Multimedia Keyboards and Linux

This is something I didn’t intend to do. When I bought my new keyboard I was after an ergonomic design to reduce the strain of typing. Any other features were a case of “oh um that’s nice”. But now I’m addicted.

I got a Microsoft Natural 4000 which is one of their ergonomic designs with a raised centre area that slopes away towards the sides. It has a front support which makes it slope towards the monitor too. It sounds all wrong. I’ve always had keyboards that went the other way. However it works and works well. It took only a short time to get used to the new position but it felt more comfortable straight away.

One day I was looking at all the other keys across the top and human nature being what it was I started poking at them. I was surprised to find some worked under Ubuntu. But only a couple, the mail and volume up and down seemed to be it. When I loaded Fedora I found the situation was the same with Gnome but nothing worked with KDE. I started to wonder why and did some research.

I found this site that talked about lineak. I found it is in the Fedora repositories and installed it. I followed the details he provided and found my keyboard was supported. Soon I had a few more keys working. The web/home and the search key still didn’t work but all the audio controls work with Amarok and the calculator key started kcalc. Even the forward and back keys worked with Amarok.

Following the info in that post I used xev to check the codes for the 2 keys that weren’t working and found the wrong codes for my keyboard was in the /etc/lineakkb.conf file. When I fixed that they started to work. The correct codes are 178 for the web/home key and 229 for the search key, it seems they changed during an upgrade to the design.

Using xev I also found that the Favourites keys do not report keycodes so they probably can’t be made to work.

What about negatives? Well there are a couple. It appears that lineak is not currently under development. There has been no new work for some time and no new keyboards are being added to the configuration. However it is easy to add your own, see the post mentioned above for details.

Second problem is it takes a while to load the configuration when booting up. This isn’t a major problem unless you reboot or close and open new sessions regularly.

There are some other options that I haven’t tried yet. Quirk seems to concentrate on laptops. Another option is keytouch which appears worth a look although it doesn’t support my keyboard (yet!?).

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Putting On the Fedora (for Real This Time)

Previously I posted about setting up a test Fedora 8 installation to see if it could work as my primary system. I was intending to replace my existing Ubuntu Feisty system and had to decide between Fedora and Gutsy. Well the decision was easy and now Fedora 8 is now my main system.

Generally I was pleased with Ubuntu but it had some problems as I detailed earlier. The only problem that was fixed in the upgrade from Feisty to Gutsy was the OpenOffice Base issue. USB sound and the scanner problems still exist. To be fair usb sound is a problem in most Linux distros and still exists to some extent in Fedora. And there are fixes for the scanner problems on the forums.

Installing Fedora went well, my hardware was mostly set up correctly. There were a couple of things to sort but I was generally happy. I selected all of the applications I wanted at installation and didn’t include what I didn’t want (like games). I selected to install both KDE and Gnome. After installation I had to run the updates and  force it to detect my second printer.

The usb sound problem exists in that I don’t have system sounds although they work when tested. This is no real loss as I usually end up turning them off. More importantly I have sound in all the applications I have tested including Firefox which is something I couldn’t get with Ubuntu.

The most serious problem was the operation of my Wacom graphics tablet. It worked fine with Ubuntu and was recognised but not configured correctly under Fedora 8. Although it worked it was jumpy and couldn’t access the whole screen. I searched the forums and found a fix and after editing xorg.conf it appears to be working as it was previously.

Ubuntu wins in terms of package manager. The default Synaptic is without a doubt the best package manager out there. The Fedora option is slow and clunky by comparison. Adding support for mp3 and similar codecs is more difficult in Fedora too. Unlike Ubuntu it doesn’t give you the option, you have to find and install them yourself. Fortunately the forums and other sites have all you need. The Fedora8 Tips and Tricks site was very useful for this and similar issues.

I have been using both KDE and Gnome and now seem to have settled on KDE. This is probably not surprising as many of my default applications are KDE ones. Krusader and digiKam are good examples. They work well under Gnome so it probably shows I prefer the KDE way of doing things.

So is that the end of Ubuntu for me? Well no as I have installed Gutsy as a test system and intend to install KDE 4 on it and give that a try. Wonder where that will lead?

Scanning Text with Linux

I have posted previously about scanning film with Linux using Vuescan. It may not be a FOSS application but it is about the best scanner tool I have used. Recently I finally got a flatbed scanner that is compatible with Linux, a Canon Lide 25, a basic but useful unit that has some good reviews.

I needed to scan and OCR a couple of documents and as I have Vuescan that is what I used. I was surprised by the speed and accuracy of the scan. I had text files of each document with a minimum of errors, mainly place names that wouldn’t be in a dictionary, in a few seconds.

After doing a little research I found the general opinion is Linux doesn’t have a good OCR application. This may be true of open source but if you are willing to invest a few dollars there is a solution.

Putting On the Fedora

As I have been having a few problems with Ubuntu on my desktop and I had read some good reports on Fedora 8 I decided to install a test copy. I used Fedora for a while some time ago, FC3 if I remember right and although I liked it it had some stability issues and it soon was replaced.

What problems do I have with Ubuntu? I have purchased a Canon lide25 scanner and there is a known problem with it under Ubuntu but there are work arounds in the forums. Also I never solved the USB sound problem. While it works under Rhythmnbox it doesn’t in Firefox and other programs. The OpenOffice Base problem mentioned a few days ago seems to be only in version 2.2 under Ubuntu. I have Feisty but none of these appear to have been fixed under Gutsy.

So I have installed a test Fedora on the same computer with Ubuntu (and XP). Here are a few first impressions.

I like Anaconda,the install program, as it gives me options for what will be installed. I can select to install only those things I need and not everything. This is how install programs should be. Why should someone else who doesn’t know what I want to use the system for select the programs I will have? The installation proceeded without any problems and it finished with an initial boot of the system and final configuration which included creating a user login.

It had recognised most of my hardware without problems. The display adapter and monitor were correctly set up and at the proper resolution. The desktop effects work as they do under Ubuntu. Both my scanners were available and working. Only one printer was detected, an old Epson inkjet which connects to the parallel port needed to be set up manually but only to the extent of making it autodetect then it was fine. The internet connection (not wireless) worked. So far so good.

To be fair it wasn’t perfect. Although it added XP to Grub the Ubuntu installation, which is on a second hard drive, was not included. I had to edit the menu.lst file. It then was accessible without problems. This was probably the most serious problem as Ubuntu is still my main system.

Another problem was during boot it was looking for ata3 and ata4 and would retry a number of times before failing. Once it was past there it ran fine. We will get back to that one.

OpenOffice Base was not part of the original installation for some reason. I added it and it didn’t have the problem I experienced with Ubuntu. I was able to create a new table and form easily.

The USB sound card appears to work everywhere as it should.

The update manager reported there were a large number of updates available and I wasn’t going to install them. This is only a test system and either way it will be removed after a short time. If I like it it will be installed as my main system. If not it will just be gone. However the update included a new kernal and the forums reported that fixed the boot problems (see we did get back to it!). So I installed the updates and a couple of hours later I had a working system that booted without problems.

So where to now? I will use it for a while and try out all the things I regularly do and see how it goes. So far I am impressed but we will see how it is after being used for a few days. I will report back.

Fedora 8 runs well and everything appears to work and without the fixes I had to do under Ubuntu and isn’t that how it should be?

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.

Living with Ubuntu – Part 2

This is a follow up to the previous post which covered my initial reactions to Ubuntu. This time I will look at the additional software I installed.

One of the great things about Linux is the wide range of software available. It is often said Linux is about choice and one of the choices to be made is what software to use. Most of this software is FOSS (free and open source), indeed there is few reasons to consider non-FOSS solutions.

After installing Ubuntu I found there were some further programs I needed. Either they were specialised applications or I prefer some of the alternatives available.

Organisation of my photo collection is an important task for me. While I looked at other programs I have been using digiKam for some time and version 0.9 adds some great features such as the ability to edit metadata. Many of my photos are scanned from film and slides so I have wanted to add the appropriate metadata as part of my scanning process. Now I can. It also has a facility to add a geotag using Google maps. I do have some problems with transferring files from a digital camera. I can’t access the preference tab on the camera interface so I need to rename after transfer but that is such a small inconvenience I haven’t looked for a solution yet. The tagging and organisation functions suit me.

On an associated subject, scanning film and slides is an important job and I find Vuescan the best solution. It is the exception here as it is a commercial product but I have yet to find an open source program that produces scans of the same quality. When it comes to image quality that is the only real criteria.

Burning cds and dvds is an important form of backup and so k3b is a must. I can’t think of anything else to say about it. It compares well with software available at high prices on other operating systems. I’ve always preferred specialised programs rather than file manager based actions. It just works.

Music players are not an important matter for me. I have used Amarok and it would probably be my choice. However an unsolved problem with my usb audio card means only Rhythmnbox currently works. It didn’t default to search for new tracks and I had to add them manually until I found it in the preferences.

I have previously used iPodder to download podcasts. Rhythmnbox can do that too but it a less sophisticated option. It doesn’t include links to podcast directories for one thing. iPodder sorts the downloaded files better too.

I use Nautilus and find it an adequate file manager for simple jobs but I have always preferred Konquerer. However my file manager of choice is Krusader. A powerful classic style tool, I find its two pane interface the easiest to use. Especially the directory compare and similar features.

Thunderbird has been my email program of choice almost since it appeared. I just install it and copy the profiles and data over and it works. A simple tool that does well what it is designed for.

The other programs I use nearly every day are standard in most Linux distros, Firefox, the Gimp and OpenOffice. So really they fall outside the scope of this post.

One thing that stands out is that I generally prefer KDE programs to the Gnome alternatives. This is not a deliberate preference just the result of trying various alternatives and settling on the ones I find myself using. I have both desktops installed on this computer and switch between them as the mood takes me. I have edited the menus on both to include the applications I use all the time and I have removed the ones I never use. I find the programs are more important than the desktop so really it doesn’t matter which one I am running.

New Life for Old Laptop

I’m writing this on my Thinkpad T20. Nothing unusual in that you may say and you would be right, sort of. This old machine hasn’t seen much use recently as it was showing its age. It has a P3 700 and used to run W98SE on 128meg Ram, all on a 12gig hard drive. It seemed its days of usefulness were over.

I had been considering replacing it but it doesn’t get a lot of use, mainly as a terminal for Internet use and occasional use in meetings etc. and it is in good condition. I couldn’t really justify the cost of a new machine. There is not much available under $800 to $1000 here in Australia. So what other choices did I have?

I found a dealer selling used ram, important as the new Ram was very expensive if you could find it. I had been quoted $220 from an interstate supplier. For $50 I had an extra 256m installed and tested.

The hard drive was the next to go. I was going to get 80 gig but on a dollar per gig basis 160 was much cheaper so I splashed out. My old machine now had almost as good specs as a machine selling for $1200 or more. All for an investment of under $200. All it needed was a modern OS.

I have been using Linux for a number of years on my desktop but the hassles of getting WiFi working on the laptop meant I hadn’t used it here. I have read reports of much better support now so decided it was time to give it another go.

I had a few different distros on disks laying around so I tried some. The older ones still had wireless problems and some of the newer ones had other hardware issues, the video card is a problem. The DVD drive is a bit fussy too, some disks that work fine on my desktop wouldn’t load on the laptop.

After a couple of experiments I installed Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn. WiFi worked with WPA (when I found the correct password) on my Netgear WPN511 card out of the box. But no sound and video was a problem.

With the Savage driver X refused to load. I set it to vesa and it worked but wouldn’t allow resolutions greater than 800×600 and 1024×768 is the native resolution of this screen. The screen looks terrible at the smaller resolution too, but that is probably the driver. I spent some time on Thinkwiki (a recommended site for Thinkpad users) and the Ubuntu forums trying many suggestions without success. A live CD is handy here, it allows editing of messed up files, I found it the easiest way of restoring the last working setup. Finally on the forums I found a way of editing xorg.conf that worked. Now I have 1024×768 on a good clear screen.

I wasn’t too worried about the sound as I often work with it turned off so as not to disturb others but a chance find on the forums mentioned a similar problem solved by pressing the volume keys next to the Thinkpad key. So simple I hadn’t tried it. I’m embarrassed to say it worked.

There have been other issues too. I spent some time trying work out why ACPI won’t load. Every time I rebooted I got a message that I needed to force it to load, which I had done. Then I realised it was loading. I still get the message but it seems to work. The battery life is not as good as it was previously but that will take some fine tuning. The battery icon works well as does the wireless one.

With memory of 384 meg, which is less than the recommended but more than the minimum for Feisty, I find some programs slow to load but work well once loaded. I wouldn’t try using too many programs at a time but I have had no problem so far.

This is the first time I have used Gnome. All my Linux experience has been with KDE. So far so good. Of course I could install KDE and thereby make my system Kubuntu if I want but at the moment it is fine.

The result is a usable laptop for a minimum of expense, around $A200 and an investment of several hours of my time. Would I recommend it to others? Not unless they are willing to invest the time to make it work but I am pleased with the outcome.

UPDATE. One small problem has come to light since I wrote this. As this is an old computer the bios doesn’t know about big drives. It doesn’t handle anything over 33 gig. However Linux overcomes this problem except in one area. Linux can’t do anything until it is running. Consequently the boot partition must be on the first 33 gigs. I tried adding another copy of Linux as a dual boot but as the new partition was added on the end it wouldn’t boot. Not a big problem but worth noting.