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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!)

StarOffice 5.0

Introduction

The review of StarOffice 4 is, at the time of writing, the most popular on this site. There is a good reason for that. Not only did Simeon do an excellent job of it, but StarOffice is probably the major office application for Linux.

StarDivision were first on the scene with a serious product and, with the onslaught of Corel and Applix, they intend to keep the lead. But is StarOffice 5 enough to keep people from defecting?

Installation

After the hassle of installing SO4, 5 is refreshingly simple, assuming that you have a glibc system such as RedHat or Debian. It would have been nice it if had used a standard ‘.deb‘ or ‘.rpm‘ package, but the Windows-like installer is painless enough. Even for older installations (without glibc) shouldn’t be too difficult as a suitable library is supplied.

One caveat that’s probably in the manual, but I was so keen to have a look that I didn’t notice, is that you have to install the application as the user that you want to run the it as. I originally made the mistake of installing it as ‘root.’

In Use

When it starts, SO5 throws you into a file manager not unlike the Windows Explorer. In fact, at the bottom of the window is a ‘task bar’ complete with ‘Start’ button on the left and clock on the right. Even the tool-bars have a Windows-look about them — they have the ‘highlight when you move over them’ thing as well as looking just like MS Office.

Your ‘home’ page allows you to create new documents by clicking on short-cuts, or you can move around your file-systems either by entering a URL or by double-clicking on folders and clicking on the ‘up’ button.

You can also open documents on remote machines by entering the appropriate URL. FTP and HTTP protocols are supported.

StarWord

Anyone familiar with Microsoft Word are instantly going to be at home with the word-processing component. It feels half-way between Word 95 and 97 and has the most-used features of both.

It’s fully WYSIWYG, comes complete with an on-the-fly spell-checker, advanced styles, paragraph and typeface handling and a whole host of other bits and pieces that most people won’t even look at!

For me, StarWord is missing only a few things. Firstly, it doesn’t use X’s own fonts. I spent ages trying to get X to use TrueType fonts and now StarOffice comes along with its own that are just as bad as the ones I was trying to get rid of! I couldn’t find a way to force it to use my Windows fonts, either.

Secondly, although it has quite adequate table-of-content functions, it seems not to have the ability to do cross-references except as hyper-links — not quite what I want. (I suspect that you have to do something fancy with field-codes, which is, therefore, not as easy as it should be.)

StarSheet

I’m not exactly what you’d call a spread-sheet power-user. Give me an AutoSum function, pretty colours and the ability to easily create graphs and I’m happy.

StarSheet is perfectly capable of doing this and far more.

My standard test of a spread-sheet was very easy. The test is: I create a grid of random numbers and add a graph of them. I didn’t guess the formula function for generating random numbers, but the insert formula dialog made finding what I wanted very simple — just pick a suitable looking function and tick the appropriate boxes. I then dragged the bottom-right of the cell and copied the formula to other near-by cells. This is great; it’s just like Excel.

Creating a graph was just as simple. Highlight the area and click the ‘Chart’ button. You then follow a simple ‘Wizard’ interface and you’re done.

This is hardly a complete test of the functionality, but what’s there appears easy to use, complete and well thought out.

Others

Most people are going to spend most of their time either word processing or creating spread-sheets so I won’t dwell on the other bits in quite so much detail.

StarDivision have been trying hard to compete with Microsoft feature-for-feature. Other applications, therefore, include a diary or scheduler, mailer and web-browser.

All are passable and, as they’re so easily accessed and consistent with the rest, are probably worth using. The web-browser is neat, but is no Netscape; the scheduler is decent but I much prefer my Psion; and the mailer may get some use as I have something against almost every competing product I’ve even used!

It’s not all good

The applications all look good, read other people’s data and are fully functional, so there isn’t a lot wrong with StarOffice. But what is wrong is serious.

StarOffice is extremely large and slow, and the monolithic “do everything in one place” approach can’t help. On my Pentium 120 — some way behind the leading edge but hardly pedestrian — it takes nearly four minutes to open and frequently swaps furiously when you select a menu item. (To put this into context, Word 95 under Windows 95 starts in about five seconds.)

I’m sure more memory would help, and I’m sure that a faster machine wouldn’t be out of place, but even Microsoft can get a word processor to run at a more respectable pace.

Conclusion

StarDivision are not only going for Corel and Applix, there are going for Microsoft Office. StarOffice is easy to use and as fully featured as almost everyone could possible want.

Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like Microsoft Office in other ways too. It’s so big and slow that it is rendered completely useless on my hardware.

It’s a shame, as in almost every other aspect it looks to be a winning application.

Also see this more complete review of StarOffice 4.

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.

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.