Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flash me!

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux. In my last article I had to do some fast learning to resolve some audio issues. I had to learn how to edit a config file with root credentials and find what settings would give me full sound. After that success I decided to reward myself with a little Youtube time...

Well, it certainly didn't take me long to stumble into my next problem - no Flash plugin! (Youtube uses flash to play its videos). Firefox helpfully offered me a link to get the plugin. It fired up the same package manager that I had seen for the Ubuntu updates and for the media player plugins. But alas, none of the plugins offered would work.

With a bit of research I learned that my problem may be caused by the fact I am playing in a 64-bit world. I had tried to get Adobe Flash, but they haven't actually released a 64-bit version yet. But then I learned some great news - Adobe was currently working on Flash 10 (a 64-bit version) and their first alpha release was for the Linux platform - it was made available only 2 weeks ago! Do I have great timing or what!

The download introduced me to a tar.gz file. This is the Linux world's version of a zip or rar file. Firefox helpfully offered to open it for me with an "archive manager" which turned out to be File Roller. It's a world of new file types and applications, but the experience is basically the same. I got an interface that let me extract the files to a location or drag the files somewhere, etc.

Now I was faced with a new problem. The only thing in the package was a single .so file. Nothing was helping me to work with that extension. More research revealed that this was an actual plugin file that could be found in (or should BE in) a browser's plugin folder (no installer here)... More difficulty tryng to find a valid plugin folder for my version of firefox... Then trouble trying to copy the file to the folder. I'm glad I just finished learning about Sudo so that I could overcome the security restrictions. The final command I typed into my terminal window was:

sudo cp /home/gordon/Downloads/ /usr/lib/firefox-3.0.5/plugins
This copied my downloaded flash plugin to Firefox's plugins folder despite security restrictions,

When I closed and restarted Firefox, I immediately went to Youtube where it offered its bounty to me. Life is glorious once again. I decided to conduct one more test... I called my 10 year old over and had her fire up her Webkinz account (a rich online world / gaming site for kids that relies heavily on flash). It worked like a charm. We are all smiling here.

This little fix took me a couple of hours with all of the research factored in. Again, I don't think this is something our aging parents would succeed with, but on the plus side, our aging parents probably aren't playing in 64-bit so probably wouldn't experience this in the first place. I also like that this fix isn't possible in the Windows world yet - I give Linux the win for this round.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hello...TESTING, 1, 2, 3...

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux. In my last article I was busy being impressed with how nice and easy the install went and how well everything was working. Even my 720p video sample played well - but I realized that my sound was playing at just a whisper...

There was no user setting I could adjust to get my sound up to useable levels. My first Linux glitch! Time to roll up my sleeves and figure out what to do about it.

My default approach to any problem is to fire up Google and find a generic expert blog out there like mine. I obviously suspected a bad interaction of Ubuntu with my sound card, but I didn't know exactly what sound card my laptop utilizes. I decided to do a search using the name of my laptop model: "Ubuntu low sound hp tx2604ca". I found nothing. Realizing my highly specific model number defines my RAM options, etc., I generalize it a bit. I had seen my model mentioned as being part of a series, so I tried: "Ubuntu low sound hp tx2600". Still nothing. But I did get results that told me how similar my tx2600 series was to the tx2500 series - you can guess my next search. Suddenly I hit paydirt. Choosing the right amount of generality can avoid either too few or too many results. I suddenly started getting all sorts of valuable results regarding my low sound problem.

It seems sound problems are a remarkably common phenomenon in Linux - as evidenced by this long web page:

In rather short order I had the solution to my problem. This is how I fixed the sound on my laptop so my video sample would play at full volume:

  • Opened Applications|Accessories|Terminal
  • Edited a config file by typing: sudo gedit /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base
  • Pasted to the end of the file: options snd-hda-intel index=0 model=acer
  • Saved it, closed it and restarted.
  • Done.
I didn't know what the options meant, but it was a remarkably simple solution - the problem was actually knowing enough to execute it. I never did find one all-encompassing clearly described solution. Instead I had to use my technical experience to piece the solution together. For instance, I had found numerous solutions that suggested modifying the alsa-base file and adding various "option" lines to it. I had to try a few options before I got it right. But before I could try a few, I had to figure out how to modify the darn file (doing it through a GUI editor was a no-go). I had to get acquainted with the Terminal window. I then had to learn that "sudo" is a pre-command you use to get full system (root) access when you need to make changes to system files.

The lessons I learned were valuable and the skills will clearly be called upon regularly. Everything in Linux can basically be controlled from the terminal (command line) in an environment where security has always been of upmost concern. I'm liking this. But I think that a 'normal' user like our aging parents would never get to the final solution alone and would still be sitting with negligible sound. This could be a problem.

Now that I've got sound problem licked, I think I'll go relax with some Youtube videos...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

That was easy!

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux. In my last article I just finished the Ubuntu installation and was rebooting...

I was faced with a multi-boot menu that contained both my new Ubuntu install and my old Vista install. After 9 seconds Ubuntu started automatically.

The desktop that greeted me was not altogether foreign:

The only initial indication of something strange was seeing 2 task bars (called "panels" in this world) and no Vista logo. Otherwise things are remarkably similar. Programs I have running are shown in the bottom panel. The Ubuntu logo at the top takes me to my applications and there are also quick launch icons available - very similar to Vista! (Of course, this interface is highly customizable - and if you don't like this Gnome environment, you can swap it out for some other one like KDE.)

I also found a very useful set of icons on the far right:

I like that the power on/off icon is out and easily available. It offers the usual options I've come to expect from a Vista laptop like: Logout, Suspend, Hibernate, Restart, Shutdown - plus a few more I'll have to try.

I quickly spotted the bar graph that would indicate WiFi networking. I was met by a very user-friendly interface that allowed me to quickly find my home network and enter my security information. I immediately launched Firefox that came pre-installed and was on the internet - uber cool! (I'm actually posting this article from Ubuntu as I type.)

Next was the bluetooth icon. Another simple experience. In two steps I had my Logitech bluetooth keyboard and mouse connected and working. All the buttons and wheels on my mouse are working as they should. This was a sore point for me a few years ago when I tried to use these same peripherals under Windows XP. I wasn't able to use a generic bluetooth receiver, but had to stick with the Logitech version that had other limitations. No limitations now! I don't know if this is a credit to Ubuntu or HP's bluetooth receiver.

Things are going way too smoothly... I wonder what that scary looking red arrow with the exclamation point is all about... It turns out that icon is notifying me of system updates. Now that I am on the network I have 189 waiting for me! Another nice interface listing the details of each update and giving me the option to install each one or not. Let's give this a shot...

... I'm back - after 5 hours! Talk about slow data transfer. They must have a lot of people hitting their servers (there does appear to be a way to stage downloads locally for enterprises though). Interesting thing - no automatic reboot of the system. I'm liking this already! I had heard that Linux can upgrade and restart many of its services on the fly. My only indication that something had happened was a request to reauthenticate to my wifi network - obviously the network services had to be restarted. Also, the red arrow icon had now become a refresh icon that was indicating I should restart the system when it was convenient for me. [As a side note, I have noticed that in the past week there have been about 5-10 new patches every day!.)

I've been quite impressed that my basic laptop hardware, wifi and bluetooth devices have all functioned perfectly. Very impressive. I have yet to get to the web cam or fingerprint scanner however. I have noticed that my touch screen and Wacom tablet functions elicit no reaction. I will have to look into this.

Remember that video sample that was unwatchable in Vista? Let's see how Ubuntu handles that.

But first I needed to retrieve the video from a share on my other system. As with Windows, I was able to browse to Network Places, and then find my workgroup, server and shares. It was just as easy as being in windows - maybe easier in fact, because it also displayed the hidden shares on my server.

Back to the video test - here are the video's details:

  • resolution: 1280 x 720
  • codec: H264 (mkv file)
  • framerate: 24fps
  • audio: AC-3, 5.1 surround
I decided to try the preinstalled Movie Player. It claimed to need some new plugins and used the same mechanism as the system updates to get them. After 10 minutes or so (slow updates!) it was ready to play. Wow! Smooth video! Not like the Vista experience at all. But the system is working hard - I notice the occasional frame drop if I have other applications running in the background. But Ubuntu is clearly superior to Vista in this test.

-- But hold on a sec! Why is my audio so quiet in the video? Why can't I turn it up past a whisper? hmmm... this bears some investigation...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Into the looking glass

As mentioned in my last article My Linux adventure begins..., I am embarking on a Linux adventure. Before I can step through the looking glass I must choose from one of the dozens (hundreds?) of Linux variants available. Choosing a flavour of the Linux operating system is tough when you know almost nothing about the OS. I figure I'd stick with the most popular in the hopes it will have the best features and driver support. Two good choices appear to be OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. I expect to ultimately use an enterprise version of SUSE since I am an enterprise type guy, but I don't feel that would be appropriate at this stage. OpenSUSE is the basis for Novell's Enterprise SUSE and looks very impressive as a personal OS, but I'll take a pass on it as well. I'm going to give Ubuntu a try. My main reasoning is that I have seen Ubuntu in the press a lot lately and it seems very popular. I'm hoping that it's popularity will translate into support for all the hardware I plan to throw at it. It would also be nice to be familiar with an additional Linux distro if I am to eventually end up in a SUSE flavour Linux.

So off I go to the Ubuntu site to get a FREE operating system... The current version available is 8.10 released October 27, 2008. This does indeed look promising - look at this feature!:

3G Support
For constant connectivity public WiFi has limitations. Improvements to the network manager in Ubuntu 8.10 makes it simple to detect and connect to 3G networks and manage connectivity. This connectivity is delivered through an inbuilt 3G modem, through 'dongle' support, through a mobile phone or through Bluetooth. It is a complex environment that Ubuntu 8.10 simplifies through a single interface and the auto-detection of many of the most popular devices.
There's my Wifi and Bluetooth mentioned in one spot! I'll have to borrow an iPhone to see how the 3G works out...

I chose to download the 64-bit Desktop version. It's a CD ISO image only 699 MB in size!

The download page offered all these resources:I'm feeling welcome so far - let's hope this positive energy stays with me :-)

I quickly found a document aimed at me: Switching from Windows. A good read. But it is scaring me slightly. I looked at the Dual Booting Windows and Linux section where is talks about how to partition my drive. I don't like that it threatens me with the statement:
After finalizing the installation, however, the hard disk will be re-partitioned and all existing data stored on it will be lost.
That is a rather blanket statement! I hope to keep my Vista partition and my HP recovery partition for the moment. I'm assuming that statement was overly generalized and that it will in fact only blow away partitions that must be modified in some way (when it makes the Windows partition smaller or something). I retreat.

I decide to use a new Windows Vista feature to shrink my Vista partition without losing data - making room for Linux (before Linux touches it). Vista makes this very easy. Under Computer Management | Disk Management I was able to right-click on my primary partition and select Shrink Volume.... From there I was able to reclaim 100GB for my Linux project. Hopefully now Linux will let me keep my "data".

Booting Ubuntu was quick and easy. Within 2 seconds I was presented with a colourful logo and great choices. I chose to install Ubuntu rather than just use it as a "Live" CD. I experienced a long period with a black screen as errors like this flowed past:
Buffer I/O error on device sr0, sector ...
end_request: I/O error, dev sr0 ...
As a normal Windows user, I might have been worried seeing all these "errors" because I am normally isolated from the underlying system. But I remember that Linux users like a verbose world and the systems always seem to spout messages. Linux doesn't just stay silent until it can tell me I have a critical problem, it knows "too much information" can be great when trying to diagnose issues.

Eventually the graphic interface appears and starts asking me questions. I am impressed by all the supported languages and keyboards. I like selecting my timezone by choosing a nearby city from an animated map - very cool. The partitioning interface was interesting. It was clear and quite usable but a bit cryptic for a Linux neophyte - so many choices! I felt somewhat better when finalizing my partition choices. The installer tells me:

WARNING: This will destroy all data on any partitions you have removed as well as on the partitions that are going to be formatted.
It then proceeds to identify exactly which partitions are going to be formatted. Much better messages than the one I saw earlier in the documentation. I'm not worried at all now. I think it might actually have been able to shrink my Vista partition for me without damaging anything. I'll save that test for another day though.

Eventually the install completed and had me reboot. Looks good! I have a multi-boot menu and can see Vista there. Stepping through the mirror into Ubuntu Linux land!...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Topic: Linux

(Vista Vitals articles organized by topic)
These articles cover anything related to Linux:

My Linux adventure begins... - Here I explain what I am up to - exploring Linux. I describe the computer I am using and my goals.

Into the looking glass - I pick a Linux Distro and install it. I discuss my thoughts during the process.

That was easy! - My initial boot into Ubuntu. I share my thoughts while connecting to wifi and bluetooth. I test Ubuntu's performance by playing a 720p video that was unplayable under Vista.

Hello...TESTING, 1, 2, 3... - I describe the first problem I encountered with Linux (low sound volume) and how I solved the problem.

Flash me! - I had no Flash plugin for 64-bit Firefox! This article describes how I added an Alpha version of Flash 10 so that I could use sites like Youtube.

Printing before writing - I configure Ubuntu to print. It couldn't be easier to configure my colour duplex network printer!

Dueling with my Dual Monitors - Yikes! Dual monitor configuration in Ubuntu / Linux sucks! Want to read the sordid details? Thankfully I've documented my many fixes so others can benefit...

Wiimote goodness - I connected my Wiimote to my Linux OS and got readings from it! I also link to similar solutions for Mac and Windows. I also discuss some more dual-monitor issues that I experienced.

Thanks for the memory - I learned how Ubuntu allows me to explore memory cards and thumb drives. I loved the eject icon. I learned how to format partitions using GParted.

Ubuntu Reference Book - Thought you should know about a good Ubuntu book I found...

Using the terminal (command line) - Found another book called Linux 101 Hacks. It has some interesting tips, tricks and shortcuts for working with the terminal commandline.

Word! - I explored the issue of word processing. Tried out Open Office. Then tried to get MS Word 2007 working using Wine.

RDP to Windows from Ubuntu - I found a replacement for Microsoft's RDP so I can remotely access Windows desktops.

Closing down my 64-bit Ubuntu Linux experiment - Little irritations have lead me to end my experiment with Ubuntu. Read the details.

My Linux adventure begins...

Any of you who have followed my blog for the past year have probably witnessed the frustration I have felt with Vista. It's been a long road - I really tried to get over that "initial resistance" that all us techies are supposed to have to new technologies. I couldn't fall in like with this OS. I appreciate many of the technologies Vista has to offer and many of its thoughtful little features that are supposed to make my life easier. I just couldn't get over my astonishment at some of the basic ways the OS fell on its face. I couldn't get over how the engineers so often seemed to paint themselves into corners and came up with yet another band-aid solution. Where was the master architect??? I need something better.

Why don't I try Linux. I know people like it. I know it's been around a long time and that the technology is proven. I have to stop being so ignorant to this large portion of the personal computing world. In truth, although I am a reformed Novell man and senior Microsoft techie, I do have some limited experience with Linux. I installed my first Linux distro in 1992 when it was released on 90 diskettes (I think I have installed it twice since then). I have used Cygwin to create a Linux environment within Windows so I could run unique applications only available in the Linux world. Let's not forget those embedded devices! I find Linux in the most unlikely places - like on my Tivo or shoved onto someone's Xbox, etc. It's been around and I've edited the occasional config file or set the occasional permission, but it was always when following instructions and hardly because I knew what I was doing.

I want you to know where I am coming from so that perhaps you can relate to the adventure I am about to undertake. It might explain some of the assumptions I make or some of the troubles I create for myself.

I am going to install Linux. I am going to start using Linux. I am going to slowly try to use it for everything I want to do and wheen myself off of MS. I'm retooling this blog - it is now going to be a diary that follows my progress. Jump in with comments or suggestions anytime - I welcome the feedback! I won't pretend to be an expert - my articles will reveal all my warts (ignorance).

Although this is a home project, I won't be easy on myself or Linux. To start with, let's take a look at the computer I have chosen for my project. It is a small 12.1" HP tx2600 series laptop, but it is pimped out with features:

  • AMD dual-core QL-60
  • Dual Layer DVD burner w/ Lightscribe
  • ATI Radeon HD3200
  • Dual screens
  • Card reader for SD/MMC/MS/MS PRO/xD
  • Ethernet 10/100/1000
  • Wifi 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth
  • IR receiver and remote
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • Touch screen (finger-based)
  • Wacom tablet features (pen-based)
  • Webcam
Have I missed anything? I even got a dock to test changing configurations. I want all this stuff to work in the end. If I can get all this stuff working - and working well, I think that will say a lot about Linux. Then it'll be time to explore the world of Linux applications.

At the moment the laptop is running 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium. I've familiarized myself with all the features and how they should operate 'normally'. I'm quite impressed actually - I think I better multi-boot this puppy so I can go back and forth between operating systems.

I tried playing a full-screen 720p video sample under Vista using the VLC player from VideoLAN. It was unwatchable. The sound played but the video skipped constantly and dramatically. I'm curious to see if I get better performance using the same player under Linux...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wrapup and retool

I'm back!

It's been 5 months since you've seen me cursing the mundane details of the OS called Vista. Although my focus hasn't been on Vista lately, I haven't gone far. I've been hard at work developing an automated installation process for Server 2008 using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit.

I must say that I was quite impressed by Server 2008 - it's hard to believe it shares the same kernel with Vista. But I know the problems I found in Vista are present in Server 2008 as well - it's just that they aren't problems you are going to encounter in that OS because it is just used differently.

In the past 5 months I have still been using Vista and watching its evolution. There hasn't been much change that I can see. On the plus side, those articles I started writing over a year ago are still relevant. In fact, I suspect many of them will still be relevant for Windows 7 (I hope I'm wrong on this) since the underlying architecture should continue to present the same hurdles.

Looking back on my old articles I realized I didn't get around to delivering one piece of simple advice. Many of my later UAC articles (User Account Control (UAC) (16)) discussed the inability of Vista to elevate the Windows Explorer and all the problems that causes. But I never delivered the punchline...

It seems to me that Microsoft made a big engineering mistake by tying Windows Explorer processes to the main desktop process. Under UAC you want to elevate Explorer but the fact that it is already running in order to present the desktop makes that impossible. Well, you can fix this shortcoming! If you have had to drastically alter the way you work because of this limitation and wish you hadn't, here's how you go back. Use a different Windows Explorer. Don't use the product provided by Microsoft, but rather use a third party explorer - one that isn't tied to the desktop. There are many fine examples out there. Some have drastically expanded functionality that you may enjoy, but more importantly, they can all elevate! Xplorer2 is one fine example that you should play with. Their free trial will be enough to show you what I mean.

I'm now looking for my next computing adventure... Judging from some of the recent statistics, many frustrated Microsoft users are casting their gaze at Linux. I too am glancing in that direction. Those Linux users appear to be having a good time and aren't exhibiting the kind of frustration I have been of late. Join this Microsoft user on his Linux adventure!