Category Archives: KDE

Further Unity Comments

After a couple of days with Ubuntu and the Unity desktop, I have another couple of comments.

First of all, I don’t like the global menu bar. I really don’t like it. It takes up space for no good reason – the clock, etc don’t require it, not really, and if you turn off global menus, which I did, it is mostly empty.

Second, I hate the “Amazon Lens”. It’s not that I don’t shop on Amazon – I do, all the time – but I want to choose when to interact with Amazon (or other commercial providers) without my desktop interfering. So I’ve turned that off, too.

I also don’t like how newly opened windows are placed on the desktop. It’s probably configurable using some of the tweak tools that are available, but I can’t be bothered to look it up.

This morning, I switched back to KDE and the more traditional desktop metaphor, and immediately realised that it’s rather boring, too. It’s nice, with all kinds of extras and eye candy and stuff, but it’s boring and it should be possible for someone to come up with a more modern Linux desktop.

It’s just that Unity isn’t the answer.

New Distro, Part Two

After a couple of days of Kubuntu, my curiosity took the upper hand and I decided to install the Unity desktop along KDE.

It’s an interesting GUI, I have to admit, but I remain unconvinced. The search-oriented task bar thingy to the left is an odd bird, for example. It is as if Canonical were mixing their desktop metaphors. There must be a task bar because everyone’s got one, but it seems as if they’ve gone out of their way to ensure it is different. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing yet.

Worse is that the global menus do not work–as many others have pointed out, on a large screen the menus will simply be too far off from the programme window itself. I know, OS X does this also, but the difference, the crucial difference, is that the menus and their behaviour are consistent on a Mac, something they can never be on Linux.

Version 14.0 allows you to move the global menus to their respective windows, which solves the problem but also highlight a less serious one: the top bar, now mostly empty sans a few icons to the right, still takes up space but now provides no real benefit.

On the whole, though, the GUI looks nice, with better graphics than I remember from past Ubuntu versions. It looks like a finished product, something that, say, Debian Testing, doesn’t–the XFCE desktop I briefly tried when deciding ona new distro looks ghastly. I know it’s not supposed to have the bells and whistles of a Plasma desktop, Windows 7 or even Gnome, but my god, the damned thing put me off to an extent I didn’t think possible.

Time for a New Distro

Recently, I upgraded my work laptop with an SSD disk.The laptop, a Lenovo Thinkpad T510, has been pretty reliable but getting a bit long in the tooth. A conventional 2.5″ disk three years old is a cause for concern if used daily, and anyway, SSDs are amazingly fast these days. It’s almost like buying a new computer.

I should also mention the Nvidia Optimus graphics card. It’s basically two cards in one, an Intel graphics chip for the daily stuff that doesn’t require much graphics processing and an Nvidia chip for the stuff that does, the idea being that the OS switches between the two to either save battery or boost performance.

So, anyway, while I simply cloned the Windows partitions from the old disk (using Acronis software), I eventually decided to try a new Linux distro rather than fixing the cloned Debian Sid I’ve been running since 2010 or so. The Debian system was spread out over several partitions, which caused problems when booting the cloned system–apparently UUIDs changed when cloning, crashing the system.

I wanted something Debian-based, of course. Apt-get rules and all that, and Debian is pretty hard to break even if you run an unstable version of it.

First, I tried the new Linux Mint Cinnamon distro (v 17), having heard some very good things about it. The installation went without a hitch and I was soon able to boot into the desktop (what a pretty one, btw) using the open-source Nouveau display drivers. They were OK but not great, so I decided to replace them with Nvidia’s proprietary package and something called nvidia-prime that would allow me to switch between the two graphics chips. This seemed to work well, until I came to work the next morning, placed the laptop into a dock and booted using an external monitor only.

No desktop appeared, just a black screen.

Opening the laptop’s lid, I discovered that the desktop was actually there, after all, but only on the laptop screen. Nvidia Settings, the helper software that allows you to configure the X server and screens, was broken and so I couldn’t use it to configure the monitors. The Cinnamon display settings would only share the desktop between the two screens but not allow me to only use the external monitor.

Changing from the Nvidia chip to the Intel one did not significantly change this, but introduced a new problem: I no longer had the option to change back to Nvidia.

I looked around to see if there were newer Nvidia packages around, or perhaps a newer kernel, since that’s what I would always do in Debian Sid; there would frequently be something in the experimental branch that would help me. Linux Mint, however, while Debian-based, is far from Debian Sid. It is meant to be stable, and anything, um, unstable would have to come from somewhere else entirely.

I found a 3.15 kernel from a Ubuntu branch and installed that, but Linux Mint would then insist that a 3.13 kernel was actually an upgrade, so I gave up and realised Linux Mint wasn’t for me after all.

I then spent the following evening (and night) installing and testing Ubuntu 14.04 in place of Linux Mint, as a Google search suggested nvidia-prime would work out of the box in it. It did, but after a few hours of fooling around with Ubuntu, I realised I truly hated Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.

Discouraged, I wiped Ubuntu from the disk in favour of Debian’s Testing branch, but that didn’t go well. I downloaded an ISO, remembering that Debian’s installer would not support WiFi cards during the install, only to discover that they had a) switched to XFCE from Gnome as their default desktop and, more importantly, b) my WiFi card was still considered bad as it was non-free according to Debian’s rather strict criteria and so the firmware was not on the ISO and I had no wired network hooked up to that laptop.

I could have used the Windows partition or my Macbook Pro to download the missing firmware, of course, but I got annoyed and wiped the disk again, now installing the new Kubuntu 14.04 instead.

Which is where I am now. Kubuntu also handles nvidia-prime out of the box, but it also has the (for me) familiar KDE desktop. It’s not perfect (the system fonts, for example, are ghastly and I have to do something about that very soon) but it’s good enough for now.

Now, you may be tempted to point out that Nvidia Optimus works out of the box there, too, and with more finesse, but if so, you are missing the point.

Linux is fun, and the very fact that there are so many distros out there speaks in its favour. If something in Windows doesn’t work for you, you won’t have a Windows alternative. Well, you have Windows 8, but seriously?

Linux Ready for the Desktop and All That

My recent XML Prague presentation ran from a Linux partition, the first time in a while I’ve used Linux for presenting anything. The reasoning was simple; I’d developed the accompanying demo on Linux, on a server on localhost, so it would be much easier to just write a presentation in Open Office than to move the demo to something else.

It wasn’t.

I’d fixed every bug in the demo, styled my web pages in an aesthetically pleasing manner (well, for me), and carefully prepared an XML Prague presentation project in oXygen with only the files I would need to show, making sure that they’d fit without scrolling when projected in a lower resolution. I’d bookmarked the important code, and I’d folded everything else. My demo was in great shape.

What I didn’t do beforehand (even though I actually meant to) was to test my Linux laptop in dual screen mode, mirroring the laptop screen to an external monitor using that lower projector resolution. That, of course, was what failed.

My talk was immediately after a coffee break so I figured I’d hook up my laptop immediately after the last talk before the break and test all this. How hard could it be?

Well, no mirroring in that lower resolution. Mirroring in a higher one (the laptop’s native resolution) was possible but of course, the projector wouldn’t work in that resolution. They usually don’t. Dual screen mode, outputting two different screens, didn’t work because I wouldn’t be able to see on my laptop’s screen what was being projected for the audience. I tested pretty much every setting there was but to no avail.

And then the (Gnome) window manager decided it couldn’t take the abuse any longer and crashed.

I rebooted into KDE, hoping it would fare better, but all I got for my troubles was another crash. Not the same software, mind, but something or the other in KDE. I hadn’t really tried anything very dramatic, I’d simply changed the display modes a few times.

So I rebooted again and accepted my faith, booting into Gnome and using the dual screen mode where I’d be flying blind unless twisting my head all the way back like that poor girl in The Exorcist, trying to run the demo from the laptop’s touchpad in front of me while hurting my neck to see the results on the large screen behind and above me.

If you’ve watched the conference video (second day, about 7 or 8 hours into the file), you now know why.

My laptop is not particularly fancy or modern. It’s a 3-yo Thinkpad with an Nvidia Optimus graphics card, the kind that includes what was then a high-end Nvidia card and a low-end Intel card, the idea being that you use the former for the graphics-intensive stuff while reserving the latter for the 2D desktop stuff. It still doesn’t work properly in Linux so I only use an Nvidia only mode. It’s not something I blame the Linux developers for–the Optimus is proprietary and thus not something easily handled in open source–but it is what it is and quite common.

But other than that, there is nothing very special about my laptop. It just works, mostly. Well, it should.

So is Linux ready for the desktop yet?

Evolution/KDE/Gnome Rant

I’ve been running Evolution as my email/calendar/groupware/etc solution in Debian and KDE 4.6 at work ever since I gave up on Windows for anything beyond PowerPoint presentations and such. In spite of the Novell Groupwise server misery that we are forced to live with at Condesign, Evolution does the job. I’ve actually managed to synch my mail and appointments with both my trusty N900 and an Android thingy that the company wants to be my primary work phone, and have been if not pleased then at least content with the situation.

I should add that using a KDE solution (KMail/Kontact) has never worked for me. I can’t get Kontact to log in to the Groupwise server, no matter what.

Anyway, unfortunately a recent apt-get update did… something. I’m still able to read my email in Evolution but the calendar and address book both crash with a DBus error whenever I try to view or use them. The usual suspects, from deleting caches to looking for non-UTF-8 characters in calendar ICS files, do not seem to apply and upgrading or downgrading Evolution doesn’t help either. The problem seems to be more fundamental.

Yesterday, however, I booted into Gnome rather than KDE, mostly because I was bored and wanted to see what Gnome 3.x is like. Thing is, for some inexplicable reason Evolution now runs without a hitch. Calendars, address lists, everything. No crashes, no DBus errors.

Now, I’ve used KDE for years, preferring it over Gnome because the latter always feels a bit patronising to me. Gnome is like a Linux equivalent to OSX, built on the assumption that users are all idiots and the inner workings-on of a computer should always be kept hidden so the user is not unnecessarily confused with anything even remotely technical.

Yet, OSX, for the most part, does the job. It just works, which I discovered recently when setting up a MacBook Pro for my daughter. It had no problem finding and configuring our home network HD and printer (tricky subjects for our Windows and Linux boxes, for some reason), and even displayed a nice image of the exact printer model to help me install it. Pretty cool, actually.

And this is what Gnome 3.x seems to focus on also, on just working. Yes, it feels a bit dumbed down, but it really seems to just work. I even think that I could learn to live with the 3.x GUI.

And I got my calendar back.

Finally, KDE 4.6 on Debian

Again, title says it all. I’m only a few days into running KDE 4.6 on my desktop but so far it’s superior to any previous 4.x. It feels like, well, it just works. It’s also beautiful; Plasma is finally mature enough to do all those things I read about two years ago.

What doesn’t work all that well is Amarok. It still won’t play CDs (it can now list the CD contents – hooray), and while I do understand that some of these things take time, 1.4 didn’t have any problems in that respect. I still haven’t found an alternative for my every music need but out of spite I’m now running Clementine, an Amarok fork that also doesn’t grasp CDs.

Finally, a new Intel Xorg driver in Debian Sid!

As most Intel video card users on Linux will know, the Xorg drivers have regressed significantly during the last year or so. From a reasonably stable driver with (mostly) expected performance and functionality, we’ve become accustomed to, well, a mess. For every bug fix, something new seems to break and I for one have become increasingly reluctant to upgrade unless I have to.

This time I really had to.

The new driver does seem to take care of the disappearing mouse pointer bug where any resolution higher than 1024×768 would make the pointer vanish. I had hopes it would also be able to recognise the correct resolution for my laptop when it is docked to an external screen (which the stable driver does without a problem) but no such luck.

Performance is still slow, too. The extra bells and whistles on KDE 4.3 just aren’t possible if you want a desktop you can work with. I don’t think they are that heavy on the system, it’s just that the Intel driver sucks.

Still, for the first time in months, the new driver means an actual improvement.

More on KDE 4.3

I like KDE 4.3. Let’s make that perfectly clear, because after reading this, you might get the wrong idea.

KDE 4.3 ha a far more finished look and feel than 4.2. Things seem to be better integrated and the crashes are fewer, with fewer causes. I’ve finally got the hang of Dolphin (that tricky address bar, for one thing), and I even got Kscd to work.


There are many annoyances as well:

  • KMix mutes the master volume on every startup (I only have to unmute it and turn the volume up, but this is very annoying to do on every startup).
  • Okular won’t accept (or remember) landscape print settings (Document Viewer from Gnome, that uses the same printer drivers, as far as I can tell,has no problems).
  • The eye candy on Desktop settings usually crashes parts of the KDE environment, with the taskbar going first, if you try more than one or two settings.
  • The PulseAudio/Phonon combo is very unreliable. With GStreamer, it won’t output sound, but with the Xine backend, it usually does.
  • Amarok no longer knows how to play CDs. I tried to use Rhythmbox but it chops up CD audio in 15-second bursts with a 200 ms pause between every one, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

Some of the eye candy issues could easily be related to the (very) buggy Intel Xorg driver, but I still think that KDE shouldn’t crash as a result.

On the whole, I like the environment, though. 😉

KDE 4.3…

…is a big step forward. Finally things are starting to actually work. Now, if they could only reimplement the CD player functionality in Amarok I’d be even happier. (And to be honest, I’m not sure I like Amarok’s new look.)

KDE 4.2

Some time ago, I made the upgrade to KDE 4.2 from 3.5. It was made available in Debian’s Unstable branch so I figured “why not?”

Why not, indeed?

Well, for starters, I can’t figure out how to make it react to audio CDs in the CD drive. KDE 3.5 offered a dialog where I could choose what to do with the damned thing. With this one, it’s beyond me; nothing happens. I’ve toyed around in the Settings, but to no avail. I’ve googled around. I can’t make it work.

Just now, I received an email with a MS word attachment, a .doc file. KMail offered Kate as the default choice, a bloody text editor, but the thing is that not too long ago, KMail knew that OpenOffice works for anything with that suffix, and furthermore, KDE knows, from what I can see in the File Associations settings, that OpenOffice is the right application to use. But it doesn’t. It won’t.

The refurbished Kicker menu gets stuck on the desktop after I click it, until I click on it somewhere near the Search edit box. On my laptop, the task bar (or whatever they want to call it, these days, never remembers how wide it should be if I use the laptop on an external screen (with a different resolution) in addition to the built-in one. For some reason, something switched the sound settings on the Audigy card to the Digital output after I upgraded to a 2.6.29 kernel, without telling me, so I went through hell to get my sound back, before I discovered the switch (that, by the way, is not available on every mixer there is) that needed a click.

Or all those settings that used to require a root password, to change how KDM behaves. Or whatever. Lots of things have gone wrong with the KDE upgrade and I don’t know how to fix them, not without some surfing on the net, and I can’t be bothered. I think of myself as a power user, I have used computers in various forms since the late seventies and Unix in a number of incarnations through the years, but surely it shouldn’t be like this?

And no, I don’t want to switch to Gnome because I hate it, I think it treats me lika an idiot, but maybe I need to? What say you? I don’t want to spend all my free time on the bloody Internets, trying to find the answers to each and every little problem there is.