Category Archives: The Penguin Says

Reviews of Linux desktop applications.

BlackBox 0.35.0

Introduction

The choice of window manager is often a very emotive subject for a Linux user. Some swear by the simplicity of Fvwm2 — often a standard install for a Linux distribution. Others prefer something that looks like Windows 95 (there are a number that do this). Yet another group prefer a more all-embracing ‘environment’ such as KDE or GNOME.

Now I’m not advocating any particular manager here (for the record, I normally use AfterStep), I just want to get my work done.

So, we come to one of the newer, lesser know alternatives called BlackBox.

What is a Window Manager?

I suspect that most people here know what a window manager is, but for people that are more familiar with the way Microsoft Windows does things I’ll give a quick overview.

With all versions of Windows, the look and feel — the way that every window has a minimise button and that the desktop has a taskbar and a ‘My Computer’ icon — is tied directly to the underlying GUI framework (without getting into some programming jargon it’s difficult to be much more precise).

With Unix and X things are different. X is the underlying GUI framework. Using it you can paint things on a ‘generic’ screen rather than worrying about what graphics card you have, you can find the location of the mouse and what the keyboard is doing. But X doesn’t say what the windows look like (in fact, it doesn’t even insist that you have them), which buttons go where or what they look like. Window Managers (and widget libraries such as Qt or GTK) add this on top of X.

Like most other things, the Unix approach is far more complex but more powerful.

Look and feel

First impressions are good. When BlackBox starts, an almost CDE-like tool bar sits at the bottom of the screen, resplendent in its 3D-effect, gradated-filled boxes. On the right is the time; on the left is a box showing the current work-space (virtual desktop) and the number of windows open (why?); to the right of this are buttons to move around the various workspaces and to switch to minimise windows; in the middle is a huge gap that, as far as I can tell, serves no useful purpose. Perhaps the authors have plans?

The default application menu, available by right-clicking on the desktop, has a number of useful programs immediately available. Again, it looks good but is not entirely intuitive. For example, menu items with a circle to the left open out sub-menus. Would it not make more sense to have an arrow on the right?

Small programs such as xterm appear immediately, showing that BlackBox is relatively efficient.

Window furniture is fairly standard. The ‘minimise’ button is in the top left, and makes the window vanish. It can be restored by clicking the ‘Icons’ button on the tool bar and then the window name. I generally prefer a more visual approach such as the way Window 95 does it, but this is a perfectly valid and popular approach. On the far right is the close widget and to its left is a ‘fill the whole screen’ button.

Window sizing and moving is implemented in a Mac-like way: drag and drop the title to move the window; drag and drop the bottom right of the window to resize. It might be considered heretical to say so, but I think I prefer the Microsoft drag-and-drop-any-corner approach.

Configuration

Black box is easy to install. Type “xmkmf -a ; make ; make install” and you’re well away. There are a few options that you can change before you start the build, but nothing much worth changing. No option for the installation directory is given which is a shame as I prefer to put non-RPM software in /usr/local rather than any of the ‘normal’ locations.

Like almost everything UNIX, to alter any configuration options on a day-to-day basis requires the editing of a text file (the short-cut menu has a promising sounding ‘Reconfigure’ option, but this just re-reads the file). While the format of the file isn’t too daunting, I’d have preferred a dialog based interface. This is a very common problem with window managers.

All the standard things can be changed, the font, the colours, etc. The configuration file looks similar to the Xdefaults file rather than the more usual Windows ini file — it’s good that BlackBox has some consistency with the rest of X.

Conclusion

BlackBox is a neat piece of software. The look and feel are impressive, the performance is good, installation is simple, stability for beta software is excellent (one crash during testing), but there is something missing.

I think that something must be individuality. I don’t see much here that can’t be achieved by configuring many other window managers.

Cooledit 3.5.3

Introduction

Text editors are very personal things. I found this out when I wrote a very positive review of NEdit. I received a number of comments, nearly all by email. No-one agreed with me, which doesn’t by itself bother me. But no-one disagreed with me as such either. All the messages were from Emacs users who thought that it was the only real editor and that I was misguided thinking otherwise.

This time I think I’m unlikely to incur the wrath of Emacs users. Cooledit is just not going to appeal to the same people. If Emacs is equivalent to O’Reilly books, Cooledit is a Dummies Guide.

Look and feel

This is going to become the theme of the review: text editors are very personal things. When I say that I’m not keen on either the look or feel of Cooledit, I must also point out that there is nothing wrong with it either.

There are good bits. I like the default colour scheme. White on blue is very easy on the eyes. And the default, fixed-space typeface is very readable, too — I’m not sure what it is, though. The tool-bar down the left-hand side of the text window is useful and it would be immediately obvious what the buttons did even if it didn’t have text on the icons and ‘tool-tips.’

For a text editor with an emphasis on ease-of-use, Cooledit is actually quite powerful. In addition to the normal cut and paste, search and replace and file management facilities, Cooledit also has built in scripting and dialog-based configuration of keyboard shortcuts and the environment.

It does, however, look a little amateurish. While the menus do have Office 97-style highlighting when the mouse point moves over them, it’s difficult to take them seriously when they drop down. They look so big and clunky that you can immediately tell that they’ve been designed by a programmer. They’re not easy to get rid of if you pull down a menu by mistake, either.

And let’s not forget Cooledit’s most unique feature: it’s multiple document interface. Inside the main Cooledit window, you can have as many documents as you like. Behind all the windows is a picture of an igloo; it’s not entirely clear why it’s there. Documents can be moved around by dragging their border, and can be resized by dragging the bottom-right corner. These inner-windows don’t have title bars, which after years of finding a documents name by looking in the title-bar is a little confusing.

The interface does not take full advantage of its multiple windows, either. The load button and the open menu item actually operate on the currently open window rather than for Cooledit as a whole. This means that to open another file you need to open a new window (from the Window menu) and then load a file into it. This kind of operation would be acceptable for a program with only a single buffer — such as vi — but for a modern, GUI editor it’s just odd.

Conclusion

This has been a rather short and very negative review. As I have said, there is nothing strictly speaking wrong with Cooledit, it just feels wrong. It has all the right things in the right place; functionally it’s at least as good as NEdit. But it’s idiosyncratic user interface and ‘jokey’ appearance have a tendency to distract you from your work!

If you like to be different and you liked Borland’s cartoon ticks and crosses in its Windows applications, then you might go for Cooledit. If not stay well clear.

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.