Category Archives: The Penguin Says

Reviews of Linux desktop applications.

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.

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.

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.

Abacus 0.9.3

Introduction

Linux seems to have many word processors, text editors and email programs, but other office applications seem to be rather thin on the ground. I’ve been looking for a decent spreadsheet for sometime as I have to switch back to Windows to use Excel every time I want to use one!

For all it’s faults, Microsoft Excel is a superb application and any other spreadsheet is going to have to try and compete with it at some level. I hoped Abacus would be it…

Installation

I normally prefer my applications to be available in RPM format, but if I can’t a GNU autoconf script is a fine substitute. Abacus, it would seem, has neither. It took far too much work to get it to run.

The main problem is not with the code, but with the documentation — there isn’t any in the distribution! I typed make to see whether it would work. Surprisingly, most of it seemed to run okay. It couldn’t find ‘yacc’ on my PC, which is quite reasonable as I have Bison instead. I loaded a few of the makefiles until I found the reference to yacc and changed it to ‘bison -y’ to force Bison to emulate yacc. This didn’t work either — it complained about some problems with the grammar. (I thought that Bison was upwardly compatible with yacc?)

I’d had a long day, so I was getting ready to pack the whole thing in as a bad job. After a strong coffee I decided to continue. I dug around for my RedHat installation disc and installed byacc and changed all the references from Bison back to yacc. This time it worked.

This was not the end of the installation problems, though. Typing ‘abacus’ resulted in the following error:

.//abacus: /tcl_interf/nxlc: No such file or directory

Again, someone without any development experience wouldn’t have realized that this meant that an environment variable hadn’t been set (it was expecting a pointer to the Abacus home directory). A quick scour through the source revealed that I needed to set ABACUS_HOME.

But even this didn’t solve the build problems! To cut a long story short, it was looking for a file called ‘version’ so it could display its version number when it started. (The distribution does have a symbolic link called ‘version’ but it doesn’t point at anything.) Having created the file, Abacus starts. Finally.

In use

Abacus starts with a splash screen with a professional looking logo. When the main screen appears, disappointment sets in. The majority of the screen is filled with a grid — what did you expect, it is a spreadsheet — while the top has the menu bar and a random assortment of garishly coloured controls scattered around.

When I first test a spreadsheet program, I usually create a few random numbers, total them and create a graph of some of the numbers. This covers much of the functionality that I use on a day-to-day basis and gives me a good impression of how easy it is to use. For the sake of comparison, it took me about two minutes in Excel 95, most of which was me playing about with some of the many options.

It took more than two minutes with Abacus. As I’ve been brainwashed in the ways of Microsoft, I entered what I thought was an appropriate formula for a random number: =rnd. While I now accept that this wasn’t the right formula, I still fairly certain that it shouldn’t have core dumped claiming that there had been a segmentation fault.

I never did find how to create a random number. I looked in the ‘function’ dialog box. There was a RAND function which sounded right, but whenever I selected it, Abacus added a quote at the front making it text rather than a formula. I’m not sure what was going on there.

Having given up on the random numbers, I entered some numbers manually and summed then using the AutoSum button on the tool-bar. After my experience up to this point I was surprised when it worked as advertised. You have to use it in a call immediately below or next to the cells you want to sum, unlike Excel, but I think I can live with that.

Next test: graphs. Step one: select the numbers. (Fine.) Step two: select ‘New graph’ from the menu. (Fine.) Step three: select the type of graph from the resulting dialog. (Fine.) Step four: draw out the area you want the graph to be drawn in. (Not so good.)

For the last step, the computer changed the mouse pointer to half a set of cross-hairs and seemed to forget about the graph. Left clicking the matrix didn’t do anything. Right clicking produced a run-time error from TCL.

Conclusion

I have to say at this point that I suspect that I hardly touched the surface of Abacus’ functionality. It may not seem reasonable to criticize a program having just a cursory look, but if the program is not easily capable of doing the very basic functions that I need I see no point in looking further. Numbers, formulae and graphs are the staple diet of any spreadsheet user and Abacus seemed to hinder any progress on this front.

Unfortunately, it looks as though I’m going to have to continue returning to Windows and Excel when I want to use a spreadsheet. Although Abacus is fully featured, it has more than enough annoying quirks to send me running away even if I discount the stability problems that I encountered.

However, it does show promise. Recode the user interface in C instead of TCL and write some documentation and it may be a winner.

About “The Penguin Says”

Why?

I’ve been using Linux since 1994, just after the first non-beta release version of the kernel came available (I think it was 1.0.9, but don’t quote me on it). In the early days I was a bit lost, I didn’t know much UNIX and I didn’t know much about the web, so I stuck to using the packages that came with the Slackware distribution. (At the time I didn’t need much more than the core development tools, anyway.)

Since then, I’ve got to know more about UNIX, Linux and the Internet and have started downloading and looking at a number of applications. Some of them are fabulous, others aren’t worth the time or bandwidth. But how should I know which is which?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a way. Although there are loads of sites with links to programs and applications, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that reviews and rates them. Until now.

The task ahead

There are thousands of programs out there, and all of them have a new version popping out once a month or even more frequently. How can I keep up?

I can’t. So, we need some ground rules:

  1. I’m not going to review everything. I want to promote Linux as a usable operating system, so, in the main, I’m going to look at ‘user’ programs — word-processors, web browsers — rather than the new version of GCC.
  2. I’m not going to review every release. I’m not even going to update old reviews. Each review will have a version number attached, leaving the user to decide whether it’s up to date enough to be relied upon.
  3. You’re going to help me! If you’re interested in helping, mail me.

Logo

‘The Penguin Says’ logo isn’t really mine. I took one of the logo’s found on Andreas Dilger‘s page and changed the wording (using Paint Shop Pro — I would have done this using the GIMP, but PSP is much better at resizing images). The Penguin was originally drawn by Larry Ewing, the logo ‘concept’ by Allen Petlock. I hope they don’t mind.

Me

I’m Stephen Darlington. I’ve been using Linux for a number of years now, and various forms of free software for much longer. This is my vague attempt to put something back — I spend all day writing computer programs so the last thing I want to do in the evening is more! I can, however, manage to bang a few words together.

AfterStep 1.4

Introduction

Many people believe that wine gets better as it gets older. This, however, is only partly true. Some wines taste much better young and all go bad eventually.

What does this have to do with Linux software?

Well, AfterStep is my window manager of choice (see my review of BlackBox for a discussion on what a window manager is) but, more because of laziness than anything else, I’ve been using version 1.0. I never got around to upgrading, but since I was going to do a review I figured that I’d better move to release 1.4 — the latest stable version.

Perhaps I’m getting old; perhaps it’s inertia of some kind; perhaps I just haven’t given 1.4 a chance to prove itself; but I prefer good old 1.0.

What is AfterStep?

I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is AfterStep?

Fairly apparent from the title, it’s a window manager that tries to look and feel like NeXTstep, Steve Jobs rather fabulous follow-up to the Macintosh.

Version 1 took that quite literally. It had a dock (“wharf” in AfterStep-speak) to the right of the screen, pop-up menu’s and gradiated title bars just like the NeXT machine. The dock is a column of large coloured icons that can either launch applications, shrink an application such as xload to display useful information, or both. It’s now in a number of other window managers, notably WindowMaker, but AfterStep was there first. 1 had little else — simple but effective.

For later versions, the authors obviously thought they needed to add stuff. (They seem not to subscribe to the ‘perfection is not when you can add nothing, but when you can take nothing away’ school of thought.) 1.4 takes the basics and adds more docks, more furniture on the windows, themes and support applications.

Installation

You know me by now — basically capable, but lazy. Rather than grab the source, I downloaded an RPM file and upgraded from 1. I expected 1.4 to take all my current settings, but it didn’t quite work like that.

In fact, the first time I tried it didn’t work. XDM simply flashed out of existence for a second and then reappeared.

Okay, dive back in as root and read the documentation. What’s needed is a GNUstep directory that can be copied from a shared directory. It’s not difficult and it is documented, but why can’t AfterStep do it for you? And how much do I have to copy? My home directory now have loads of icons in it — don’t think /home can put up with so much detritus for long.

And copying lots of configuration data from a central location meant that all my setting from 1 were lost. I’d quite like my old settings back, please.

In Use

It took me a while to get AfterStep to how I like it. I wanted a single dock filled with my favorite apps, a clock, resource monitor and something to track my PPP connection to the Internet. It’s all in a configuration file (much like AS1 but in a different place) the basics of which are relatively simple. I think I’ll use the separately available configuration program for anything more complex.

1.4 seems to have a much greater emphasis on multiple desktops, so much so that in the default configuration there are 16 of them! It’s quite neat that they can be split into categories rather (the defaults are Work, WWW, Mail and Games), but I suspect that most people would run out of memory before they run out of desktops. Personally I’ve never got used to multiple desktops and usually just have one very busy one.

Overall

Much in the same way that people use Windows because they don’t know anything better exists, I’ve used AfterStep for well over a year. I thought doing this review would kick start me into using something newer and better.

It didn’t. In many objective ways the newer version is an improvement. It looks better, it’s more configurable and more easily configured and it’s more standard. But something is missing. It doesn’t seem to be a huge improvement over 1, yet has a much larger memory foot-print and popular support is waning in favour of WindowMaker which seems to be advancing much more quickly.

So, sorry guys, but I’m sticking with version 1 and am very tempted to take a look at some alternatives.