitions nor my thumb drive, which kinda sucked. Thus, the "Install Peppermint" icon on the desktop was more appealing than ever. 

Should I bore you again with the details of the installation which looks and behaves exactly like Ubuntu's? Oh, but of course I will. Ok, maybe not. One important detail, though: it's, obviously, much faster. 6 or 7 minutes was all it needed to reach the finish line. Once it's on the HDD, Peppermint fully boots from GRUB to a working desktop in about 17 seconds. You can watch the process in the Oscar-deserving motion picture below.

Peppermint OS greeted me with my favorite color combo: black & red. Sure, there's a bit of white also, but I don't mind. Some abstract wavy red shapes on top of a black background and the DELICIOUS logo on the right make up this OS' visual identity. There's only one panel (yay extra screen space!) and it's on the bottom, containing the usual suspects: main menu, two shortcuts: Firefox and File Manager, 4-workspace switcher, application switcher, volume, network, update notifier, a 24-hour clock and the shutdown button, which now that I look at it in this particular context, also looks like a peppermint! I'll be damned...

Performing a successful right-click on the desktop awards you a nice context menu for creating new folders or documents, sorting files and modifying Desktop Preferences. Oh, I think I forgot to mention a crucial detail: Peppermint uses the superfast LXDE desktop environment so expect everything to be as responsive and snappy as they can get. 

But let's fast forward to the things that set peppermint apart from the gazillions of other distros: the software that powers your trip to the cloud. The "Accesories" category doesn't generate any surprises: a calculator, an image viewer, the Leafpad text editor, archiver and print manager. The "Graphics" section is where it gets interesting: instead of The GIMP or mtPaint or other offline (this is starting to sound like an insult nowadays: bah, it's an offline program! DIE!) app, the awesome pixlr online image editor takes their place. I have to be honest, I really had no idea that pixlr existed, so thanks Peppermint for opening my eyes! Oh, you will certainly notice that pixlr does not open a regular Firefox window, as you would expect from a website, but looks very much like a "regular" application. All the thanks are headed to the Mozilla Prism team for making this possible. 

The "Internet" category comes loaded with goodies as well: Dropbox (how dark and gloomy were the days before Dropbox...) for keeping your important files up in the air, far away from the dangers (e.g.: cats) that lurk in the surroundings of your computer; Facebook, another "Prismed" website, that I (un)fortunately am not a member of; Seesmic Web, a tool that leashes your Twitter account and tames it; Firefox for... oh come on, you all know what Firefox is for. Gosh; Transmission for putting a torrenting bullet through your bandwidth's head and XChat for old-school socializing. Of course, the Prism app is there too and will allow you to create your very own online-that-looks-like-a-desktop-one application. I used it to create a Prism for Yahoo Messenger, because Peppermint forgot about IM users apparently. :D At least a shortcut to Meebo would've been great. Of course, I installed Pidgin but it was an older version that couldn't connect to the ever-changing protocols of Yahoo! and so I tried to install the Ubuntu repositories for Pidgin which made a mess of the apt-get system, popping up errors about the pidgin-ppa package everytime I tried installing ANY app. After deleting the files for pidgin-ppa in /var/lib/dpkg/info, everything went back to normal. Whew, what a ride. Finally, I did the sensible thing and installed Pidgin from source, which was quite franky, a walk in the park. Sure, I had to add a few extra options to make it behave, but all that was politely stated in the error output. Oh, and if we're still in the Internet section, let me add that Peppermint comes with Flash installed, but no Java, which means no NES gaming on :(. But do not worry, as the Software Manager allows you to install Java in a blink of an eye. 

Let me see if you can guess what the "Office" category hosts............................................................................................. EEEEEE, time's up. If you guessed Google Docs, you WERE CORRECT!!! And not only that, but also Google Mail, Google Calendar, Google Reader (love it!) and a very offline PDF viewer. From the "Other" category you can initiate an Openbox-only session for added lightweightness and you can head over to the Peppermint Bug Tracking online portal. 

 "Sound & Video" is packed too with the best online multimedia time-wasters. Hulu, which does not work in Romania, except for a totally uninteresting reality show, Last.Fm which is paid-subscription only outside US and Germany, Pandora, which is, again, US-only. BAH, if you live in the US and have an extra room, call me! Unless you're a serial killer. The Cloud Player actually works and, if you dig through the garbage, you can find quite a few good songs. YouTube ends the online selection of this category. Cheese (for making goofy faces in front of your webcam and applying silly effects), Exaile, a lightweight audio player (MP3 support is out-of-the-box), GNOME MPlayer for all sorts of video files and the GNOME ALSA Mixer to handle your audio devices. The "System Tools" menu is the loneliest one, with only the Task Manager to chit-chat about the weather. 

Of course, populating all these categories is quite simple using the great Software Manager created by the Linux Mint team: mintInstall. Why is it great? Every application has its own separate page, containing a screenshot of the program in action, a thorough description, community star ratings and user reviews. Very, very helpful, especially for first time Linux users, unfamiliar with the open source software alternatives. 

Though the "Hardware Drivers" utility is present in Peppermint, it couldn't recognize my NVIDIA GeForce card, thus no proprietary drivers could be installed, thus 3D applications or even fullscreen youtube movies ran sucky. I'm sure one would be able to install it manually in just a few steps, but I didn't feel neccesary to go through the trouble.

My Canon A550 snapshopt digital camera was recognized and I could browse its contents. I did have problems with my HP Deskjet 3940 printer for which Peppermint couldn't find the appropriate drivers, reccomening instead a driver for the 3800 series. I browsed through the list, and, weird enough, there was no 3900 series. I think this is the first time I have this kind of problem with a Linux distribution. Anyway, I went ahead with the reccomendation, received the A OK message and proceeded to print a test page. Though the software was telling me the job is printing, nothing came out of the device. Again, the Software Manager saved the day and, after installing the HPLIP package, the database grew by a considerable amount, allowing me to install the 3900 series driver which made the printer tic (or #^#$^&#$&%^#$^#$% - yes, this is how I transcribe my printer's voice) again.

Peppermint or Spearmint?

This has been a ground for dispute among chewing gum freaks for aeons, peppermint is too strong, spearmint is too sweet, on and on and on. But we're really not talking about breath enhancers here, are we? Peppermint OS left a sweet taste in my mouth and though one could argue that you would be better off using Ubuntu or Mint LXDE editions and install all the cloud apps yourself, I think that it's great to have all these out of the box, ready to go wherever you go. Oh, and I like all the blacks and reds. ;)

OK, I understand, rain is good, water = life, BUT COME ON, NATURE! I have to cross a friggin river to get to the supermarket. STOP RAINING! Eh, it will pass. And to you, readers, I wish you all the best and thank you thank you thank you thank you for stopping by. /me bows.

Download Peppermint OS here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Distro Hoppin`: Parsix GNU/Linux 3.5

Thousands of flowers are scenting the air, birds are singing, hills are green and welcoming, and most importantly, a huge break from school is putting similarly huge smiles on students' faces everywhere. The summer is here, folks!!! Aweee! My enthusiasm is a bit fake though, I admit. Why? Well, Since I am out of school, I really don't care about holidays, I have plenty of flowers and green hills a few seconds away on Google Image Search and incense sticks can bring a whole botanical garden right into my nose (and lungs). See? I don't need you, nature!

But! With the summer, a particularly geeky flower evolved into a new, improved one: Parsix GNU/Linux has reached version 3.5 and promises to be better than ever. 

Dubbed "Frankie", the latest Parsix release spills over the usual CD ISO size requiring, at its 839 MBs weight, a DVD to fit onto. To be honest, I think I prefer this approach, rather than having the system stripped out of features and popular applications for the sake of keeping it slim enough to be written on CDs. The best example: Fedora 13 comes with absolutely no word processing application out of the box, not even the light Abiword. Not that it's hard to go online and fetch whatever you want, but still! Anyway, back to Parsix. The download mirrors are provided by sourceforge, which equals super speeds, for me at least. There are versions for both 32- and 64-bit processors, so don't think your expensive machine won't be able to use its full potential.

Booting the Live DVD is nothing note-worthy; in approximately 1 minute the desktop was up and running. I rushed my mouse cursor onto that Install icon, chose to configure a new installation (you can actually save a configuration once you make it and simply load it from an external source on other machines, thus significantly reducing install times), went through a bunch of easy steps and enjoyed a cup of coffee while listening to that beautiful trill that was coming from inside the DVD drive. 

 With the installation complete, I restarted the system, removed the sweaty DVD from the unit and admired the beautiful GRUB 2 high-resolution background that is also the default wallpaper. Unfortunately, the beauty disappears once you press enter and watch the verbose mode describe every step of the OS loading process. Sure, for me, it's much more entertaining than looking at a loading bar, but some will want that. Those who will want some kind of loading animation won't be THAT disappointed, as Parsix fully loads in about 32 seconds from GRUB to a working desktop. Snappy, snappy.

Though in previous versions the wallpapers were very "naturey", this time Parsix decided to look a bit more elegant and classy by welcoming users with a really smooth antique clock. It does have some flower motifs engraved on it so the link between the distro's logo and the wallpaper is standing. The overall brown color scheme is still present and one either likes it from the start or hates it. I will put myself in the first category, but I don't know if I will still stand by this color choice after a few weeks of use. 

As for the overall layout, it's your regular GNOME (by the way, it's GNOME 2.28.2, not the latest 2.30 series) one, with two panels - top and bottom - and four workspaces. It does have a few extra elements, like two System Monitor applets showing real-time information about resource usage, specifically CPU and RAM. There are three launchers on the top panel: Home folder, Terminal and Search. I wished to see the Internet browser in there also, as it's surely the most used app.

The first thing I had to do after sight-seeing thorugh the OS was configure the timezone, as Parsix doesn't include a step for that into the installer. That was easily done by pixel-hunting for my country on a map in System -> Administration -> Time and Date. 

With the induced fake jet-lag out of the way, I was ready to dig deeper into Parsix GNU/Linux 3.5. One of my favorite features that I would love to see enabled by default in all Linux distributions is the handy "Open in Terminal" context-menu option, removing the need of cd-ing your way through the folder in which you have to be. And Parsix has it right there out of the box. Speaking of which, the terminal has that fake transparency effect enabled, thus making it a bit less boring. The hacker-green font also helps. ;) 

Once you open up a folder, another context-menu option appears, and this is something I've never seen before in a distro: "Open in Midnight Commander". Hehe, how delighted will old-schoolers be to navigate through folders at lightning speeds using this tool.

Oh, and let's not forget the included templates in the Create Document entry from which you can easily start working on new OpenOffice documents, spreadsheets or presentations.

If you get bored with the standard theme, Parsix comes with several alternatives, out of which only one is brighter, the rest bearing the same, shall I say, gloomy look. As for wallpapers, aside from the space photo slideshow there are only two standard Debian ones. A pretty scarce selection that could have been a bit larger, considering the fact that space is no longer an issue, a DVD being required anyway. On the other hand, the "Get more backgrounds online" link is right there in plain sight waiting to be invoked. 

The Applications menu hosts a really nice selection of programs that will please most users. The root terminal in Accessories, Inkscape and GIMP in Graphics, Firestarter Firewall and GNOME FTP Client in Internet, Fax Manager and Grisbi Accounting in Office, VLC media player in Sound & Video or VirtualBox OSE in System Tools are some mighty fine examples. Of course, I can't skip the web browser, which is Iceweasel 3.5.9 (for those who don't know, it's basically Firefox with a different name :D ), complete with the Flash plugin and Java capabilities. Pidgin will connect you with the social e-world and Gwibber does a mighty fine job handling your microblogging accounts. 

If you have a laptop, you will most likely want to connect wirelessly, and if the driver needed is not yet available on Linux, you can easily install the Windows one through the included ndiswrapper GUI app in System -> Administration.

For special effects and proper 3D support, proprietary graphics drivers can be installed, but you have to follow some instructions available at Parsix's webpage. As the first step requires you to enable the Debian Testing repositories, alongside being able to install the needed driver, you will also end up with a monstrous update list, no more, no less than 560.9 MBs worth of updated packages. Weehoo! The convenient Compiz fusion icon lets you quickly enable, disable and change the eye-candies once the video driver is ready to rock.

Parsix 3.5 handles all kinds of multimedia formats perfectly, though it did give me a sort of scare the first time I tried playing some audio files: the volume was up and my speakers were turned on but nothing would come out of them. MP3s, OGG, youtube, nothing produced soundwaves. Fortunately, a good ol' restart took care of the situation and my ears were happy once again. 

My HP Deskjet 3940 printer wasn't installed by default, but was immediately recognized when I fired up System -> Administration -> Printing and chose to install a new printer. Sadly, Parsix doesn't want to play nicely with my Samson C03U USB mic and though it does recognize it, it keeps muting it. I unmute it, close the volume control applet, open it again and bam, muted. Hopefully I will get to the bottom of this issue in the near future.

Of course, you can mingle around in your windows partitions for as long as you want, flash drives are automatically mounted and the Internet connection is auto-configured. Even more, those still stuck on Dialup have access to a simple connection interface in the form of GNOME PPP.

gThumb graciously takes care of your image collection and offers a bunch of useful editing functions, as well as a slideshow feature. Though I was a bit upset at the fact that I couldn't flip through the images using the arrow keys or the back/forward buttons on my mouse, a trip to the Help pages revealed that Page Up And Page Down were used for keyboard navigation and the scroll wheel for rodent fans. Problem solved!

To Parsix or not to Parsix?

Though lacking any so-called killer features, Parsix GNU/Linux 3.5 is a solid release and can be used on both home and production machines. There are some weird sound-related issues and the video driver installation process can frighten some more inexperienced users, but other than that, there aren't really any reasons to not take a look or two at this distro.

Aaaand it's a wrap, dear readers. From an autumny, greatbritainy Romania, until next time, I bid you farewell and wish you happy hoppin`!

Download Parsix 32- and 64-bit.