Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mandriva and PCLinuxOS

Back in February there was an exchange between myself and Adam Williamson (adamw) of Mandriva. Adam asked "What is it?" and I answered "Why it is." Basically, adamw wanted to know why I was so in love with Ubuntu (7.04 alpha at the time), and asked the rhetorical question what was wrong with Mandriva.

The last time I'd used Mandriva was back when it was still called Mandrake, so my experiences were definitely dated. I took up adamw's suggestion that I try out an early beta of Mandriva Spring 2007 Live CD. So I pulled down an ISO, burned a CD, and attempted to boot it on europa, the box with Suse, AMD, and ATI. The CD never went beyond the initial boot screens. As it approached the point where it would show the full graphic desktop the screen went completely black and the system locked up. I couldn't toggle into a command line screen to diagnose the problem. It was locked up solid. So I rebooted and forgot about it.

Recently, however, I've been thinking about a KDE-based substitute for Suse. I tried to replace it with Ubuntu 7.04 final, but in the end I re-installed Suse 10.2 and just left it alone after that. I then started a low-level 'background task' of researching alternative distributions. I looked at Kubuntu 7.04, but did not like how KDE was configured. That and the fact Firefox was not part of the initial install. I love Konq as a file system browser and general viewer, but can't stand it as a web browser.

This past weekend I decided to download Mandriva One KDE (Mandriva Spring 2007 for cheapskates like me) and PCLinuxOS 2007. Both come as Live CDs, so that booting them up and kicking the digital tires a bit is not a problem.

I tested Mandriva One on rhea, europa, and algol. I tested PCLinuxOS only on algol. BTW, these are personal tests, highly limited, so take what you read here with a grain of salt. While I have some screen shots, if you want comprehensive eye candy (lots and lots of screen shots of everything), google for them.

Mandriva One

I tried to boot Mandriva One on europa and ran into the same boot problem the beta had. It hung with a black screen when attempting to start the graphical user interface. I attribute the GUI problems to the fact that europa has an ATI 9700 Pro and Mandriva comes with a poor ATI driver. I know from personal experience how problematic ATI display hardware can be for Linux distributions, but I haven't seen this kind of problem for a few years now. Mandriva One's problem is a serious regression.

I was able to boot Mandriva One on rhea without issue. It came up and allowed me to select the Compiz-based 3D display. This is impressive in itself when compared to the failure on europa. I attribute success on rhea due to its use of an nVidia 7600GS video card and Mandriva's use of native nVidia drivers. You see the nVidia logo flash briefly before the desktop comes up, a dead giveaway that the nVidia driver is running.

Finally I went over to my notebook, algol, with the Core Duo, 2GiB of DRAM, and the nVidia GeForce Go 7800 video card with 256MiB of video buffer. Once again it booted up and allowed me to select not only Compiz but a second 3D desktop, Metisse. I selected Metisse on algol. Everything ran fine up until I tried to grab some screen shots, only to find I couldn't. Ksnapshot produced a pure black screen shot every time.

I played around with Mandriva One for another half hour, then shut it down for the evening.

Pros
  • The ability to detect and use nVidia hardware using the native nVidia drivers. This meant, especially on algol, that I got 1680 x 1050 resolution out-of-the-virtual-box with all colors.
  • The ability to allow the use of 3D desktops from LiveCD. Only Fedora 7 worked as well as this for me.
  • Wireless networking. I was able to quickly and easily find my home wireless network for algol (Gateway M685) and get out on the web. Only two other distributions have worked this well for me; Ubuntu 7.04 and PCLinuxOS.
Cons
  • It has issues with ATI graphics hardware, or at least old ATI graphics hardware. It locks up with a black screen during LiveCD boot.
  • Metisse has a 3x3 navigator panel in the lower right. The KDE panel has 9 screens on it. The navigator panel and the KDE panel are not synced up.
  • Ksnapshot does not work, at least on algol and Metisse.
  • While running Metisse, I grabbed the lower right corner of Firefox (2.0.0.3) and attempted to expand the window. Instead of expanding the boundaries, Firefox behaved like a bit-mapped graphic image, and the whole browser image was distorted. Killing Firefox and restarted Firefox cleaned up the problem, and expanding the window by grabbing edges did not have this problem.
  • No sound. Any distribution based on a kernel earlier than 2.6.20 will not enable sound on the Gateway. Sound was enabled on rhea, but it's a four-year-old nVidia nForce 2 motherboard.
PCLinuxOS 2007

I looked at PCLinuxOS because of the hype surrounding it, the fact it's KDE based, and because it's a fork of Mandrake 9.2. It has certainly evolved over time, and it's look is certainly distinctive and professional, but I still had the feeling it was tracking (and using) Mandriva as a starting point of every release.

If there's one thing I can say about PCLinuxOS, it's ability to detect and enable wired networking is the fastest I've seen. It asks a few good questions about networking, and when it's finished the network is up and running with little or no delay.

PCLinuxOS also booted and ran on europa.

PCLinuxOS would not allow me to run its 3D desktop drak on the notebook. I attribute this to PCLinuxOS' use of the poor nVidia 'free' driver.

Screen Shots

Here are some screen shots of PCLinuxOS running on algol.

This shot of PCLinuxOS has Firefox doing it's thing on CNN. I've opened up a separate window and streaming WMV video from CNN. This is the first LiveCD distribution I have ever booted that allowed me to do this without having to do anything else. When you start the CNN video viewer the very first time, you will be presented with a screen that says it's only good with Windows Media Player, but there is a button that says to play it anyway. Click that button, and the Mplayer plugin will then render the streaming content. I can only conclude that the proper W32 codecs are in PCLinuxOS. I did not attempt to play a DVD.

And, of course, Konsole. Once again, something of a first. Konsole comes up as white text on black, not black-on-white like very other distribution. Call me reactionary, but it should always be configured like this.

And, of course, what 'review' would be complete without poking at Open Office? This is version 2.2, which is now slightly dated.

This is where I see a strong similarity between Mandriva and PCLinuxOS. And I like this feature on both. It looks good and it works well, and I wish other distributions, especially Ubuntu, had its configuration tools as well organized. I could write a whole series of entries about how poor the management tools are across nearly all the distributions I've tried, particularly the Gnome-based distributions.

Final Comments

I place a lot of value on clarity of font rendering. I am border-edge legally blind, and I spend a lot of time in front of various types of screens. It really is important how well text is rendered on the screen. Mandriva One, PCLinuxOS, and Fedora 7 have demonstrated the best font rendering on the algol, my primary work system. Algol has a 1680 x 1050 LCD display driven by an nVidia GeForce Go 7800 video card. This combination is quite speedy and capable if driven by nVidia drivers.

It's hard to say which is better, Mandriva or PCLinuxOS. It's best to use contemporary hardware for Mandriva; it really shined in networking and 3D rendering on the Gateway. Since the Gateway is used primarily for business I would lean towards Mandriva. But if I wanted better multi-media support out-of-the-box, PCLinuxOS is certainly the better of the two. Mandriva failed the CNN streaming video test, and I would want to know how hard it would be to add the necessary codecs and playback software. Ubuntu is convoluted as is Suse. I'm tired of having to go to special repositories and then select the necessary codecs, then make sure I re-install applications that don't have MP3 and DVD playback deliberately disabled.

My advice is to download and try both, and see which one is better suited for your particular needs. You would be well served by either. Keep in mind that PCLinuxOS seems to handle older hardware better, while Mandriva is more focused on a better experience with contemporary hardware like the Gateway M685.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I told you so

I wrote in an earlier post how I thought Dell's selling of Ubuntu was a joke. The number of machines was limited to exactly three (yes, three), with very little in the way of options. Turns out that folks who wanted to purchase them for business use can't get Dell's Complete Care for them, while another hopeful buyer couldn't even purchase one for business use.

Yeah. Dell knows how to sell Linux. Dell is really committed to Linux. Sure they are.

You want to know what Dell is committed to? Making money. Being number one. Making money and being number one with Microsoft products (and Intel for that matter). Here's what landed in my Yahoo inbox today. Dell goplay, where Dell ties XBox 360 gaming into their latest gaming PC running - Windows Vista. I get Dell spam all the time selling Wintel. I have yet to get one email from Dell selling Ubuntu on Dell hardware. Not one. Dell's Ubuntu site will stay up just long enough to satisfy the critics, until the critics tire and move on to something else. Then Ubuntu on Dell will go quietly into the night, with little more than a footnote here or there to mark its passing.

Vista: The train wreck that keeps on delivering

Ah, where do I start?
  • Don't wait for Vista SP1, pleads Microsoft (The Invistagator) - In which Microsoft begs the rest of the world to accept Vista and not make a liar out of Microsoft. Remember, uptake of Vista is double that of XP in the same period of time after release. And if you're still not convinced, "Microsoft has launched a "fact rich" program to help customers understand why they should "proceed with confidence" in rolling out Vista across all their PCs."

  • From the ‘I’m glad I’m not a Vista salesperson’ files (Mary Jo Foley) - In which one of Microsoft's better supporters (really!) lists three really ugly facts about Vista (remember the 'Get The Facts' campaigns?). Biggest problem is everybody is waiting for Vista SP1 before even considering moving over. Guess what the top two questions licensees have been asking about Vista? Essentially, how to legally downgrade from Vista back to Windows XP.

  • Google-Microsoft dust-up focuses on Vista search (Computerworld) - Vista has built-in search that ties conveniently into Microsoft's search engine. Unfortunately for Google, it's so invasively hard-wired you can't turn it off, at least not very easily. If you try to install Google's search tools then they both wind up running at the same time and slow Vista down even further. Slow software from Microsoft? Really?

    Anyway, Google filed a lawsuit claiming the way Vista's search "features" were implemented violated the 2002 antitrust settlement. Or does it? The Computerworld article goes on to quote one Michael Pietroforte and his blog entry that documents three ways to turn off Vista search. To kill it completely you have to bring up services and essentially disable the service. I know how to do this, but how about the average Joe or Jane? No, I didn't think so.

  • Microsoft search surrender was all spin (The Inquirer) -Then, dramatically, Microsoft relents. Or does it? The crafty old Vole made some minor changes and convinced the DoJ and 17 other states attorneys general that Microsoft Did The Right Thing. Unfortunately for Google it wasn't enough. As author Nick Farrell so succinctly puts it:
    It seems that complaints that the DoJ is a pussy when it comes to dealing with Microsoft on anti-trust issues since Bush took power are largely correct. Google will have to look to the EU whose anti-trust activities against Vole these days are a bit more aggressive.
    I wish Google luck.

  • Vista: They took five years for this? (ITWire) - In which an Australian IT curmudgeon asks the eternal question we've all asked in one form or another since January of this year. One of his better comments:
    I was thus prepared for low-key peformance with lots of eye candy. I was disappointed. At the end of the testing, when I gratefully used a CD of the latest Ubuntu release (and I don't have a very high opinion of that as regular readers of this column would know) to wipe Vista off my drive, I realised that even those expectations had been too much.
I'm counting my pennies (and the days) until I can get a Mac.

Check your facts, honey

In one of her worst editorials to date, Pamela Jones writes another long-winded preachy peace ("Goldman Sachs: Linux Will Dominate in the Corporate Data Center - and a Tip for Them") and centers her arguments around a four year old (January 2003) Goldman Sachs article titled "Fear the Penguin".

The premise of the Goldman Sachs' paper is this:
In our view, Linux has evolved into an enterprise-class operating system that will have a significant and lasting presence in the IT landscape, and its continued emergence will cause considerable changes in the enterprise IT vendor ecosystem. We believe its strongest effects will be seen in the corporate data center, where we see a shift occurring toward Linux-on-Intel servers away from the current paradigm of proprietary Unix-on-RISC systems. This paradigm shift should have significant implications for the enterprise computing market and for a broad range of vendors in both hardware and software.
It's the vindication of Redhat's analysis and subsequent move to supporting the server-side of IT in mid-2003 when they decided to drop Red Hat Linux (RH9) and stick to service and support on the server side. It should also be noted that The SCO Group (a.k.a. Caldera Systems) filed their lawsuit against IBM on March 6, 2003. Interesting timing, no?

But that's all beside the point. The point is her entire rant is based on her interpretation of a four-year-old report, a report she writes about as if it was just released. Idiot. It would have been a far more interesting (and no doubt thoughtful) article if the predictions from four years ago were compared to today's reality, especially after the start of the tSCOg/IBM lawsuit. And then you could have drawn some interesting historical points to Microsoft's FUDstering activities which also started that same year. Get my point?

Instead we're left with a strident sermon about the evil American business folk who lust after the priceless and holy works of Open Source Programmers (especially those of a European persuasion), and how if "you disrespect the GPL, you will find no one willing to code for you." Bullshit. Lots of folks code for cold hard cash and many other reasons besides the GPL. They've done it before and will no doubt continue in the future. UNIX was coded for cold hard cash. The original C (and later C++) wasn't designed because of the GPL. Yes, we have gcc and Linux, but they are derived and implement methods and concepts originally developed by folks on a regular payroll. The GPL is a johnny-come-lately by comparison and is evolving into a confusingly convoluted legal pain in the ass that many are deciding they can well do without. Just like P.J.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Running Linux distributions with VMware Player

Just about everybody by now knows about VMware's Player. If you don't, then you should. The player is free as in beer, and there are pre-built "appliances" where complete Linux distributions are already installed and ready-to-run with the player. All you have to do is snag one and have the player run it. The system I have all this installed on is altair 4 at work, the Boxx system with the aging Athlon FX-55 and 4GB of DRAM running Windows Server 2003.

So far, using VMware Player version 2, I've downloaded and tried six different disribution appliances: Debian Etch, Fedora Core 7, Fedora Core 6, Suse 10.2, PC-BSD 1.3.0, and RHEL 4 Update 4. What follows are a trio of screen shots with the player running an FC7 distribution.

This shot (above) is a screen shot produced by Fedora's own screen capture (via Gnome). This shows the complete desktop as it would appear if my monitor were capable of completely displaying 1900 x 1440. This is the first time I've started this virtual machine, and it has found and is downloading updates.

This shot shows the Windows Server 2003 desktop with the same Fedora 7 desktop running in VMware.

Here's FC-7 again, but I've maximized the player. There's a scroll bar across the bottom of the screen that allows me to see the entire FC-7 desktop if I want. Right after taking this screen shot I changed FC-7's screen resolution so it would fit in the regular physical limitation of the Samsung LCD (1280 x 1024).

So what's it all good for? It's a quick and very easy way to sample distributions and run simple tests to see what works and what doesn't without the installation pain. It isn't perfect and a virtualized distribution will never be as fast as one running natively on the hardware, but for a lot of things, it's Good Enough.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Russell Microcap to remove SCOX

It couldn't have happened to a nicer company. SCOX (The SCO Group), those fine folks from Lindon, Utah, who think that the Linux-using world owes them billions because they happen to own the tattered remains of Unix, will be dropped from the Russell Microcap come June 22nd. This follows SCOX's stock-price drop to below $1 from mid-March until late May of this year. Then the price shot above $1 on some wild speculation in the market as well as what appears to be some fairly heavy dumping of institutional investors. The SCOX stock price now appears to be on the way back down. Whether it will go back below $1 remains to be seen, but today's near 10% drop, in conjunction with the Russell news, doesn't appear to be mere coincidence. I look forward to seeing SCOX slide back below $1 and into NASDAQ capital listing non-compliance. Followed by bankruptcy. Followed by oblivion.

"I still think GPLv2 is simply the better license."

You'd think by now that the FSF would be working as hard as reasonably possible to assuage the concerns (if not the ego) of Linus Torvalds with regards to the GPL V3. But in an email exchange on lkml Linus made the critical observation that is the title of this post.

Linus further opined:
I consider dual-licensing unlikely (and technically quite hard), but at least _possible_ in theory. I have yet to see any actual *reasons* for licensing under the GPLv3, though. All I've heard are shrill voices about "tivoization" (which I expressly think is ok) and panicked worries about Novell-MS (which seems way overblown, and quite frankly, the argument seems to not so much be about the Novell deal, as about an excuse to push the GPLv3). [emphasis mine]
Yeah, you'd think the fine folks at the FSF would work very hard to win over one of open source's Most Important Developers. But they're too busy in their shrilling and panicking to really think straight.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Atlantis lifts off

STS 117 lifted off from Kennedy this evening, some time after 7:30pm. She was carrying seven astronauts and the second set of solar panels for the IIS. Once those panels are added, the IIS'll have more power capacity and it won't look lop-sided like it does now.

After all these years I still find lift-off exhilarating. And there's just something so cool to be able to step outside my front door and look down the street to the horizon and watch spaceships take off. It's like being a character in a Bradbury story.





Everything was shot with my Olympus E300, 40-150mm (at 150mm), and hand-held, manual focus and shutter-speed at 1/200. The last shot was made with exposure -2/3 stop down to better pick out the contrail against the evening sky.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Fedora 7 runs just fine on aging europa

After using one of the Qt 4.3.0 demo applications to download Fedora 7 via Bit Torrent, I burned the ISO to CD and rebooted europa into Fedora 7 Live CD. And I was very quickly and quite pleasantly surprised by one of its key features. I enabled desktop effects (System | Preferences | Look and Feel | Desktop Effects) and it worked. Nearly flawlessly. Compiz finally worked like a charm on this aging platform with the ATI 9700 Pro. Here's a few screen captures. I have never personally had Compiz perform as well as it did here on a live CD before Fedora 7. My hat's off to the Fedora developers. You guys done good.

Here I've grabbed the the corner with the mouse and the [Ctrl][Alt] keys and pulled it down to illustrate the cube.

Here I'm looking at my thumb drive (where I'm stashing screen shots) and three screens. Key sequence [Ctrl][Alt][Down Arrow].

And here I've opened up Firefox 2.0.0.3 and have it sitting astride two windows. And yes, you can drag the window completely across an edge of a desktop and have the cube face flip to where you've dragged it.

I've only noticed one little nit so far. The Compiz cube faces don't sync with the Workspace Switcher in the lower right corner. I can switch with the arrow keys around the cube, but when I try to select a desktop that matches a cube face it doesn't work. It's like the entire cube is associated with screen 1 of the workspace switcher.

Now I'm wondering if I should install this thing, and where...