Saturday, November 24, 2007

Trying to Actually Use Ubuntu

It has been a couple weeks since I switched to Ubuntu on my Macbook. It's one thing to use Linux at work, but using it at home as a replacement to OS X has brought up new challenges. At home I like to watch and rip movies, listen to music and manage my iPod, manage my pictures and upload them to Flickr, and share all these things between the computers in my house. Mostly, things are going well, but it can be hard to figure out what actually works and what is a waste of time.


Before even addressing software issues, I needed to get the hardware working. For the most part all of my hardware just worked. The special keys on my Apple keyboard even worked for changing the volume.volume changing
I was able to mount my HFS+ formatted firewire drives and my FAT32 formatted USB drive from work with no problems. An all too typical search through the Ubuntu forums gave me the necessary configurations to get my bluetooth mighty mouse and wacom tablet working. I even got my iSight built-in camera working with a Photobooth-like application called Cheese. Unfortunately, this was another trip to the web to figure out how to get this going.
Surprisingly my Apple remote control just worked with Totem and Rhythmbox, I may get back to that though and do some customization. With Xorg we are finally moving toward being able to configure X without needing to edit xorg.conf. In many situations all the necessary configuration will be auto-detected and "just work" but in my case, trying to run an external monitor only, the GUI tools actually just botched my xorg.conf - and I didn't have a good way to revert other than my backup I had made on the command line. Really I'm not so sure that the GUI configuration is as good as even Windows 98. After some xorg.conf battles I was able to get my external 24" Dell monitor working beautifully at 1920x1200. Still, I look forward to these tools getting better in the future with true "bullet proof" X.

Music and Podcasts

There are a buhjillion applications you can use to manage your music and podcasts in Linux and none of them can hold a candle to iTunes. The big four are probably Rhythmbox, Amarok, Banshee, and XMMS. I immediately discount XMMS and it's 1996 stylings - this is really equivalent to the first version of WinAMP ever. At work I've been using Rhythmbox, mainly because it doesn't choke and crash when importing some of the more dodgy tracks in my 16-thousand-deep music library. Amarok doesn't coke either, but it is so bulky and impossible to figure out - it's like the emacs of music world. Add to that the fact that it's KDE based and doesn't seem to support all the features I want without configuration and its a non-starter for me. Both Rhythmbox and Banshee have nice DAAP support, so I can share my music on my home network. Unfortunately neither can read from an iTunes share because Apple made iTunes incompatible. I can get around this with the Firefly DAAP server on the Mac. Banshee shares also seem to be unreadable on iTunes, but Rhythmbox shares are perfectly readable. After all of this I think I have settled on Banshee.
Banshee Music Player As you can see here, Rhythmbox looks pretty darn similar and would be comfortable to anyone who is used to iTunes. Rhythmbox
One of the big things I love about Rhythmbox is the half-broken lyrics plugin that can grab lyrics from the web. After digging around I managed to find a similar plugin for Banshee that actually works much better. Banshee can grab podcasts for me and sync with my iPod, but good luck if you have a small iPod and want to sync only certain playlists or files. Fortunately the Banshee folks have a roadmap that I think puts them in the right direction. They are reworking the iPod support, and will be adding new features like a play queue - a feature I love in Rhythmbox and wish that iTunes had as well. Banshee does a great job with album art and giving me recommendations of other music. support is also there for audioscrobbling (sharing what I've been listening to with others). I think this is a great tie into the social web and someplace that I hope iTunes goes as well. Of course, Banshee is just a music player, so for my video podcasts I need to go elsewhere. Of course it can burn a CD and rip music and all that other shit I'll never do.

Sound is beyond terrible on Linux. Acronym soup will confuse the hell out of you and ultimately the solution is to just pray that it works. To make the volume control on the keyboard work the way I want I had to go into the sound applet and control select two items - that worked, but who the hell can actually figure this out. OSS, ALSA, blah blah blah. It's far too confusing. PulseAudio is the latest buzz, but I still betcha sound is going to be confusing as hell.
Sound Configuration


Ok, so there are a few things I do with video. I watch video podcasts, I rip DVDs, and I just watch the ripped or downloaded movies. iTunes was nearly worthless for this. The restricted codecs manager makes it fairly easy to get the right codecs. The only problem is that by default Totem, the built in movie player, uses the gstreamer back-end. I'm not sure why, but for highly compressed video there is no post-processing on by default. This wasted hours of my time looking for a solution. I managed to fix it without replacing the gstreamer back-end with xine, but I don't know how I did it. For some reason every video engine tries to use XV. I don't know, or care what XV is, but with my Intel video card I need to figure out how to switch everything to X11. Scrubbing through videos also bites with Totem - not necessarily worse than Quicktime though. I prefer Gnome-Mplayer which has beautiful post-processing and scrubs through beautifully so it's easy to get back to where you were or scrub back to see something you missed. I also like the fact that with both mplayer and totem that I can strip them down to a nearly interfaceless window. On the mac I used NicePlayer for this same purpose.

For ripping movies I use Handbrake. Some dude finally put together a good GTK based front-end for Handbrake which seems to work well enough.
Not too much to say beyond that - it just works.

My video podcast client of choice is Miro, which is kinda like an open-source Joost. The cool thing is that it can do torrent based rss streams, so I can get real tv using tvRSS or something like it. It is not perfect, but it seems to work well enough, better than iTunes anyway.

Also, Nautilus is great at giving me information about a video and showing fun little keyframes. Check it out.
Nautilus File Manager

Photos and Graphics

I have not finished testing this all out, but right now f-spot is working well. It indexes all my pictures without choking on its own vomit like iPhoto sometimes did with my library. It works with my Canon raw format, and can launch Gimp for more advanced stuff. I still need to recreate all my albums though. It's much faster than iPhoto, but certainly is not as fancy and pretty. I can send my pics right out to Flickr without any trouble - it just works. Here's a shot of it.
F-Spot I almost don't care so much about albums on my local computer - that's mostly for sharing and I can manage them well enough on Flickr. The big thing for me is being able to import easily, do small tweaks, and get them up on the web without much effort. F-Spot wins in that regard.

Desktop Search

Ok, desktop search still sorta sucks balls on Ubuntu. On Tiger, spotlight sucked as well - slow and unreliable. Leopard however flips that on its head - so I sure hope there is some rapid development on the Tracker front (the default indexing tool in Gutsy). Deskbar is a nice quicksilver-like launcher I use. It is a plugin based search bar, so it can do things like look up words in the dictionary, launch applications, or search with Tracker. The only problem is that Tracker just plain doesn't work reliably for me. It flips out and either returns no results when I know there should be results, or it somehow thinks all my images are great results for just about every word I type. I don't see a lot of utilities built in to troubleshoot either. Anyhow, here are the screenshots.
Crapper - err I mean Tracker

Other Stuff

So here are some other things.

Pidgin rocks, but it still has a long way to go with features. Of course voice and video are the most requested, but for those who want VoIP there is a built-in softphone called Ekiga. Pidgin works with every protocol, and can sync in some ways with the Evolution address book. I can tweak it just how I like, to be small and out of the way.

I'd really like to see more zeroconf stuff in the Linux desktop. After some tweaking and installing of tools I have a great view into DAAP shares, ssh services, and Bonjour printers on my network - but the integration could go a lot further.

Maybe the best thing that Ubuntu has over OS X is central management of all my software updates. It's easy to find new software, install it, and upgrade it. This is just the way it should be. I usually use Synaptic, which is the more advanced software install tool.

On OS X, iSync is so so close, yet so far away. Conduit is a very raw and new tool (meaning buggy as all get out) that can sync the stuff you're interested in, like photos and notes and all that. It is actually working for me right now, but it's really a manual process rather than syncing when a device is connected or on a schedule.

Evolution, the calendar, contacts, and mail client in Gnome, is feature rich, but buggy as hell. I'm still sorta surprised this was included with Gnome when it was. Web calendars seem to work great - even integrating with the clock. The contacts manager though seems to flake out way too easily. I'm trying to submit bugs where I can.

That's about it really. There are plenty of problems, but most I have been able to overcome. I really think Linux can become an easier solution than Windows or OS X in the future, and I hope the community and distributors continue to focus on ease of use. I don't have any show-stoppers so far, so I'm pleased.