Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thanks for the memory

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux. In my last article I had fun using bluetooth to connect to my Nintendo Wiimote. Today I decided to try connecting to some memory devices. I wasn't too worried about connecting to USB thumb drives, but I was wondering if Ubuntu would make use of my memory card reader.

First up - the memory card reader! My HP tx2600 series laptop has a built in reader. I stuck in an xD memory card from my Olympus camera and instantly received this message:

Nice! A clear message that gave me clear choices. I couldn't ask for more than that. I went on to easily browse and use the memory card.

Next up - a USB thumb drive! My laptop came with a free CA Internet Security Suite (for Windows) on an autorun thumb drive. Let's see what happened when I stuck that in:

Another clear message and autorun is supported! This is much better than the behaviour in XP that either just autoruns or doesn't autorun at all depending upon previous settings. Vista also offers a similar message to this; albeit more visually confusing and with more options. It would actually be nice if Ubuntu offered to let me browse the drive like Vista does - but then again, I merely have to click elsewhere on the desktop anyway.

I really liked the way these two devices were presented in the File Browser (Ubuntu's version of Windows Explorer):

When the media has no name, the File Browser lists the device's size as a way of identifying it. Makes sense to me. At the top of the viewing pane it leaves the option to autorun the thumb drive just in case. I got the same behaviour when browsing the xD card - the option to open F-Spot was left at the top.

The thing I liked best about browsing the media devices was the eject icon next to each device. One should always eject or "safely remove" media to make sure disk caches are flushed, etc. (I don't know that this is a Linux requirement, but I imagine it is). This was an issue I've had with XP. I regularly disconnect media and have to dig down through a context menu or task bar icon to get the job done. In Ubuntu I just click the eject icon. It knows what to do differently if it is a CD, USB or memory card. No muss, no fuss - it doesn't even ask for confirmation. If you clicked eject in error, just click on the device entry that is still listed and it will automatically remount it for you. This is such a little detail, but I really liked it.

I should also mention the eject icon on my network share (called "netware" above). That icon lets me quickly unmount my network connection as well.

I did manage to find a slight hitch with my memory exploration however. Remember how my thumb drive came with an autorun of CA on it? I just wanted a blank drive. I could have just delete the files, but I decided to format the drive instead so I could remove the CA label it had. I couldn't find any way within the File Browser to format or rename the device! At first I thought that was rather dumb, but then it made sense. The only things we really needed to format regularly were floppies - when was the last time you held one of those? Maybe I should be asking why Windows still gives me the option of formatting...

So how do I format my thumb drive? Apparently there are the typical commandline methods, but I read about a graphical interface called GParted and decided to give that a try. I fell into a very typical Linux/Ubuntu routine:

  • I couldn't find a shortcut to GParted. That isn't unheard of for a GUI app - particularly an administrative type app like this.
  • I brought up a Terminal window and tried "gparted".
  • It wasn't present, but Ubuntu provided this helpful message: "The program 'gparted' is currently not installed. You can install it by typing: sudo apt-get install gparted"
  • Isn't that helpful! So I did just that. The application came tumbling in.
  • I typed "gparted" once again. This was the response:

  • Again, very helpful. GParted is treating this very much like an admin task because floppies just aren't the norm anymore. I knew how to become root. I put sudo to good use once again by typing "sudo gparted". I was rewarded with the GParted interface:

  • The graphic jumps ahead a little bit. In the graphic I have already asked to have my drive formatted as FAT32. It is just waiting for me to confirm the action.
There were actually some interesting choices from this interface:

You may notice that I am formatting the device /dev/sdc. That label was new to me. At first the only way I could tell it was my thumb drive was by the size. But there was a subtle detail a neophyte like me missed. GParted listed information about the various partitions - including its Mountpoint (/media/disk-1 in this case). This is the same information File Browser presented in the Location field at the top of the interface. Very subtle, but it is enough and from now on I'll know.

The second interesting choice was for the type of Filesystem. Rather than just FAT, FAT32 or NTFS as I am used to in Windows, I get a whole lot more in Linux! Here were my choices: EXT2, EXT3, FAT16, FAT32, Linux-Swap, ReiserFS. That is quite the selection! There were even 7 other partition types that didn't apply in this situation. (I think I'll just stick with FAT32 :-)

In the end, I'm very impressed with the way Ubuntu handled my access to my memory card and thumb drive. I'm fine with the way it handles formatting. I'm very impressed with the way the operating system held my hand through the formatting process. Let's face it, my hand was definitely held through what could be a daunting process - and all without the help of an annoying wizard!

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