Desktops, Drivers and Other Stuff

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent some time switching back and forward between Xfce (my preferred Desktop Environment) and KDE. I once ran KDE almost exclusively but for various reasons I’ve been using Xfce for the last couple of years.

One of the reasons was the frequency of KDE to lock up. It would just stop running. I have long suspected it was a graphics problem but had no proof. I have  a nVidia GT240 video card and had been using the open source nouveau driver. After a recent lock up I was forcing a shutdown when the screen filled with nouveau errors. Although I prefer to use open source drivers where possible I decided to install the nvidia drivers from RPMFusion using Korora’s PharLap application.

All went well with the installation and it did solve the lock up problems. Doing a bit of research I found an old bug which has been kept current. As far as I can see there has been no action on it. Anyhow problem solved and now I have working Xfce and KDE desktops and can and do switch between them as I feel like it.

Speaking of old bugs a long time I reported a problem with landscape printing and after much investigation by many people it was narrowed down to cups-filters and an update provided which fixed the problem. Now some months later those packages were updated and the problem returned. I commented on the bug and straight away another update was provided along with an apology. Well done Jiri Popelka. I tested and provided karma to the update so hopefully it is making its way through the update system now.

I’ve been testing installations on a uefi system the last couple of days. I was surprised how simple it was with Korora and so also with Fedora. More details later but if you want a linux system on an uefi computer either as a single installation or a dual boot Korora is the way to go.

Geotagging in Linux

You may ask why geotag images? I have some images I took on film 20 years ago and would love to know where they were taken. Often I have a rough idea but I couldn’t find my way back there if I wanted too. One image is marked ‘beside the Croydon to Georgetown Road, Queensland’. Not very helpful when you think those 2 towns are nearly 150k apart, that’s almost 95 miles for those from non metric places.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with automatically geotagging my photos, also known as GPS Co-relating. This requires having a gps track of where I have been and an application that can match that track with the appropriate photos.

First thing is to create a gps track. This can be done with a dedicated gps unit or with some other device. I chose to use my android phone because I always have it with me. To record the track requires an app. There are many available but I use ‘Open GPS Tracker‘ because it is open source, it’s free and it works. It has many options that I don’t use including real time streaming. It has the option to output .gpx files which is what the co-relating applications require.

After you have the track you need an application to read it and match it to your photos. As always there are a number of options in Linux. Digikam has this option but I couldn’t get it to work reliably so I use ‘GPS Correlator’. It is available in the repos of many Linux distros, just needs a ‘yum install gpscorrelator’ in Kororaa (and Fedora). It has more options than Digikam which is how I got it working.

One thing I should mention is that your camera and gps unit (phone in my case) must have the time settings synchronised as accurately as  possible. Doesn’t need to be to the second but as close as you can get it. As most phones handle their time settings automatically this means changing the setting on your camera. Check it before each use particularly if you live in an area with daylight saving.

In the gpscorrelator screen you can select photos to process then the gpx file you got from your gps unit. You should set the time zone your camera is set to as gps data is always in UTC. You can also set the time difference and offset. Fortunately gpscorrelator has tool tips which describe how to use these options. If you still get no match on some images try selecting the ‘Between Segments’, it compensates for any gaps in your track. Particularly useful for areas with poor gps reception like cities and wooded areas.

Gpscorrelator also has an option to remove gps data from images if you want your location to remain private. This is handy for phones and other cameras that automatically record your location. For images taken at home and at friends’ places you might prefer to keep the location private when you post them on photo sharing sites.

There are a couple of things I’ve learnt so far. First is allow some time between starting the tracker and taking your first image. Also between taking the last image and stopping the tracker. First time I tried it I stopped the tracker when I got back in the car after taking the last images. None of the images taken there would match as the last point in the track was some time before the images were taken. Today when I got it working I started the tracker when I left home and stopped it when I get back.

Second is if you are constantly moving you might need to adjust the ‘Logging Precision’ in ‘Open GPS Tracker’s settings. It defaults to normal but if you find this doesn’t give enough points try a more precise setting or set you own custom interval. Experimenting is the only way to know what works for you. Explore the settings for other options that may improve your accuracy or that you might find useful too.

If you are using the tracker for a long period, e.g. most of the day, you might need to consider battery life. So far I’ve been in the car and I can plug the phone into a charger so that isn’t a problem. But without the external power recording a track for several hours may result in a dead phone battery. This maybe a good use for an old android phone if you have one laying around, maybe you know someone who has recently updated?

Adding location tags to your images is useful now and so easy to do why not try it.

Tech & Travel

Over the past weekend I had reason to read the journal I kept of a driving trip I took about a decade ago. It was a driving holiday around northern NSW and Queensland, over 4000 kms all together. It reminded me how valuable a journal can be. Most entries were only a few paragraphs but reading them brought back so much about that trip that I had forgotten. But I digress, that wasnt the reason behind this post.

I started to think how much things have changed in such a short time, at least where tech is concerned. The only tech items I took with me were a phone and video camera. The phone’s only additional feature I used was the clock and alarm which woke me on a couple of mornings when departure time was important. The video was an vhs-c, old even then. My camera was a manual slr. For navigation I relied on on several paper maps, many of which proved to be out of date. The journal was written with pen and paper, actually a fountain pen something I still love to use.

If I was going today, I pause to dream for a while…ahh!., I would take a lot more. Immediately I add a netbook or laptop complete with mobile broadband. It would assist in navigation with access to mapping sites. It would hold my journal and serve as a repository for photos I take. A portable hard drive for backups would be essential.

I couldn’t imagine going anywhere without a satnav unit. It would be used while travelling with the computer used for planning. There were times when I wasn’t sure where I was but that was part of the fun.

I noticed from my notes how conservative I was taking photos. Probably due to the cost and availiability of film and processing. These days I take more shots on a day trip than I took in a week on that trip. There are several times I wish I had stopped to take more photos. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

One thing that wouldn’t change was the vehicle. It is still going strong and I wouldn’t think twice to set off in it again. But that is a bit off topic.

So would I have a better trip? Well I would take more photos and that is important to me. I would have a better idea where I was and where I was going so that might make it easiest. But either way it was a trip to remember and that was the most important thing.

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Netbooks

I have been interested in the idea of a netbook since they first appeared. I can see the advantage of a small portable computer especially since laptops seem to be getting larger. I remember many years ago using a 486 laptop that only ran dos but was small and light. It was the ideal travel companion. So recently I decided it was time to add to my collection of pcs.

The new unit is Kogan Agora Pro from Kogan, an Australian company. At under $500 it is the cheapest netbook available in Australia but despite that is well equipped. It has a 160gb drive and 2 gig ram as well as the standard Atom processor. Graphics are Intel 950 which support 3d, transparency etc. OS is gOS a version of Linux based on Ubuntu with a emphasis on Google.

So how good is it? It is only available online which is a bit of a concern. I like to see and touch before I buy. However there were several good reviews online so I took a risk. It arrived in a couple of days. Just a plain white box with the usual hardware but no manual. That is only available on the website. Kogan proudly state they are a paperless company. It had a Windows XP sticker even though it came with Linux, that went very quickly. My first impressions were very good, it runs well and seems well made.

I was not so impressed with the operating system though. It seemed to be an older version as it contained out of date versions of OpenOffice and Firefox. The getting started guide recommended against updating it too. Seems that causes problems with the wifi driver. To add to that it didn’t recognise my wireless broadband so I couldn’t get online.

My next move was predictable I guess. gOS was gone and Fedora replaced it. Most things worked out of the box including wifi and my wireless broadband. I was surprised how well it ran even with KDE 4.3 installed which is a bit resource intensive. Even the desktop effects worked. It didn’t take me long to have the desktop customised the way I like it. Later I added the Xfce 4.6 desktop and that runs even better. I will give Fedora’s new Moblin spin when that becomes available after the release of Fedora 12 in about a month.

I have used it around home, in meetings and when out and about. It has prove a worthwhile investment and a useful tool.

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Fedora on Dell 1520

In a recent post I outlined my purchase of a new laptop, a Dell Inspiron 1520. It came with XP Pro which I need for a couple of applications. However for some time now my operating system of choice has been Linux and specifically Fedora 8. So after checking everything was working on the new machine and installing the Windows apps I would use it was time to install Fedora.

When I ordered the laptop I had selected options that I believed would work without much trouble with Fedora. A search of the Fedora forums and a couple of other sites like Linux Laptop wiki and Linux on Laptops helped with that.

Installation

I partitioned the hard drive giving XP 100 gig and Fedora the rest of the 250G drive. First I had to remove the Dell Media Direct partition they put on the very end of the disk. For some reason this causes problems but can be recreated after the installation of Fedora. I left the Fedora area as free space and let Anaconda, the installation program, set it up. I just selected the Use Free Space option and left it at that.

I used a Fedora 8 dvd I had on hand. This saved downloading a newer copy but didn’t save much as we will see. The installation went without any problems. I followed my usual procedure of selecting just KDE for the desktop environment and also customised the applications to be installed. There are some I wanted that are not part of the standard selection including OpenOffice Base and Krusader.

I left it to do its thing and after a short time I came back to find it was ready for the final stage which includes rebooting and setting up the user(s). After that I had a working system. I proceeded to check what was working to see what I needed to do manually. But first I did a full update, this is where the decision not to download a new dvd image came back to haunt me as there where several hundred updates to get and it took more than a couple of hours on the slow broadband we have here in Oz.

That done it was time to get everything working. Let’s look at each area individually.

Graphics

I had selected the nVidia GeForce 8400M G card with its own 128m ram. It was working but with a default driver so I installed the nvidia driver from the Livna repository. It recognised the card and included a control application. The correct resolution of 1440 x 900 was set automatically. It looks great and works well.

WiFi

The Intel 3945ABG adapter was recognised during installation and the correct iwl3945 driver installed. I simply activated the NetworkManager and NetworkManagerDispatch services and it asked for the passphrase for my WPA2 network and proceeded to link without a problem. I wish I could say the same for XP. I often use the laptop in an area that is on the edge of the router’s range and Fedora works (nearly) every time but XP often refuses to link when the signal is weak and it drops out from time to time.

There is a small problem with the wifi. It will not reconnect after returning from suspend. It did initially but then an update broke it. It is a known problem with the current kernel and iwl3945 driver. A bug report has been lodged by several people so hopefully a future update will fix it. There is a simple workaround just right click on NM applet and remove the tick from Enable Wireless, do it again and put the tick back and finally click on the applet and select the network to connect to.

WebCam

I wouldn’t have ordered a webcam but it is a standard fitting. I was surprised to see the light flash during startup and decided to check it out. Using kdetv it works without a problem. Chalk up another one for Linux.

Bluetooth

I have not found the touchpad easy to use, I am used to the Thinkpad joystck type controller, so I purchased a Logitech Bluetooth mouse. The bluetooth service was already activated but there was nothing to control the devices. After installing KBluetooth the mouse was recognised and I added it as a trusted device and now it works as soon as it is turned on.

Keys

The keys that work with the Fn key all seem to work, at least the ones I have tried which include the brightness and the suspend keys. The Multimedia keys on the front don’t work at this stage but I have read some reports that they can be made to so that is a future project.

Desktop Effects

Using the procedure I outlined in a previous post I soon had Compiz-Fusion working . Just a strange thing with the Pager. It only shows one desktop while there are four. Compiz-Fusion controls these and the pager is usually set to one but shows four. It shows the correct amount on my desktop with the same version so I’m not sure what is happening. If I change the Pager setting to something other than one and then change it back it shows the correct four but it doesn’t stick when I restart. This hasn’t really been a problem as I use Ctrl+Alt+Left(or Right) Arrow to change desktops.

Sound

I had sound working in Amarok and Firefox but not system sounds. This has been a problem on all my machines and is a common subject on the forums. Pulseaudio is standard in Fedora 8 and it seems to be the problem. There are several places I have seen possible fixes (just do a search on the forums) but I have taken the easy (and dirty) method and removed it altogether. This worked for me.

Are there Problems?

It wouldn’t be fair to say there were no problems. I mentioned a couple of issues above plus there is one other that really concerned me for a while. There was a regular clicking noise. A search brought up a few mentions that it is a problem with Powersave and the hard drive trying to park too often. I found details of a script and after installing it the noise has disappeared.

The Result

I now have a working and usable system with minimal setup required. I am pleased with the result and find I use it more than my desktop. If it wasn’t for some special hardware needs I could probably survive with just the laptop. This was the result of carefully selecting the hardware that I knew could be made to work. Unfortunately this is still a necessary step if you want to avoid the hassles of unsupported devices. Although Linux hardware support is improving, thanks to the efforts of a few hardware manufacturers and the hard work of developers within the Linux community, it can be difficult to get some computers, particularly laptops, working.

In summary if you want to run Linux especially on a laptop do your research first and you won’t be disappointed.

New Laptop

After posting so much about my old Thinkpad now I must report that it has died. Well maybe, the screen turned all white one morning and has been that way since. I know the computer itself is ok as it works on an external monitor without any problems. I decided it was time for a new machine. I have since found some info through Google that suggests the problem may just be a loose or faulty connection to the screen. I will get it checked out at some stage and see if it is worth repairing. Fortunately I didn’t have any data on it that hadn’t been backed up.

With the decision to buy a new one came the big choice, what to get? I looked around and found that there are some end of model specials at good prices and was tempted. First though I made a list of my requirements. For an operating system I wanted to run Fedora and the choice of buying one already installed was very limited. There are a couple of people that will sell systems with any operating system you request but they charge a premium over the regular retail price. A few suppliers have a Linux option if you search deep enough on their site but that is nearly always Ubuntu and at least one stated “not all drivers available”. So my option was a Windows system and self install Fedora.

If I was going to get Windows I wanted something I could use as a dual boot. That meant XP as some of the Windows software I use isn’t available for Vista and besides I have used Vista and was glad to get back to XP. That also meant a reasonable size hard drive so I had room for two systems. If I was going to spend some money I wanted something that wouldn’t be out of date straight away, I wanted it to be a while before I need to write another “New Life for Old Laptop”. So I set a budget of around $A1500 and started looking.

I found only a few places would sell with XP but several offered a downgrade option if you bought Vista Business. I looked at the Dell site but the weekly specials didn’t interest me and there were limited XP options. Later in the week I went back to the Dell site after the next week’s specials were listed and found many more XP Pro options and some large discounts. Several models that had been outside my budget now became available to me. They were the only place to charge a fee for supplying XP instead of Vista but it was only $29. My mind was made up.

I ordered an Inspirion 1520 and selected the options that a search of the Fedora forums told me would work with F8. I got the Intel 3945 wireless card and nVidia 8400 graphics. It also has 250 gig Hard drive. plenty of space for dual booting and 3 gig ram, plenty of space to run a virtual system if I get around to setting it up. With a 2 Gig Core 2 Duo processor I knew it would run at a reasonable speed. It had other features that weren’t really needed but they’re free, e.g. a web cam and MS Office 7 license were included. All for less than my budget.

When I placed the order they gave me a expected delivery time of 10 working days but I soon got a message to say it would arrive in 5 and it did. I checked everything was as described and working and proceeded to install the Windows software I use. After years of using a Thinkpad with their stick control I found the touchpad difficult to operate but as that is my only complaint I’m not unhappy.

Next came the Fedora installation. But that is a story for another day.

On OSes

Over the last couple of weeks I have used a number of different operating systems. This may be normal for many people but for me it is a little unusual. I have a couple I use regularly and that is about my usual limit. It got me thinking about OSes and the impact they have on our computer use.

It would be easy to argue that operating systems should be invisible and in fact for many people they are. I am surprised by the number of people who don’t know what they use. But maybe that is how it should be. After all it is the applications that we use to accomplish what we want to do. I think in an ideal world we would have an OS that perfectly matched the hardware it was used on and be able to run the applications that will do what we want to do without worrying about the type and version of OS. Of course that is heresy to many people.

I mentioned I had used a few different systems and they left me with an impression I didn’t completely expect. I used a Vista Business system, a couple of XP Pro and an XP Home as well as a few Linuxes including Fedora 8 and a couple of Ubuntu based live CDs. The Vista impressed me with its total lack of speed, even some of the live CDs felt faster. The XP systems all seemed adequate. They ran efficiently and did what was asked of them without too many problems but they seemed to lack character.

The Ubuntu based Live CDs were at a disadvantage as Live CDs will always run slower and don’t support the hardware as well as when they are installed. They were different systems with different agendas and did what they were designed to do. They generally were as good or better than any of the Windows systems.

My preferred systems were the Fedora 8 KDE installations, not surprising as they are my computers and are set up to suit what I do. But so are a couple of the XP systems, both my computers are dual boot Windows XP and Fedora. What surprised me was that when I switched the computers on I wanted to run Fedora even when I needed to run XP.

New Life for an Old Laptop – an Update part 2

After gettng Fedora running successfully as I covered a couple of days ago I decided to see if I could improve it a bit. I know from previous experience that memory usage is probably more important to performance than many people realise. One of the easiest ways to improve performance no matter what type of computer or OS you have is to make more memory available. When I upgraded the memory on this laptop it felt like a new machine.

The first  thing I did has no direct impact on performance but if done carelessly can have a negative affect. I customised the appearance of the desktop. While trying out different themes I discovered some activate “Enable GUI Effects” under the effect tag of Style. This can have a detrimental affect as I discovered so I made sure that was off. I also changed the Background to use colour instead of an image. Choosing the wrong (ie. a large) image can make a big difference so I played it safe.

With the desktop looking better, to me anyway, I looked a bit deeper. I found this page of Fedora 8 services. There is details on earlier versions on the site as well as lots of useful  general Fedora info. All operating systems include a wide range of services which are small programs that run automatically and handle such things as networks, interaction with hardware and all that “behind the scenes” stuff we take for granted. While they are essential often there are some included that aren’t required. Eg. no need to have Bluetooth running if your computer can’t handle it or you don’t use it. Following the guide here I turned off quite a few services I don’t need. I didn’t do a comparision of memory usage before and after but there was a small improvement in speed.

Sites like this are available  for all Linux distros and are worth the effort. At least you will learn a little about how your system works. If you follow the advice here there is little chance of doing anything terminal to your system. At worst some piece of hardware may stop working. Just restart the service and it should be OK again.

New Life for an Old Laptop – an Update

I detailed in the original article how my Thinkpad T20 was given a new lease on life. With a small investment in hardware upgrades, memory and hard drive, plus a new operating system, Ubuntu 7.04, it was proving useful again. As so often happens with these projects they are never over. So here are some details of the current state of progress.

Time for an Upgrade.

Ubuntu has served me well on this machine and although Gnome is not my favourite desktop manager it was working ok. I was aware that it was an older version and would soon be two releases behind so it was time for an upgrade. The question was what with.

I had a copy of a version of Xubuntu (Ubuntu with the lightweight Xfce desktop) and being aware that it used less memory than Gnome thought it might be a good idea. It lasted a couple of days. Not that there was anything wrong with it. Everything appeared to work, wifi worked “out of the box” as I have come to expect from Ubuntu. It had a few strange things , eg. the splash screen wouldn’t resize to my screen so it was off centre. It didn’t affect operation as it was only there while it booted and then it was fine. But it didn’t “grab” me. Not very scientific I know but didn’t feel it was better than what I had previously.

So I decided to go in the opposite direction and install Fedora 8 with KDE. This is what I use on my desktop with all the bells and whistles, Compiz-Fusion etc. I knew that wouldn’t work on the old laptop but I wondered how a basic KDE installation would run. I have used KDE most of the time I have used Linux and it is still my preferred environment. I look forward to KDE 4 in Fedora 9 but that’s a story for another day.

Installation

I installed from a dvd copy I had on hand and all appeared to go well. I had the system running with the correct video set up without any of the tweaking needed in Ubuntu. One serious issue, no wifi. I connected up an ethernet cable and had the internet working that way and left it to do an update. In the meantime I did some research on the Fedora forums. As usual the answers were all there just need a little patience to sort through all the information.

With the update done I installed the madwifi driver from the Livna site following the information here. My Netgear WPN511 (Atheros chipset) was now recognised but couldn’t link to the router using wpa2. I turned on the NetworkManager and NetworkManagerDispatch services in System – Services and now after setting up the passphrase etc. it all worked.

The Result

I now have a usable Fedora 8 system on hardware I doubted would handle it. It is slower than the desktop of course but no slower than the Ubuntu system it replaced. It is used primarily as an internet terminal with occasional office document editing or photograph viewing. I wouldn’t like to do much photo editing on it but for everything else it works great.

There are still one issue to look into. The hard drive has a partition I use for archives. It has an ext3 Linux filesystem and Fedora recognises it but any attempt to mount it produces an error. I’ll look into it further when I get some more time.

Handling Data

I have been using OpenOffice for sometime. OpenOffice is the free fully featured office application that is available for Windows, Macs and Linux. It is the default office application in most Linux distros. It is compatible with Microsoft Office formats. As such it is a viable alternative to MS Office without the expense.

Like most people I guess my main use is Writer and Calc, the word processor and spreadsheet elements of OpenOffice. I have made a little use of Base, the database element. It is the newest part of OpenOffice and in some ways it shows. However it is quite capable of accomplishing what many users need. I have had few problems with it before.

When I tried to create a new database today I struck an unusual problem. After creating a table I tried to create a view using the wizard. The wizard ran fine but wouldn’t save. It gave no errors just sat there. The screen wasn’t locked or anything, I could cancel out without problems.

After doing a search I couldn’t find any similar problems but a few people mentioned their preference for using Sun Java instead of the free or other versions. I installed and tested with first version 6 and later version 5 and in both cases the wizard wouldn’t even run. I restored the free version and I was back to the former situation where the wizard ran but wouldn’t save.

Fortunately I had access to another system on my dual boot computer and it worked fine there. I am now not sure what to try next. Any ideas are welcome.