Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trying Out Ubuntu 10.04 On A Desktop PC - Part Two

This blog describes the multimedia playback capabilities (both audio and video) of the standard Ubuntu 10.04 - that is, what this 64-bit OS can play 'out-of-the-box'. Let us start with the audio capabilities first.

Multimedia - Audio Playback

It was obvious from the start that Ubuntu can handle sound - but what format? A quick peek into the /usr/share/sounds directory gave me some answers. The sound file formats that Ubuntu can handle 'out-of-the-box' are '.wav' and '.ogg' type files. The wav format is an uncompressed PCM one while the ogg format is a lossy compressed one. Both are 'free' formats and that is the reason they were included on a standard Ubuntu (which has a strict policy regarding non-free or propriety formats - they simply are not included).

A test was carried out by plugging in a USB drive containing several audio and video files of various formats, into the Ubuntu 10.04 PC. The USB drive was recognized by the OS and mounted automatically - an icon for that drive appeared on the desktop. The OS also obligingly open the Nautilus file browser showing the contents of the USB drive. Hovering the cursor over the various audio files on the USB drive, I discovered that Ubuntu can indeed play back wav and ogg type audio files plus it also can play back 'flac' type audio files. This format is a lossless compressed PCM type and it is a 'free' format (flac = free lossless audio codec) - hence it was included in the standard Ubuntu. However, out of the box Ubuntu CANNOT play back mp3, mp4, aac, m4a and ape formatted audio files. Obviously, extra non-free or propriety codecs need to be installed to handle these formats.

A quick check with the official Ubuntu 10.04 document did not help much but checking the community document on restricted formats gave instructions on which package to install in order to get support for the other audio (and video) formats. The package is appropriately named 'ubuntu-restricted-extras' and besides the codecs necessary for play back of the other formats, also includes Microsoft TTF fonts, Java runtime environment, Flash plugin, LAME (to create compressed audio files), and DVD playback. Opening the Synaptic Package Manager, I installed this package - which took a while - mainly due to the downloading of the various TTF fonts from a busy server.

After the ubuntu-restricted-extras package was installed, another test was performed on the other audio files on the USB drive. Hovering the cursor over the files I can now play back mp3, mp4, aac, m4a and ape formatted audio files. This package indeed took care of the most popular audio formats found. By the way, I also found out that the popular Microsoft TrueType fonts (like Times New Roman, Arial, Courier New, etc) were also installed on my system - a big plus and another reason to install this package.

Another audio capability test was then performed - the audio CD playback capability. Inserting an audio CD into the drive resulted in it being recognized and mounted (a icon will appear on the desktop). A message box will also pop-up telling me that I have inserted an audio CD and asked which application to use the CD with - the default is Rhythmbox. Note that I can make this the default action also - however, for this test I accepted the default application by clicking on OK. Rhythmbox, the music management and playback software for GNOME, was launched and I was able to play the CD by clicking on the 'Play' button. The details about the CD (album name, artist, and track/song title) was also displayed. This test confirmed that Ubuntu was indeed capable of handling audio CD's.

That's it as far as my needs for audio playback on Ubuntu 10.04 goes. In my next blog, I will be describing the video playback capabilities of the OS, so stay tuned.

Trying Out Ubuntu 10.04 On A Desktop PC - Part One Addendum

In my previous blog, I mentioned installing some extra add-ons. What I forgot to mention was that I had problem initially while trying to install ANY add-ons - an error #228 occurs eveytime. After researching the web, I found that this was a common problem with 64-bit Ubuntu and it had to do something with IPv6 support in Firefox. This has to be disabled before add-ons can be successfully installed.

Following the instruction, I executed 'about:config' in Firefox and then clicked "I'll be careful" button on the warning that appeared. I then typed 'ipv6' in the filter box to get to the one and only line that's needed - that line will say 'network.dns.disableipv6'. The default value is "false". I then double-clicked it to set the value to "true" (to disable IPv6). Once this was done and Firefox restarted, I could install the add-ons without any problems. Note that if you do require IPv6 support in Firefox you need to reverse the process.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Trying Out Ubuntu 10.04 On A Desktop PC - Part One

As mentioned in several of my previous blogs, I use Ubuntu Netbook Remix exclusively on my netbooks (a Lenovo S10-2 and an HP Mini 2140). After playing around with the relatively new UNR 10.04 on the HP, I grew to like the OS - so much so that I decided to install it on a spare PC that I had around (which was mainly used for testing) and play around with it some more. The PC is built around an Asus M2N-E motherboard and the CPU I had installed is an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200+. The amount of RAM on the motherboard is 8 GB of DDR2-800. Clearly the 64-bit flavor of Ubuntu 10.04 was the choice of OS here. To top up the hardware, I also installed a ATI HD 4670 video card, a 550W power supply and a 320GB SATA hard disk. The display was an Acer 23 inch wide screen LCD. With all the hardware pieces in place, I ventured into the world of 64-bit Linux computing. This blog and more will describe my journey in that world.

After downloading the ISO image of the DVD, I burned it to a disc and used it for the installation. The actual installation was painless - the only unusual item of note is that I partitioned the hard disk manually and used ext3 filesystem instead of the default ext4. I also used my normal (normal for me, that is) partitioning scheme - i.e., a small boot partition, the root partition, a swap partition and a home partition. The reason for using the ext3 filesystem was mentioned also in my previous blog - it enables me to backup or clone my hard disk using the Arconis Home 2010 software, which at the moment can only handle ext3 type filesystem.

The first boot-up went without any problem and after logging in, was presented with the purple-colored desktop. The first thing I did was to change the screen desktop background to a more pleasing one - right-clicking on the desktop and selecting 'Change Desktop Background', I was presented with several choices. I selected 'Maraetai before sunrise' as my background - at least it does not hurt my eyes as much as the default! :)

The second thing I did was un-mute my sound system, which, for some reason or other, the Ubuntu team decided to initially start off muted. I also adjusted the volume level sliders to a reasonable value. Note that the 'Sound Preference' dialog box that appears upon clicking it, do not have the option to test the sound levels - a shortcoming which I urge the Ubuntu team to fix.

The next (and somewhat irritating) thing I fixed is the placement of the windows control (maximize, minimize and close) buttons from the top left side of the windows to the usual (and familiar) top right side.

As with my previous installation of UNR 10.04 on my HP netbook, I was prompted to update my system and it also indicated that propriety drivers were available for my system. Putting aside the drivers for the time being, I updated the system via the Update Manager - which took a while since there was a fair amount of updates that needed to be applied. Once completed a re-boot was required - this was done and the system restarted - this time it was accompanied with the Ubuntu startup sound.

The Firefox Browser

The first software I tried out on the Ubuntu 10.04 was the default web browser that come with it - the Firefox. I started it and changed my home page to news.google.com.my and then checked the installed plugins by executing 'about:plugins' via the address bar. All the necessary multimedia and java plugins were installed except Shockwave flash-player and pdf-reader plugins.

The Shockwave flash-player plugin package (named flashplugin-nonfree) can be installed using the Synaptic Package Manager but note that this is a 32-bit plugin - the 64-bit one is still in beta and was not included in the standard installation of Ubuntu 10.04. As it is a 32-bit package, there was a lot of dependencies for it - the major ones being 'nspluginwrapper' and 'ia32-libs'. These are required to make the 32-bit plugin work on 64-bit Ubuntu. A lot of work to get one plugin to work - I just wish Adobe would get the 64-bit one working as soon as possible. However, the plugin worked - I verified it by playing a YouTube movie (my favorite HQ movie of Sarah Brighman singing Harem). The command 'about:plugins' also verified that the shockwave flash is indeed installed.

The pdf-reader plugin, on the other hand, is not such a simple package to install. First the lucid partner repository need to enabled - this is done by editing the /etc/apt/sources.list file (as root) and un-commenting the two lines for the lucid partner repository. Then the Synaptic Package Manager need to be restarted and the package database refreshed by clicking on the 'Reload' button. Alternatively, the command 'sudo aptitude update' can be run from a console. Then a search for 'acroread' need to be done and once found that package need to be installed. Note that this will also install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader and if you choose so, make it the default pdf type file reader. Once the plugin (and reader) has been installed, the Firefox browser has to re-started. The command 'about:plugins' has also to be executed to verify that the pdf plugin is indeed installed - which in my case, was. In order to test the plugin I used a web page containing a pdf test document and it verified that the installed plugin worked. However, for some strange reason, the Acrobat Reader was not listed in the 'Applications' menu list. Loggin out and then back in solved this - 'Acrobat Reader 9' was now listed in Applications -> Office.

Next I installed some extra essential (to me!) plugins - Adblock Plus, Download Statusbar, Webmail Notifier and Yoono (a social neworking app to mintor my twitter and facebook account). Once these were installed I now have the Firefox browser that I can use productively. In fact, I use the same setup for my netbooks and my Windows 7 workstations. Later I get my bookmarks synchronized across all my computers. I wonder if there is an application that will allow me to do so.

Next, I will check out the multimedia capabilities of Ubuntu 10.04 ... stay tuned.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix On An HP Mini 2140 Netbook - Part 4

As mentioned in my previous blog, I mentioned that I was disappointed with the inability of the HP Mini 2140 to enter 'sleep' mode when the lid was closed and also mentioned that there was indeed a unresolved bug (#376793) concerning the HP 2140 and its lid closing detection on UNR 10.04. Intrigued, I decided to test whether this inability affected the previous UNR (version 9.10 codenamed Karmic Kaola). So out went the hard disk from the netbook and in its place I installed a spare blank hard disk that I had kept for such a test.

After installing the UNR 9.10, I updated the OS with the latest updates (after going through the process in getting the Broadcom wireless working as outlined in my older blogs) and then started testing the power management features. I found out that they worked perfectly! The netbook went to sleep when I closed the lid - unlike UNR 10.04. Clearly there was a problem in UNR 10.04 and NOT with the HP netbook.

The question now remains - shall I wipe out UNR 10.04 from the removed hard disk and use UNR 9.10, or continue using the already installed UNR 10.04 but always have to remember to put the netbook to sleep manually? There was one big advantage of using UNR 10.04 - it has Long Term Support (3 years support for the desktop). Battery conservation is a big issue here - if I forget to put the netbook to sleep manually, then there will be problems relating to inability to use the netbook in a remote site. Decisions, decisions, .....

More to come ... stay tuned.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix On An HP Mini 2140 Netbook - Part 3

Now that I have Ubuntu Netbook Remix installed on my HP Mini 2140 netbook, I became aware of another thing about the HP that is different from my Lenovo S10-2 netbook, and that was the display size and clarity. At first I thought it was simply my imagination but after comparing the powered-up netbooks side by side, it became apparent that the display on the HP was very much sharper and was easier to read. It was also noticeable that the HP's screen was slightly smaller than the Lenovo's - which was confirmed by the specification in the HP Mini 2140 Data Sheet. The HP has a 1024 x 576 pixels screen while the Lenovo has the normal (for a netbook, that is) 1024 x 600 pixels screen. Why this was so is not clear but the type of LCD panel used by HP resulted in the sharper and clearer display than the Lenovo - so I am not complaining :)

Another feature of the HP that differs from the Lenovo is the standard battery that came with the netbook. HP only supplies a 3-cell battery as standard while Lenovo supplies a 6-cell one. Obviously this has an impact on battery life under normal netbook usage. According to reports and reviews found on the web, the 3-cell battery on the HP was only good for about 2 hours under normal usage - compare this with an actual 4.5 hours which was actually obtained by me for the Lenovo. So, if I wanted to extend the battery life on the HP, I have to purchase the optional 6-cell battery. After making several inquiries, I discovered to my horror that such a battery cost around 25% of the actual cost of the netbook! Way to go HP! Is this your way of screwing your users? In retrospect, I should have expected this - after all, after working with HP for more than 20 years, I should know by now that HP stands for High Price.

Expect for the 6-cell battery price farce, I found several things to like about the HP Mini 2140 - which was a saving grace (else I would have just got rid of it). One, as I mentioned previously, was the sharp screen display. The other likable item was the keyboard - the keys were large and nice to use - unlike the somewhat soggy feel of the Lenovo's keyboard. I also felt that the inclusion of the ExpressCard/54 slot as a nice feature to have - provided, of course, I can get actual ExpressCard/54 cards locally. As mentioned previously, I am looking for a 4-port USB ExpressCard/54 card in order to expand the number of available USB ports. More on this ExpressCard later.

Anyway, enough about the HP Mini - allow me to elaborate on my first impression of the new Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix (UNR) OS. The first and most noticable impression is the new color scheme (or theme). The standard brown scheme found in the previous version (9.10) has been replaced with a purple, gray, and orange theme called Ambiance. Personally, I prefer the old scheme but I could live with the new one. Fortunately the background could be easily be changed to almost anything I wish and I do have some nice images to serve as the background. This was the first thing I did on the netbook - copy my favorite images to my home folder (Pictures subfolder) and changed the background to my liking.

The next (and somewhat irritating) thing I noticed about the new UNR is that, for some reason or another, the Canonical team decided to place the windows control (maximize, minimize and close) buttons on top left side of the windows - instead of the usual (and familiar) top right side. According to reviews found on the web, the decision was to copy the Mac OS layout. It was also evident from the various posts on various user forums that this was not a popular decision. Fortunately, there is a way to restore the placement of the button back to the 'normal' position. The procedure can be found at this link (http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/13535/move-window-buttons-back-to-the-right-in-ubuntu-10.04/).

As the HP netbook is to be a mobile device, battery life must be preserved at all time - which means that the power management utility in the new UNR must work correctly. This was tested next - the result was not very encouraging - in fact, it was downright disappointing. On my other netbook (the Lenovo S10-2), power management worked flawlessly with the UNR 9.10. When I close the lid of the Lenovo netbook, the system went to sleep. At the predetermined time it went into hibernation. With this power management I was able to make the battery last for the duration I am on the road. On the HP, closing the lid did not do anything - the only way I could put the HP netbook to sleep was to do it manually by pressing the Fn+F1 key combination. Opening the lid after manually putting the HP netbook to sleep did not 'wake' it up - again I had to manually wake it up using the on/off button. To my alarm, I noted that it did not prompt me for a password upon waking up (as it is supposed to) - it just restored the last screen. Plainly, the 10.04 UNR's power management utility did not work as it was supposed to do.

After doing a bit of research on the web, I discovered that there was indeed a unresolved bug concerning the HP 2140 and its lid closing detection on UNR 10.04. It seems to be unique to the HP - other netbook did not seem to be affected. At the moment, it cannot be determined as to when this issue will be resolved. This fact alone put a bit of a damper for my plans for the HP Mini 2140 and I need to re-think them for my 'sleep-deprived' netbook.

More to come ... stay tuned.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix On An HP Mini 2140 Netbook - Part Two

For the actual install, I used an external CDROM drive attached to the HP netbook. For internet connection, I use a Ethernet LAN cable to the netbook.

1) Placing the install CDROM in the external CDROM drive attached to the HP Mini, I powered it up and pressed the F9 key to access the boot menu. The USB CDROM drive was selected as the boot drive by pressing the Enter key after which the netbook proceeded to boot the OS. After a while an 'Install' dialog box appeared giving choices of languages and 2 other options. The first is to try out Ubuntu 10.04 without making any changes to the HP and the other is to install Ubuntu 10.04 to the HP without trying it first. Note that:

(a) it is possible to install the OS later to the HP even if you select the first option (i.e., try out the OS) by selecting 'Install Ubuntu-Netbook 10.04' on the 'Favorites' screen that appears first after starting.

(b) it is also possible to create a USB stick containing the same Netbook Remix image as the CD by using the 'Startup Disk Creator' present in the Ubuntu 10.04 'System' screen. Note that the 7-steps install process itself is similar in both cases.

2) After making sure that the correct language was used, I then selected the correct location, keyboard layout, and then came the important disk space preparation. Note that the easiest way is to accept the default - i.e., 'Erase and use the entire disk'. However, this would create partitions using the ext4 filesystem - the default filesystem used by Ubuntu 10.04. The problem with using this relatively new filesystem is that most popular disk cloning and backup system do not support ext4 yet. I found this out the hard way when I tried to clone and backup a Kubuntu 10.04 based system using my favorite cloning software - Arconis Home 2010. This software will simply fail to process an ext4 based hard disk. In order to avoid this I decided to partition my hard disk manually by selecting 'Specify partitions manually (advanced)' and use the ext3 filesystem for the partitions. (If you do not plan to clone your hard disk or do not want to tinker with the manual method, then I suggest using the default method.) I will skip the details of actually making the partitions - it is only sufficient to say that I created 4 primary partitions for 'boot', 'root', swap and 'home'. When the partitions have been specified, I then entered my user information, password and netbook name in the next step. Note that the 'Log in automatically' option is selected by default - for security reason I changed this to 'Require password to log in' instead. The actual install process began after clicking on the 'Install' button on the next screen that appeared and the whole process took a while to complete.

3) When the install process was completed, a notice appeared on the screen saying so, and also notified that a restart was required. Upon pressing the 'Restart Now' button, the netbook re-booted into the newly-installed Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix OS - after logging in, of course. One noticeable difference from the previous release 9.10, is that there was no startup sound - it has to be enabled by clicking on the speaker icon on the top right panel and selecting 'Sound Preference'. On the dialog box that appeared, I selected 'Ubuntu' in the 'Sound theme' drop list box after which the startup sound was heard.

4) After a while at the desktop (2 or 3 minutes), two things happened. The first is that a flashing 'folder' icon appeared next to the Ubuntu icon at the top left-hand side of the screen. This was the Update Manager telling me that there are updates available for the OS. The second thing was that a message appeared saying that restricted drivers is available and a new icon (which looks like a plug-in PCI card for a PC) appeared next to the 'mail envelope' icon. This was the Hardware Drivers telling me that there are restricted drivers available for me to use - in fact, this is the driver for the Broadcom wireless chipset. For the moment I ignored the Hardware Drivers notification - instead the OS was updated using the Update Manager (via the Ethernet (LAN) internet access). As of September 2010, there were 272 updates to be installed - so this process took some time to complete. The kernel was also updated, so a reboot was required as soon as all updates were installed - which I did.

5) In the previous version of Ubuntu (9.10), the installation of the restricted driver for the Broadcom wireless chipset caused problems for my Lenovo netbook. This has been fixed in this version. The restricted drivers was installed by selecting System -> Hardware Drivers from the menu. The netbook started to search for available hardware driver and when found displayed the results - which turns out to be 2 type of drivers for the Broadcom wireless chipset. I selected the 'Broadcom STA wireless driver' and then clicked on the 'Activate' button. After entering my password, the drivers was downloaded and installed, after which a message appeared saying I need to reboot in order to activate the drivers. The Hardware Drivers window was closed and the netbook restarted. Once restarted and upon clicking on the network icon on the top panel, I saw a list of accessible wireless access points within range - I clicked on the one I wish to connect to, entered a password and I was connected to the internet wirelessly! No fuss - no freeze as in version 9.10! At this point I also disconnected the LAN connection.

All in all, installation was painless - kudos to the Ubuntu team for making it right this time - especially the restricted Broadcom wireless drivers. Of course, it would have been nicer if the wireless had been detected and the drivers installed automatically but this would be asking too much from Canonical.

More to follow ... stay tuned.

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix On An HP Mini 2140 Netbook - Part One

It was 5 months ago when Canonical announced the release of the Ubuntu 10.04 (codenamed Lucid Lynx) Linux OS - which also carried the LTS (Long Term Support) moniker. The Netbook Remix version was also released at the same time. At that time I was using the 9.10 Netbook Remix version (Karmic Kaola) on my Lenovo S10-2 Ideapad netbook and was very satisfied with it. Needless to say, I was tempted to upgrade to the 10.04 version - however, from experience, I decided to hold off for a few months until all the bugs have been ironed out from the OS.

Recently, I obtained a Hewlett-Packard Mini 2140 - a netbook similar to the Lenovo S10-2. My sister had purchased it because it was relatively cheap but was very disappointed with its small sized screen. After using it for a short while, she gave up and offered it to me. I now own 2 netbooks - one already running the Ubuntu 9.10 (the Lenovo) and the other running Windows XP (the HP). This situation presented me the opportunity to try out the Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix OS on the HP Mini.

The HP Mini 2140 is an Intel Atom based netbook and it uses a 1.6 Ghz N270 CPU. It also use the Intel 945GSE chipset with the GMA950 mobile graphics. For wireless connectivity, it utilize the Broadcom chipset. As you can see, these specifications are the same as for the Lenovo S10-2 with one major exception. The exception is the number of USB ports - only 2 is present on the HP while the Lenovo has 3. The space that would be required for the extra USB port on the HP is occupied by an ExpressCard/54 slot (with an SD cardslot immediately below it). Note that the Lenovo does not have an ExpressCard slot. It looks as if a USB hub is a must for the HP - or if a 54mm wide ExpressCard card with 4 USB ports is available, it would meet the need for extra USB ports.

In order to try out Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix on the HP Mini 2140, I purchased a brand new WD Scorpio Blue 500GB hard disk to replace the existing disk (which I carefully stored it just in case I need to use Windows XP again) in the HP netbook. I also replaced the 1GB memory stick in the HP with a 2GB stick. I also discovered that I simply could not locate a 54mm wide ExpressCard card with 4 USB ports anywhere here in Malaysia - only a 34mm wide version is available. Anyway I had a spare 4-port USB hub for use during the trial if needed. Thus armed with all the items mentioned, I then proceeded to download the ISO image of the Netbook Remix from the Ubuntu web site and a CDROM was created using Brasero (a CDROM burning software) on the Lenovo with an external CD burner attached. Instructions was also available on the download web site on how to create a USB drive for installing UNR from it. Just in case something happens to the external CDROM drive for the netbook, I also created the install USB drive.

I then proceeded to install the Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Remix on the HP Mini 2140 netbook. Happily, it was a success. The installation will be described in the next part of this blog ... stay tuned.