Upgrading Apps: The Rub With Linux

I first tried Linux back in 1998. Back then, a friend installed Red Hat Linux on my computer. It wasn’t all that usable at the time, for my needs. Over the past decade, Linux has come a long way. I’ve tried many variations over the years, and each new distribution gets a little bit better.

Today, I am running Ubuntu 9.04. It isn’t my full-time OS, but I use Ubuntu on my laptop exclusively. Wireless networking used to be my biggest problem with Ubuntu in its earlier days, but since version 7.10 or so, it has been smooth sailing in that department. Fortunately, today that is no longer an issue.

However, my problem with Linux today is in the distribution of applications. Practically every application on my machine is acquired from Ubuntu’s servers. The only exception in my mind is the Adobe Flash Player. With Flash, you can actually visit Adobe’s website and click to install it. Why aren’t other applications working in a similar manner? That is the missing piece of the puzzle in order for Linux to act more like Windows or Mac OS. Novice users will expect it to work this way.

The two major applications that never upgrade are Firefox and OpenOffice. Every time there is a major update, Ubuntu does not offer an upgrade until the next entire OS release. Ubuntu is great about pushing security and point-release updates. I give them high marks for that. But not so for complete new versions of stuff.

For example, Firefox just updated to 3.0.12 on Ubuntu, but you still cannot get Firefox 3.5. I know they are probably waiting on the next OS, 9.10, to “include” the new Firefox. Why? OpenOffice behaves the same way. Version 3.x was out months before Ubuntu released a new OS version that included it. This is stupid and it gets on my nerves. I should be able to visit Mozilla.com and click to overwrite my installation of Firefox 3 with the new one.

I am aware that I can do this in a manual way and get Firefox 3.5 on my system. But it won’t overwrite the version that is tied to the OS. Plus I don’t want to jump through hoops to get the latest programs. The relationship between Linux the operating system, and its applications needs to change. This isn’t only true for Ubuntu, but also Fedora and SUSE, which have the same behavior.

In the long run, I would like a future Linux OS to handle applications in much the same way that Mac OS X currently does. Is that too much to ask?

My Thinkpad Laptop

I am now the proud owner of a used IBM Thinkpad laptop. Laura’s uncle generously gave me his old Thinkpad that he’d kept on hand for renters of his condo. It’s a dated machine, sporting a 1-Ghz P-III processor, 512 MB of RAM, and a small 20 GB hard drive.

I took the computer, wiped the drive, and installed a fresh copy of Ubuntu 8.10. It is relatively speedy, despite it’s age. It runs Ubuntu with ease. This is my first computer which will run Linux full-time. My only hiccup during installation was that my Linksys wireless card didn’t work on its own. This problem righted itself when I connected to a wired Internet connection. The proper proprietary driver was automatically installed, and my wireless connection has been problem-free ever since. I am able to do everything I want with this little computer.

Above all, I love the Thinkpad hardware. It’s rough and tough, like a tank. It has a 14″ screen, and it is the perfect size and weight. I’d be happy to buy a new Thinkpad in the future, based on how solid this machine feels. I’ve also come to love the pointer stick! I’m thrilled with my new toy!

TrueCrypt File Encryption

I’ve often wondered how to go about encrypting a particular file or folder on my computer, but always figured the process to be so daunting as to not bother to ever try. A recent article on the subject in my PC World magazine has shed some light on the matter. I’m going to fill you in on my experience that I’ve gained thus far. Keep in mind that I am not attempting to encrypt the contents of an entire drive, and I am not encrypting data on removable storage devices. I can’t speak to those scenarios in any way at this time.

I reviewed three possibilities for my approach. First, I’m a Mac user and looked into the FileVault encryption that is built into OS X. That solution is very easy, but it wants to encrypt my whole account user folder. In that scenario, logging into the OS decrypts all of the data. I worry that may slow down my computer, and that isn’t what I was going for in the first place.

Second, I researched the popular PGP encryption solutions. Their products all appear to go above and beyond my needs. PGP adds email and instant message encryption to their desktop offering. I don’t need any of that, and PGP’s products are all pretty costly for my taste, ringing in at $99. I’ve heard good things about PGP overall, but I am not looking to spend that kind of money on my project.

Third, and my favorite solution, is a free open-source application called TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux! It’s free and easy to use. You create an encrypted volume that is stored as a single file on your computer. That file can have any file extension you want, or none at all. You can hide it anywhere you like, and the program won’t memorize locations if you ask it not to. Opening the contents of your volume is achieved by mounting the volume, which allows you to use it with a drive letter of its own. Dismounting the volume encrypts all of the data again. I’ve had a wonderful experience using this program. One downside for me is that I wish the program was faster at dismounting my volume, though speed will most certainly vary depending on your system. On my Windows PC, dismounting was nearly instant.

TrueCrypt was definitely the way to go for my needs. The program can also encrypt an entire drive as well. It does exactly what I want it to, with ease. It’s fast, secure, and completely free!

Fedora and OpenSUSE vs. Ubuntu

This weekend I decided to pit the latest releases of Fedora and OpenSUSE Linux against my current installation of Ubuntu 8.10. I downloaded and burned the Live CDs of both distros. I played with the Live CDs and installed both of them (separately). My test computer is an old P-III 933Mhz with 768MB of RAM, an NVIDIA GeForce 5200 FX 128MB graphics card, and wired Ethernet. This is a pretty old computer, but runs Windows XP and Ubuntu pretty well for basic tasks. When working with Linux in this experiment, I was using a completely blank hard drive that bypassed my main drive, which had XP installed. I set my BIOS to boot to that blank second drive for this test.

Fedora:

I tried Fedora. I’ve tinkered on and off with Fedora since version 2. The latest, version 10 was released in November. Fedora’s best quality is its clean, polished interface and visual theme. It is very attractive. That said, under the hood it doesn’t seem as refined. Boot time is very slow, and it was generally slow during general use in comparison to Ubuntu 8.10. There were many pauses in boot and execution, which several moments of no hard drive activity of any kind. What was it thinking about? I don’t know.

Fedora is committed to free open-source software, and doesn’t provide easy access to extras like codecs, Flash, and Java. In Ubuntu you can install Flash directly from Adobe’s website. Not the case with Fedora! Also, no proprietary graphics drivers are available for NVIDIA cards in Fedora 10, period. In addition, system sound was disabled by default at install, and Fedora admits to this. Huh? This all makes for a difficult setup to me. OpenOffice is not provided by default, with AbiWord installed instead. Attempts to add extra software from repositories was both complicated and confusing. My efforts to add OpenOffice made no sense at all, with the system showing literally dozens of packages available, ranging from converters to fonts, etc.. Why isn’t there a single package to install? This extreme difficulty, lack of out of the box offerings, and general slowness has turned me off of Fedora.

OpenSUSE:

I tried OpenSUSE 11.1, which was just released last week. I’ve used past releases of SUSE with pretty good results. The new Live CD worked well on my PC and the OS felt polished and smooth. Scrolling and window switching was remarkably smooth on my old PC. However, attempting to install the OS to the hard drive from the Live CD resulted in a failure. It complained that I had only 768MB of RAM. It froze while installing GRUB. I tried twice with the same result. Frustrated, I went to my Dell laptop and ran the Live CD from there. Again, it booted quite slowly, despite my laptop having much faster hardware. The Live CD functioned for a while, but not long after connecting to a wireless network, the whole system froze. I have never had this happen with any past Ubuntu release. My limited test concluded that OpenSUSE is not very reliable for my taste. A command line installer of the OS on the CD would have been a nice addition.

In closing, this non-scientific experiment has reinforced my belief in Ubuntu being the best Linux for the desktop. I highly recommend it head and shoulders above the competition. Granted, Ubuntu’s default theme is not as pretty as either Fedora or OpenSUSE, but the raw mechanics of it are unmatched in my mind.

Ubuntu 8.10

I installed the new Ubuntu 8.10 on my laptop this weekend. I’m highly impressed. I’d been tinkering with the slightly older 8.04 release on my old desktop PC, with great results. However, since installing the new 8.10 on my laptop, I’m blown away at it’s power and speed. It’s now blazingly fast, and installing add-ons and extras is now easier than ever. The OS boots in no time flat, a point that I cannot emphasize enough. It runs with grace and speed all around. If you’re doubting Linux in any way, Ubuntu 8.10 will surely change your mind.

That said, I’m disappointed that the new OpenOffice 3.0 is not included, and to date, Firefox still sits at version 3.03, despite the fact that 3.04 was released nearly a week ago. I don’t understand those decisions, but the operating system as a whole is fantastic all around. Try it yourself.