Tag Archives: review

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.

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.

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.

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.

Minolta Dual Scan II

Introduction

Oddly, the main reason I’m writing this review is that I feel that the Minolta Dual Scan II has been harshly treated in the media. Most magazines seem to skip over this, the entry level, model and move on to the Scan Elite. On photo.net all are singing the praises of expensive Nikons and Canons, and complain about the lack of ICE on this model.

In a sense they are right, but everything is a compromise. Here’s why the Dual Scan II is a compromise that works for me.

What is the Dual Scan II?

Flat-bed scanners have plummeted in price over the last few years. Just seven years ago the only way most people could own a scanner was by getting one of those hand-held ones that you manually dragged across your document. They were quite neat, but getting a good scan was tricky. You needed a steady hand and lots of patience.

Fast forward to the present day and you can get good and cheap flat-beds for reasonable prices. You don’t need a steady hand, just the patience — much less than used to be the case too — and a computer capable of accepting large image files. Most of the pictures you can see on the site have come from a very cheap flat-bed, so why did I go and buy a new one?

I have only very occasionally scanned anything other than my own photos. At first glance, a flat-bed seems ideal for the task: simply place the print on the glass and scan away. What’s wrong with that?

Image quality. Each stage the image goes through loses information. By taking the picture rather than looking at it directly with your eyes, you lose information. Scanning it in loses more and printing it onto photographic paper does too. So scanning from a print loses more information than scanning directly from the slide or negative.

Many flat-beds have a transparency adaptor, but I’m not impressed. Most scanners operate at between 600 and 1200dpi, which is great (too much really) for prints, but slides and negatives are much smaller so you’ll need to enlarge them to print. And negatives come out a funny colour. Much better, I thought, to get a scanner dedicated to scanning the originals.

Hence the Scan Dual II. It scans at 2820dpi, which is nearly three times the resolution that I could expect on a reasonably prices flat-bed. It’s much better than a digital camera, too. That resolution is roughly equivalent to a ten mega-pixel digital. Don’t bother looking in the shops for one of those just yet.

It’s designed especially for the task I’m interested in, meaning that you can automate some of the process. I can do up to six negatives or four slides in one go. It’s smaller than any flat-bed and conveniently connects to my iBook’s USB port (many other scanners in this price range are SCSI, which is difficult with a laptop). And it comes with software for the Mac, albeit only MacOS 9, which is another major consideration!

I see what they mean

I spent so much time in image editing software trying to correct the colours of my scans that buying a new scanner was worth the effort. To my eyes, the colours produced by the Minolta are fantastic. It’s able to find details in the negatives and slides that you can’t see in the prints.

It’s kind of obvious in retrospect, but now I find that I’m still spending time in Photoshop (much less through). The problem now is dust. When the source is so small, even small motes of dust look huge. I guess this is why people are happy to pay another few hundred pounds getting a scanner with ICE software. I’ve still not found a 100% reliable way of cleaning my negatives yet, so please let me know if you know of one!

But, as I said, it’s all a compromise. I could have brought a pretty good flat-bed scanner for half the price of the Dual Scan, so I stretched myself getting it. Spending more for ICE just wasn’t an option.

The software that comes with the scanner seems to be quite powerful, but does stop some way short of real image editing software. They supply Adobe Photoshop LE for that purpose, which is getting on a bit. It’s a cut-down version of Photoshop 5. Since we’re now on version 7 it’s rather ancient, and, like the scanning software, is not OS X native.

Conclusion

Slide scanners are very expensive compared with flat-bed scanners. Not only are they tasked with scanning much smaller sources, but far less people buy them. This means that in the broader scanner market, the Dual Scan II is horrendously expensive.

But as far as slide scanners are concerned it’s great. There are cheaper scanners, but they work at much lower resolutions and are only able to work on a single exposure at a time. The more expensive models tend to have image enhancement software which, while useful, is not worth the extra for someone with my (lack of) artistic abilities.

The bottom line is that if you’re on a limited budget, or would rather spend more money on camera equipment rather than computer peripherals, then I consider the Dual Scan II to be a good buy. However, the ICE software on the next model up are quite possibly worth the money.

Note: Some time ago I emailed Minolta technical support to ask them about a MacOS X version of their software. I was surprised when they said that they were not going to produce one. I was, therefore, even more surprised when I recently found said scanner software in a native MacOS X flavour. Ed Hamrick’s Vuescan shareware application is still a viable option, especially if you want to scan negatives (on which it does a far better job out of the box) but I think I’ll be sticking with the “unavailable” Minolta software.

Dreadful Conclusions

Introduction

I still can’t quite believe that I did it. I actually bought and Apple Macintosh, just like I said back in February. After years of using Windows and Unix is seems a little odd, but I think I like it.

There’s a lot to like about it, though. Here are some of my thoughts as a Windows and Unix user.

Hardware

It was the combination of the new, white iBook and Mac OS X that swayed me in the end. There’s no way that I’d buy one of the original iMacs and my budget didn’t stretch to a PowerBook no matter how much I wanted it to.

One thing that I really like is the hardware. Unlike most PC’s, it feels as though it’s been designed rather than just thrown together. Even compared to my old Dell laptop, this one feels well put together.

Having said that, it’s not perfect. I’m sure that it looks neat on all the design sketches, but I can’t imagine that having all the ports down one side of the machine is the most optimal way of doing things. For once, it probably works best for left handed people! The ports are all down the left side so the mouse cable goes in the correct side. Unfortunately I’m right handed…

Also, it’s deliberate that there are no flaps over the ports. The idea being that there’s nothing to snap or fall off over time. On the other hand, I’m sure that means that they’ll fill up with fluff and other random detritus.

Unlike most PC’s, Apple have completely parted with the past. There are no serial, parallel or PS/2 ports (not as though you’d ever expect PS/2 ports on a Mac). This has bothered me less than I imagined it would. The main down-side is printing to my parallel-ported Deskjet, but I managed it using my Linux box as an intermediary (and Postscript interpreter). Not the ease of use that Apple imagined!

The last thing I’m going to mention about the hardware is something that is an after-thought with most machines: the power-supply. Basically it’s tiny, only just bigger than ink cartidges for the aforementioned Deskjet. After using laptops with power-supplies near as big as the computer this came as a surprise.

Software

I didn’t buy the iBook for it’s hardware, though (although that was important!). I got it for Mac OS X. As I mentioned before, Mac OS X is a rather neat combination of a BSD Unix kernel and a Mac-like user interface. On paper it looked fantastic. It has all the things that the original Macintosh operating system lacked, such as a real networking stack, multi-threading, pre-emptive multi-tasking and the ability to use more than one mouse button. (Okay, I’m joking about the last one.)

The incredible thing, after all the disappointments I’ve had comparing marketing literature with the real thing, is that it does deliver.

In the previous section I mentioned that I now print using my Linux box as a server. It’s not pandering to any Macintosh oddities. Mac OS X is sending print jobs directly to the Linux print spooler, just as another Linux or Solaris machine would. Very neat.

Another thing you can’t really see from screen shots in magazines is how good it all looks. Semi-translucent windows, drop-shadows instead of borders, the way loading programs bounce up and down in the dock, the way that progress bars and the default button in dialogs pulsate… They’re all completely unnecessary, but totally cool. It makes working with the machine that much more fun.

Fun. Now there’s a word you don’t hear in connection with Windows very often. Linus Torvalds wrote Linux “Just For Fun” (his book), whereas Windows was written purely for money. I guess they’ve both succeeded in their own goals. I hope Apple can profit from their combination of both.

Annoyances

There are only a few things that I really dislike, and some of them are rather petty.

Firstly, Apple are still not too confident with it. When you get a new machine it defaults to starting Mac OS 9. If you’re used to dual-booting your PC between Windows and Linux you’d probably expect a menu when the machine starts up asking which operating system to start (that’s what I was thinking). But no. You have to find the Startup Disk control panel, change some settings and restart the machine. Not difficult when you know but not in keeping with the well known Macintosh user-friendliness. (Apple have just announced that they’re making OS X the default OS. This has not been well received by many, who are waiting until Quark and Photoshop are native OS X applications before switching.)

The other things are really niggles. For example, in the Finder although you can search for NFS and (presumably) Apple shares, you can’t browse Windows shares. (Of course my Linux box only had SMB shares at the time…) In fact, I’ve not been able to connect to any SMB shares on my server yet. However this “problem” has not been widely reported so I think that we can assume that it’s my local configuration.

And this is the churlish complaint: they’re updating it too often! Within days of getting hold of the machine there have been many megabytes of fixes. Which is kind of good, but the upgrade to 10.1.2 is 30Mb, rather a lot over a dial-up line especially when dropping the line means you have to restart the download from scratch.

Conclusions

Stepping away from what used to be called IBM Compatibles seemed such a big step. At this stage I half expected to be annoyed with myself, and cursing spending all that money on something I didn’t fully understand how to use.

The key has to be its value. I want to be able to access the Internet, edit MS Word compatible documents and write software. The iBook can do all that using free or preinstalled software, comes in a very neat package with some unique features

It is still kind of odd having to think about how to do some things that are “obvious” to me in Windows and Linux, but I’m still of the opinion that it’s worth the hassle.