Going from Windows to Linux

A typical Linux Mint desktop (from ExtremeTech)

A typical Linux Mint desktop (from ExtremeTech)

I’ve recently installed Linux Mint on my laptop, replacing a horribly broken install of Windows 8.1 Preview. There have been good and bad things:

The good:

  • The Windows 8.1 Preview broke the wireless connectivity on my laptop horribly. Every time the laptop booted up or awoke from sleep, I would have to uninstall the wireless card from the device manager and then scan for new hardware to add it again. I would then have to key back in all the wireless keys for the networks I used before I could connect again. This got a bit annoying after a while. Installing Linux Mint, I had no issues with drivers or network connectivity, even with sound drivers, which is something that has plagued the Linux desktop world for years. It just works, and that is truly great.
  • With all the attention being given recently to the NSA’s spying on the citizens of the world, it’s nice using an operating system that gives you a little more protection (even if it isn’t very much more) from the spooks. I am still using many cloud services (including accounts with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple) so I still have a long way to go, but I can now PGP encrypt my mail with little effort, and should the need arise I can inspect every line of code on my system for back doors (though, it might take a while).
  • The GUI can actually be described as beautiful. While I’m a big fan of the classic Windows look (circa 2000 and XP) and I’m also a big fan of the Windows 8 Metro theming, the horrible combination of the two that most Windows 8 apps seem to have leaves much to be desired. In addition, most GNU/Linux distributions (looking at you especially, Ubuntu) have completely unusable GUIs. Linux Mint takes a beautiful looking GTK+ theme and marries it with a window manager (called Cinnamon) that is just stunning. It’s what Linux should have been like for years. And no Unity in sight.
  • Steam now works on Linux, and I can play Counter-Strike: Source again. This is a big deal, and it’s a great benefit to “Linux on the desktop”.
  • It uses Ubuntu’s package repositories, which use in turn use Debian’s awesome apt-based package management system. This gives you access to all of Ubuntu’s packages (which is a massive collection) and it uses familiar Debian configuration files. It’s a rock-solid (less stable than Debian Stable, but so are most nuclear reactors) core system.

The bad:

  • Over recent months I’ve done a lot of software development in Visual Studio. VS 2012 is a great IDE. And it has nothing that comes even close on Linux. Netbeans (my preference on Linux) is a pretty powerful IDE, but VS still blows it out of the water in every way. Similar to Evolution vs. Outlook, there are still a few killer applications on Windows that make it the default choice for getting things done.
  • Firefox and Thunderbird look ugly as sin on Linux Mint compared to Windows. I’m really disappointed as everything else is so good looking in comparison.
  • There’s no good replacement for MetroTwit. I’ve tried most of the Twitter clients for Linux, and they all suck in various ways. MetroTwit, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much where it’s at with Twitter clients. It’s awesome.

Overall, I’m very impressed with Linux Mint. If you haven’t tried a GNU/Linux distribution in a while, give it a go. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

30 Days of Geek #10: My primary computer.

I’ve decided to partake in Jethro Carr’s 30 Days of Geek challenge, so I’ll be writing a post a day on my geekiness for an entire month! You can find all the posts in one spot here.

Today it’s all about my computer. Currently I only have one computer, a laptop. This is unlike quite a few other geeks, and very unlike myself in the past. I’ve had 3 or 4 working computers, plus lots of spare parts. I now have 1 working computer, and a few spare parts.

So, this laptop. It’s an ASUS UL20A ultra-portable laptop. Halfway in between a netbook and a full-sized laptop, it’s just that perfect compromise between portability and usability.

My Laptop (UL20A)

My Laptop

Specifications:

  • Intel CPU, 1.3GHz dual-core. Surprisingly, this actually feels really snappy. It’s amazing how we’ve got used to this natural progression in computing for faster and faster, when we actually don’t need it for a lot of tasks.
  • 2GiB of DDR2 RAM. This, on the other hand, isn’t enough. As this post is being published, there’s another 2GiB in the mail, to make a new total of 4GiB.
  • 250GB SATA HDD. Plenty. My movie collection is stored on an external drive.
  • 12″ screen, 1366 x 768 pixels. It would be nice to have more (isn’t it always true?) however this much allows me to get what I need to do done. It’s also a 16×9 aspect ratio, which is very nice for watching videos.
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit. See yesterday’s post for why.
  • There are some other specifications, but I can’t remember what they are, and don’t really care.

I’ve also been told to share a screenshot of my computer. Well, here it is:

My Windows 7 laptop running PuTTY

My Windows 7 laptop running PuTTY

30 Days of Geek #9: What OS/distribution do you run?

I’ve decided to partake in Jethro Carr’s 30 Days of Geek challenge, so I’ll be writing a post a day on my geekiness for an entire month! You can find all the posts in one spot here.

My workstation runs Windows 7 Home Premium x64. The primary reason for running Windows instead of Linux is that running Windows allows me to use Outlook. Yes, Outlook is just that good. I used to do a lot of computer gaming too, which was better on Windows. Since I’ve stopped doing that (because I only have a laptop now) that’s not so much of a reason.

I run the Home Premium version of Windows simply because it came pre-installed on the laptop, and I saw no reason to upgrade. I would have upgraded to the 64-bit version had it not been pre-installed, however.

Unfortunately for all my Linux-fan friends, I don’t think Linux is the best workstation operating system for my needs. It just doesn’t fit so neatly into my mental work flow, and it gets along horribly with the other Windows machines in my house. Samba is the devil, basically.

On the other hand, I always use UNIX-based operating systems on servers. Wouldn’t dream of anything else (unless I had to create a Windows domain controller). On the servers I’ve set up, I’ve always used Debian GNU/Linux. It’s the most stable operating system I’ve ever come across, and that’s what counts. It also happens to be free software, but that’s less of a consideration for me.

The best thing about UNIX-based operating systems is not the operating system itself though, it’s the application software available for them. The best web servers all run on UNIX. Ditto for software development tools, typesetting software, text editors, command-line shells, the list goes on. Everything except for Outlook, basically. :P

A lot of the time then, you’ll find me sitting on my Windows-based laptop, with an SSH client open connected into my server so I can take advantage of all those nice tools. Firefox, Outlook, PuTTY, Pidgin… what more could a man need?

Notepad2

For the last few years I’ve been following with interest a tiny little program called Notepad2. Essentially it’s just a text editor (very similar to Notepad included with Windows), but it does have a few tricks up its sleeve.

For starters, it has syntax highlighting. And I argue, very very nice syntax highlighting. I much prefer it to other editors I have installed on my computers (Dev-C++, Visual Studio, Emacs) as well as others I’ve used in the past (GEdit, Kate). Arguably though it’s not as complex as any of these editors. In addition, it does line wrap, line numbering, and more. Pretty much every part of the editor is configurable. It also automatically detects between Windows, UNIX and MacOS 9 line endings (very useful when you swap source code between Windows and GNU/Linux).

Notepad2 editing a Patch file

Notepad2 editing a Patch file

There’s a lot of things it doesn’t do though. It’s not a fully-fledged IDE, by any means. It has no idea about projects, function parameter hinting, Makefiles, or anything like that. If you want an IDE, look elsewhere. Which is why I have Visual Studio installed. It does everything, and then some more (in a few gigabytes of disk space).

Above all else though, there is one very handy reason why I have Notepad2 installed. It’s because it can completely replace Notepad. Because Notepad2 is only a single file, like Notepad, with no other dependencies except Windows itself, it just slots in. After removing all the security on the Notepad.exe file in the Windows folder, you can just copy and paste Notepad2 in. And then all the links and file extensions pointing to Notepad just open Notepad2 instead. If this sounds pretty cool, you can learn how to do it here (XP) or here (Vista). I wish there was an installer for Notepad2 that did all this automatically; at the moment Notepad2 is just distributed as a bare executable file. But I certainly won’t be complaining too loudly.

If you’re looking for a simple editor for when a full IDE isn’t necessary, or you’re still using the default Notepad for everything (shock horror), then I’d definitely give Notepad2 a go. Even if you don’t fully replace the original Notepad, it’s still a pretty cool upgrade from Notepad.

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ExpanDrive for Windows

Recently I found a quite awesome piece of software, and I thought I’d share it with you.

ExpanDrive is basically an SFTP file system driver for Windows. What it does in plain English is turn an SFTP share on a remote computer (say, for instance, my virtual server on the other side of the world) and turn it into a drive letter on my laptop. Like so:

My Computer using ExpandDrive

My Computer using ExpandDrive

This is the first piece of software I’ve found that does this, and does it well enough that I can just click on the drive, click on any file inside the drive, and it automatically copies and opens in the appropriate application. Saving inside the application also works. For instance, I had a word document lying around on my server, so I thought I’d test it out. I opened it up just like a normal file, edited it, saved it, and so on, and it just all worked normally.

The only difference from a local drive or a Samba share is the speed at which things happen. There is a noticeable difference (to be expected, it going over several ADSL connections). Opening a text file took about half to one second, saving it about the same.

The people who make this software say that it’s “rediculously simple”. They are very right, it is. Anybody who has used WinSCP would be familiar with that software’s connection screen. ExpanDrive’s is very similar:

ExpanDrive Main Window

ExpanDrive Main Window

One bug I have noticed is that the drive usage is wrong. I know for a fact my vserver doesn’t have 12TB of storage space available (as shown in picture above). I’m actually using about 30% of 12GB, so I’m guessing they just checked total disk space wrong.

The only downside is to this software is cost. It’s $39.95USD for a single license (a license can be used for multiple SFTP shares). While it’s not a huge amount, it’s more than I’d like to pay for something like this (in my mind, this sort of thing is worth about $20USD). I haven’t bought it yet, I’m still using the trial (which lasts for 30 days). But I think I will.

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