Sunday, October 28, 2007

Macbook Ubuntu Woes, back to OS X

Well, for what it's worth, I've switched my MacBook from Ubuntu Linux back to OS X. Ubuntu Linux worked, but had lots of little problems:
  • The wireless driver worked, but it's range and speed was much less than under OS X. For example, sitting on the couch in my living room I got 4 bars with OS X but just two bars with Ubuntu. (Now, of course, the two operating systems could be reporting the same information in different ways. But actual network activities OS X seems faster and more reliable.)
  • The connectivity to Windows file shares is much more reliable. With Ubuntu I could not reliably use VLC to play AVI movies off of a Windows Vista file share. The AVI movies would always timeout sometime in the first few minutes of play. With OS X I have no problem.
  • I couldn't figure out how to get suspend and resume to work right in Ubuntu. As a result, battery life was not as good.
  • The trackpad never felt good. And a single-button computer will always be a second-class citizen in Linux.
  • The Linux UI experience wasn't as solid. (The fit and finish, and how much flickering went on.)
  • The UI quality of add-on applications was somewhat lacking. And the use of three or four different UI widget sets was downright confusing. To be fair, OS X and Vista have issues with this as well, but in OS X and Vista the issue is a generational one, while in Linux the issue is a civil war: there are three competing UI widget sets.
So it's back to OS X for me, for now.

A Paper Leopard

I am disappointed by the new version of Apple OS X that was released this weekend. The UI has gone backwards in several areas. In particular, the translucent menus are hard to read, and the default "space theme" wall paper is ugly. So far it feels like a service pack with a bonus backup program.

I suspect that Apple is suffering from the same problem that Microsoft was with Vista, namely  "How do you improve on a very good existing product?" In addition, I suspect the company's attention over the past year was focused on developing the iPhone, and perhaps not enough attention was paid to Leopard.

Still, I'm not sure what they could have done better -- Desktop OSs are pretty much of a solved problem.  But I suspect that as the hype wears off people will start to question whether Leopard is a significant improvement.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ubuntu Studio - nice idea, poor execution

Ubuntu Studio is a nice idea in theory, but the execution is lacking. The goal is to create a version of Ubuntu optimized for media creation by:
  • Bundling the best available open-source media creation tools.
  • Using the real-time Linux kernel, for reduced latency when mixing audio.
  • Using a desktop color scheme that doesn't make artistic people ill.
The problem is that there are a lot of rough edges:
  • By using a non-standard kernel, the release has problems supporting wireless hardware, such as the wireless hardware present on my first-gen Intel Macbook.
  • By using a cool-but-low-contrast color scheme, the UI is difficult to read on a screen-dimmed laptop.
  • Some of the bundled free content creation tools are pretty weak compared to the commercial equivalents. (I'm thinking of GIMP and Blender in particular.)
The wireless hardware support issues make this a non-starter release for me, but I enjoyed giving it a whirl.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Never trust a Doctor on how easy it is to use Linux

I recently read a positive review of Linux by a man who said he was a doctor, not a programmer, and that he found Linux very easy to set up and use.

That's great, but you have to take recommendations like that with a grain of salt. I'm not a doctor, but three of my siblings-in-law are doctors, and a fourth is a nurse, and one thing I've noticed is that medical professionals are extremely good at following technical directions. I think it's a skill that comes from how medicine is practiced -- you diagnose the patient, then apply a recommended treatment. Just like debugging a computer problem!

Maintaining Linux, like maintaining a patient's health, requires researching a scattered body of knowledge and deciding how to apply a mass of conflicting advice. Both tasks reward careful study, and exact replication of the recommended treatment. For doctors this way of working is second nature, but I don't think laymen will find it so easy.

Customizing Ubuntu 7.10 on Macbook

I've been tearing down and reinstalling Ubuntu 7.10 all weekend, trying to get wireless video playback to work well. Here's my list of tweaks, all of which are unrelated to wireless video playback:
  1. I personally like the Edubuntu 7.10 distribution more than the stock Ubuntu distribution. Edubuntu has a nicer default visual theme and some nice educational games.
  2. Apply customizations from the MacBook Ubuntu Forum
    1. I just set up my keyboard so that the lower Enter button acts as the right mouse button.
  3. Make text better:
    1. System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts:Subpixel Smoothing
  4. The Google Toolbar for Firefox has a bug where bookmarks won't load. A work-around is to use the Synaptic Package Manager to install libstdc++5 and its dependencies.
  5. In order to get the keyboard "Mute" button to work, open System:Preferences:Sound and select all the channels in the "Default Mixer Tracks" list. (Hold down the Control key while clicking on each channel.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I've Installed Ubuntu 7.10 Final on my Macbook

I was up early this morning to get the Ubuntu 7.10 final release. I used the Ubuntu torrent (1700 downloaders) to download the file, and had the ISO image within an hour. Pretty neat!

In theory I didn't actually need to install Ubuntu 7.10 final. In theory it would be just as good to start with a late release candidate and apply patches. But I wanted a clean start.

I did run into an odd glitch during the install: the Macbook LCD display was corrupted when I first booted up off the LiveCD. I did a cold reboot and all was well. Go figure.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Comparing the Microsoft and Google tool chains

About six months ago I left Microsoft for Google. One of the big differences between the two companies is the tool chains that they use. Microsoft mostly uses its own tools, many of which they also offer to sale to third parties, while Google uses mostly open-source tools. I thought people might be interested in seeing the differences. Note that my experience may not be representative of most Microsoft or Google employees, because I was not working in the main-line part of Microsoft (I was in the Xbox team), and I am not currently working in the main-line part of Google. So in both cases I am not familiar with the specialized tools that each company has developed for doing its mainline work.

Here's a table comparing the tools I used at each company:

Tool
Microsoft
Google
Opinions
IDE
Visual Studio
Eclipse 3.3
I give Visual Studio the edge on debugging UI and IntelliSense. But Eclipse has some nice features, such as showing errors in the scroll bar.
Languages
C++, C#
C/C++, Java
Microsoft C++ is better than Gnu C++, and C# is better than Java. But it's a 10% difference, not a 100% difference.
Build System
NMAKE
GNU make
GNU make's better -- at least it seems to take less code to implement fancy build rules.
Source Code Control System
Internal tool (similar to perforce)
perforce
It's a wash - they're both very similar to each other.
Bug tracking
Internal tool "Project Studio"
Internal tool "Buganizer"
Google's system has more integration into email. For example, if a bug is opened against you, you get an email, and if you reply to the email your reply is automatically appended to the bug report.

Also, Google's system is web-based, which makes it more convenient to use.
Email
Outlook 2007
gmail
Overall I like gmail, but Outlook does have one feature I really miss: I set up a special folder for all the "checkin mails", that was sorted by name. This made it very easy to scan through people's checkins. gmail only allows mail to be sorted by time, which is less convenient for scanning checkin mails.

I'm pretty sure that Google gives employees more email storage space than Microsoft does, but I don't remember the exact numbers at Microsoft. I do know that after 6 months at Google I'm at 1% of my quota, whereas at Microsoft, after 10 years, I was always bumping up against my quota limit.
Web Browser
Internet Explorer
Firefox
Firefox has some great plug-ins, such as Ad Blocker Plus. but IE had the edge on printing and stability.
Office Suite
Office 2007
Google Docs
Office 2007 has a superior UI and far more features. Google Docs is "good enough" for programming docs, and I like the web integration very much.
OS
Vista Ultimate
Mac OS / Ubuntu Linux
I like Ubuntu a lot more than I thought I would. I like Mac OS a lot less than I thought I would. And Vista is fine, too.
Hardware
Dual-Proc Xeon x 2, no laptop
Quad-Proc Xeon, Dual Proc Xeon, Macbook Pro laptop
Google is more generous with hardware, especially in giving most employees their own laptops. And of course Microsoft only gives Mac hardware to people who write Mac apps.
Screens
Dual 1280x1024 21" CRTs
Single 30 inch 2560 x 1600 LCD or two 24-inch 1920 x 1200 LCDs
I love the large LCD screen. Actually I disliked the Microsoft CRTs so much that I went out and bought a 20 inch 1600x1200 LCD with my own money. For $800 (that was a few years ago, when they first came out.)
Office Space
Large private office with a window
Small desk in shared 8-person interior office. No window.
Having a private office is nice, but there are advantages to sharing an office with people who work on the same project. Google issues noise-canceling headphones to help reduce distractions. I'd have to say that Microsoft has the edge here, but Google is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

Overall I'd say the two tool chains are roughly equivalent. I found it pretty easy to transition. I was productive at Google after just a few days of training. By far the biggest qualitative difference is due to the giant HP 2560 x 1600 LCD monitor I'm using now. It's wonderful to have so much contiguous desk space. To be fair to Microsoft, I believe that new employees at Microsoft are now being issued 20" 1600 x 1200 LCDs, and many programmers manage to scrounge a second LCD. But Google's much more generous at outfitting programmers with hardware than Microsoft.

Laptop buying advice

A friend recently asked me for advice on buying a laptop for a college student. Here's the advice I gave them:

These days laptops from different companies are all pretty similar. They use roughly the same parts, and are built in exactly the same Chinese factories. So I would try to figure out roughly what configuration you wanted, and then shop for the best deal, pretty much ignoring the manufacturer.

The first decision, and the only one where the manufacturer matters, is whether you want a Macintosh or a non-Macintosh. The benefits of a Mac are:
  1. Great support if you happen to live near an Apple Store.
    1. Check if you do by looking here: http://www.apple.com/retail/
  2. Macs are fashionable.
  3. Macs can run Apple software in addition to regular Windows software.
  4. Macs have good resale value. (Although laptops in general are very fragile, so it's likely that your laptop will break before you resell it.)
The disadvantages of a Macintosh are:
  1. About 30% more expensive than other brands, especially if you get the other brands on sale. Macs never go on sale.
  2. It is more awkward to use a Mac for Windows software than other laptops. This is due to
    1. The Mac not having a built-in right mouse button.
    2. You have to go through extra steps to buy and install the Windows operating system.
I currently own a MacBook and I also use a MacBook Pro laptop at work. I bought the MacBook because I thought it was pretty, and I wanted to experiment with using Apple software. I like it -- it is a good compromise on size, performance, cost, and so on.

I especially like the service I get from the Apple Store. I live about 2 miles away from the Bellevue Apple Store. I have had two problems with my Macbook since I bought it:
  1. My kids pulled off several of the keys, and even lost three. The Apple Store gave me replacement keys for free, and even put them on the keyboard for me, also for free.
  2. The laptop battery stopped working. In this case the Apple Store gave me a new battery ($100 value) free, no questions asked.
I also use a Macbook Pro loaned to me by my work. They give people a choice between a Macbook Pro and a Leonovo Thinkpad T60. I'd say the split is about 50/50 on which notebook people choose. The Leonovo Thinkpad line, formerly made by IBM is one of the best "no nonsense business computer" laptop lines. They have especially good keyboards.

The Macbook Pro is much larger than the Macbook. It is also much heavier. I find both notebooks are good, and I don't think the Macbook Pro, at around $2500, is 2.5 times better than the Macbook, at around $1000. If it were my own money, I would buy the Macbook rather than the Macbook Pro.

As for non-Macintosh laptops, I would look for a laptop with these features:
  • A good keyboard
  • Built in wireless networking
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • A good screen (bright and easy to read.)
  • 40 GB hard disk
  • CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drive
  • Weight around 4 to 5 pounds.
  • Doesn't get too hot in use, has a quiet fan
  • Price around $800 to $1200
If given a choice between several models with different speeds of CPU, I would choose the cheapest/slowest, because all of the CPUs are really fast these days.

And I would be happy to buy a slightly older laptop model on sale. Laptops typically are only sold for 6 months, they are then replaced by a slightly better model. When a model is replaced, it often goes on sale at a good price.

I would consider laptops by pretty much any brand. And I think I would try to see the laptops in person before buying, as that's the best way to judge whether the screen looks good, or the
keyboard is comfortable to type on.

One frustrating thing about laptops is that the build quality varies greatly from model to model, even within the same company. So just because one model is reliable, doesn't mean another similar model from the same company will be reliable.

A good web site for laptop review information is http://www.notebookreview.com/

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Learning about Git

Lately I've been learning the git source code control system. It's a distributed version control system, which means there is no central repository. It's especially good for working on multiple branches.

Everyday GIT with 20 Commands

Alas, currently it doesn't work well on Windows. (Due to many of its utilities being written in a hodge-podge of Unix shell scripts. Pretty lame. If they'd just used C, Perl, or Python it would have been very easy to port.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Linux Guide for Windows Users

A nice overview of Linux for Windows users. It's a little bit dated, but still contains lots of good advice:

http://www.psychocats.net/essays/linuxguide

He has a number of good Linux-related essays on his site, it's worth poking around.

Linux in a Windows-centric home network

I was a happy Microsoft employee for many years, and as a result, I run multiple Windows Vista machines at home. My family and I are happy with the system, especially the Vista Media Center / Xbox 360 combination that we use as our Digital Video Recorder, so I'm in no hurry to try and replace my Windows servers with a Linux ones.

This leaves my poor Ubuntu 7.10 Macbook as something of the odd man out. Over the past few weeks I've been learning how to configure it to work with my mostly Windows network.

Wireless Networking

This worked out-of-the-box. If I recall correctly, I had more trouble connecting to my home wireless network when running Apple Macintosh OS X 10.4.

Hah, for what it's worth, my wireless router is a Linksys router that's running Linux, so effectively there's no Windows involved. But I wanted to mention that wireless networking and Internet connectivity worked well out-of-the-box.

Connecting to a Windows Vista File Share

Here's where I ran into my first problem. It turns out that there are multiple ways of connecting to a Windows server in Linux/Ubuntu, and they don't all work reliably. I found that the UI-based way, using the Ubuntu "Places" menu, didn't work for me. I could connect to my windows server, and view the server's directories, but I couldn't reliably read the files. Accessing files was very slow, and reading large files would always time out.

I was able to access my Windows Vista shares by following these instructions:
Mounting Windows Shares in Ubuntu <-- allowed me to read my Window shares.
Permission issues with smb and cifs <-- allowed me to delete files on my shares.

The downside of the command-line approach is that you don't get a nice icon on your desktop, you have to navigate to /mnt/myshare/... yourself. But it's reliable. You can partially work around this by creating a symbolic link from your desktop to your share. The reason this is a partial work-around is that Nautilus will think that the resulting directory is a "local" directory, so it will try to do i/o intensive things like create preview icons. Oh well.

For what it's worth, the reliability problem with the default way of accessing Windows shares seems to be due to Ubuntu using the older, out-of-date smbfs system instead of the more modern cifs system. You'd think a hip, happening OS like Ubuntu would fix this problem, but it's a long-standing one, so I guess it hasn't made it to the top of their priority list yet.

Windows Printing

This was easy.
  1. First I shared out my printer on my Windows Vista machine. (I never bothered to do that before.)
  2. Then on my Ubuntu machine I choose the System:Administration:Printing menu item.
  3. Clicked on the New Printer icon
  4. Chose "Windows Printer via SAMBA".
  5. Fill in the dialog box. Use the handy "verify" button to verify that you've done it right.
  6. Click on Forward and finish the configuration.
I was pleased to find my printer's model number mentioned in the driver list. Everything worked the first time.

Linux Goes Where?

Now that I have changed jobs, I've decided to try changing blog hosts as well. Older posts can be found here: Grammerjack at Spaces.msn.com

This blog will probably have a lot of "Linux newbie" posts, as I am trying to learn Linux, after a long time away from unix systems.

I hope these posts will prove helpful, or at least entertaining.

Ubuntu 7.10 Beta Issues

I'm still getting used to using Ubuntu 7.10 beta on my Macbook.

Unresolved Bugs
  • The bottom task-switcher bar sometimes disappears.
  • Firefox doesn't quit cleanly - it always crashes.
    • No big deal, this just means that I need to deal with a "do you want to restore" dialog every time Firefox starts up.
  • Macbook Audio can't be muted.
    • This appears to be a long-standing Ubuntu / Macbook bug, due to the way Macbook audio muting is implemented. Someone needs to write a driver, and unfortunately audio driver writers don't seem to care much about Macbook laptops.

Resolved Bugs
  • Support for a one-button trackpad
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Use synaptic to install the mouseemu package to allow F11,F12 buttons to emulate middle and right mouse clicks.
  • Phantom button clicks while moving the mouse:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Mouse:Touchpad
    • Un-check "Tap to Click".
    • Choose Close.
  • Problems connecting to Windows Vista Printers and Windows Vista Shares:
  • Enable Cleartype-like nice looking anti-aliased fonts:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts
    • Choose "Subpixel Smoothing".
  • Enable Java:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Install sun-java6-jdk
  • Enable Flash:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic,
    • install ubuntu-restricted-extras.
    • This installs a bunch of useful software that should be in the default Ubuntu install, but isn't due to political differences between the software authors and the Ubuntu packagers.