Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Year Blogging

As September comes to a close so does my twelfth month of writing:
Thoughts on Technology


What started off as a small page for me to post my tech tips and tricks for myself and friends has spiraled into over 50,000 unique hits a month for the the last three months. I'd just like to say thanks to all those who read regularly, if you could please drop a comment on this post letting me know who you are and why you read.

I'd also like to say thanks to Wine Reviews - they where the first ever to re-post one of my works and really generate some traffic for my page here. Thanks also to Lxer, Raiden's Realm, /r/Linux, and all the countless other places that I have found links back to my works here.

If you ever have a suggestion for something you would like to see written or would just like to say hello, please feel free to send me an email - JeffHoogland at Linux dot com

Cheers,
~Jeff Hoogland

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

LibreOffice - What it means to End Users

Open Office has been the defacto standard for open source productivity suites for some time now. It provides a high quality, free alternative to Microsoft's costly Office software and is completely cross-platform. As with many of the larger open source projects Open Office has had a corporate backer for the last ten years, up until recently that backer was Sun Micro-systems. In 2009 a software company known as Oracle bought out Sun Micro-systems (and thus all the open source projects they backed).

Yesterday the Open Office community announced they were forking the project. The results of splitting off an FOSS project means many things to many people. Most all of my friends and family, regardless of their operating system of choice, are end users of the Open Office project. As such I have been getting a few questions wondering what exactly this fork means to them:

Why should the end user care about the forking of Open Office?

Well there are a few reasons. The first and foremost thing a forking brings to the table is more choice. This means in addition to Open Office there will also be the community driven Libre Office.

Next as many in the Linux community know, forking a project sometimes creates something that is much better than the original. With Libre Office I am hoping this will also be the case. Libre Office will be software developed by the community for the community. Having a project managed by an elected panel instead of a money hungry company is favorable in the open source world.

One benefit to having a company in charge of a project is that they fund said project. While Libre Office has assembled an impressive list of supporters, it remains yet to be seen if any on this list will be contributing funds to the FOSS project. While it is true much FOSS development is done at no cost, having money to pay developers allows them to focus more of their attention on the project at hand, thus producing higher quality results (most times).

Personally I hope Libre Office takes off, but only time will tell if this fork of a major open source project will be successful.

~Jeff Hoogland

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Does Windows 7 Aero Slow Down Your 3D?

Early last week I made a post that detailed some benchmarks with Linux desktop effects being on and Linux desktop effects being off. In the case of Compiz I found that slowed 3D performance of the system on average by over 10%. Several of you dropped comments wondering if a similar performance decrease was present when utilizing Window 7's Aero feature while gaming - today I am going to set that wonder to rest.

The Test:
I am going to use Unigine Benchmarks on Winodws 7 Ultimate 64bit. This was a fresh install of Windows that had only the security updates applied to it. No anti-virus was running (or even installed on) the system. I used the latest nVidia driver for Windows (260.xx). The tests where all performed using the OpenGL rendering of the benchmarks.

The Hardware:
I'm using my same gaming rig that I've used for all my other benchmarks: Processor - Intel p9700 2.8ghz Dual Core, RAM - 4gigs of DDR3 1066, Video Card: nVidia 260m with 1gig DDR3 dedicated memory.

The Results:
I was decently surprised at the results, in fact I ran each test several times to ensure their consistency.

Heaven Benchmark -
  • Aero Off - 23.7fps, 598 Score
  • Aerp On - 23.7fps, 598 Score
Tropics Benchmark -
  • Aero Off - 31fps, 782 Score
  • Aero On - 31.1fps, 782 Score
Sanctuary Benchmark -
  • Aero Off - 36.8fps, 1562 Score
  • Aero On - 36.7fps, 1558 Score
As you can see Aero makes virtually no difference in OpenGL performance. Perhaps this might change if the benchmarks are rendered in DirectX (A benchmark for another day methinks)?

Oh and one other note, it appears Windows still benchmarks slower than almost every Linux distro I've tried.

~Jeff Hoogland

Saturday, September 25, 2010

nVidia - There is No Optimus Support for Linux

It is about the time of year when I start looking at new laptops. I am looking for something small, but powerful. I have been an nVidia faithful since I made the switch to Linux almost four years ago, as such I used to not even look at a system if it didn't have an nVidia graphics chip in it. While browsing I noticed that many of the laptops I was looking at had a new feature stamped on them called:

nVidia Optimus


What is nVidia optimus? It is a genius new method of obtaining a great battery life on a laptop with a power house graphics card. Essentially all laptops that are "optimus enabled" have two graphics chips in them - one nVidia and one Intel based. If you are familiar with hardware then you will know that Intel chips, while having worse 3D performance than nVidia, offer much lower power consumption. Optimus allows the system to switch seamlessly between the Intel chip and the nVidia chip when you go from normal desktop usage to intense 3D -

Well it does on Windows anyways.

I've been working with Linux long enough to know that just because it works on Windows does not mean it is going to work on my operating system of choice as well. Unfortunitly this is currently the case with the nVidia optimus technology. To quote an nVidia representative from their user forums:

"We have no plans to support Optimus on Linux at this time."

Guess what? That statement was seven months ago now (February of 2010) and nVidia has been quite on the situation since then. This is really a shame, nVidia has had a dominant hand in the Linux market because of their superior drivers for sometime now. I am going to be hard-pressed to continue to support a company that refuses to support their hardware on my platform of choice. Intel graphics chips might soon be the only choice for mobile Linux users if nVidia does not add optimus support to their Linux drivers soon, as more and more laptops are utilizing this new technology.

Now as with most things the commercial giants fail to pickup in the world of Linux, there is an FOSS project dedicated to dissecting the hybrid graphics systems and get them working with the FOS Nouveau project. The only problem is that if you want a quality level of 3D performance these projects are still a ways off from providing this.

I must say I am slightly torn, do I snatch up a single GPU nVidia system now - before I can no longer find them, do I wait and see if nVidia releases optimus technology for Linux, or should I just boycott the nVidia cooperation all together since they see Linux as a second class operating system?

~Jeff Hoogland

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are Your Desktop Effects Slowing You Down?

Whenever I perform a 3D benchmark in Linux one of the first questions I get asked about the results is:

Where your desktop effects turned off?

For those who are not aware, desktop effects are the "flash" that is enabled by default in many popular Linux distros (namely Ubuntu and it's derivatives) such as the wobbly windows, desktop cube, and sleek sliding effects. Something that has always been questioned is whether or not desktop effects slow down your 3D performance in other applications and if so, how much do they slow it down by?

The Test:
I am going to use Unigine Benchmarks on Pinguy OS (for Gnome) and Chakra (for KDE) with and without desktop effects enabled. Both systems are clean, fully up to date installs with the nVidia 260 beta driver installed. Gnome will be using Compiz for it's desktop effects and KDE will be using Kwin.

The Hardware:
I'm using my same gaming rig that I've used for all my other benchmarks: Processor - Intel p9700 2.8ghz Dual Core, RAM - 4gigs of DDR3 1066, Video Card: nVidia 260m with 1gig DDR3 dedicated memory.

The Results:
Lets dive into some graphs shall we?





Graphs can be hard to read exact numbers on, so here is the numerical breakdown of the results:

As you can see, desktop effect do indeed decrease your overall 3D performance. Compiz is far more detrimental to 3D scores than KDE's Kwin is. Across all three benchmarks having Compiz enabled on the system caused a 10.7% performance decrease, while Kwin only caused a 1% decrease.

So it appears that if you are going to be gaming on Ubuntu/Gnome it is worth taking the time to toggle Compiz off before loading up that game.

~Jeff Hoogland
Please note while these benchmark scores presented are accurate to the best of my abilities, they only represent my personal hardware and software configurations. Your results on your own system(s) may vary (and if they do, please share them!).

HOWTO: wxMaxima on Nokia N900

I mentioned in a post at the beginning of the year that I was attempting to get my favorite CAS functioning on my N900. I am happy today to say that it is indeed possible to run wxMaxima on your N900! The following is a short HOWTO on getting it running.

First - if you have not already done so, install the rootsh package from your application manager and enable the extra-devel repository.

Next, crack open a terminal and run the following in order:

sudo gainroot
apt-get update
apt-get install easy-deb-chroot


Next open your menu and locate the Deb Img Install icon (if you use categorize it is located under System). Upon launching this it will ask you if you want to install the Debian image to your MyDocs or your SD card - pick which ever you prefer just know that it will take up at least 2gig worth of space. Let the package download and extract, the download size is about 300megs and it takes awhile to extract (seriously, go play a video game or watch TV while it does this).

Once that has finished, open up terminal again and run:

debbie sudo apt-get install wxmaxima

Select Y when it asks you to install the packages and then let apt work it's magic. Once it is finished you can access wxMaxima by running

debbie xbindkeys && debbie wxmaxima

Now due to how the N900 keyboard maps it's keys you will need to go to Edit->Configure and check the box Enter Evaluates Cells. After doing this you should be able to enter an equation and have it be evaluated by pressing shift+enter on your N900 keyboard.


If you would like an icon for wxMaxima in your N900 menu (instead of launching it from terminal) run the following in terminal:

sudo gaintroot
apt-get install leafpad
leafpad /usr/share/applications/hildon/wxmaxima.desktop


The last line will open a blank text file, enter the following as it's contents:

[Desktop Entry] Encoding=UTF-8
Name=wxMaxima
GenericName=wxMaxima
Exec=debbie "xbindkeys; wxmaxima"
Icon=maxima-icon
X-Osso-Type=application/x-executable
X-HildonDesk-ShowInToolbar=true
Terminal=true
Type=Application
StartupNotify=true

Press ctrl+s to save the document and then close out leafpad (note you may need to restart your N900 for this icon to appear).


It's just that simple! Enjoy using your N900 as a pocket computer algebra system :)

~Jeff Hoogland
Note: I do not take credit for coming up with this method, I just reorganized the information in an easier to understand matter. The two articles I pulled information can be found here and here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Linux Out Performs Windows in OpenGL

Late last year I did a posting detailing how Windows 7 crushed Ubuntu 9.10 in the area of 3D performance. Nine months later I am happy to say:

Linux out performs Windows 7 in OpenGL benchmarks!

Using the Unigine benchmarks Windows 7 on my system obtains the following average frames per second:

Tropics - 30.5 FPS
Sanctuary - 35.2 FPS

Of all the Linux distros I recently tested, Chakra Linux performs the best in these benchmarks with the following average frames per second:

Tropics - 38.0 FPS
Sanctuary - 38.3 FPS

Whew! Chakra's scores are just higher than Windows 7s' scores and they are leaps and bounds above the level Ubuntu 9.10 performed at on my same hardware. I am always pleasantly surprised at the rapid development of technology in the world of Linux and these improved scores are evidence of just how quickly this world moves.

~Jeff Hoogland

Please note while these benchmark scores presented are accurate to the best of my abilities, they only represent my personal hardware and software configurations. Your results on your own system(s) may vary (and if they do, please share them!).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Best Linux Distro for 3D Performance

There is one question all new Linux users ask themselves at one point or another:

Which Linux distro do I want to use?

The answer to the question is different for everyone and varies depending on what you are doing with your Linux box. One thing I think many users fail to consider (or perhaps don't care about) is the level of 3D performance their distro gets. You may think that your choice of distribution does not matter in this area, but you will soon see it very much does.

The Hardware: While my hardware is not fastest in the world it is decently quick. Processor - Intel p9700 2.8ghz Dual Core, RAM - 4gigs of DDR3 1066, Video Card: nVidia 260m with 1gig DDR3 dedicated memory (Running the latest stable nVidia driver 256.53).

The Software: I used my favorite OpenGL benchmarks made by Unigine Company. The distros I am going to compare are:
All of the tests where run on clean, fully updated install of each distribution. They use the stock kernel each of the distributions provides. Desktop effects where turned off in all cases.

The Results:
Well, being a math guy, I firmly believe the numbers speak for themselves. So here are the results of the three benchmarks (higher is better - click on image to enlarge):








As you can see the scores of most of the Linux distros are fairly close (within 3% of the number one), with one exception: Ubuntu. It appears that of all the wonderful improvements Canonical has been making to Ubuntu, 3D performance is not one of them (10.10 scored higher than 10.04, but only by a small amount). It is hard to get the exact numbers by reading a histogram so here are the scores in numerical form:


Across all three tests Chakra scored the highest (With PCLinuxOS and Sabayon in close second and third). Ubuntu 10.04 was at the very bottom (over 10% behind Chakra). While I think Ubuntu is a great distro it appears that if you are a Linux Gamer, you are better off using a non-Ubuntu distro.

~Jeff Hoogland
Please note while these benchmark scores presented are accurate to the best of my abilities, they only represent my personal hardware and software configurations. Your results on your own system(s) may vary (and if they do, please share them!).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Crossover, Bordeaux, Cedega VS Vanilla Wine

A question I have fielded more then a couple times in the Wine section of the Ubuntu Forums is

What is the difference between commercial Wine products and vanilla Wine?

There are three main commercial Wine products: Bordeaux, Cedega, and Crossover. There are a few distinct differences between the commercial Wine products and the FOSS Wine.

Support:
One of the largest benefits to using a paid for Wine product is that not only are you paying for software, you are also paying for support of said software. What this means is that if an application that is suppose to function, doesn't work properly - You will have a real live person to help you debug the issue. While support for Cedega is somewhat lacking, Bordeaux and Crossover have fantastic support staff.

GUI/Automated Installer:
All three of the commercial Wine applications provide a GUI/automated installer for installing applications. This makes it much easier for new users (and faster for experienced users) to configure applications properly under Wine. Time is money as they say.

Added Application Support:
Commercial Wine products have added pieces of code that allow some applications to function better than they do under vanilla Wine. Notably under Cedega is a superior DirectX API that allows for better FPS under a few titles (as well as running Crysis). The primary piece of code Crossover adds to Wine is their custom HTML engine. This adds better functionality to Internet Explorer, Steam, and other web-based Windows applications. Bordeaux builds Wine with a few extra patches to fix bugs, as well as support for the pulse audio sound server.

Regression Resistance:
Ever had an application working perfectly under the latest beta Wine release and then have it magically stop working for some reason or another when Wine updates? That is called a regression. Commercial Wine products are tested to ensure that all of your applications that already work, will continue to do so with future releases.

Cost:

Ah, and now the the primary reason that is always brought up whenever someone mentions any sort of commercial Wine product: The Cost. I must say, my absolute favorite response is something along the lines of:

"Why would you pay for software to use on your free operating system! That goes against the very nature of Linux!"

You know what else goes against "the very nature of Linux"? Trying to run Windows applications. Odds are you paid for that Windows application as well, so if you are going to support application development on a platform you no longer use - Why not support it on your platform of choice as well? None of the products are terribly expensive. Bordeaux starts at 20$, Crossover at 40$, and Cedega starts at 15$ (but is subscription based).

If perhaps I have persuaded you to invest one of these products and you are confused on which of the three is best for you, check out my Cedega VS Crossover comparison and my Bordeaux 2.0.4 review.

~Jeff Hoogland

Friday, September 10, 2010

Chakra Linux - Distro Review

Taking a bit of a break from the many Ubuntu derivatives I have been playing with of the late, I came across Chakra Linux 0.2.1 on distrowatch's feed late last week. The Chakra project started off as a derivative of Arch Linux. It was a modular KDE Live CD with some extra tool sets to make setting up and using Arch Linux less of a hassle.


Notice the careful usage of the word was in my last sentence. The current alpha build you can download of Chakra is in a transitional phase between being simply an Arch Linux tool set and becoming it's own full fledged distro. I'll discuss what exactly this means in a few moments, for now lets take a look at using the LiveCD and installing the operating system.

Chakra currently comes in LiveCD format that is a free 725~ meg download. After I ripped the image to a CD and restarted my computer the Chakra disc loaded right up. I must say for an Alpha release I was very impressed with how much polish the start up already contained. Before the system actually boots you are presented with two different primary boot options:
  • Boot with all Free Drivers
  • Boot with non-Free Drivers
My system contains an nVidia graphics chip, so selecting "non-Free Drivers" caused the Live CD to install the closed source nVidia drivers automatically - this is something I personally like - if you are a FOSS Extremist selecting "all Free Drivers" will use the nv driver for an nVidia graphics card (both of which auto detected and configured my monitor resolution to it's correct 1680x1050).

When the system finally boots up you are presented with a fairly standard KDE 4.x desktop:

If you look closely at the above screen shot you will notice two files containing some very useful information. The first is a packages files that contains a list of all the packages preinstalled on the live system, as well as their version numbers. The second is a Passwords.txt that lists the default password for the live user and the root account on the live disc.

The Chakra installer has got to be the best looking Linux installer I have ever used:


I think my favorite part about it is the sleek looking globe you choose your time zone from:


The installer worked flawlessly for me, however I had already partitioned off space for Chakra when I installed another distro. I mention this because another reviewer said he had issues with the disk setup part of the installer. After the install finished I rebooted my system so I could stop using the LiveCD and start installing things. When my system came back online I was happy to see that the nVidia drivers had also been installed during the installation and my KWin desktop effects where working like a charm.

The default software selection Chakra ships with is kinda sad, no music player, no torrent client, no screen shot program, no image viewer and no office make very slim pickings. If you head to the CLI (pacman currently) or CInstall (GUI interface for Pacman) to try and resolve this issue you will notice that many of your common Linux packages are nowhere to be found. This is because as I said before, Chakra is in a transitional phase. Have no fear though! Just a download away, hosted on the Chakra homepage, are piles of "click n run" installers. The "click n run" installers work fantastically and once they are integrated into Chakra's package management system I think they will rival even DPKG. After you download a "click n run" installer, which will be either .cb or .tar.xz extension, you simply double click on the file and it will ask for your password before installing the package and any dependencies it may require. I installed both Firefox and OpenOffice in this manner and they worked with zero issues.

I only have a few small complaints about this current release of Chakra and I am sure they will be resolved long before the distro reaches a 1.0 release. The first is that even though my system does not contain bluetooth capabilities, the KDE bluetooth widget was loaded. The second is that as with most KDE distros, the built in network manager worked very poorly (even though it is the new plasma widget). My third and final issue, is that even though the nVidia drivers installed the nvidia-settings package automatically, this package requires GTK to function. Meaning it failed to load until I installed the gtk2 package via pacman.

Even though Chakra is a very young distribution, it has quickly become my favorite non-Ubuntu based distro. I think we will see some great things from the Chakra team before a 1.0 release of the distribution. This is definitely one worth trying if you are looking for a new distro the play around with.

~Jeff Hoogland

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Key to a Successful Linux Conversion

People are resistant to change. This is a fact and it is not going to change any time soon. Because of this they will not want their entire computer to change on them all at once. An important fact that a lot Linux Advocates miss is that the conversion to Linux starts on Windows or OSX.

A beautiful things about FOSS is that a good deal of the applications run on Windows, OSX, and Linux. The key to a successful Linux conversion is slowly replacing the productivity software a person uses on their operating system with FOSS alternatives. To most a computer is simply a tool. Meaning if a person is not able to accomplish their task(s) using the FOSS software then maybe Linux is not such a good idea. If this turns out to be the case, reverting back to the old software they used before is as simple as reinstalling an application (instead of reinstalling an operating system). If a person is able to use the FOS applications with out issues (and I've found most times they can) then your conversion is half over.

Once they become accustomed to using Firefox, OpenOffice, The GIMP, and other wonderful FOS applications changing the operating system these run on is simply a minor inconvenience (Most people don't even know what an operating system is, many think "Office" and "Windows" are the same thing). Finally when you do change the operating system on the computer to Linux, do your best to setup the GUI to look similar to the operating system that was on the system previously (Zorin 3 has skins that allow it to look WinXP, Windows 7, and OSX fairly well). If there are enough similarities most users will be able to make the change without complaint.

What do you think the key is to someone being able to successfully make the jump to Linux?

~Jeff Hoogland

Windows vs Ubuntu Release Cycle

I started writing this article but then felt it's point could be better represented in comic form (click to enlarge):


While it does not address how all Linux distributions release, I think you may get my point. Most people fall into one of the following for their operating system upgrades:

  • Upgrade to New Release Every 6 monthsish (Fedora isn't always on time)
  • Upgrade to a new LTS every two years
  • Upgrade to a new Windows version... Well, whenever the next one comes out!
  • Upgrade Windows? Pff, XP is support till 2020!
  • Upgrade your operating system? I use a rolling release distro!

What is your preferred release cycle for a operating system?

~Jeff Hoogland

Thursday, September 2, 2010

LiveText - A Cross Platform Online Education System

In the last couple months I have posted my disgust about two different online education systems that are being used at various colleges around the United States. My dislike for these systems stems from the fact that even though they are web based, they do not adhere to Web Standards. This means that they are not fully accessible on FOS operating systems as they should be.

Too often in the world in which we live only the negative things in life get attention drawn to them. That is why today I would like to talk about an online education system that is accessible to all students, not just those running Microsoft Windows. The service is called LiveText. Now while LiveText is not FOSS it does function (as all sites should) with an FOS browser. In fact if you look under their FAQ Firefox is their recommend browser for viewing the website.

LiveText provides all the key functions you need from an online education system:
  • Turning in Assignments
  • Grading Assignments
  • Discussion Boards
  • File Downloads/Hosting (for syllabus and the such)
LiveText also has a fairly decent online document creator, that largely resembles Google Docs, so students can create files right in their browser. In addition to all that I listed above LiveText allows you to easily create an "e-portfolio" of all the documents you have assembled on the website.

So if you are an educator looking for a platform to teach your online class through (or an administrator at a school that make the decision for many) I implore you to choose LiveText or another system that supports all operating systems (Not just those paying a Windows Tax).

~Jeff Hoogland

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Eight Linux Tech Tips for Beginners

If you are someone who is diving into Linux for the first time it can be a somewhat daunting task learning all the ins and outs of the operating system. We are all beginners at one point or another. The following is a list of tidbits and tips I have learned over my years working with Linux that will help you learn/maintain your Linux based operating system.

1.) If you can't find what you are looking for - ask. Odds are the Linux distribution you are trying has a community forum where you can ask a question, if you are looking for something distro-neutral LinuxQuestions.org is one of my personal favorites, or if you are looking for something a bit more "real time" #Linux over on irc.freenode.net is typically very helpful. Regardless of where you ask, please remember to ask smart questions.

2.) If something breaks, do not simply reinstall your operating system. It is worth the time to debug the issue and actually fix it. If something became messed up once, odds are it might mess up again and fixing something is typically much quicker than having to reinstall each and every time (once you know what you are doing).

3.) The following mantra describes what I think is the best way to learn the guts of your operating system "If it isn't broken, fix it until it is, find out what went wrong, and fix it" By this I mean tinker with what you can, change settings, add programs, remove programs, compile things from source, whatever it is you want to learn.

4.) If you are unsure what you want, then try as many different distributions as possible (they are free after all). Different distros use different default application sets, package managers, display managers, and many other things. Odds are you will find pieces of each distro you like and pieces you don't like. Once you have this figured out you can make an educated decision on which one is right for you.

5.) Now even though all those Linux distros are free downloads, burning hundreds of CDs/DVDs can become a costly endeavor. If your system is able to boot from a USB drive, I highly recommend picking up a 4+gig flash drive so you can use Unetbootin instead of discs.

6.) Linux is not Windows. If you are trying it with the expectation that it is a "Free version of Windows" you are going to be in for a world of frustration and disappointment. You should want to use Linux because it is a better operating system than Windows, not because it is cheaper.

7.) If you discover you love Linux and all this free software, that is great! Just do us all a favor and don't be a "Linux Zealot" As much as some of us would like it to be Linux is not the be all end all for all computer operating systems. It is not going to work for everyone. Forcing someone who does not want Linux to use it is only going to cause both of you a world of headaches. There is a right way and a wrong way to promote your operating system of choice.

8.) Finally, if you haven't already, it is time your become acquainted with the Linux Answer Machine. The reason for this is that rarely are you the first one to attempt whatever it is you are trying to do, finding someone's success (or failure) story can often save you hours of headache and hacking.

Hopefully you learned a thing or two! If you have your own tips you like to share with Linux noobies that I did not list here let me know by dropping a comment below.

~Jeff Hoogland