Category Archives: Linux

Articles about Linux.

NEdit 5.02

Introduction

The bottom line is this: I’m lazy. At work I chop and change environments every few months. I usually manage to use Windows NT as my client OS. Then at the server end there’s Solaris or HP-UX. And then I go home and have Linux and Windows 95 to play with.

It gets confusing after a while. Emacs doesn’t think very much of me pressing ESCAPE-k-k-k-a when I try and put something at the end of the third line up. And Notepad is unimpressed with ^X^C when I try and quit.

No, what I needed was some consistency. ^C to cut and ^Z to undo, please and thank you.

And then out of no-where, NEdit appeared. (In all probability, it was Freshmeat, but you get the idea.)

What’s it do?

More than Vi and less than Emacs.

NEdit sit in the middle ground doing just about everything that most people want to do. It doesn’t check your mail, it doesn’t let you surf the net. But it does help you edit your text.

It will high-light the syntax of your program, and if it doesn’t know about the language that you’re using you can tell it. (I added most of PL/SQL.) It uses most of the conventions that you’ve got used to in Windows and the Mac — like ^Z to undo ^N to start a new document. I still sometime press escape at the end of a paragraph, but that’s just me being brain-washed into the ways of Vi at an early age.

To appease ‘normal’ Unix people, it is also scriptable. There’s a macro language and you can call programs from the ‘Shell’ menu. The macro language is nothing like Emacs, but does support functions and variables and seems to be able to do all the basic stuff and some of the more complex things that people want to do. (I’ve not had need to look at it in any detail, the truth be known.)

While we’re talking about configuring it, NEdit is very strong in this area. It is a little confusing at first — the obvious menu items refer to this session of NEdit rather than NEdit as a whole — but once you’ve lost all your settings a couple of times everything become clear! You can change just about any aspect of the program, from the font, it’s colour and size, through to the size of a tab character. And none of this requires the editing of a text file — it’s all menu based.

It’s all a bit too user-friendly to be a real Unix application, but I’m not complaining.

What’s wrong with it?

I’ve been using NEdit on and off for nearly six months now. I’ve used it to edit HTML, C, shell scripts, plain text, Perl and various configuration files, and there’s nothing that jumps up at me and says ‘that’s wrong!’

Okay, the help could do with being more Window-ish, but then it’s not something you have to use very much. There are some languages that don’t have syntax high-lighting built in (SQL and PL/SQL are the ones that immediately spring to mind), however there is a huge list there so I’ve probably just been unlucky — and I can add them myself if I want.

NEdit is supplied as two executables. The main one, nedit, does exactly what you’d expect. There is a second one called nc which is slightly confusing. As I understand it you should use nc most of the time. What it does it open the document with an existing copy of NEdit if there is one, and starts one if there isn’t. This is a useful feature, but I don’t understand why it couldn’t have been included as part of the main executable.

Finally, and this probably just the executable that I picked up rather than any of the author’s faults, the executables were not ‘stripped’ (meaning that it was over 200K bigger than need be). Still, it was easy to fix and it only comes in at around 2Mb, anyway (presumably with Motif libraries linked in).

Verdict

NEdit is a class application. It brings a simple to use, yet powerful editor to Unix. Since Emacs and Vi — incredibly powerful but ridiculously complex and user-hostile — still seem to be the most popular editors, this is something we need to bring Linux to the masses.

Corel WordPerfect 8

Introduction

Linux is capable of many things. It is an incredibly fast and stable platform, able to sustain months, if not years, of uptime and has many world-class applications such as Oracle8 and Apache. What it doesn’t have much of are decent word processors. I find that, these days, the one of the few reasons that I boot up Windows is for Microsoft Word (the other reason is Worms 2).

So the day when WordPerfect, one of the few word-processors that can compete with Word feature for feature, arrives on Linux is a momentous one. However, just being there isn’t enough. Is it really on par with Word? And does it do justice to Linux?

First things first

Corel WordPerfect comes in three versions: Personal Edition, Standard Edition and Server Edition. I’m reviewing the Personal Edition, the one you can download from the Internet for free. The Standard Edition adds more fonts and clip-art and the Server Edition adds a character mode version and more administration tools.

Installation barely warrants a mention. It’s not a ‘standard’ Linux package such as RPM or DEB, but is very straight-forward nevertheless. It’s very Windows-like: click here, enter this information there. Easy. It’s not as confusing as StarOffice either – you install it as ‘root’!

Running it for the first time

X doesn’t make it easy to make a decent application. It imposes no standards on an applications look and feel, but does impose a relatively high memory overhead. I guess this makes it difficult for a company used to writing Windows applications.

Corel, like StarDivision, have chosen to make WordPerfect look and feel like their Windows version. This is going to annoy some Linux users, claiming that it’s not ‘UNIX’ enough, but I think it’s a good thing. It makes anyone used to a Windows word processor (i.e., almost everyone) instantly at home. No one is going to have a problem with the Office 97-like tool bar, nor the simple and logical menu structure.

Perhaps more of an issue for people coming from Windows or a Macintosh is what the application is capable of. Word processors on those machines can, just about, do everything from letters to fairly advanced desktop publishing. Most free Linux equivalents just can’t compete with that. LyX is great for long, structured documents (with certain caveats that I noted when I reviewed it last year), and many of the others look good, allowing import of multimedia clips, but are disappointing when you want to do any real work.

WordPerfect is more like a Windows word-processor in this respect.

Doing some real work

I thought a good test would be to write this review with WordPerfect. I suspect that documents of around a thousand words are not atypical and it would allow me to test out some of the nice new features, such as its Internet interoperability.

Unfortunately, half way though the review I found that there was very little to write about. This is not a criticism, in fact it should probably be taken as a compliment. In writing simple text, WordPerfect has all the tools you need exactly where you would expect them, doing exactly what you want. It has the basics, such as font and style selections, plus more recent innovations such as on-the-fly spelling- and grammar-checking. The latter is annoying and I usually switch it off, which is a useful feature that Microsoft Word doesn’t have!

So far, there is nothing that WordPerfect has that the Windows competition doesn’t already have. I guess it has two things. Firstly it has the ‘shadow cursor,’ something so obvious that I’m surprised that it’s not been done before. (People said that about the drag-and-drop cut-and-paste in Word for Windows 2.) If you switch it on, you can click anywhere on the screen and start typing. WP adds the necessary returns, tabs and spaces for you.

Secondly, it has what I can only describe as an on-the-fly thesaurus. It’s a drop-down list on the tool bar that gives a continuous list of alternatives to the word that you just typed. I’m not sure that it’s a great improvement over pressing Shift-F7 in Microsoft Word, but it’s there anyway.

Advanced stuff

Once I found that I could test more than a small amount of functionality while writing the review, I started playing round in other documents.

The first I opened was my CV, a Word 95 document complete with some of the dodgy advanced formatting that you can do there. The import was less than perfect, but was still quite impressive. It brought across all the text and most of the formatting, including most of the style information. Unsurprisingly it failed on the floating frames, but it did place the text at a suitable place in the document. Full marks for falling over gracefully. I was surprised that it didn’t manage to import the header and footer information, though.

I then tried to reapply the formatting that the import had managed to remove. Again, it gets boring to write about as it was so easy.

The second document I tried was rather longer, nearly seven thousand words. Again, conversion was impressive although imperfect. This time the main problem was the heading numbering, a fault that Word 97′s converter also has.

Having lost the table of contents, I tried to recreate it. I didn’t find this entirely straight-forward and never did get exactly what I was looking for. It looks like you have to define each paragraph that you need entering into the table of contents, rather like the way LyX insists. I much prefer the Word approach where it uses the list of styles to work out the document structure.

Not all good

It has to be said, there isn’t a lot wrong with WordPerfect 8.

The font handling – unique to WordPerfect – isn’t quite as good as that in Windows, but is probably better than that in most X applications, StarOffice included. Also, the version that’s free to download doesn’t have the on-line help. I can’t help but think that this is a very important thing to miss out.

The two worst things that I can think of are that the Microsoft Word filter doesn’t work with fast-saved documents (I’m not sure what MS has done with fast-saved documents, but no software other than Word itself seems to be able to deal with it!) – annoying as most of my Word documents are fast-saved!

And the finally, a question mark hangs over its stability. I had a couple of (unreproducable) crashes while wring this. However, it should be noted that WordPerfect managed to reinstate a recent backup each time meaning that I only lost a sentence or two.

Conclusion

This is exactly what we need. WordPerfect is a superb application, just as good as its Windows counterpart, but running under Linux. Due to its less-than-one-hundred-percent compatibility with Microsoft Word, I can’t guarantee to use it always (my work uses Word) but it is going to stay on my hard-disk.

Netscape Communicator 4.04

Introduction

This may all seem like a pointless exercise. I mean, everyone has used Netscape, right? It is the most used browser for a reason. Or is it? This review is here for two reasons:

  1. Because everyone has used it. As one of the first reviews, you can see what I’m aiming for.
  2. Because many people don’t look past the hype. Microsoft bad; Netscape good. Reality is not as clear cut as this.

The main problem I have reviewing Netscape, is that browsing the web is supposed to be simple. A browser should be simple to use, and display any page you might point it at. With a few caveats, Netscape can do this and much more, but it does leave precious little to write about. Except the bad bits. What I’m trying to say is that, although this may look like a very negative review, there are lots of good things about Netscape. For example, this page has been put together using Netscape Composer, not as part of the review but because I think that it’s a good tool for the job.

How well does it display pages?

Since Netscape practically invented the web as we know it, it is hardly surprising that many pages are either designed for or work flawlessly with Navigator. Navigators hold on the browser market is such the many other browsers have actually implemented some of Netscape’s bugs so that their display pages much better!

I suspect that this state of affairs is unlikely to continue. Navigators implementation of many newer standards falls short in either completeness or implementation. The version of Java that Netscape provide with Navigator is significantly slower than that provided by Microsoft, although in its defense it is slightly more ‘pure.’ Cascading Style Sheets and DHTML is poor, and many plug-ins seem to cause it to core dump — not very user-friendly! (This last flaw is supposed to be fixed in 4.05, but I’ve not seen an RPM of this yet.)

It’s difficult to blame Netscape for X’s failings, but it does affect its page rendering. I find that X is nowhere near as good as the Macintosh or Windows at rendering fonts. Perhaps its the configuration of my X server, but I don’t think so.

Stability

Communicator has a very large memory foot-print. Just loading Navigator and loading a fairly simple page can take up to 20 Mb of memory, which although not unusual, does seem somewhat excessive.

One can partially understand the memory requirements when looking at the installation — just one executable. Composer, Navigator and the mail programs are all in one, huge executable. This is bound to stress the OS (Linux can handle it!), but does mean that Communicator dies when one component dies. I’ve lost work in Composer on a number of occasions while jumping across to Navigator to look at some web site.

Although it’s difficult to quantify this kind of thing, I feel as though I’ve had more stability problems with Netscape than Internet Explorer. Navigator also seems much more stable under Windows than Linux. This does seem contrary to most people’s experience, though.

Other Parts

Almost all of the review so far has concentrated on Navigator, since this is the part of the product that people actually download it for. The other bits are at least passable, though.

I suspect that Composer is the best WYSIWYG HTML editor available for Linux (not much competition!). It’s rendering of most pages is very impressive, although it can get very slow when there are lots of elements on the page — tables really start to bog it down — and it has no concept of frames. Probably a good thing!

The Mail and News client is very good provided that you have a permanent network connection. It doesn’t have off-line news reading like much of the competition, which is going to rack up your phone bill (if you have to pay for local calls) unless you can get another program to do this (there are many available, mostly for free).

Conference and Netcaster, two modules available in Windows, are not supplied with the Linux version. (I doubt that many people use them anyway.)

I installed Communicator using the RPM available from RedHat’s web-site (netscape-communicator-4.04-3) and experienced no problems at all. I think I’d have preferred it to have been installed in /usr/local/bin rather than /usr/bin, but if I wanted to be picky I could have downloaded the application from the Netscape web site.

Overall

My impression of Communicator 4 is that Netscape are starting to run out of ideas and inspiration. Navigator 3 came with many new and important features, but 4 just seems bloated. Why when I download a browser do I have to get a mail and news client and a HTML editor? Why do many of the features seem half finished? Why is the stability of the product only becoming acceptable after nearly a year? Why, when the competition are pumping out a significant release every six months, is Communicator over a year old?

But let’s not let this get out of hand. Netscape may not be the leading force it once was, but it is still a top class browser. It’s performance and features keep at the top of the pile for Linux (and near the top for Windows), and its re-launch as a free product can only help its popularity.

WWWThreads 2.7

Introduction

While Linux cannot currently compete with Windows NT on the desktop (for a number of reasons that I’m not going to get into here), it has already made inroads into the server market. Many large companies use it as the OS for their web server (like this machine), and many more use it on their intranet for sharing files and hosting web pages.

WWWThreads capitalizes on this framework, adding CGI programs to generate threaded discussion groups, just like Usenet but with a more appealing web front-end.

Installation

Installation should be fairly simple. All that’s involved is copying the files into a CGI directory on your server, alter a few parameters in one of the files and type ‘./wwwthread_startup.cgi'.

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. The blame has to lie with the documentation which could best be described as minimal — a single 85 line README. The description of some of the variables that need changing is rather poor. I managed to change them to the wrong thing and only found out when I brought WWWThreads up in Netscape.

Of course, that’s when I finally managed to get it working at all! Apache‘s first reaction was to complain about a ‘premature end of script.’ I’ve done a small amount of CGI programming, and realized that this meant that the web server wasn’t receiving a header describing the format of the data.

But why? Isn’t this supposed to be a finished program? I shouldn’t be getting run-time errors and the like? Then I remembered, my email address has an ‘@’ in it. ‘@’ is Perl‘s way of saying ‘here’s an array’ and needs to be quoted to mean ‘at.’ This edited, the start screen appeared.

You could argue that it is a server side program, designed for knowledgeable people, and that I did manage to get it working in the end. However, all that’s needed is a little extra effort on the documentation and, maybe, a Makefile. Something like an Installation FAQ would be invaluable.

From a user…

Looking at the system from a web browser, things look much better.

WWWThreads has a very neat front screen. The colours have been well chosen; they look smart and well designed, but are very readable. In the top left is a logo, the top right has a menu. Below this is a list of the discussion groups that the administrator has set up. Clicking the title of the group brings up a list of the threads in that group. Clicking a thread bring up a list of posts. Clicking a post brings up that post. All very simple, standard stuff.

If you want to create a new post or reply to one that is already there, you will need to create a user for yourself. Here you’re invited to enter a user name, password, name, email, home page, occupation and hobbies. The first four are mandatory, the others optional. Clicking ‘Submit’ results in a screen (hopefully) saying that your details were added successfully. There are no other links or details on this screen, and you are forced to wait before your browser loads a new page. Annoying.

Replying to, or adding, a new post is similar. Fill in a few details, click submit and wait. There should at least be a link on this page to act as a short-cut for the impatient.

However, generally it is all well laid out, attractive and intuitive — there’s not much to write about.

From an administrator…

The administrative tools are good, and are web based just like the rest of the system. It allows the admin to change their password, add new discussion groups (‘Boards’), edit or delete posts, change details about the groups, archive a board, delete a board and edit users.

Most of these options are obvious, the one that might not be is the ‘archive’ option. This allows you to, in the words of the author, ‘…move all of the current posts on a board to an archive.’ This is a really good idea, and is implemented well, but does not go as far as I’d like. Some way of selecting posts by date or author, or individual posts would be useful. As would a method a more intuitive method of deleting archives (it appears as another board at the moment).

All the tools are password protected, which allows remote administration — a useful feature.

But the main thing missing is overall configuration options. What it I don’t like the look of the pages that WWWThreads produces? What if you want to fit it into your ‘house’ style? What if you don’t want to ask for hobbies or an occupation when a user registers?

The software is distributed with the GPL licence, so of course you can edit the HTML generated. But there is not documentation and much of the look-and-feel is hidden away in the Perl scripts. Perhaps some kind of template HTML file could be used?

Conclusion

WWWThreads is an odd program.

In some ways it is excellent. The design of the pages are good; the way that it remembers which posts you’ve read and those which you haven’t is useful; the archiving option is excellent, in fact most of the web based admin screens are very well done.

But then again, the installation is needlessly difficult, you can’t easily change the way that it looks, it seems not to perform particularly well (I am running the client and server on the same machine, so this might not be a fair comment) and the documentation is poor.

WWWThreads would be an ideal program to place on an Intranet server to allow people in the office to communicate more effectively. However, it’s lack of configuration options would probably make it unsuitable for an external site.

Psion Series 5

Introduction

‘The Penguin Says,’ as you know by now, is a Linux application review site. However, since high-tech toys such as PDA’s are likely to be of interest to many readers I thought I’d add a review. Don’t worry, I shall be keeping an eye on using it with a Linux PC.

So, what is the Psion Series 5? It’s one of the new breed of ‘super’ PDA’s; a full 32-bit computer with megabytes of memory and real applications. The main competition would be any machine based in Windows CE. Being a Linux user I do have a bit of an anti-Microsoft bias, though that is not why I bought a Psion. There are two reason:

  • the battery life
  • the keyboard

There are no CE machines with a keyboard of even similar quality. And the same machines can usually manage no longer than a claimed ten to fifteen hours away from mains power. The Psion does thirty-five.

To me, these two reasons make the Psion a much better machine than any of the others currently available. There are, however, other reasons.

In use

The 5 is a pocket sized lump of dark-green plastic. Well made, it feels as though it could take some punishment if necessary. (I don’t recommend you try this out: as robust as it seems, it’s still very expensive.) Until now, the Psion could be a WinCE palm top. Open it up and the difference becomes apparent.

The keyboard slides forward and the screen lays back to rest on the battery compartment, leaving the unit very stable even when you prod the touch-sensitive screen. The keyboard is fantastic. It is as good as many laptop keyboards and infinitely better than the calculator keys on all the competition. You won’t be able to touch-type, but with two fingers it’s quite feasible to get a decent typing rate.

Software

No-one reading this is going to be too disappointed to hear that the Psion doesn’t run Windows. Instead it runs EPOC32, Psion’s own 32-bit PDA operating system. (For the pedantic, EPOC is now owned by Symbian, a company owned by Psion and a number of mobile phone manufacturers.) Psion know what they’re doing, too.

The screen is always uncluttered leaving as much space as possible for your data. There is no task bar and no menu visible, and even the toolbars will vanish as required. (If you’ve never used a PDA before, this might not such a big deal, but screen estate is valuable and much is wasted on WinCE.) The touch-sensitive area extends slightly beyond the screen. Below are buttons to start the built in applications; to the left are buttons to summon the menu, cut and paste, activate the infrared port and zoom the screen.

None of the built in application are like their Windows or Linux counterparts, but they are by no means difficult to learn. I think it’s fair to say that they are more fully featured than their WinCE counterparts.

There is a terminal program built into the ROM that allowed me to log into Linux on my first attempt. Additionally, the CD-ROM has Internet software — a TCP/IP stack, mail and web-browser. I didn’t manage to get this working due to an incorrect cable (couldn’t directly connect the Psion to the modem) and incompetence (I don’t know how to set up the pppd daemon for dial-in).

It’s also worth noting that the 5 feels quite sprightly in operation. This is despite only having an 18 MHz ARM processor rather than one of the more exotic things that the slower CE machines have. (A Linux-like, no-bloat policy on EPOC32 is obviously in place!)

It can’t be all good?

There are some bad points. The screen, for example, is not as reflective as it could have been. The back-light helps, but really trashes the batteries.

The second worst thing probably stems from my UNIX background. I like to be able to use the keyboard for almost everything, unfortunately the Psion doesn’t like this. Although I can use most applications without going for the touch-screen, it’s difficult or impossible to switch between them. Something like Windows ALT-Tab would be ideal.

It’s also a shame that the synchronization software is proprietary and heavily Windows biased. This leaves little potential for a Linux port. Of more consequence, it means that you can’t install extra software, like the Internet bundle, without Windows.

Having used a Psion Siena for the last couple of years, it’s also disappointing to note that a couple of features from that machine have not been carried over. The most useful being able to display partial to-do lists in the weekly and daily views (e.g., all to-do items of a priority over 2). This all-or-nothing approach is annoying!

However, other than niggles, like the word Psion isn’t in the spell-checker, that is about all. The 5 really is that good.

Overall

Psion has nearly as much experience making palmtops as IBM has making PC’s. It shows.

Small. Powerful. Light. Well made. Easy to use. Nearly ergonomically perfect. The Psion Series 5 is all these things and more.

SFM (Simple File Manager) 1.5

Introduction

I’m not sure why, but I just about always use the Explorer to do file manipulation in Windows and always use the command-line in Unix. I don’t think that it’s just because the Unix shell is more powerful than the NT equivalent, although it is a factor. Let’s face it, some things, such as moving a number of files that have unrelated file-names, are much easier using a mouse.

It could be that I’ve not found a reasonable file manager in Unix yet. While the X-Tree like programs, FileRunner and the like, can be quite nice they just don’t seem to be a huge improvement over the command-line to me. Then, at the other extreme, you have the big, GUI packages. Click here; drag over there. It’s all point and click, often with no keyboard alternative.

I guess SFM sits in the middle. It uses the GTK+ tool-kit to display itself and, while you can click files a get a short-cut menu, the intention is that you do everything using the keyboard. An unusual approach, but does it work?

In use

I usually stay clear of GTK+ applications. It’s not because I don’t like GTK+ — in fact I think it’s one of the best looking and most functional of the many alternatives — but because there are so many versions in circulation that I always seem to have the wrong one and have, historically, ended up breaking just about everything on my machine by installing or upgrading it. SFM was quite simple by comparison. I chose a behind-the-bleeding-edge version because it claimed to work with GTK+ 1.0. It did, and what’s more I managed to leave the rest of my computer completely functional in the process.

The first thing that struck me when it loaded was how minimal SFM is. I know it claims to be the simple file manager, but you can take some things too far. In the middle of the screen is a list of files and directories, at the top is a panel displaying the current directory and at the bottom is a status bar (which is usually blank). There’s no menu, no tool-bar, no buttons, no hints.

So far is could quite easily be a character based application, but there are some concessions to GUI. One of the most noticeable is the use of colour. Colour-coding is used to good effect, with directories in blue, links in cyan, and regular files in grey. It makes it easy to tell which is which without resorting to obscure hieroglyphics that the command-line is so proud of.

And when I said that there was no menu, I mean that there on no standard on-screen menu. You can get a ‘context’ menu by right-clicking in the window. The menu has fairly simple options such as ‘up directory’ and ‘down directory,’ rename, delete and quit. Further down are its concessions to Windows terminology: you move files by cutting and pasting them. I actually quite like this way of working in Windows, but I know of a lot of people who think it’s annoying and counter-intuitive.

The sub-menu ‘More’ has a lot of not-very-obvious menu-items. What does ‘precise the action’ mean’? Why should I ‘fast quit’ rather than just exit normally? What does ‘toggle sort type’ toggle between?

Starting a theme

While I’ve started with the things that I don’t like, I may as well continue…

SFM is very proud of the fact that it’s entirely usable by keyboard. What they don’t say is that isn’t not always easy. Let’s see: select a file, press return. A dialog pops up asking what program we want to use to read that file. Only I selected the wrong file. Press escape. Ah. Doesn’t work. What I have to do it press TAB twice to highlight the cancel button and then press return. Neither quick nor immediately obvious. Worse, I select an executable and press return. It asks me what program I should use to run it. I don’t know the answer to that one.

Although I like the colour coding, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to label normal files using grey-on-white. They’re quite difficult to read and there’s no easy way to change them. I guess I could use the standard X method of diving into configuration files, but I think that a dialog is the best place to put them.

In fact it’s the lack of configuration options that annoys me about the whole program. Personally, I prefer not to see the ‘dot’ files in a directory — conventionally they’re hidden files and I’d like them to remain hidden until I say otherwise.

Overall

Some thing really benefit by having a graphical user interface, not all of them obvious. If you’d told me that there was a GUI version of ‘vi’ previously, I’d have laughed. But that’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s picked up the good GUI bit like scroll bars, point-and-click and menu’s for when I can’t remember the vast array of keyboard short-cuts.

As the Macintosh taught us, a file manager in a GUI environment can be both simple and powerful if it’s implemented well. Although I have no doubt that technically SFM is very good, as an end user tool it falls short of the mark. It’s neither especially easy to use nor fantastically powerful.