Sunday, November 30, 2008

How a Mandriva Upgrade led to me installing OpenSUSE

The Setup

I've been so busy for the last six months I've been waiting for some free time to upgrade europa, who's been running Mandriva 2008.1 Power Pack. That free time came during the Thanksgiving break. I've been quite happy with Mandriva 2008.1. The only reason to upgrade is because Mandriva 2009.0 Power Pack is the new hotness, which makes 2008.1 the old, busted hotness. And so I pulled the 2009.0 DVD ISO and burned a copy, then hit the reboot and waited for the system to upgrade from the DVD.

The Act

Running the Mandriva update from the DVD was flawless. 2009.0 found the 2008.1 installation, updated the necessary packages, and otherwise prepped europa to boot into the new hotness. And so after 2009.0 Upgrade had finished it's labors I removed the DVD and waited for first boot into 2009.0.

The Results

While there are certainly worse things that can happen to you in life, watching a perfectly good system fail to boot after what appears to be a flawless upgrade is going to leave a cold dead weight in the pit of your stomach. It didn't take long to find out what happened, and I'm still perplexed why Mandriva 2009.0 did what it did.

But first, a little background. Europa has three hard drives; hda, hdb, and sda.
  • hda - A 120 GB Western Digital PATA drive that contains Windows XP. It has always been recognized as the first drive.
  • hdb - A 160 GB Western Digital PATA drive that contains Linux. It has always been recognized as the second drive.
  • sda - A 250 GB Western Digital SATA drive. It has been formated as a single ext3 drive on which all my work under Linux is done. It was added in January of this year when the price dropped to $89 at a local Circuit City. My motherboard is old enough that it's SATA 1, not SATA 3.
Since grub couldn't find its location (/boot) and supporting files I tried to first rescue grub, then in desperation tried to reset the MBR to at least get Windows to boot stand-alone. Nothing worked. That's when I started to pay attention to how Mandriva 2009 was labeling the drives. And here's what I discovered:
  • sda -> sda -> first boot device (was third device under 2008.1)
  • hda -> sdb -> second device (was first device under 2008.1)
  • hdb -> sdc -> third device (was second device under 2008.1)
I discovered this ordering when I booted the 2009.0 DVD and elected to begin an install. I then looked at how it wanted to partition all the drives. Why Mandriva 2009.1 elected to scramble the order of my drives is a mystery. As is the final failure to boot after an update. I think I have an inkling, but I need a bit of time to dig a little deeper.

A Solution (But Not the One I Expected)

I already had OpenSUSE 11.1 RC on CD, so I figured "why not?" I dropped the CD into the drive, booted into the live desktop, and started an install. It has been some time since I installed OpenSUSE, let alone worked with it. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the experience turned out to be pretty straightforward and fast. In particular I found that the OpenSUSE installer wanted to view my drives and partitions in the same order that Mandriva 2008.1 (and everything else up to that point) had seen them. The only difference being that the hda/hdb labels were replaced with sda/sdb, and the older sda SATA drive was now sdc.

So I configured my drives and partitions and then just let OpenSUSE install itself. In very little time at all it was finished and I was going through first boot. After finishing the installation of first boot, I rebooted to see if I could boot into Windows. I could; everything was back to normal.

At this point it's usually de rigueur in some quarters to spin out a rant against the 'lame' and 'stupid' Mandriva. After all, OpenSUSE 11.1 installed properly, didn't it? The problem with that argument is the realization that europa hardware is pushing a good five years of age. In this industry that's a very long time. The motherboard, based on an old nForce 2 chipset, is so old it has a SATA 1 chipset. You can't buy a new motherboard today (that I'm aware of) that has PATA drive support on the motherboard the way my motherboard has it. While it's technically wrong, I can see where the Mandriva installer saw the SATA drive and automatically assumed it was the primary boot device instead of paying strict attention to the BIOS. As much as I like this machine, it probably is time for me to head back over to Newegg and build a more current system.

Running under OpenSUSE - Again

So, is OpenSUSE 11.1 going to replace Mandriva 2009? Let's answer that in stages.

OpenSUSE 11.1 Live CD does not have all the codecs and multimedia features that Mandriva 2009.1 One Live CD has. In fact, the One was able to play back QuickTime and other content, while I'm going to have to go and hunt down all the necessary codecs (and libdvdcss, but then libdvdcss is also a hunt-down-and-add-on for Mandriva) in order to get equivalent functionality. So, for decent multimedia support from the get-go, Mandriva is your choice.

But OpenSUSE does install cleanly and quickly, and it does boot up with sound and video working at its best. Flash is not part of the OpenSUSE Live CD (nor on the One) so I had to fetch Adobe's Flash plugin from here and then install it via Konsole before Flash sites, such as CNN, would play. But the installation was simple and once installed multimedia Flash sites streamed just fine. So yes, it took an extra step in that regard, but it required no arcane configuration steps, and as an added bonus sound worked just fine. It's little different from what I always do under Windows XP.

Then there are the other little extras. For example, there are all the great KDE 4 wallpapers (no, really) that were released a year ago. They're stock on Mandriva 2009.0 One, but they're not a part of OpenSUSE 11.1 RC Live CD. I wanted to use "Fields of Peace" but it wasn't installed. A minor annoyance but no problem. Normally I'd go look in Yast and load the package. Except the software repositories had not yet been enabled. You find this out by opening the YaST Control Center and then opening Software Management. To solve that minor annoyance you have to open "Configured Software Repositories" and enable the first three entries. Well I say the first three. The first is for updates, and after enabling it and then getting the update notices I'm not so sure.

Once I had the repositories enabled I was able to find the package for the KDE 4 wallpapers (kdebase4-wallpapers) and install them. While I was there I also installed GCC (along with Ada and G++). I went looking for Java and found that the latest version in the repositories was version 1.6.0 update 7. I currently use update 10 on every system I touch, so I wasn't interested in the repository version.

And voilà! It's a nice, simple, subtle desktop (at least to my eyes). And it's Green.

During configuration and update of packages, something triggered smolt and it popped up on the desktop. I've read of smolt, and I used it to upload my systems hardware configuration. While smolt may serve a useful purpose, it's UI leaves something to be desired.

One nice feature found on Gnome but seemingly missing on KDE desktops is the ability to trigger a screen capture via the Print Screen key. I'm sure there's a manual way to set up a key binding to trigger KSnapshot, but why put someone to that much trouble? I finally found where Printscreen is bound (in System Settings | Keyboard & Mouse | Keyboard Shortcuts, under KDE Daemon!?!), but it's linked to KDE Deamon, which I assume is the intermediary between pressing the Printscreen key and invoking KSnapshot. Not exactly the most intuitive implementation I've ever seen.

When I went to "save as" the screen shot I noticed that on the Save As dialog, where you would expect to type in the file name, the text box's label is "Location", not Name or "File Name". Most peculiar.

The Situation So Far

I've installed gcc and I've downloaded and dropped on my system Java 6 Update 10 from Sun. I've already got Eclipse installed in the same area where I keep Java, and I'll talk more about how I use and develop with Java later. But right now external Java from Sun runs just fine on OpenSUSE 11.1. This was the deal breaker for me with OpenSUSE when upgrading from 10.2 to 10.3. That's why I switched, first to Ubuntu, then to Mandriva. This time everyone is playing nice together.

I'm going to continue to add the bits as I need them, such as the latest AMD/ATI drivers for my video card. They're not in there right now (Mandriva One has them and will install them), and I can't find any fglrx packages in the current repository set. That's probably another reason to upgrade hardware; Stream Processing from ATI/AMD. I checked on Newegg and you can pick up a 4850 with 300 Stream Processing Units for about $160. Not bad for cheap parallel processing. Of course, you can't get such hardware without a new system; europa only support AGP.

I'll see what happens in the mean time with OpenSUSE. I'm going to be running some builds with the latest gcc/g++, and I'm also going to be doing some Java cross-testing and development. It might not play all the latest in multimedia, but if it's a decent development platform (read: rock solid and nothing screwy in the libraries) then that's all that really matter sometimes.

I will more than likely go back to Mandriva (especially on newer hardware). Or I may just do something as simple as pull the plug on the SATA drive on europa before I attempt another Mandriva 2009 install. I've certainly done far worse in the past when installing other distributions and even vaunted Windows. Nobody's perfect. But in the mean time I will work with OpenSUSE and see how it runs.

Friday, November 28, 2008

OpenSUSE 11.1 RC and KDE 4.1

The release Thursday of OpenSUSE 11.1 RC 'incited' me to download the KDE-based Open CD version and give it a spin. I've been tracking KDE 4.1 across three distributions (Mandriva 2009, Fedora 10, and OpenSUSE). I tried Kubuntu 8.10 and immediately rebooted my system and threw the CD in the trash. Kubuntu in any version is one of the worst ways to experience KDE (version 3 or version 4).

Although I don't have any images of the boot process (and I never had) I can say that booting into OpenSUSE 11.1 is a smooth and polished experience. This is in stark contrast to booting into a current release of Ubuntu, in which the language selection menu is clumsily splashed across the screen. The Ubuntu first boot experience is crude and amateurish, while OpenSUSE (and Mandriva and Fedora and ... ) are far more polished and professional. The only first boot experience worse than Ubuntu is OpenSolaris and its several text menus.

As usual one of the first tasks I perform after booting to the desktop is to fire up an instance of Firefox and the shell. I also play around a bit with the desktop eye candy just to see if will work; for that simple test I bring up the Add Widgets dialog and add the Analog Clock. What you see below is the OpenSUSE KDE 4.1 default desktop with Firefox 3, Konsole, and the Analog Clock.

Two things I don't like right off the bat is the square size of the Desktop Folder widget and the default text theme in the Desktop Folder. I like to see the icons lined up down the left side of the desktop (ala the older KDE 3 way of showing the initial desktop icons). So after wrangling with the resize of Desktop Folder, I started to look for another theme that would produce a more readable font. One other thing I noticed, the swoosh icon is missing in the upper right corner of the screen. I have never liked the swoosh icon, and the fact you can now turn it off on OpenSUSE 11.1 as a nice feature.

Another nice feature is the growing maturity of Desktop Settings dialog. It may be at the same level of maturity in other current KDE 4.1 distributions, but I don't know and I need to go back and look for the sake of completeness and fairness. But it's nicer here than I've seen before, and it takes little time to select from a number of better themes than the default. The next six desktops were selected from a combination of the Desktop Theme and the Wallpaper.

The following theme is the default. The use of 'chrome' is jarring and produces widget decorations that detract from the overall theme.

The next theme I tried was Elegance. And it does indeed live up to its name. The clock in particular is toned down quite a bit and blends into the desktop enough that only the hands stand out, and then just enough to find them to read the time. Otherwise all the elements that make up the desktop seem much better balanced. Note also that the text in the Desktop Folder widget is much more readable.

The next two green themes (Oxygen and Slim Glow) give the same general effect while offering reasonable differentiation. They all offer (in my not-so-humble opinion) a better selection than the default. And that brings up another good feature of this latest spin of KDE 4.1. This is the first KDE desktop where I haven't been forced to go off to KDE Looks and spend too much time downloading themes to make the desktop look better than a bad version of the CDE desktop theme. Icons, colors, and controls all seem to look better and work better together thematically.

For those who don't like green, you can select the blue-themed Blue Curl desktop wallpaper, and then try out the various themes to see how they work. I will say this; don't select the Slim Glow theme and the Blue Curl wallpaper. The resultant treatment of the Analog Clock makes it disappear into the wallpaper.

And finally, for those who have to have the swoosh as well as the old school icons directly on the desktop, you can select that by bringing up the Desktop Settings dialog and then selecting the Folder View Desktop Activity. Just make sure that if you make that selection that you remove the Desktop Folder widget.

One problem I ran into (and continue to run into with every distribution I check out) is the inability to look in existing partitions any longer. I tried to look into one of my existing EXT3 partitions with Dolphin, only to be presented with the lovely but strange error message at the bottom of the application.

I would have liked to have tried to run some other tests using media files and movies, but I can't see any of my existing partitions (neither Linux, Windows XP (NTFS), nor the FAT32 partition created for the express purpose of sharing data between multiple OSes running on my machine). It's not just OpenSUSE; I've been seeing this inability to view existing partitions for the last 12 months. I have no idea if this is a 'feature' or a regression, but I do remember using both Ubuntu 7.04 Live CD as well as OpenSUSE 10.2 Live CD to read every partition on this machine. If this is a 'security' feature then it's a damn annoying feature that ranks right up with there with Vista's UAC.

Final Thoughts, Various Ramblings

If I were approaching OpenSUSE 11.1 as a first time user I'd have to admit that the initial look and feel is solid and professional. Whoever has worked on the desktop has done an excellent job of creating a usable environment.

In fact, what the latest spin of KDE 4.1 reminds me of isn't so much KDE as Gnome; yes, Gnome. Unlike KDE 3, there are no great gobs of desktop and application real estate taken over with wasted white space between controls, and none of the visible 3D lines that outlined nested panels and controls. The placement and organization of controls seems a lot more natural. In fact, it seems a lot more Mac-like, without looking like a poor rip-off of the Mac interface. KDE 4 has borrowed some design elements from the Mac, but it has taken those elements (such as transparency) and made it uniquely KDE 4-like. And the KDE 4.1 desktop's fit and finish make the existing Gnome desktop look crude and very old by comparison.

It's a shame that it took this long to reach this state, but KDE 4.1 finally delivers on the KDE 4 promise of a new desktop, a desktop that simultaneously invites users old and new to use it, while getting out of your way when you want to get down to work.

Some pundits, such as Béranger, want to continuously flog KDE 4.1 with such comments as; "Each and every time I am confronted with the awkward design and counter-usability of KDE 4.x.y, I wonder what kind of mushrooms are they eating." Perhaps, instead, Monsieur Béranger should check to see what type of mushroom he lives under. He's no longer a viable critic, he's a troll living deep in some dark Frenchie forest, continuously croaking out his dissatisfaction over all things Linux. Granted he was speaking of Fedora 10 rather than OpenSUSE 11.1, but I can't see how one strays so far from the other that Fedora deserves such a boot to the virtual head as he wants to deliver. Perhaps he should go back to Windows.

And then there are the conspiracy nuts led by Boycott Novell, who would have you believe that OpenSUSE's prime sponsor, Novell, is the Little Satan to Microsoft's Great Satan because of the business agreement Novell and Microsoft entered two years ago. Well, I have a few clues for Messieurs Coyle and Schestowitz; (1) Microsoft isn't going anywhere, and neither is Novell for that matter, and (2) OpenSUSE should be evaluated on technical merit, not some twisted ideological crusade based on distorted and contrived facts.

This is not to say that all is forgiven and that I embrace OpenSUSE once again. This admittedly small "review" just scratches the surface. I would have to install OpenSUSE 11.1 and perform a series of tests to determine its performance and stability under multiple tasks; something similar to what Phoronix has been doing lately. But if my impressions of running OpenSUSE 11.1 RC Live CD is any indication, then 11.1 certainly merits re-evaluation. And it certainly merits a good hard look from everyone else within and without.


I decided to boot up Fedora 10's KDE Live CD just to do a quick compare. And it failed to boot into the desktop on aging europa. So I came out and used my Latitude D630. The big difference between the two systems are the display adapters; europa has the ATI X1950 Pro while the D630 comes equipped with an NVIDIA Quadro NVS 135M. Fedora 10 boots and displays just fine on the NVIDIA card, but fails on the ATI. Conversely, while OpenSUSE 11.1 boots on both, it will not boot into the full resolution of the D630. The D630 has a 1440 by 900 screen; OpenSUSE will only use 1024 by 768. Ah, the joys of 'choice' amongst the distributions. What follows is the Fedora 10 desktop using the default wallpaper and the Elegance theme.

I should point out that the Desktop Settings dialog is considerably lighter in functionality from the same dialog in OpenSUSE 11.1. I could speculate that this is due to the fact that the version of KDE that wound up in Fedora 10 is actually an earlier point release from the version in OpenSUSE 11.1, but I don't know for certain. If it is then it's a bit peculiar; not only is the Fedora 10 dialog deficient in functionality, but the dialog is organized differently (and more poorly in my not-so-humble opinion). And while the desktops appear to be (nearly) identical, there are enough subtle differences in look and feel between the two to make me select OpenSUSE 11.1 over Fedora 10. But just because I prefer OpenSUSE's desktop over Fedora 10's doesn't mean Fedora 10 is as horribly flawed as Monsieur Béranger would have the world believe.

Update 2

And so we have a screenshot of Mandriva 2009 One Live CD. I chose the Fields of Peace wallpaper with the Elegance Theme. I should note that the Desktop Settings dialog is just like Fedora 10's. I deliberately chose this nice green theme to point out that green is not bad. In fact I would have chosen this as the default desktop theme for OpenSUSE 11.1. But then, that's just me.

Remember when I babbled earlier about not being able to see any of my partitions with any current distribution? I was wrong. With Mandriva 2009 One Live CD I can see everything except directories under /home. But that's still an annoyance, especially if you want to use the Live CD as a rescue disk and you need to get into your home directory to fix the problem(s).

In the screen shot above, I'm able to look at files on an NTFS (Windows XP SP2) folder that contains some old QuickTime trailers. In this example I'm playing back an old Hellboy trailer. It plays back with full audio. This was a feat I could not accomplish with either OpenSUSE or Fedora 10. Based on my personal tastes and needs I'll stick with Mandriva.

The point of all of this; I've come to believe KDE 4.1 is truly ready for mass acceptance, and these three current distributions help to drive that point home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

iPod Touch: Too good to last

Leave to the Gremlins of Small Devices to make a fool out of me. In the last post I stated that the new iPhone OS 2.2 was "rock solid." Wrong. Last night I picked up a new Nova video podcast, "Smart Bridges", and attempted to play it. And it crashed my Touch. I eventually got it to play, but the repeatable crash scenario is this: Play "Smart Bridges" first and it plays fine. Play it after any other video podcast and it crashes my Touch. Play any other combination of video podcasts that doesn't include "Smart Bridges" and they all play fine.

I've never seen this behavior before, and I've never had anything that caused the Touch to crash back to the Apple boot logo like this does. So whatever is happening it's either a regression under 2.2 or it's been there all along and I just happened to hit a corner condition. Lucky me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

iPod Touch: Upgrade to iPhone OS 2.2

As has been noted ad nauseam across the blogosphere, Apple released iPhone OS 2.2 last Friday to its millions of iPhone and iPod Touch users. Out of all the features and fixes that came out with version 2.2, the one I was most interested in had to do with fixes to Safari. Up until Friday I could count on crashing the browser at least once/week. And the NYTimes application would crash once/day. But as of the update on Friday there have been absolute zero crashes in either application. None. Zip. Nada. The only problem was with Webmonkey. While it didn't cause Safari to crash, it locked the application and the Touch up so that I had to reset the device to get control back. Fortunately when I went back to the application it remembered the site I was on before going to Webmonkey, otherwise I'd have been right back at a bad situation. I've played a bit with Safari Settings, but there doesn't appear to be any way to set Safari to a blank page. There's some ominous Reset Settings which might solve such a hypothetical problem, but I'm not in the mood to try them out and see what happens. So for now I just stay away from Webmonkey. And so far I've not found any other site that causes the Webmonkey Lockup.

As I said my iPod Touch runs flawlessly and fast. It's running rock solid; so rock solid as to be almost boring. And boring, in this case, is good.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Voting Results

9:00 PM

Orange County, Florida, is voting Obama. Right now it's 60% Obama to 40% McCain. Volusia and Osceola have also voted for Obama. Right now the overall vote in Florida is Obama 52% to McCain 48%.

CNN currently gives Obama 174 electoral votes, McCain 49.

10:00 PM

CNN currently gives Obama 207, McCain 95. Obama has been predicted to win Ohio, a key state, with 53% of the vote. Florida is still too close to call; Obama has 51%, McCain 48%. But it won't matter with Ohio in Obama's column. Barak needs another 63 electoral votes, and 55 are in California.

11:00 PM V*I*C*T*O*R*Y

Obama has picked up California, Oregon, Washington State, and Virginia. And the Presidency. He's projected to be the 44th president of the United States. I've heard on TV that Obama is projected to win Florida, but it's not yet reflected on the CNN web site. No matter. Obama is currently sitting with 297 electoral votes, and if it all holds up, then it doesn't matter what column Florida falls into.

11:30 PM Updates

Florida is now in Obama's column, which is quite satisfying especially considering how the 2000 vote turned out. There is no ambiguity this time. Colorado is in Obama's column too, which I find quite symbolic. I've just finished watching McCain's concession speech. He spoke to a booing, rowdy crowd of Republicans in Arizona.

Monday, November 03, 2008

I voted, again

And I voted for Obama.

I voted early (absentee ballot) because I've got a lot to do this week, and it was easier to get an absentee ballot and then deliver it to a polling station near where I live. Not only did I avoid long lines, but I could sit down with the ballot and really think about all the candidates and measures on the Florida ballot, in the peace and quiet of my home.

In spite of what I declared back in March, I voted for Obama because I've watched McCain commit painful slow political suicide, especially when he selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for his running mate. McCain proved to me that there are indeed worse things than a Clinton.

I watched Obama overcome old-style entrenched Democratic politics, and I've watched him overcome old-style entrenched Republican politics. At the end of the day you really can't tell one from the other. And just as Obama overcame Hillary Clinton, he'll overcome John McCain. And we'll have a President Obama come Wednesday morning.

Maybe the far right will emigrate to Canada because of it.