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Making do with the iguana

November 4, 2013 1 comment

Ken Starks, my good friend in the Lone Star State, was firmly plopped into a predicament recently when SolusOS sadly suspended operations. We’ll look at Ken’s solution in a minute, but I wanted to give the passing of SolusOS its due: I tried it, liked it, I thought Ikey Doherty was on the right track and, sadly, I find it incredibly unfortunate that there were not enough hands on deck to keep the distro going.

So Ikey suspended operations. Perhaps someone will pick up the ball and run with it, but that remains to be seen.

On several occasions, I’ve given this assessment of how distros thrive or die: In short, I’ve said that distros live and die by their quality and what they have to offer; the better ones keep going, and the not-go-good ones atrophy to varying degrees before becoming obsolete.

I was wrong, and I apologize now, when I said only bad distros go by the wayside. I’ve changed my tune accordingly.

Sometimes good distros get suspended in the limbo of closing up shop due to various reasons — life changes by the lead developers and/or higher-ups, a shrinking community that cannot maintain the distro because, well, there are only 24 hours in a day, or any other reasons that a distro stops moving forward.

SolusOS falls under this category, just as Wolvix did several years ago (shortly after I reviewed it here — hopefully that is a coincidence). Wolvix, a Slack-based distro, was developed by a single lead developer and had, for all intents and purposes, one of the best control panels I’ve ever seen in a distro — an excellent control panel I haven’t seen since.

Anyway, back to Ken’s predicament: I know that Reglue, the Austin outfit that keeps Ken out of trouble while he supplies underprivileged kids with Linux boxes in the area, was planning to use a verison of SolusOS for its hardware, along with the educational respin of Linux Mint 13/Cinnamon by Randy Noseworthy (no, he and I are not twins, as someone suggested recently, though we have never been seen in the same place at the same time) and also with the Zorin 6.4 educational spin.

Not anymore: Ken writes very eloquently, as usual, here and finds that the next candidate up for the kids in Austin with the Reglue hardware is OpenSUSE: Education-Life.

That’s a good call. OpenSUSE does not get the skylit, red-carpet adoration and accolades many think it deserves, but it consistently puts out a solid distro with a solid community. Also, since Ken is a keen observer on distro quality and ease of use (or lack thereof), it’s a great endorsement for OpenSUSE for Reglue to be at the top of the list.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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ZaReason Alto 3880: The honeymoon continues

May 22, 2012 6 comments

When I reviewed the ZaReason Alto 3880 earlier this year, I liked it so much I got one, and I told Cathy and Earl Malmrose of ZaReason that I’d write my impressions of the Alto three months later.

That was in February and now it’s May — three months hence — and I have to say that I have not had one bad experience with the laptop.

To recap: Until I gave the Alto a test run, I was a dyed-in-the-wool ThinkPad guy, utilitarian to the core. All my ThinkPads — and there are several — look like NASCAR entries with their sticker-laden covers displaying the best of FOSS programs.

Since February, though, I’ve been using the Alto for hours on end on a daily basis, giving it the rigorous workout that the ThinkPads normally got when I was using them exclusively. The Alto 3880 has proved to be a very tough machine going step-for-step, measure-for-measure with the ThinkPad in all categories.

The advantage that the Alto has over the ThinkPad is that it looks good — no, it looks great — doing it.

Which of course brings me to the keyboard: As I wrote earlier, I thought the keyboard in the Alto 3880, at first touch, was a little light. With the pounding I normally give the sturdy ThinkPad keyboard, I openly worried about my heavy fingers and not-so-gentle touch on what I thought might be a less-than-sturdy keyboard. I was completely wrong about this — the keyboard is tougher than the first impression lets on, and it is one of the Alto 3880’s outstanding features. If it handles the range of tapping I give it — and it has — then it passes that test with high marks.

As I’ve written before, I’m running CrunchBang Statler on this machine and it runs flawlessly on the Alto. In the original blog, I mentioned that I had also run other distros on the Alto as well, but I choose to run CrunchBang for a variety of reasons I write about in another blog. For the unenlightened, CrunchBang — which is on the verge of releasing another version soon — is a Debian-based distro running the Openbox window manager. On the Alto, the combination of Openbox with Debian rumbling under the hood makes this laptop a digital rocket.

The ZaReason Alto 3880 is an outstanding machine that continues to earn my highest recommendation. The specs are here and, as I mentioned in the original blog item, the price is higher than you’d pay for something off the shelf at a big box like Best Buy (and, in a word, don’t!). But the Alto is worth every bit of the extra cost, and one of many features that ZaReason offers is that they provide a wide variety of distros to choose from on their hardware — though I don’t use it often, I understand Linux Mint would be a good off-the-shelf choice — and they even will install a distro at your request.

Like — oh, I don’t know — CrunchBang, if you ask for it.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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This is Strata!

February 15, 2012 9 comments

There is only one word to describe the speed, style, and power of the ZaReason Strata 6880 laptop.

Damn!

First things first: This laptop is wide — a 15.6-inch-screen-wide-in-high-definition wide — and it is powerful, to the tune of the test model’s Intel i7 Quad-core with 8 threads running at 2 GHz. The 8GB of memory below the keyboard coupled with the Nvidia GTX 540M video card make this a well rounded machine for, well, just about anything. The width of the laptop — oh, it still fits on my lap because that itself is wide, too — allows the laptop to have a full keyboard that includes a number pad on the right.

For something this fast and powerful, you should probably have a license of some sort — a pilot’s license comes immediately to mind.

As mentioned yesterday in my review of the ZaReason Alto 3880, my current ThinkPads come in the basic black. This laptop, too, comes in basic black, but it’s a shiny, slick black as opposed to a staid, utilitarian black favored by IBM and then Lenovo. In terms of black, if the ThinkPad makes you think of a limousine, the Strata 6880 in turn makes you think of the Batmobile.

Strata 6880’s strengths

Originally, I thought that for a laptop, this was kind of big — maybe wide would be a better word to describe it. Sure, I have a wide lap, as I mentioned before, but for something this size? Anyway, it only took an hour or two to become accustomed to the extra witdth in screen real estate — a bonus on a machine like this that’s so nimble and quick. Multiple windows are a snap here and there’s a lot less promoting and reducing when working on multiple projects simultaneously. And the screen: a crystal-clear LCD display with a 1980-by-1080 footprint shows whatever I choose to bring up with a clarity bordering on perfect. This comes in handy especially when watching DVDs or streaming video — which you can do while working on other things (why would you? I don’t know, but for the sake of testing this machine, the Strata 6880 handled everything I had thrown at it) . Not only does the streaming audio/video come across clear and uninterrupted while working on other things, the performance was nothing short of remarkable. I would imagine that most of the graphics performance would have to do with the Nvidia video card, that seems to handle things easily.

Like in yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 ran three different distros: Linux Mint 12, Fedora 16 and CrunchBang Statler. It ran each perfectly and, with the addition of Flash on Fedora in the post-install, everything ran as it should out of the box. If you’re wondering, I did spend extra time with Fedora, only because I wanted to give some extra time to GNOME 3 and, while I can see some of its advantages now working on a machine that will run it, personally speaking that desktop is not for me. As for Linux Mint, MATE and Cinnamon ran quite remarkably, and my home distro — CrunchBang — was flawless and fast on this hardware.

There are times when using the Strata 6880 that I feel like I am driving a Testarossa to go to the grocery store and back. I don’t mean this as a slight — the capabilities and potential for this machine are far wider that what I would use it for. What I’m currently using it for is this — Web stuff (including streaming audio and video), a little testing (though most of that is done on a desktop), correcting photos in GIMP, making and running presentations in LibreOffice Impress (which worked well, by the way), and watching DVDs. This laptop, though, does make me want to break out the Blender book again and give that program another shot, maybe seeing what more the laptop can do.

Still, when I was running multiple programs like GIMP, LibreOffice and streaming a video, the warmest the Strata 6880 got was 54 degrees C — doing the same thing with the ThinkPad usually get the temperature up to the 70s (though, kids, don’t try this at home). All of which is to say that the laptop does all the work thrown at it and seems to look for more.

I understand that the Strata 6880 can be a gaming platform, and I would believe it judging by the high performance. I don’t “game” — I may have game, but I don’t usually play on the computer — so I didn’t try it out the gaming side of things. But with the current setup, it would not surprise me that games would be an easy fit for this laptop.

Needs improvement?

To be honest, I had a few qualms about the wide screen at first, but they quickly subsided as soon as I started getting used to the width and found I could put it to good use. Like the Alto 3880, it has the same single-button-on-a-fulcrum setup where you push either side of the single button to get the left/right mouse button, and having a separate left- and right-button mouse set up on the laptop is more of a personal preference than anything. Unlike the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 had a stiffer keyboard which was more to my liking, so it gets high marks there. One thing that could be a reflection of how much I was using the machine unplugged moreso than anything — and I don’t think it’s a “need improvement” item, but some might: I only got a little over two hours of battery time while unplugged, but again it was while multiple programs — including streaming video — were running. To be honest, I’m never more than two hours away from an electrical socket, so battery life is not a big issue with me.

A final look

As I said a couple of days ago, I don’t have a ranking system — I still don’t, even after yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880 — but I would give the Strata 6880 the highest marks across the board for design and performance. Looking more closely at the machine itself and judging by the firmness of the keyboard, the laptop also feels durable. My only regret in having this laptop for several days is that I couldn’t make it break a sweat — again, the activities I normally do in my day-to-day digital life include the typical Web stuff augmented by some Web and photo work, some software testing for programs that are not terribly complex and a lot of LibreOffice, either writing or using Impress. Also, as I mentioned yesterday, I can’t emphasize enough how important considering a purchase from a Linux hardware vendor is, and apparently the differences in prices are not as much as I thought: After a trip to Best Buy in Capitola yesterday, the difference in price between this laptop and others like it is marginal. The $849 base price for the Strata 6880 is about $50 less than a comparable HP laptop with similar specs on the showroom floor at $799. So if this is in your price range, the Strata 6880 is a good buy.

Of course, the worst part of this process now comes with me having to pack up these laptops and send them back to Berkeley. Thanks, ZaReason, for allowing me a chance to give these two laptops the once-over, and thanks, too, for making such great Linux-based hardware.

Specs as tested

Screen: 15.6-inch bright glossy LCD display at 1920-by-1080 pixels
Processor: Intel i7-2630Q 2 GHz, Quad-core, 8 thread
Memory: 8GB DDR3-1333
Graphics card: Nvidia GTX 540M 2GB
Hard Drive: 128 GB SSD
Optical Drive: CD-RW/DVD-RW
Audio: Speakers above the keyboard for quality sound output
Wireless: #WZF B/G/N
Reader: 3-in-1 card reader — SD/MMC/MS supported
Camera: 1.3 Megapixel webcam included
Ports: HDMI and VGA monitor ports; Gigabit Ethernet port; 2 USB 2.0 ports; 1 USB 3.0 port
Operating System: Your choice from a variety of Linux distros, or no operating system
Battery: Six-cell battery
Weight: 5.51 pounds
Basic price: $849
Price as tested: $1,426

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Hello, I must be going

February 1, 2012 1 comment

It’s a very busy week among with redwoods in Felton, not the least of which had a Monday visit from the UPS delivery guy with two — count ‘em, two — ZaReason laptops to test. Sadly, that’s not the biggest reason that I’m busy — a new refrigerator comes today and we’ve had to carve a path from the door to the kitchen to get it in the house (though, interestingly, the refrigerator is by a window we can take out . . . hmmm), adjusting furniture to make a clear path. Oh, and I’m starting the media machine going for Linux Fest Northwest — you’ll be hearing a lot more about that as time goes on.

Therefore, in the words sung by the immortal Groucho Marx, “Hello, I must be going . . . .”

But before I do — you didn’t think you’d get away that easy, did you? — a couple of things:

Open palm, insert face: I haven’t had a chance to weigh in on Canonical’s new HUD, the (ahem) Head-Up Display — head-up what, exactly, is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. Without going into detail, I don’t see it as progress or innovation if I have to type something in a field where previously I had to just click on an icon. Maybe Steve, er, Mark Shuttleworth does, but it wouldn’t be the first time he and I have disagreed (incidentally, I’d like someday to agree with something Mark does. Maybe someday). What’s next, the progress or innovation of using a green monochrome screen? I’ll try it — HUD, not the monochrome screen — but from the looks of it, it doesn’t deserve the “oohs” and “aahs” it’s been getting — maybe a disengaged “hmmm” at the most. But we’ll see.

All work and no play: As mentioned earlier, ZaReason sent me a pair of laptops — the Alto 3880 and the Strata 6880 — to put through their paces and give them a review. I was going to swear off reviews after the last one I did, but I reconsidered. They’re currently running Linux Mint with the MATE desktop — very interesting — and there’s a better than excellent chance we’ll have Fedora, CrunchBang and other distros on the HDs before the week is out. Plus, as a bonus, my daughter Mimi is also going to give a review of the laptops as well, since she’s using the one I’m not using, and when she’s done with it we’ll swap laptops. These reviews come sometime next week, probably around Wednesdayish.

Ruh roh: Time to bring a refrigerator up a flight of stairs.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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That’s my name, don’t wear it out

December 30, 2011 6 comments

Katherine Noyes put together a brief piece for PC World today about Linux release names which, overall, she seems to consider “silly.” In the process, she omits a great bit of detail on the “what” and “why” aspect of distro communities and how they come up with these “silly” names.

Digitally speaking, from a purely anthropological standpoint it is far from silly, and actually it’s quite an interesting topic, though Noyes seems to race through it without giving much detail.

So let me help out here.

SCALE 10XDebian: Release names come from “Toy Story.” As humorous as it is simple, this naming convention is one of the best. An interesting corollary to this is the Debian-based CrunchBang naming convention mirrors the first letter of the current Debian release, but matches it with a character from “The Muppet Show.” So Debian “Squeeze” is translated in CrunchBang to “Statler. “Wheezy” begets “Waldorf.” Statler and Waldorf, of course, are the two old guys in the balcony in “The Muppet Show.”

Linux Mint: I particularly like the naming convention Clement Lefevbre has come up with for Linux Mint. It’s alphabetically a woman’s name ending in “a.” We’re at Julia now. I asked Clement once what he’d do when he got to “Zelda” (or whatever the “Z” name will be for Linux Mint when they get that far . . . and they will), and he said that it was simple: Start with a name beginning with “A” and end the name in “e.”

Ubuntu: We all know the drill here — SABDFL* Mark Shuttleworth comes up with an adjective and an animal with the same first letter and hands it down to a waiting community. Which is in complete contrast to . . .

Fedora: There is a formula here that the Fedora Project adheres to before all hell breaks loose and fistfights break out in the Fedora community while they vote on the release name. The formula is simple: “$CURRENT_RELEASE_NAME is a (whatever it is — i.e., city, body of water, person, thing) and so is $NEXT_RELEASE_NAME.” Looking at Fedora 15 “Lovelock” to the current Fedora 16 “Verne,” it goes like this: James Lovelock was a futurologist, and so was Jules Verne. Now how they got from Verne to Fedora 17’s “Beefy Miracle” is a mystery for the ages.

OpenSUSE: OpenSUSE’s naming convention . . . does OpenSUSE even have a naming convention for releases?

Got a distro that has a naming convention worthy of mentioning? Let me know.

*Self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, for those of you keeping score at home.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office.)

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Five for Friday

December 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Whew. Wrapping up the week after a 24-hour power outage in the wake of 70 mph gusts here in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Wednesday and Thursday, we have the following tidbits:

Speaking at SCALE: The SCALE team has been busy putting together the Southern California Linux Expo — that’s SCALE 10X for those of you keeping score at home (and, as Giants play-by-play guy Duane Kuiper once added, “but why would you?”) — and they’ve finalized the speakers for the sessions in the three-day first-of-the-year Linux expo in North America. It’s a good lineup — yours truly had a talk accepted, and I know for sure that my neighbors over the hill Alison Chaiken and Akkana Peck are also in the lineup — and when the list has been finalized, we’ll announce it here as well. Of course, yours truly and darling daughter have planned another upSCALE talk which should not be missed at SCALE 10X. Registration is open — don’t wait: Click here to register. I’ll wait.

SSHHHHHHHH: Carla Schroder wrote an excellent piece on tips and tricks for OpenSSH. For the uninitiated, OpenSSH is a powerful tool that lets you run applications remotely and allows you share files without having to set up a file server. If this interests you –and even if it doesn’t — it’s worth a look.

And they all came out and said “try me”: The last few weeks have seen a tsunami of releases. November saw a flurry that included Fedora 16, the rolling release of OpenSUSE 12.1 (which, of course, begs the question: What happened to plain ol’ 12?), Linux Mint 12 Lisa and CrunchBang’s Statler. I’ve written about the latter and I’m more enamored each day with it, and I’ll get around to the others next week. Cross my heart and scout’s honor. Meanwhile, if you wanted to visit them and get a copy for your own personal test drive, no one would be happier than me.

You animal: Rikki Endsley wrote this outstanding piece on Network World entitled “Everything I Needed to Know about Linux I Learned from My Pets.” The first line: “My relationship with my motley crew of cats and dogs is similar to my relationship with Linux. In both cases, I’ve learned that patience pays off, and life is better with than without them.” Indeed.

Thinking globally, acting locally: Mother Nature is being reasonable just in time for Felton LUG to meet. As those of you locals know, we had to move the meeting to the first Saturday for November and December because of the CERT training (they are the emergency responders in crises, so we thank them and let them have our spot whenever they want) on our usual second Saturday of the month. For those of you who are still awake, Felton LUG will meet tomorrow, 2-6 p.m., at the solar-powered Felton Fire Station behind the Felton Community Center. No program this month — run what ya brung — and there could be an installfest kicking off January 2012.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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Lies, damned lies and statistics

November 25, 2011 36 comments

After awakening from a Thanksgiving-induced food coma — actually, it wasn’t that bad — most of the daily articles about Linux posted this morning by our friends in Mountain View known as Google revolved around the fact that Ubuntu is dropping like a lead zeppelin in the Distrowatch standings, while Linux Mint is surging.

Ireland 1, Isle of Man 0.

There is no surprise here, at least on Linux Mint’s part. Plus, I think it’s interesting to see how that Unity thing is working out for Ubuntu, and as I’ve said before, I’d venture to say “not very well” (which is why, as a frequent Xubuntu user, I fight the urge to be smug).

All that has been written recently about this issue would normally be interesting except for a couple of unmentioned, and glaring, caveats missing from the stories by those who are ringing Ubuntu’s death knell.

First, Distrowatch numbers are based on page visits, not downloads. Show me the downloads, and then let’s talk. Web page hits don’t tell me if people are actually downloading a particular distro and using it, or if they’re just looking at the pages for whatever reason they might. Page visits might translate into distro downloads, but they also might be visits to forums, wikis, etc., as well. So I’m not convinced this is a valid measurement.

Second, even if you were to use Distrowatch’s page-view metric as your yardstick, you’d still have to take into account that a distro’s recent new version release — Linux Mint and Fedora, while always both close to the top at Distrowatch, qualify here — gets an extra bounce in views by virtue of the fact that, well, these distros have released a new version. An increase in visits from curious folks doesn’t necessarily mean more downloads and subsequently more distro use.

In talking to others and in taking a look at the FOSS landscape lately, my sense is that the numbers for Linux Mint reflect a rising interest that is translating into new users and new community members, whether they’re refugees from Ubuntu, they’re coming over from other distros or just brand new “walk-ins” using Linux for the first time. After all, Linux Mint has done a huge service to FOSS by developing the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE) and MATE, and for that reason perhaps people are joining the ranks of the Minted. Couple that with the recent edict of Unity uber alles handed down by Ubuntu SABDFL* Mark Shuttleworth, and you have the recipe for a rise in Linux Mint at the expense of Ubuntu.

But I’d rather have more accurate data to back this up.

Show me the downloads.

*SABDFL — Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life, a moniker picked up from a recent blog item by Steven Rosenberg. Thanks, Steven.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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