Category Archives: The Penguin Says

Reviews of Linux desktop applications.

FileRunner 2.5

Introduction

People usually fall into one of two categories on this issue. You have your hard-core command-line junkies who are quite happy typing obscure commands just to move a couple of files around. And then you have your GUI-evangelists who like pretty, drag-and-drop interfaces.

I tend to sit on the fence. I can see advantages to both, but I usually use the GUI in Windows — the command line is so poor — and in UNIX I use the command-line — I didn’t think that there were any decent GUI file managers.

And then I found FileRunner on a web site.

In use

On first use, FileRunner looks unmistakably like a Tcl/Tk program. The first thing it does is pop up a dialog telling you that it’s configuration directory is missing and would you mind if it created one. I clicked OK and found the main screen on my monitor.

First impressions: it’s trying to be like some of the original DOS file managers rather than like the Windows explorer. That is, most of the display is taken up with two identical lists (albeit independent) of files. Between the two panes are a line of buttons with straight-forward text labels such as ‘Move,’ ‘MkDir’ and ‘View.’ Many of them are not going to be much use if you’re not already a bit of a UNIX wizard — it took me a second to figure out what ‘S-Link’ meant.

The top of the screen has the menu, a number of ‘status’ lines (current directory, etc.) and a number of buttons to help you navigate around your file-system. FileRunner has a number of useful features in this last category The nicest is a ‘Hotlist,’ similar to your bookmarks in Netscape. I now have quite a list helping me jump around all over the place particularly quickly.

Another feature is FileRunners alternative to the ‘cd’ command. Clicking a picture of a hierarchy you get a list of directories, both up and down, and you can traverse the structure without actually stopping and looking in the directories. Handy when you know where you want to go but don’t have it on your hotlist. Sure, you can double click into lower directories and click the ‘up’ button, but this only moves you one level. This is incredibly convenient.

Once you found the file you want, FileRunner is good, too. Double-click a file and it will start a configurable program for you. Select an image file and XV starts up. Click a GZip archive and press the ‘UnPack’ button and it uncompresses. Click the ‘ChMod’ button and a dialog pops up allowing you to change its attributes.

But how do you copy a file?

FileRunner runs under X Windows and has a commendably GUI look about it. Unfortunately it doesn’t take full advantage of this. To copy a file between to directories, it would make sense to display the two directories on-screen and drag-and-drop the file to move it. Or perhaps that’s just me? It almost works. It’s just the drag-and-drop that doesn’t. You have to click the ‘Move’ button instead. I’d expect that to work as well, but not instead.

And how about deleting files? If a program is supposed to be easy to use I don’t think that it should punish my mistakes. But FileRunner does have a slight tendency to do just that. I can delete a file and it won’t warn me. (However, it does ask if I’m about to stupidly delete an entire directory tree.)

Overall

Over the years I’ve used a large number of applications written in TCL/TK and I have almost always been disappointed. Usually, the GUI looks good but once you get past the initial good impression the rot sets in. Bugs. Inconsistencies. And the distinct impression that it’s nothing more than a front-end for a command-line program.

I’m happy to report that FileRunner is not one of these applications. Instead, it’s fast and feature-rich — everything a file manager should be! However, it’s not going to help people who don’t already know UNIX. It’s a very useful program, but for the novice the search for a decent file manager continues.

FreeCiv 1.7.2

Introduction

Writing reviews of Linux programs might sound like an easy option. I mean, some developers spend fantastic amounts of time honing their latest creation, making sure it’s exactly right. And all I have to do is load it up and destroy all their hard work in a few carefully chosen words. (I assure you that, despite appearances, most of these words are carefully chosen.)

I should make it clear that I don’t take my responsibility lightly. When I decided to take a look at FreeCiv, a GPL’d clone of Civilizations, I made sure that I thoroughly tested it before passing judgment. Actually, I spent much longer testing it that I’d intended but more of that later.

Starting up

At this point I’d normally report on the problems I had with the installation. Happily there’s nothing to report this time: the RPM’s installed and worked without issue.

The only ‘funny’ is that you can’t just fire up FreeCiv and go. First you have to start the server process, add any computer players (AI’s), set their level as appropriate, and tune any other parameters. It’s not really that odd or difficult, but it is different to the original, and perhaps it could be easier. (Perhaps the client application could default to being the server if there isn’t already one?)

Once the game has been started in the server process, a familiar looking screen appears. The icons are quite well drawn and will be familiar to anyone who has played the original. My flat-mate, a more experienced player than myself, claims that the graphics aren’t as good. (But then he still plays Civilizations version 1 just in case 2 isn’t as good!)

Play the game

In the same way as in Civilizations, each player gets a turn where they can give each unit orders, create cities and alter what ‘stuff’ each city produces.

It’s all very straight-forward. You can move units around using the cursor keys. You can give them orders using the ‘Actions’ menu. You can check out the composition of a city by double-clicking on it. I’ve never played Civ ‘in anger’ but I managed to pick up the mechanics of it all just by playing around.

If I had needed documentation, by the way, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. There’s rather a lot of it and it seems thorough. However, like much of the game, and Unix in general, it does assume that you know what you’re talking about. I don’t see that as a big problem, though, as there are plenty of tutorials and FAQ’s on the web, some of which are FreeCiv specific and some of which apply to Civilizations but will still be applicable.

There are a few small niggles, however. For example, after using the menus you can’t use the cursor keys to move a unit around the screen. (You need to click back on the main window first.)

Overall

I don’t think that it would be entirely fair if I said I didn’t like it because I never did very well at it! Firstly, it proves that the computer players are of a good standard (I set them on the easy level!). Secondly, even though I was losing I was enjoying it. With each game I became more proficient and lasted longer, although whether this was due to my leadership or the geography I’m not sure.

Either way, I’m inclined to try and find out more. This is, perhaps, the highest praise I can think to give to a game.

Note that at the time of writing the beta version of 1.8.0 had just been posted to the FreeCiv web-site.

GIMP 1.0

Introduction

The hype surrounding the GIMP and its almost asymptotic ascent towards version one has been unprecedented in the open source community. When the big one-oh appeared, not only did SlashDot explode with congratulations, but there were stories on all the big commercial sites like Wired News. Why? What does GIMP have that other free software doesn’t?

Let’s not get swept away with the hype. What is the GIMP? It’s full title is the GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is a bit of a give-away. It’s a bit-mapped picture editor along the lines of Paint Shop Pro and Adobe Photoshop. The developers claim that it can compete with these well known and well respected products. I’ll reserve judgment, let’s get the thing installed.

Installation

That I feel that the installation needs a mention does not bode well. The reason, however, is more than a little unfortunate. Let me explain…

One of the things that the GIMP team did before (more accurately: during) development was create a new X Toolkit called GTK. Apparently this is a nicely designed system that is also relatively small and quick. A lot of people like it, including RedHat who used it to build some of their utilities. The problem is that the version of GTK that the GIMP uses is newer than the one that RedHat 5 uses.

The upshot of all this is that, although the GIMP works absolutely fine, I can no longer user UserNet to connect to my ISP or the control panel to administer my system. Because of all the interdependencies, RPM seems to get quite upset if I try and downgrade and even then GIMP will be broken. (I suspect that the real solution would be to recompile UserNet and control-panel using the new libraries.

User Interface

I doubt that the developers will be too upset if I describe the user interface as unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen another program quite like it.

When the GIMP starts only a tool palette appears on the screen. It’s quite busy, with twenty-one monochrome buttons, a colour-picker at the bottom and a menu bar at the top, but it does look smart and presentable — not something to be taken for granted with much free software. The icons are all fairly obvious. You can open an image either from the file menu or by pressing Control-O. The GIMP makes a big effort to be operational from the keyboard.

The image opens in a new window, unlike the Paint Shop Pro MDI-style interface. Personally I found moving between windows to select tools to be a bit of a drag, however the effort required here is probably more a function of the window manager than the GIMP itself. (During testing I was using the XFCE2 environment.) Fortunately you don’t need to head over to the tool palette every time you want a different gadget. There is a context sensitive menu available by right-clicking the mouse. The menu has all the menu options available in the palette window in addition to the various tools.

Many of the menus lead to a dialog of some kind. Most of these dialogs remain on the screen until you dismiss them — not when you’ve clicked ‘Apply’ like in Paint Shop Pro. This is excellent as it allows much more in the way of experimentation. As does the multiple undo function, which seems to be limited only by memory. (Being a bit-mapped image application, limited by memory doesn’t mean quite as much as it does in most other programs. After five minutes of playing around, the GIMP had consumed over a quarter of system memory!)

So, yes. The interface is unusual, but it’s certainly not bad. After a short time I think people could be very productive with it.

Features

I’m no expert in graphics programs, but the GIMP certainly looks complete. It has everything that I use on a regular basis in Paint Shop Pro and plenty of other things that it doesn’t.

I’ll go through the vague process that I went through to get to the accompanying picture. (Vague because I can’t remember exactly how I did it. I did say the GIMP encourage experimentation.)

First I loaded the picture of myself. This is the picture that’s on my pass at work and is, therefore, in real need of improvement. Then I used the Select By Colour option to pick up most of my face. I’m not entirely sure what I did next, but it looks as though I managed to paste my face back into a slightly different area. I don’t think I’ve ever looked so scary.

Next I stumbled across the filter that added the lines around the edge — I can’t for the life of me find exactly what I used again. I guess I’ll just have to keep playing around. Next I erased every other row.

I found the text handling module to to very good, far better than Paint Shop Pro. It allows you to select text in point or pixel size and choose from any font on your system. I picked a font that I have in Windows 95 (as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t rate XFree86’s native fonts) and added a legend top and bottom.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that it is some way from even slightly artistic, but it was very easy to create and touched on a number of the GIMPs features. I did play with much more than this, but managed to undo all the other less desirable effects.

Conclusion

The GIMP is very cool, no doubt about it. Any free application that can compete with an eighty pound program and beat it in most cases and come a close second in others is worth a look. But when that same program can come as close as makes no difference for most people to the eight hundred pound market leader then you have to sit up and take notice.

Of course, it is a first release so it isn’t perfect. It’s not quite as fast as it could be. There are some occasional glitches, hangs and crashes, but they are few and far between and, certainly, no more frequent than in Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.

Fully featured, fairly simple to use and very powerful, it could well be the killer application that Linux so desperately needs.

The Penguin Says Home

What’s here?

Welcome to “The Penguin Says,” the Linux application review site.

There are many sites providing links to Linux software, but very few that rate and review them. That is what you’ll find here. Although I fully support free software, you’ll find open and honest reviews here. If an application is a load of rubbish, or too flaky for real use, I’ll say so. But then, if it shows promise, I’ll mention that too.

You can find more about The Penguin Says here. When you read that text, bear in mind that it was written in the summer on 1998, before Linux became the ‘media-darling’ that it currently appears to be.

The reviews

Here is a list of all the Linux application reviews. Note that they are in alphabetical order rather than the order in which they were written.

All reviews were performed on my Pentium 120 with 32Mb of memory, running RedHat 5.0 with all patches up to June 1998.

LinCity 1.09

Introduction

The truth be known, I’m not a huge game player. But there are some games that even I seem to get hooked on. The first was Bomb Jack on my Sinclair Spectrum, circa 1986.

It took a while before I found Tetris and Lemmings, and then I started playing SimCity, Maxis’ classic city simulator. I wasn’t very good at first, but I stumbled on new ways of doing things and even read the manual occasionally.

SimCity was a massive success and has spawned a number of similar programs and sequels. It was only a matter of time before the free-software community took notice. LinCity is I. J. Peters version. I took a look at the X version (there is also a SVGA version).

Game Play

LinCity starts just in the same way as the original: create a new world or load an old one. Choosing the ‘new world’ option gives you a familiar, albeit not identical, screen. At the top right is the main map window; on the left is the tool bar; in the middle and below the main window are various graphs, statistics and the complete map.

In general the screen is clear and simple and uncluttered, the cities are well drawn and many items are animated. Some of the icons are not immediately obvious, but clicking on them with the right button brings up a help screen — very useful.

It works in roughly the same way as SimCity, too. You click on the building block in the left and the on the map to make it. Unlike SimCity, if you click on the representation on the map you get extra information about how much it’s being used.

Fortunately, LinCity is not a straight copy SimCity. SimCity starts off with the rather unrealistic assumption that when you start you are as technologically advanced as you’ll ever be. In LinCity you start with very basic technology and ‘learn’ new techniques as you go along — rather confusing if you’re used to the ‘real thing,’ but a worthwhile change nevertheless. (I suspect that this has come from Civilization.)

The finance section is also much more advanced than Maxis attempt. The Income / Expenditure section is split into eight categories: income tax, coal tax, goods tax, export tax, other costs, unemployment costs, transport costs and import costs. This makes things a lot more complex. In SimCity not much work just tends to lower the population. In LinCity it lowers the population and costs you in the ‘unemployment costs’ part. (My cities always seem to have crippling unemployment and rapidly become bankrupt!)

Difficulties

I think that most of the problems I have with LinCity are because I’m so familiar with SimCity. The connections between some many events are different, and in LinCity are dependent on the technology level as well as the environment — looks like it could be an entertaining game long after you get bored of the real thing.

There are some annoying bits, though. Why, for example, is the window of a fixed size? Couldn’t we have something more like SimCity for Windows where all the various bits are re-sizable, independent windows? It is very apparent that the SVGA version came first and that the X version is, basically, that in a window. Hopefully version 2 will drop the SVGA version — how many machines are incapable of running X these days?

Why do some items have roads that go only into one corner? (I had a completely useless ore mine for a number of years, wondering why ‘they’ weren’t using it.)

The online help is very useful — you can right-click most things to get a description and some suggestions as to how you can use them best — but a full users guide is missing. It would be nice to be able to print out the guide and plan your city before you sit in front of your machine. This is difficult if you can’t remember how building a windmill effects a farm.

Overall

LinCity is a great addition to the library of anyone with a Linux machine. It’s a well done, entertaining game that, rather than simply cloning the original version, has added a number of its own innovations.

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.