Cool refreshing mint

Late last year, I did a couple of columns on the free Ubuntu Linux operating system.

I reported that I had installed it on my spare computer and that I had been extremely impressed with how well it worked. I was convinced that the average computer user would find Ubuntu more than adequate for all their computing needs.

One reservation I did have with the operating system was that the initial installation did not provide support for playing many media file formats. I discovered that you can get files, such as CDs, DVDs and various types of streaming media, to play on Ubuntu, but it does require some fiddling under the bonnet.

Another reservation I had was that, although there is a way to run some Windows programs under Ubuntu, the process can be far from simple. I concluded that it would be a viable choice for many computer users with the only real exceptions being people who need software which is either not available on Linux, or won’t run on it.

Since those columns were published, I have discovered a new version of Linux which is even easier to use than Ubuntu. It is called Linux Mint and is essentially a streamlined and simplified version of Ubuntu.

Linux Mint 8 (codenamed Helena) corresponds to the current version of Ubuntu, known as Karmic Koala, and can be downloaded for free from www.linuxmint.com.

It installs with a refreshing minty-green (what else?) colour scheme and is indeed very simple to use and navigate your way around. It comes with a wide selection of software, including OpenOffice and many other packages, and it is totally compatible with all the software that will run on Ubuntu.

One area where Mint has greatly improved over Ubuntu, is that it is able to play most media formats straight after installation. The desktop layout has also been simplified and there are fewer options and buttons to click on.

The installation file is rather large Nearly 700Mb), but I have discovered that it is possible to order it on CD from fosscds.co.za for about R30 a copy.

One good thing about Linux Mint, and many other versions of Linux, is that they can be used to boot up your Windows computer into Linux without making any changes to Windows. This makes it very easy to preview new operating systems without committing yourself to installing them.

Linux Mint is also able to install itself in such a way that, when you switch your computer on, you are given the choice whether you would like to boot into it or the operating system that you had previously installed.

This option seems fairly safe but as usual with these things, you’d be well advised to have a good backup of all your data, before starting the install process.

I have been incredibly impressed with the two versions of Linux that I’ve tried so far. To my mind, they are more than ready for prime time and are extremely viable competitors for Windows.

My feeling is that Windows could have a serious problem going forward, especially if the Linux developers start paying more attention to making a really bullet-proof means of running Windows programs on Linux.

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Ubuntu Part III

I managed to install the free Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer with very little problem and, being very easy to get to know, it was getting high marks in my eyes.

It came with a wide selection of free software packages already installed including, as I was pleased to find, a very nice Mahjong game. I managed to use the built-in package manger to find and install a program called Wine, which lets you run many Windows programs on Linux.

The time for playing around was over, and I decided to put Ubuntu to the test to see if it could be a really viable replacement for the Windows XP I use every day. It recognised my HP D1360 printer as soon as I plugged it in, and I was able to print a document without any fuss at all.

Read moreUbuntu Part III

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Ubuntu Part II

Last week, I wrote of my experiences installing the Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer.

The whole experience was pretty quick and painless and I was most impressed with how civilised and house-trained it is. The feeling you get is that the system is solid and reliable with very little unnecessary flashiness which, to my mind, just eats up computing resources and offers little benefit.

It is obvious that a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of the interface and it is laden with thoughtful little touches to make life easier. A nice feature is that it keeps an eye out for when you plug in a disc or memory stick, and displays it on your desktop as an icon, so that you can access it quickly when you need it.

Read moreUbuntu Part II

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Ubuntu Part I

Over the last few months I have been promising myself that I’d have a go at installing Ubuntu, a version of the Linux operating system, on my spare computer.

The attraction behind Linux is that it is free, in stark contrast to Windows for example and, by repute, is more stable and powerful. I arbitrarily chose Ubuntu among the many variants on offer because it is the version of Linux supported by Mark Shuttleworth.

Ubuntu is apparently a modified and improved version of Debian Linux and, although its name is an African word for Humanity to others, one Internet wit defined it as a word meaning ‘I can’t configure Debian’.

Read moreUbuntu Part I

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Milking the cash cow

Operating systems have traditionally been a cash cow for software companies because no computer can do without one.

They tie together computer hardware and software, taking care of printing, ensuring that files are stored correctly, that they are accessible when needed, and that user input is processed properly. The complexity of operating systems (OSs) means that there have been few players in the market and the companies have tended to exploit their near-monopolies by charging high prices for their products, and by forcing customers to accept new products they don’t want.

There has been a backlash against these high-handed business practices among computer programmers and users, which has given rise to the phenomenon of programmers creating brilliant software and giving it away to users for free. The free software includes operating systems which are mostly based on Linux, a derivative of Unix, and are being adopted by growing numbers of people.

Users have found that the free Linux operating systems are more than sufficient for their needs and my feeling, confirmed by some experience, is that these products are now good enough for the computing needs of most users. The fact that the majority of people have not been exposed to them, and most likely don’t know they exist, is the reason that there hasn’t been a wholesale migration to free OSs.

In short, there hasn’t been a free OS with a high enough profile to attract the attention of the average user, but this is going to change significantly in the next year. The first week in July saw a lot of excited speculation in the computer world, with the announcement by Google, that they would be producing their own free operating system.

To be known as Google Chrome OS, the new system will be available to users from the second half of 2010. In the next couple of months, it will be a made available to the open source programming community and Google believes that, by this time next year, it should be ready for distribution in new Netbooks, laptops and desktop computers.

Chrome OS is aimed at people who do most of their computing on the Internet and will be designed to get users connected a few seconds after switching their computers on. The actual computer that the user works on will become far less relevant because Chrome OS will be designed to take full advantage of programs running on the Internet and for user data to be stored there, or on the cloud, as Google calls it.

I have no idea what sort of a dent Chrome OS will make in the sales of desktop operating systems but I suspect the fact that a major company is producing a free operating system, may give the free OS movement a lot of momentum. If it works as promised, and I imagine that it most likely will, Chrome could tempt a lot of people into trying it out, especially when you consider the price.

I can’t see my desktop being replaced by a machine running Chrome OS, at least while our Internet connectivity is so expensive. On the other hand, I could see me using a lightweight portable unit for my day to day internetting, and only resorting to the desktop for heavy-duty tasks, such as processing pictures, or whatever.

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Not so terrible after all

This week I’ve got a really interesting little tidbit for you that I came across on my web wanderings recently.

It is a complete Linux-based operating system and set of applications that fits on a biggish memory stick and which you can carry around with you and use on any Windows PC you come across. It’s known as Portable Ubuntu and you can find and download it for free from portableubuntu.sourceforge.net.

At 438 MB in size, it is a fairly substantial download, but I eventually did manage to get it down onto my PC. It comes in the form of one executable file which decompresses itself into a folder that you’ve designated. It doesn’t install on Windows as such, so you have to go to the folder where you’ve put it and double click a file called portable_ubuntu.bat.

After humming away to itself for some time, a new program icon appears on your Windows Taskbar and, at at the top of the screen in the centre, you get a panel which allows you to access all the various features of Portable Ubuntu. The Applications menu gives you access to a number of applications including accessories such as a calculator and a dictionary, a fairly wide selection of basic games, a photo manager, a word processor, and a spreadsheet.

From the Places menu you can access your home folder and desktop within Portable Ubuntu, the computer as a whole, and any network that you might be connected to. There is also a System menu, a button for the Firefox browser, a panel with a calendar and clock, and a button to use to quit the program.

Portable Ubuntu is a complete computing environment and could be useful if you’re moving around a lot and you want to take your computer with you on a memory stick. I guess that it could also be useful from a security point of view because it won’t leave any settings or data behind on the computers that you use; files you create are stored in the same folder as Portable Ubuntu and go with you when you unplug your memory stick.

My computer is now over four years old and it ran Portable Ubuntu speedily enough to to make it entirely useable. I have a lot more exploring to do but it does seem to be pretty easy to use and likely to give its users the feeling that Linux isn’t so terrible after all.

There will be people that have a serious use for Portable Ubuntu but I suspect that they are probably far more for whom it will be an easy way to get a look look at Linux, without having to install it on their own PCs. Portable Ubuntu is based on the fully-fledged Ubuntu Linux operating system which is also available for free from the Internet at ubuntu.com.

Ubuntu goes back to 2004, according to online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and is developed and refined by members of the open source programming community. The project is generously supported by billionaire South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and brings out a new version of Ubuntu every six months.

I did originally play with Ubuntu a couple of months ago and was convinced that it, together with the plethora of free applications that you can run on it, had become a viable choice for computer buyers. Certain users may need to stay on the Windows or Macintosh platforms because they use applications that will not run on Linux but, for the rest, I think that the future is Linux, one of whose many varieties is Ubuntu.

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All roads lead to Chrome??

One of the more surprising Internet-related launches happened very recently when Google launched a free Internet browser of its own.

The news that they had been working on a browser called Chrome broke when a web-based comic, describing the new browse,r was published earlier than planned. Not long afterwards, Google announced that a Beta version of Chrome would be available for download the next day.

According to the comic, which you can find by searching on Google for “chrome comic”, Google felt that people were doing so much more on the web that a new browser was called for. One of the things that they wanted to was to create a browser that really could do more than one thing a time.

You might imagine that they could do this already but existing browsers do things one at a time, but fast enough to appear that they are not doing so. The one-at-a-time method worked very well, says Google, until the advent of today’s online applications, video and audio sharing.

The more tasks the user is working on and the more complex they are, the slower the browser is likely to work, and the more unreliable it is likely to be. Chrome was designed to be able to do a number of things at a time and to work more efficiently and neatly with the computer’s memory.

This improvements were supposed to make Chrome faster and more stable and so, curious to check it out, I downloaded a copy as soon as I could. I did this using the download link on the main page at www.google.com.

I don’t know exactly how big the browser file is but it downloaded onto my computer pretty quickly and installed itself without any fuss. Chrome’s interface is very clean and uncluttered, giving priority not to itself, but to displaying the content of the web page you’re viewing.

It has the now usual tab arrangement where each site you’re browsing is represented by a tab at the top of the page, and not by a host of windows in your task bar. One nice innovation is that there is one space into which you can enter the address of the website you want, or just keywords, as you would in a search engine.

I would say that my initial impressions of Chrome are pretty good and that it does seem a bit faster than either Internet Explorer or Firefox. It worked perfectly on nearly every page that I viewed with it, except Adobe’s online wordprocessing package.

The thing that you have to bear in mind is that Chrome is still in its Beta version and, therefore, still on test. The public is, in fact, helping Google with the test and Chrome even has a feature which allows you to report bugs you find in it.

Chrome is still lacking a number of features including the ability to send pages or links by e-mail. Another missing feature is that, while it can import Internet Explorer bookmarks, it still cannot import from Firefox, which is what I usually use.

Its too soon to form a definitive opinion on the merits of Chrome but, knowing Google, it will be a very capable contender in the browser wars. The only niggly naggly doubt that comes into my mind is just how it will fare in the those very same wars.

It may be a slight improvement on other browsers but there is not yet, to my mind at least, a compelling reason to change to it. The fact that it is not sufficiently differentiated from the opposition may be its major problem going forward.

Please note Google developers, that if it suddenly acquired the ability to download and keep a copy of my Gmail on my computer, I’d convert in a flash.

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