Fixing my Ubuntu’s Unity experience in 3 easy steps

Until Ubuntu 11.04 I kept using the Classic GNOME desktop to avoid any changes to an interface that, honestly, worked pretty well for me. However, I recently updated to 11.10 and the option was no longer available, even GNOME 3 has totally redesigned its interface. It was time to try Unity for real.

After a couple of months using it in a daily basis I found Unity is quite functional (and way more robust than previous versions) but as a long time GNOME user there were a few things I personally missed. This is how I fixed them:

  1. Made the launcher always visible. This solves 2 problems for me: 1) The launcher appears when you move the mouse to the left side of the screen and disappears when you move the pointer away to focus in an app. That works well… most of the time. However, with Google Chrome the situation is darn annoying. 2) Also, I normally have like 10 windows open across the 4 virtual desktops. If the launcher disappears you can’t immediately tell which apps are running or not. And I don’t really miss the real state the launcher occupies.
  2. Added the System Load Indicator to the top panel. I don’t miss many applets from the old GNOME days, except this one. I like to quickly see if network is up, how much memory I’m using, or the overall system load. It’d be awesome to see this port added to 12.04.
  3. Learnt some new keyboard shortcuts. A new interface brings new shortcuts and few people know them. The keyboard is your friend and can make some tasks faster than the mouse. Before 11.10, for example, I was barely using the Super key (freaking Windows logo in PCs) and now I use it all the time: to get to the launcher, show all spaces, show all windows.

This brings me to a humble suggestion to the Ubuntu team. It’s fine you change the whole interface, technology is after all the industry of change. Things can always be improved as systems evolve, however you should accompany these changes with proper training. It’d be great if you could prepare two or three short videos explaining the way you envision the main features and interactions with Unity (if they exist I haven’t found them). Then make every Ubuntu user watch them, you have a gorgeous product, let everybody know.

Installing Ubuntu 8.04.1 (Hardy Heron) in a Dell XPS M1530

Everything seems to work smoothly, except:

  • The touchpad mouse behaves like a crazy, sometimes it gets stuck at the bottom of the screen, sometimes it jumps randomly, sometimes you need more that 50 movements to cross the screen from corner to corner. It’s some kind of incompatibility with a Dell BIOS update. Solution: Add i8042.nomux=1 to the kernel options in /boot/grub/menu.lst.
  • Second thing: the wi-fi, the BCM4310 USB card is not automatically recognized. Solution: Download ndiswrapper (this, this and this, you may need another computer with Internet connection, ehem) and configure it with the drivers you can get here.

Drop me a comment if you need more info on any of these, enjoy your Dell.

Living in the cloud

A couple of days ago I got a beta invitation from Dropbox, yet another web service for storing your data in the “cloud” (up to 5 GB during the beta period, for free). Since then I’ve been using it in a daily basis and I’ve to admit it works pretty well, including the Linux client (the reason I decided to give it a try). It’s perfectly integrated with Nautilus with a dedicated Ubuntu repository to make updates easier.

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This pic is hosted in Dropbox, if you don't see it it means the service doesn't work so well :)

There are some other services out there doing the same thing like iFolder, Jungledisk, box.net (included now with the new Dell Mini) or GDrive, the eternally rumored service from Google. However, for one reason or another I never managed to get them running they way I wanted. Dropbox however seems to have got it right.

I’ll keep using S3 for large backups though, as Dropbox doesn’t look like the right tool for this. The thing is that Dropbox uses S3 as its backend but you’ve to keep a working copy of all your files with it. This is perfectly right to keep directories synchronized across different computers, but it’s not the case with backups you want to send to the cloud and forget.

Oh, I still have some remaining invitations, just drop me a line if you want one.

Re-encoding the audio of a video file

Sometimes I’ve problems adding videos to Youtube or Flickr, when the upload is done the image looks perfect but I get no audio. After some troubleshooting I’ve found it has to do with the way my camera, a Canon SD1100 IS, is internally encoding the audio track (uncompressed PCM format).

In case you get into a similar issue here you have an easy way of re-encoding the audio of a file to MP3 leaving the video untouched:

$ mencoder input.avi -o output.avi -of avi -oac mp3lame -ovc copy -lameopts q=0

The dark side of Ubuntu

In the Free Software world, well, we are quite used to enjoy freedom. For example, we do the arguable thing of having a big number of different distributions, FLOSS licenses, desktop solutions or software applications. Sometimes this is positive, they compete, they learn from each other and they try different approaches. It makes things work better.

However, sometimes we have no clue of how to use our freedom, really. Or even worse, we use it to actually limit it. You don’t believe me? Here we go:

Ubuntu Muslim Edition is a set of packages that customizes the Ubuntu distro by installing islamic software (prayer times, Quran study tool, web content filtering tool etc.) and by changing its design.

With web content filtering tool… yummy. But wait, there is more:

Along with the standard Ubuntu applications, Ubuntu Christian Edition includes the best available Christian software. The latest release contains GnomeSword, BibleMemorizer, the e-Sword Installer with Module Manager, The Word Installer, Firefox Web Browser with Bible Fox Theme and the WhatWouldJesusDownload Toolbar, and much more.

I can’t wait to install that WhatWouldJesusDownload toolbar. Please tell me this is a joke…

Update: Misfortunes always come in threes: Ubuntu Satanic Edition.

Useful gadgets: Creative Zen

A couple of weeks ago my old an reliable MP3 player… disappeared.

I was planning to buy the same player again, when I discovered that for almost the same price (70€), Creative was selling a new Zen model which seemed to have all I wanted (and more): 2GB, audio, radio, video, photos, micro, rechargeable battery… and expandable memory with external cards. I doubted for about five seconds before buying it.

Since then I’ve been using it in a daily basis and all I have to say is that it’s a very good player. The audio/video quality is fine, the battery works, the radio tunes without difficulties, and the interface is intuitive. The accompanying software is simple and useful, thanks to it I’m rediscovering podcasts (specially vodcasts) .

The problem

It doesn’t work in GNU/Linux. Or to be more precise: I haven’t found a comfortable way of using it in GNU/Linux. Creative, shame on you! It’s not recognized as an external drive. I’ve also tried KZenExplorer and Gnomad2 and I’ve got many problems. I’ll check the Ubuntu bugs database, and I’ll manually update to the latest versions. Let’s keep the fingers crossed.

The tip

The player supports several audio and video formats, but I have my media in a myriad of formats. Therefore I needed a simple way of converting any audio/video file into a format supported by Zen. This is the way to do it (in GNU/Linux):

$ mencoder [input.*] -oac mp3lame -ovc xvid -xvidencopts bitrate=-1 -vf scale -zoom -xy 320 -o [output.avi]

[It will convert any MPlayer supported format into a XviD video, with MP3 quality audio (the bitrate is calculated automatically, and the video is scaled to the size of the Zen screen to save disk space). Of course, you need to have mencoder installed. Creative provides a small tool for doing the same in a graphical way, but it’s slower, gets a poorer compression rate, and doesn’t support as many format as MPlayer.]

You can see some results below. For example, a video downloaded from Youtube:

DSC03959

A long P2P video (originally DivX):

DSC03951

And a .mov video downloaded from the Apple website ;-)

DSC03945

They all play smoothly.

All in all, I cannot be more satisfied with this gadget, specially taking into account what it costs. If you’re thinking about buying a player, I strongly recommend you to have a look at it. Apple, you have to do it much better.

Update: gnomad2 2.8.12, in Ubuntu 8.04, is detecting the player!