Ubuntu 12.04 First Impressions

Long term followers of this blog will know that I use multiple computers and multiple operating systems when I work. Of late, I have mostly been using my new MacBook Air, singularly the most lovely piece of hardware I have ever owned, and Scrivener 2 which remains the most polished iteration of that great piece of novel writing software. Over the past few months, I’ve mostly used my Windows PCs for gaming and I have been  neglecting my Linux installations completely.

All of this changed this week when I finally got round to installing the latest release of Ubuntu, 12.04 Precise Pangolin, on my trusty Acer Travelmate where it shares a hard drive with the much maligned (but actually rather excellent for my purposes) Windows Vista Business. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Ubuntu is a free operating system produced by Canonical and it comes with almost every type of software most people could possibly require to get some work done. In the past I have used it to write fiction and blog posts and I expect to do so again. 

Linux is free, relatively secure, and very, very fast. It runs well on older computers and netbooks, of which I possess many. It has a reputation for being difficult and for the technical minded but this is not strictly speaking true any more. I have installed it on my mother-in-law’s computer. She is completely non-technical and she has never had any problems with it. In terms of efficiency I would say its probably on par with OSX, maybe slightly ahead given the bloat that the Leopards brought. And like I said, it comes with masses of free software and you get access to masses more through its App Store (or Software Centre as Ubuntu calls it). There are a lot less security threats for the home user as well. Windows has always been plagued by these, and recently OSX has been attracting its share of malware too. 

Ubuntu updates its OS every 6 months, pretty much like clockwork, with Long Term Service releases every two years– 10.04 was the last LTS. I always said I would give Canonical a year to work out the bugs of the new Unity interface introduced in 11.04 and I planned on migrating with the 12.04 release.

The process of upgrading was a touch more complex than a simple clean instal since I was using a two year out of date release and according to the user notes on the Ubuntu site a direct upgrade was not recommended. Since I wanted to preserve my data, I updated the long slow way, via 11.04 and 11.10. (Those numbers are simply the year and month of the upgrade’s release, April 2011 and October 2011 respectively.) This process was a bit tedious, took a couple of hours in my case but went extremely smoothly. Colour me impressed. It was just a case of using Update Manager and leaving the machine alone while I got on with my work on another computer. 

Since 11.04 there has been some controversy over the Unity interface with which Cananical replaced the venerable Gnome Desktop. The jump is a big and jarring one, even more than going from say Windows XP to OSX. I am fond of Gnome and more to the point I am used to it. I tried Unity last year, decided it was not quite ready for prime time and reverted to Gnome. I figured with another year Canonical would have smoothed out a lot of the bugs and inconsistencies and made the whole thing a lot more polished. I reckoned that if they had not I could always try Mint or one of the other Linux distros. (For those of you wondering what I am gibbering about– there are multiple variants of the basic Linux operating system maintained by different organisations. Imagine if Windows was produced by many companies rather than Microsoft and you’ll get it.)

Anyway, the upgrade process took a while but performed flawlessly. Booting seems slower. I seem to recall that 10.04 booted in just under a minute. It now takes almost 90 seconds from power on to hitting the desktop. You do get a much more polished loading screen when you sign in though.

After I booted into Ubuntu all of my previously installed software was there, including the Microsoft Office install I use with PlayOnLinux. It worked too. To someone like me who remembers how endlessly frustrating OS upgrades were even a few years ago this seems little short of miraculous.

My basic first impression was pretty much the same as 11.04. I was confused by the new Unity interface. It’s not like it’s so difficult to understand. There is a dock-like taskbar at the left hand side of the screen where your most commonly used programs live, when you click on the appropriate icon the program launches. It’s not bad per se, just weird, like walking into your home and discovering someone has rearranged all the furniture when you were away.

A lot of complaints I have read on the net centre on the lack of configurability of this arrangement and I completely get this. One of the nicest thing about Linux is being able to tweak it till you get exactly what you are looking for. Having the taskbar always appear on the left hand side of the screen sort of forces you to work the way the designer’s want, not the way you necessarily might want to.

What does work nicely is the new HUD (Heads Up Display). You hit the Windows key and you are taken into a nicely transparent screen with a search bar. This is a sort of combination of OSX’s Spotlight and the functionality you get from programs like Quicksilver or Gnome Do. Type the name of the program or file you are looking for and a list is provided. You just need to click on the appropriate item and it launches. I am a big fan of Quicksilver on the Mac so I can see myself getting into this in a big way. 

The basic office suite is LibreOffice, which I rather like. It’s a fork from the old OpenOffice suite and it works just fine. I can’t comment on the music player or movie player because I basically never use them. Linux is one of the places I go to work. My system is pretty stripped down. 

The truth is that there is not a lot I can say here except comment on the cosmetic changes. It all feels new and novel but you can tell underneath that it’s basically Linux with all of the old advantages and disadvantages. Dropbox functioned perfectly and all my files were there. I was up and working on 12.04 mere minutes after it loaded and most of the wasted time was simply looking around at all the new stuff. It’s too early to say how stable the system is but so far there has been absolutely zero problems. I will report back if they do show up. 

My basic response– I am still not sure about Unity. I’ll give it some time and see how I feel a few months down the road. I may well report back then. 

Writing on an Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook

Netbook Desktop

I often carry my eeePC 1001P around with me when I am travelling or going out to cafes to write (Yes, I really do this! I know it’s not cool but I stopped worrying about looking cool a very long time ago.) Worried about Windows security, I replaced the XP installation with Ubuntu Linux 10.10.

This has been something of a revelation. Ubuntu is a very light operating system and it boots and runs very quickly indeed even on older Intel Atom processors. It’s free and it comes with pretty much all the software you could possibly need to get some work done, including its own capable office suite (OpenOffice in the case of Ubuntu 10.10) and hey, you can even install Scrivener on it. (The Scrivener forum has links to downloads for Linux.) There are far fewer security threats for Linux than Windows (or even OSX these days). I am not going to tell you it is a perfectly secure OS because I do not believe there is any such thing but it is secure enough.

The machine itself is light enough to slip into a bag and not be noticed. (It’s about the same weight as a MacBook Air but cost less than 20% of the price.) It has great battery life (8 hours approximately). The build quality is high. The machine has a matte screen so you can read it in sunlight or under glare. Boot time is very fast– much faster than Windows XP used to be although I have not measured it with a stopwatch.

I have had some problems with my Linux installations on other computers. They have required tweaking and workarounds to get them working properly. On this machine Ubuntu 10.10 has worked more or less perfectly since the install with one exception– the screen brightness function keys seem to be somewhat out of sync. It reaches maximum brightness a couple of points below the maximum indicator on the slider and if you keep trying to increase the brightness the screen goes dark. That’s it– this is the only problem I have ever had with the machine. It’s certainly possible that there are other problems that I have not noticed but I can honestly say I have been delighted to use Ubuntu when writing.

I get a surprising amount of work done on this little netbook. Over time I have learned a few tricks to maximise productivity.

Install the Chromium browser. It takes up less space on the limited screen area with its headers and tabs. This leaves you with more space to read. Personally I delete the bottom panel and install Cairo Dock. This is set to autohide so that it vanishes when I am working on something.

Set your screen panels to autohide. For the same reason as above. You want to be able to see as much of your text as possible.

Make use of workspaces. Use one space for each program you are running. Learn the keyboard shortcut for switching between them. (Control + Alt + the left and right arrow keys.) Working on a netbook is all about making the most of your screen real estate.

Find a netbook whose keyboard works for you. This is often easier said than done. I found the Asus eeePC 1001p keyboard really works for me. I had another one from MSI which really hurt my hands.

Install Dropbox and set up as the default save folder for Writer or whatever word processor you choose to use. It’s the easiest and fastest way of making remote backups that I know off. It makes it easy to open the document elsewhere and just get back to work.

In Writer or your wordprocessor of choice reduce the number of toolbars to the absolute minimum. I usually just keep formatting. If I am hard at work I get rid of even that.

Don’t write for more than half an hour at a time if you are prone to any sort of RSI injuries. The smaller netbook keyboards tend to make things worse. I try to write for not more than one hour a day on a netbook keyboard.

Don’t try and do heavy editing on a netbook unless you absolutely have to. This is what monitors or laptops with bigger screens were meant for. You will go mad trying to manipulate large wodges of text on a small screen with a dodgy trackpad.

Learn to use keyboard shortcuts as much as possible or bring a mouse. Trackpads on netbooks are rarely very good.

OK– I admit it. I am still making some final changes and alterations to The Angel of Fire. I wrote this post some time ago and put on file against need. These days you will probably only be able to easily download the 10.04 Long Term Service release of Ubuntu or the new 11.10 release. I tried the Unity interface in Ubuntu 11.04 and I thought it was not quite ready for prime time. I will try again with the 12.04 Long Term Service Release. Next week, I hope to return to normal blogging duties and write some more about Tyrion and Teclis.

The Tech Roundup

It’s a big week in tech for me. Asus and Acer have just announced their new ultrabooks, Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) is due any day now and, perhaps, most importantly Literature & Latte  have (sort of) announced a release date for Scrivener for Windows.

First up, the ultrabooks. I have long lusted after some version of the MacBook Air. It seems to be just about the perfect size for a travelling laptop to me. Somehow I can never quite make myself pull the trigger though. £1000 is a lot of money and to tell the truth I have been less than impressed with what I have seen of Lion. Heretical as it sounds to many people I actually prefer both Windows 7 and Ubuntu.  I have been living in hope that Intel’s Ultrabook initiative would produce something just as light and beautiful as a MacBook Air only significantly cheaper. The first fruits are becoming visible now.

Asus revealed their new Zenbook line yesterday, the UX 21 and 31. They look lovely. They are about as light and about as thin as a MBA and they are specced a little bit higher. The price looks too high to compete with Apple in this space though. Asus are making the same mistake as many tablet makers when competing with the iPad. They look to be charging the same price with specifications a bit higher. What has happened in the tablet field shows this is not the way to compete with Apple. One reason people buy Apple is BECAUSE it is expensive. They are making a fashion statement, purchasing a luxury brand. They are not buying specifications—they are buying a logo. No one is going to buy an Asus just because it’s expensive, no matter what specs it has and sorry, Asus, you just don’t have the cache that Apple has as a brand. I would not let the fact that the machine is an Asus stop me from buying it, but the current price will.

The Acer S3 is a more interesting take on the Ultrabook. It uses a hybrid SSD/ Hard drive system. The OS is stored on the SSD for very fast booting. Data is stored on the hard drive. The main advantage here is that hard drives are a lot bigger than an SSD and you can store an awful lot more data on them. It also lets Acer keep the costs down. The S3 comes in at $899, roughly $400 dollars less than the equivalent Mac. This is a large price advantage and I think it shows that someone at Acer at least has a grasp of the economic and brand realities. In terms of the tech, they are not simply copying what Apple has done either. The equivalent MBA is a higher spec machine but quite honestly I don’t care. The Acer has the things I want, light weight, decent battery life and fast boot times. Right now, it is the Ultrabook I would buy although Toshiba’s upcoming Z830 also looks good. I confess I will probably wait until next year before diving in to the Ultrabook market though. By then, production will have ramped up and costs will have dropped significantly. The new Ivy Bridge processors will make for some interesting things as well. For the moment though I am sticking with my fast fading MacBook Pro and my trust Acer Travelmate.

There’s not a lot I can say about the new Ubuntu since it’s not out yet. I will be downloading the new release when it becomes available and sticking it on a virtual machine to take for a test drive. I was not too thrilled by 11.04. I could see what they were doing with the new Unity interface but I was not sure it worked. By all accounts the latest version is a lot more polished which is exactly what you would expect. I doubt 11.10 will convince me to move from my trusty 10.10 but I suspect it will take us a long way down the road to a very impressive Long Term Service release in 12.04. This might be the one that sells me on Unity.  (For the record, I am sitting in a café writing this on an Asus eeePC 1001 netbook, running  Ubuntu 10.10. It works a treat).

And lastly I was delighted to note while reading the Literature and Latte forums last night that the official release of Scrivener for Windows is 31st October, just in time for National Novel Writing Month. As I never tire of repeating, Scrivener is the single best piece of software ever devised for the working writer and the main reason I am still on a Mac at this moment. I tried the earlier betas of Scrivener for Windows but they just were not stable enough for me to feel comfortable working on. I’ve recently been trying version .035 and it’s been solid. There have been one or two tiny glitches switching between Mac and PC but these have been trivial—things like the text in a section being selected when I open it. The latest version looks great and most importantly it behaves like Scrivener should. I’ll be giving this a try on Windows as soon as it is released and most probably taking it for a run on Linux as well. I’ll do a review at some point as well.

Anyway, I am off to work now. I’ll be back on Friday with more about Elves.

Well Done Amazon, Kindle on Linux Finally

A lot of people have been praising Amazon’s new Cloud Reader, an extension for Chrome and Safari which allows you to do pretty much everything you do on a Kindle or Amazon’s iPad app but using only your browser. They have (quite correctly IMHO) assumed that this was an attempt to evade paying the 30% fee Apple demands for in-App purchases on the iPad and iPhone by letting users read their Kindle books in their browsers and make purchases from there too. I don’t own an iPad so I can’t personally attest to how well it works on Apple’s magical device. What I can say is that this has one very useful side effect for those of us who use Linux. The Cloud Reader extension works just as well on Chromium as it does on Chrome or so my brief tests this evening lead me to believe. This means that effectively the Kindle reader has finally come to Linux, courtesy of the magic of HTML 5. Well done, Amazon. I salute you.

WINE

For those of you not familiar with it, WINE is a compatibility layer that sits between the software and the operating system and lets you run Windows programs in Linux without actually having a copy of Windows. The results have been very impressive. So far I have the Windows versions of Evernote 4.4 and Microsoft Word 2007 running. I used the Playonlinux front-end for WINE to instal Word without a hitch. (There is no option for Evernote on this software so I did a manual install.) There have been one or two graphical blemishes occasionally but both programs run well enough to work with. Even more impressively they integrate with Gnome Do so I can launch Word by calling up Gnome Do and typing in the first couple of letters of the name. I still mostly use Writer to work on at the moment but it’s nice to know that Word is there if I need it. Editors tend to want files in Word format after all.

Scrivener on Linux

I just downloaded the .deb package from the Scrivener forums and installed them on a Linux virtual machine running Ubuntu 10.10. It worked flawlessly. I am looking forward to testing this next week.

Below is a screenshot of The Angel of Fire imported from OpenOffice Writer.

In case you are wondering why the word Scene appears so often in those Binder headings it’s because I put it there to mark scenes in my OpenOffice file before I imported it into Scrivener for Linux. I then performed a search for the word and used the Shift+Control+K hotkey combination to split the file into individual scenes in Scrivener.

Yes, I spend my time doing this stuff and it really amuses me. I am a sad, sad man.

Scrivener for Linux