Category Archives: The Penguin Says

Reviews of Linux desktop applications.

Linux 2.1.131

Introduction

It’s a long time since I used a development kernel. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever just downloaded the source and built it myself. The last time I was on the cutting edge, it came as part of an installation of Slackware. I think it was 1.1.59, and seemed to be no less stable than the real thing. So maybe it’s a little surprising that since I moved up to a Pentium I’ve always stuck with the stable 2.0.x series?

Not really. I’m a coward, firmly fitting into the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it’ mould. Not only was I on a faster machine, but 2.0 was faster than 1.2. Why would I risk breaking things for a few extra percent?

In a sense, I think I was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get the thing installed…

Quick Aside

I expect that most people reading this will already know about Linux’s version numbering conventions. If you fall into this category, you may as well jump to the next section.

If you’re still with me you may be wondering what all the fuss about Linux 2.2 is and why there aren’t any Linux 2.2 betas.

The reason is simple: way back when Linux 1.0 was released, Linus Torvalds decided that all stable, ‘release’ versions would have even version numbers. In the case of release 1.0.9, ‘1’ is the major version number, ‘0’ is the version and ‘9’ is the patch number. Since ‘0’ is even it is considered a stable, usable by ‘normal’ people version.

The version I tested was 2.1.131. ‘1’ is odd so this is a development kernel, usable by people that are prepared to accept the occasional glitch. Note, however, that the kernel is now in a ‘feature freeze’ which means that only bug-fixes are being added. Put another way, even this development version should be, and is, fairly stable.

Upgrade

Linux sits very much at the heart of your system, and any upgrade to it shouldn’t be taken lightly. That’s why, for pretty much the first time in history, I took a look at the documentation.

make config ; make dep ; make clean ; make zdisk ; make modules ; make modules_install

What could be easier?

Well, after being cushioned by using RedHat for a number of years it was a little confusing to be expected know which options I needed to set. Nothing I couldn’t deal with — and nothing unexpected — but I just want to make it even clearer that this isn’t something that someone who has difficulty installing a Windows 95 application would want to do.

I must confess, however, that it wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. It only made me happier when I rebooted my machine and it started, apparently, without problem.

In Use

In use it doesn’t feel at all different to 2.0. Running some unscientific benchmarks I find that it is, indeed, slightly faster and it does use slightly less memory, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that it now runs on even more machines, from i386’s to Acorn Archimedes, in even more configurations, from SMP to X.25. The point is that it now optimizes for many of the Intel compatible CPUs and handles many of their bugs.

However, it’s not all rosy. The PPP daemon from RedHat 5.0 doesn’t work out of the box. You need to download and compile a new version. I found this more difficult than building the kernel! (The problem was that it expected to be built at /usr/src and failed anywhere else with screens of not very obvious errors.)

And I’ve not managed to get my 64AWE Gold working yet, either. This is more laziness than anything else, the instructions look fairly straight-forward.

More seriously, one of the main new features seems not to work on my machine: the graphical console drivers. Normally this wouldn’t matter too much. I spend almost all the time in X anyway, so some memory uselessly set aside just for the sake of being cutting-edge is not really worth it. However, one main benefit of the graphical console is the Tux logo when Linux is booting…

Actually, it is useful. It means that there’s a standard interface across all Linux platforms, from i386 to SPARC. But not, apparently, if your video card doesn’t support the VESA 2.0 standard. I would have thought that this is relatively rare. My machine is less than three years old but only supports VESA 1.2.

Other bits and pieces

Looking at Joseph Pranevich’s excellent “The Wonderful World of Linux 2.2″ in this months Linux Journal (December 1998), it would seem that my ‘aging’ hardware is unable to take advantage of most of the fancy new stuff.

For example, if you have a multi-processor box, 2.2 will work much better. There’s improved support for non-x86 architecture machines and there are optimizations for non-Intel x86 machines, too.

Overall

The new development kernel is smaller and faster than the current stable version and still appears to be rock solid. I’m not sure how the development team keep managing it when the millions of dollars that Microsoft invest seems only to increase bloat.

However, the features that have been added seem to be there to please ever more niche markets.

In summary: the best has managed to get even better.

WindowMaker 0.20.0

Introduction

I remember when I was at school I sometimes got bad grades when writing essays. This, the teachers claimed, was because I’d used an unconventional structure. Rather than start with an introduction, continue with the discussion and finish with my conclusion I’d often start with a rather long introduction, which included my view, and then argued my case in the rest of the text. I guess it weakened my argument a little to do it like that, but people did remember it!

I’ve still not learned my lesson. One of the first things I do with the review — not quite an essay but along the same lines — is say that I think that WindowMaker is the best window manager that I’ve used. In fact I like it so much I’m seriously considering changing from AfterStep, the window manager that I’ve used practically since I had a PC that could support X.

What’s so good?

Superficially WindowMaker is not that different to AfterStep. That could be part of the reason I liked it so much. (And after my disappointing experience with the new version of AfterStep last week I was most definitely open to suggestion.) Just like AfterStep and the NeXT, WindowMaker has a dock, or a wharf or whatever you want to call it, down the right hand side of the screen. This time there is also a paper-clip icon in the top left of the screen. This is WindowMaker’s method of moving between its virtual desktops. It’s a lot less fiddly than AfterStep’s mini-map but only slightly less intuitive.

Windows are handled in, more or less, the same way as AfterStep, they even look similar. The title bar is nicely gradiated, the top left has the minimise button, the top right has the close gadget. At the bottom of the window is the resize bar. A nice touch is the ‘technical drawing’ lines that are used to show where and how big the new window will be. It’s good to know that an xterm is eighty characters wide.

So far we’ve found that WindowMaker and AfterStep are pretty much the same. It’s when you try and configure things that the differences appear. To add an icon to the AfterStep dock you must open a text configuration file and try and interpret the syntax. Not hugely difficult, but someone used to Microsoft Windows isn’t going to be too happy. The WindowMaker method: open the application you want to dock; drag one of the icons, the one without the title at the top, to the dock. That’s it.

Unless you’re just skim-reading, you should have found something odd with the last paragraph, even if you ignore my English: “…drag one of the icons…” An explanation is in order here. WindowMaker does not just have an icon to indicate that an application has been minimised. If you launched a program any way other than from the dock then you get an extra icon, just as if you’d minimised the window but without a title at the top. Until I figured what it was for I was incredibly confused! The first one is the application — use it as you would in any other window manager. The other can be dragged to a dock. It’s a waste of screen real-estate and I can’t help but think that there must be a better way of doing it.

Other configuration parameters are also handled graphically in WindowMaker. Try to change some of the colours, or the backdrop or any other parameter in AfterStep and it’s back to the configuration file. WindowMaker has a very nice WindowMaker Preferences Utility to allow you to change them all graphically. I’ve not had the need to dig into the GNUstep directory yet it’s so complete.

The Verdict

If you don’t know that I’m impressed then you just haven’t been paying attention(!). While there are faster and smaller window managers, WindowMaker is small and fast enough. It is also very simple to use — it’s one of the first free window managers that doesn’t insist that you edit large and complex configuration files — looks superb and is fully functional.

And finally, despite dire warnings that it’s still beta software, it seems to be more stable than many commercial applications. (I only had one glitch: I loaded Netscape once and WindowMaker vanished and twm took its place. I have no idea what happened there!)

LyX 0.12.0

Introduction

When I was at university, a software engineering class had a huge argument with a lecturer. It wasn’t about any high flying computer science ideal, just how people do their word processing.

My lecturer maintained that people were interested in the text and the text alone. People should be willing to use standard text mode editors to lay down the text and then use a text formatter such as TeX to print it. The text and the formatting, she said, were completely separate.

Most students in the lecture agreed that while, say, Emacs could handle much larger files than Microsoft Word, most people were unprepared to hack around with command lines and obscure key-strokes just to write a letter. Most ‘normal’ people agree with us.

Unfortunately, the former approach has many advantages when writing long, structured documents. What we could do with is a compromise. What You See Is Almost What You Get perhaps.

LyX, as you may have guessed, is just that compromise.

What does it do?

In short: long documents. Okay, it’s quite happy letting you edit a letter, in fact it comes with a number of templates to allow you to do just that, but this is not what it excels at.

To test out LyX, I converted a long document that I’ve been using Microsoft Word to edit until now (don’t get too excited, this was a manual process!). Word wasn’t having too much difficulty with the size, but I was starting to have problems with styles and cross-references.

The first thing to note is that you have to be organized. It’s tempting in Word to just change the font or its size directly, but this is a big no-no in Lyx. You should create a style for every type of paragraph that you need. In my case I used the defaults that came with LyX and applied them to my text.

All this was incredibly straight-forward and very Windows-like. You can high-light the text by dragging the mouse over it (it turns cyan), delete text with the delete or back-space key and all the usual conventions — not something to be taken for granted in Linux.

Then I hit a bit of a problem. In Word, I had all my lines of code numbered. How could I replicate this in LyX?

To cut a long story short, while I’m sure that you can do it, I have no idea how. I suspect it has something to do with the style-sheets (like in Word), but I couldn’t figure out how to change it graphically and I have no inclination to start hacking around in the TeX source files.

In fact this is the most damning criticism of the program as a whole: you still need to know about TeX. If I’d wanted to know about that I might have stuck to Emacs! It is still a very useful program, but to get the full flexibility of the system you’ll need to get your hands dirty!

From bad to worse

Having found my first problem, things started getting even worse. I couldn’t get the cross-referencing to work either. I’m pretty sure that this time it’s because I’ve been brain-washed with nearly eight years of using Word for Windows. When I say that I want a cross-reference, I expect to be able to say which heading I want to reference and how I want it to be displayed (i.e. the text or the section number or the page number, or some combination of them). In LyX what I get is a box with five buttons and a message saying “No labels found in document.”

I managed to partly solve this by creating a number of labels which I could create cross-references to. However, this was nowhere near as flexible as Word. Do I have to create a label at the source of every cross-reference? (This looks like something else that’s been carried over from its TeX heritage.)

User Interface

Taking a step back from my difficulties, what’s it like?

LyX uses the XForms library, which some purists hate as you can’t get the source code for. In its favour, it does look very smart. The menu’s are a bit more ‘sticky’ than I’d like, but there’s nothing wrong with them. It makes LyX look like a modern Windows application, and I mean that as a compliment.

However, it’s not quite as intuitive as it might be. For example, many of the keyboard short-cuts are non-standard. What’s wrong with Ctrl-I to start and stop italic mode? How do I change the formatting of a style? How do I create a blank line?

It’s also fair to say that the configuration isn’t as easy as it could be. As has been mentioned before, I tend to use TrueType fonts rather than those that come with XFree86 and I wasn’t too upset to learn that I’d have to configure LyX to use them. It was good to see ‘Screen Fonts…’ under the Options menu; it was equally good to see that changing ‘times’ to ‘times new roman’ had immediate effect. What was not so good to see was that it had forgotten the setting next time I started. It turns out that the best way to keep the settings is to edit the ‘lyxrc’ file in the LYX_DIR directory. Okay, we can’t expect LyX to make global changes, but why not local changes?

Overall

As someone that writes many more structured, technical documentation than letters (sorry Mum), Lyx is just the kind of thing that I’m looking for.

It’s not as easy to use or well integrated with the print system or print preview program as Microsoft Word, but it is much better at handling tables and equations, not as though I use many of the latter.

However, for my purposes I think I’ll stick to dual-booting and Word 95. LyX shows a lot of promise and is very good at what it already does. However, I think that you’d have to be a TeX guru to get the best out of it, and that rules me out.

WINE 980614

Introduction

This is the second time in as many reviews that I’ve started like this: I don’t want this to be the start of a trend. I did say in my ‘policy’ document that I didn’t want to look at very early releases of software and I stand by that.

However, sometimes you see something and, even though it doesn’t work fully, it show such great promise that you need to shout about it. WINE is such a piece of software.

What is it?

Wine allows you to run Windows applications on x86 Unix machines, Linux in this case. It should work on almost any PC based UNIX like NetBSD, UnixWare, etc. and it’s supposed to run 16- and 32-bit Windows applications, although the former are much better represented at the moment. There are some that will never work properly (the FAQ says something about VxD’s which I don’t understand).

At least, that’s what it will do. At the moment it is a developers release, not even stable enough to be called beta software. However, I’m not here to bash Wine because it’s in its early stages of development. I’m here to express how shocked I am that it’s so good!

Installation

I’ve tried a number of times in the past to make Wine, and they’ve all ended in tears. I rake around my hard disk trying to find enough space — around 50 Mb — spend ages while it compiles and then when I run it I find that there’s been a segmentation fault in 32-bit code. I don’t know what that means, only that it’s not mentioned in the FAQ and that I can’t run anything, not even Notepad.

Then the other day I decided to make one last attempt and, rather than get the source code, I got a precompiled RPM. It didn’t work at first. I had to customize it, changing the configuration file to match where my Windows 95 partition is, but nothing too arduous (or unexpected).

So, I fired it up trying to run calc.exe. I wasn’t hopeful, and the fact that it was taking 100% of CPU and seeming to get nowhere fast didn’t help. I left it chugging away and made some coffee and toast.

Success!

When I returned from the kitchen, the Windows Calculator was sat proud in the middle of my Trinitron. My jaw dropped, and the dog nearly got my toast.

Okay, the display wasn’t completely right. The text in the title bar is far too small, the buttons are in the extreme top left and right rather than in the middle of the bar, and the font on the menu bar is proportionally spaced meaning that it looks rather odd, but I suspect that this is all configurable — you can certainly tell Wine to use your window manager rather than X directly.

But it worked. I could do sums; I could change between normal and scientific mode; I could get the About box. I was stunned.

Moving onto Notepad, I found that the same was true: it worked. I trundled though a few other applets that Windows 95 comes with, many of which, at least partially, worked.

Getting arrogant

Having got the tiny programs working, I started hunting around my hard disk for new challenges. Why start small and build up, I though. ‘wine "`pwd`/winword.exe"‘ I typed. That’ll show it.

I started on my toast, figuring that it’d take a while before it gave up.

But it didn’t give up. After a worrying amount of disk activity, the Word 95 splash screen appeared. As did screens and screens full of errors in the console window. Despite the errors, Wine and Word battled on, eventually displaying the normal Word screen, tool bars, menus and all. Again, the fonts weren’t quite right and the toolbar was far too dark, but there it was. Linux running Microsoft Word 95.

Tentatively I entered some text. This worked fine — even the font rendering was spot on — until I mistyped something. Word underlined the suspect characters with a wavy red line and then crashed.

Next time I managed to get the About box (fairly simple, but with a big bitmap and a sound clip) to display, followed by the Options dialog (big with lots of tabs). A few others also worked without problem. The open dialog, however, causes Wine to exit. I guess this is because Microsoft didn’t use their own standard libraries for the task! (Let’s blame Microsoft.)

Excel works roughly as well as Word. It starts without any problems, you can enter data in the cells and auto-sum works. Many of the dialogs appear, full and correct, but save crashes the system. PowerPoint vanished shortly after completing loading and Access didn’t even get as far as the splash screen.

I was very surprised at the success that I’d had up to this point. Okay, nothing useful actually worked, but I was looking from more of a technical point of view. I did, however, find a program that worked incredibly well, something much larger than clac.exe or Notepad. The program? Maxis SimCity for Windows 1.1. (Saying that it’s useful is stretching the point, but I digress.) I play tested SimCity quite thoroughly and found that, although small parts of the screen occasionally became corrupted, everything worked. Since games are usually associated with some of the worst coding and low-level hacking around this was good. (I’m not sure whether the credit should go to the Wine team or Maxis!)

Overall

I’ll not mess around: Wine is not ready for the prime time yet and is still some way off. This is not news, the developers say this too.

What is news is that it is an incredible piece of software. A non technical user might not see this (unless they want to play SimCity), but anyone who has written a non-trivial program can see what an incredible achievement Wine is.

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.