Linux Update – Aug-2016


Background

linux logoLinux is the stuff going on in the background, the various flavours are what you see on the screen and how it works for you.  The variations are referred to as Distros.

I have been using Linux for everyday desktop machines for 10+ years.  From memory, Red Hat briefly, Mandrake which became Mandriva for a  while, and for a long time now Kubuntu.

What prompted this update (or rant) is that my favourite distro (Kubuntu) seems to be devolving.  Kubuntu 16.04 is crap compared to Kubuntu 14.04.

I use Linux for pretty much everything, browsing, email, image management and editing, multimedia, web development, embedded code development and running several specialised old DOS and Win-3 programs.  I don’t play games, so no problems there.

What is Important

It seems that most Linux fans choose a distro based on appearance, speed or just “because”.  Most of the people talking about Linux, or making Youtube videos, seem to be always hopping around and experimenting with different Distros, or concentrate on just one, but don’t consider real everyday use.

I don’t care how fast it boots, how pretty the icons are, how it wiggles when you move the mouse, or how smooth the latest window animations are.  The computer is a tool and it has to be easy to set up, easy to maintain, easy to operate and do the most important things reliably.  There are two parts to this:

  1. The appearance and operation can make using the computer easier or a PITA. Example-1: in Windows clicking on a file that is already highlighted or in focus, edits the file name.  This is just stupid.  Example-2: clicking the mouse button while sweeping over a file manager window can inadvertently move an entire directory branch to some random location.  Some consider these relatively small things that you can get used to, but together with other poor design, just makes life more difficult.
  2. Programs that do real stuff.  This is what the computer is really here to do.  Programs can be lacking in features or overly complex; both causing daily operating problems.

If all you do is browse the web, a bit of email and manage a few family photos, then just about any Operating System is going to work for you.  The best choice is whatever you are familiar with.

I did try Linux Mint some time ago but had some install problems that I didn’t bother solving.  A couple of friends also tried Mint and got stuck; video and wifi issues from memory.  It’s a bad thing for Linux in general when this happens, because it gets talked about more than the successes.

I like Kubuntu – at least up to 14.04 – because it’s tidy, easy enough to use for anyone coming from Windows, installs easily and reliably, and just about everything works first time on anything but the oldest hardware.  There were no major catches that make you want to go back to Windows – at least not until recently.  I am still using 14.04 (November-2016) but have installed a few machines on 15.?? and recently 16.04.

For my own use I only install LTS releases (Long Term Support) releases, 12.04, 14.04, 16.04.  The in-between releases like 15.11 just mean more work to maintain as the support runs out sooner.

Can Linux replace Windows

This will always be a loaded question; like Apple vs Microsoft.  It doesn’t matter because I am not trying to convert anyone.

I generally don’t suggest that Windows users should switch to Linux.  I often see Windows users having all sorts of problems, and they are usually more OK with that than I would be.  They often comment that Linux is “harder” than Windows without having ever used Linux.  And I am OK with that.

Whether Linux can replace windows depends on what you do with the computer.  If you play games or need a specific “Windows only” program, then obviously you are better off using Windows.  If you are web browsing, emailing, a bit of office work, looking after the family photos and web site or running a media centre, then yes, Linux can replace Windows.

I generally don’t offer Linux support to first timers as few people seriously “use” a computer beyond web browsing and it usually comes down to games and them trying to tell me how good Windows is, and how they have a mate who can clean up any virus mess; a great joke 🙂

Some reasons I still use Linux desktop and server

  1. it is stable and reliable
  2. secure, private and doesn’t report everything to home base
  3. less susceptible to viruses and malware
  4. harder to break for less experienced users
  5. easy to install and set up –  OS and Programs in one shot
  6. easy to maintain, update or move a user to another machine
  7. the application manager is quick, easy and safe – no bad programs from dodgy web sites
  8. far less time invested in maintenance and support
  9. I am more in control

There are a few more-specific programs missing from Linux that I would like, but for me the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of Windows.

Why I still have a Win-7 machine

The only reason I have a Win-7 PC is for a pic-n-place CNC machine that relies entirely on a program that only runs in Win-7.  It apparently doesn’t work properly in Win-8 and not at all in Win-10.  Being a low volume proprietary product with a very complex control program, I wouldn’t count on it be updated.  The machine is a tool that does a job and updates beyond improving basic function are a waste of time and effort.

The Win-7 machine includes IE8 and I have installed Firefox.  But this PC is not usually connected to the internet.

Without IE some gadgets cannot be used.  Example : most (if not all) IP security cameras cannot be configured without ActiveX, IE and Windows.  To the people who design a product this tied to a particular browser and OS I say this,  This is absolutely stupid, among the worst design decisions, lazy stupid incompetent morons who should not be allowed to finger-paint let alone design equipment.  This also goes for the pick-n-place CNC machine which is a huge expensive paperweight without Win-7.

Therefore I can’t do anything to the Win-7 computer or allow Microsoft to do anything that will update or upset it.  This is why I don’t like connecting it to the internet.

Having had that little rant, the Win-7 machine is occasionally used when I need to configure hardware belonging to others.  For anything I plan or do myself there must be Linux or cross-OS support before it is even considered.

Single-Board Embedded Linux

Cubieboard V1As I have mentioned in other posts, I have used Linux on a few ARM single-board computers.  This has so much potential but is still being held back by lack of main-stream distro support.  The other problem is that the people creating and maintaining distros for single-boards are tinkerers and don’t think long term –  which is where single boards would be fantastic.

For example, Beaglebone Black and Cubie Board (with a SATA port) are fantastic pieces of hardware, but lack a distro that is serious, effective, easily maintained and will last long term.

Raspberry Pi does have good distro support but IMO the hardware is great for hobby projects but not good enough for serious use – partly proprietary, main data channels are via usb, no on-board storage, no SATA port.  I wouldn’t mind the lack of a SATA port if the USB and Ethernet were not connected to the CPU via a USB channel.

There are a few other really nice ARM single board computers such as Radxa-Pro and Odroid-C2.  I have experimented with these two but not found one that yet has a well documented and supported Linux distro.

If you want to have a go with one of these boards, I currently recommend the Odroid-C1 from Hardkernel.  They do list Ubuntu 16.04 as available.

Android

Only mentioned here because someone will ask.

I don’t consider Android to be a real or useful operating system.  It’s a very inefficient advert distribution and data gathering system that does very little well or that is really useful.

Put Android on a quad-core single-board computer, connect a keyboard, mouse and big-screen TV and the stupid thing still thinks it’s a cellphone and delivers the mobile versions of web pages. One day it may become useful, but IMO it is currently a Google joke.

WTF has happened to Kubuntu

kubuntu logoKubuntu 12.04 and 14.04 were great, they looked good, everything worked and it was usable from install with no significant additional configuration.

But with 15.?? it started to go off the rails as far as appearance and functionality is concerned.  I have recently installed a few 16.04 machines and these have been very disappointing and cost me a huge amount of time just making them usable.  There have also been basic functionality differences between installs of 16.04.

My main complaints in order of severity are:

  1. Install Thunderbird mail and it is not possible to open links in Firefox. The dialog boxes don’t offer working click through solutions.  It is possible to fix but you need to know more about Linux than a reasonably experienced user would – definitely game-over for beginners.  The fix in my case : /usr/bin/firefox. This may be a Thunderbird-Firefox issue rather than a Kubuntu issue, but that doesn’t matter if it makes Kubuntu generally unusable.
  2. The “recent device” (Device Notifier) in the task bar no longer opens my camera in file manager.  In 14.04 when you plug in a USB camera, up pops the device and you can open in your preferred file manager.  In 16.04 either nothing happens, or it gives you the file manager option, but instead opens the web browser with “camera” in a Google search. This is infuriating and totally useless – an absolute game stopper.
  3. The task-bar calendar has lost almost all of its detail and references.  I use this all the time.
  4. The Quick-Start task-bar widget is not available in 16.04.  This is a fantastic tool that I use all the time.
  5. As of 15.?? and with 16.04 the default  theme appearance has turned to crap.  If you are familiar with the 12.04 and 14.04 appearance, the default 16.04 is difficult to navigate due to a generally very poor basic window appearance –  lines, colours, icons, symbols etc.  What were easy to see coloured icons/indicators and lines that were usable on all displays in most applications are now simplistic black/white line drawings that all look the same and are very difficult to navigate on HD screens.

These may not be major problems to an experienced Linux hacker, but to anyone new to Linux they are GAME OVER.

Items 1 and 2 mean that I cannot switch from Kubuntu 14.04 to 16.04.  It is broken to the point of being unusable.

Item 5. is a big usability complaint.  If you are new to Kubuntu or just a weekend tinkerer, it may not matter, but it will not encourage you to stay with Kubuntu as what some now call their “Daily Driver”.  This can probably be corrected by installing additional themes and changing fonts and colours.  But Why The F%&K should I have to fix something that wasn’t broken because some dick-head geek thought it wasn’t “modern” enough.  You probably know who you are.

Based on these problems I am not upgrading my main 2 every-day machines until I have considered other distros.  I may have another look at Mint, but if I have to become familiar with a new interface, it will probably be whatever standard Ubuntu is offering.

Screen Differences

The default appearance of 14.04 worked well with most screens; PC monitors and big screen TVs connected with a VGA or DVI cable.  But I have noticed that 16.04 is significantly worse on a big screen when connected using DVI, but usable when connected using VGA; at 1080 resolution.  It may be something to do with mapping or alignment of video card pixels to LCD panel pixels. DVI seems to be out of sync.

Is Kubuntu 16.04 usable ?

I have recently installed Kubuntu 16.04 on a 2.7GHz, dual-core Athlon machine with a Nvidia graphics card.  I was using this machine a few years ago but set it aside for a lower power draw machine for daily use. With recent changes to Youtube requiring a more powerful machine and finding the low power machine a bit sluggish, it has been resurrected.

I could probably get used to the theme changes and I quite like the Application Dashboard.  I could possibly find an alternative to the quick-start browser widget, but after several hours of experimenting I find that Kubuntu 16.04 is not usable.  The main stumbling block is the “recent device” (Device Notifier) in the task bar that will no longer open my cameras in the file manager.  The fix appears to be more effort than it is worth and likely difficult to maintain longer term.

For anyone new to Kubuntu, I recommend installing version 14.04 LTS.

Swapped my main work machine

I have swapped out a low-power PC running that has been used for a couple of years for the original faster one with a Nvidia card.  With Youtube moving to HTML5 etc. the slower one couldn’t handle the video decoding, and seemed to be very slow in general web browsing.

After trying the latest Kubuntu and Ubuntu 16.04 versions, I settled on Kubuntu 14.04 (2014, support to 2019) as being the most functional, easiest to setup and use, and nothing new to learn.

It took about 2 hours to complete installation and setup.  I had to refer to my original notes to get the Brother printer/scanner installed but it is fully supported.  The graphics needed a bit of fiddling.  It defaulted to everything working well at 1920×1080, but I couldn’t read it from a distance.  I tried adjusting the fonts, but found the best solution to set 1280×720 with a slightly larger font.  The default full HD would be great if sitting right in front of a large screen on a desk.

The OS is on a 128GB SSD and I swapped the 2TB data drive from the slower PC.  It’s easy to copy the user configurations/profiles for Firefox, Thunderbird and other programs directly over.  So email, shortcuts etc are all just there.  It looks like the original PC, but a lot faster and uses 3x as much power.

A bit of History

I started using computers back in the late 70s and have seriously used DOS, Windows, IBM OS 2 and Linux; I have never touched Apple.  I am somewhat of a power user and can find my way around much of Kubuntu and Ubuntu server.  I don’t “play” with computers any more, they are now tools to do a job.  Therefore I hate spending time solving stupid problems that should not exist.

Other than the Win-7 PC for a few special functions, I do not use Windows and have not used it seriously in many years, which was with Win-XP.  I have not touched Win-8 or Win-10.

With the direction Microsoft is heading, I am hoping it will be a boost for Linux on the desktop and especially for CAD/CAM and technical uses.  But not if these stupid Linux problems keep affecting what is otherwise a great alternative to Windows.