29 October 2007

Fluxbuntu--login manager followup

I just did some poking around and discovered that Fluxbuntu uses SLiM for login management. I don't know much about SLiM, but knowing this much is a good thing.

Fluxbuntu--first impressions

I downloaded the latest Fluxbuntu over the weekend and gave it a very quick spin. Here are some very hasty first impressions.

The worst news is that I could not get this "Gutsy Gibbon" Fluxbuntu release candidate to install on my old laptop. I haven't been able to get the "Gutsy Gibbon" release of Xubuntu to install on that laptop either. In both cases the problem is the same: the installer (after booting from the CD and prompting me for a bunch of info) cannot find a valid CD drive when it comes to doing the actual install work. I guess this is a typical example of Linux's hardware temperamentalness. The weird thing is that I have no problem installing older versions of Xubuntu on the same machine. Gnarly.

Anyhoo, I instead installed Fluxbuntu using Qemu (via Qemu Manager) on my workhorse laptop (1.7 GHz Intel Centrino with 1.5 GB RAM). The emulation was set up to use 128MB RAM, so this should give a reasonable idea of what would happen in a slim system. Doing some very rough benchmarking suggests that the effective clock rate of this setup is around 800 MHz. If I turn off all acceleration, then it drops down to something like 300 MHz.

Anyhoo, anyhoo, the installation went fairly smoothly--except for it asking me to install native language files for an English language install. Now for the report card.

First, the worst part. Startup is slower than expected. A lot slower. Like, "Is it working?" slower. But in the end it does start up. I wasn't able to tell what DM they are using yet, but it has been Fluxbuntu branded and it looks pretty nice. Still, the slowness may be due to a DM that's more bloated than it really needs to be. Or it may be because there's a lot of daemons, etc. starting up. The weird thing is that Xubuntu doesn't take as long to get going.

Once inside, you are presented with a very attractive desktop. I noticed some sluggishness, so I disabled the soothing wallpaper in favor of a solid backdrop. That seemed to help a bit.

I set up the emulated screen with 800x600 resolution, and sure enough one of the problems that I have seen with a lot of distributions manifested itself here as well: DPI ambiguity. Almost all 800x600 screens are physically 75 dots-per-inch screens, but they are treated as 100 DPI by some applications in many Linux installations. I solved this problem on the system(s) I have been developing by adding explicit DPI configuration information to the files that affect X-server startup (I am using XDM). This seems to solve the problem for all but the oldest or worst designed programs. In theory this should be possible with whatever DM Fluxbuntu uses as well, but it require some more research to find out 1. what DM they are using and 2. how to change the config stuff. (In fact, given the slow startup that I have already mentioned, it may make sense to just replace it with XDM because it is leaner than anything else I know.)

I found it interesting that the Fluxbuntu people opted to use ROX-filer for file management and managing desktop icons; they are also using Leafpad as the default text editor and settled on Abiword and GnuMeric. It's interesting because I have settled on exactly the same applications for the same, er, applications.

However, for web browsing Fluxbuntu uses Kazehakase rather than Firefox or Iceweasel. I will need to use it a bunch more to see what it's like. Fluxbuntu uses a similarly obscure email client, Claws, rather than the now-classic Thunderbird.

One thing that I will need to test is what happens to the non Debian-menu menu items in the Fluxbox menu after installing new apps.

My impression so far is that Fluxbuntu looks promising, but it will need some tweaking if it's going to work on PII-era machines.

27 October 2007


The Fluxbuntu project has released a candidate "Gutsy Gibbon" (7.10) version of their Ubuntu-based "lightweight, productive, agile, and efficient" distribution. If they've done their homework, they may have made my little odyssey moot. You will recall that I started this whole adventure because I wasn't able to find a light-and-lean Linux distribution that floated my boat. I will download the ISO over the next few days and let you if Homer is headed back to Ithica.

Diverge, diverge

I'm noticing some strange behavior with my Openbox+ROX+fbpanel setup. In particular, when you restore windows after hiding them with fpanel's "show desktop" button, they come up in a strange way. It's pretty much not acceptable behavior ... So I am back to considering IceWM+ROX and Fluxbox+ROX.

There are a few more things that need to be ironed out with the Fluxbox setup (e.g., getting CPU and net transfer metering setup ... using Conky? Slit-widgets?). I like Fluxbox's aesthetics and aesthetic opportunities better than anything I've seen with IceWM, but I am not convinced as to its usability. I think ultimately some user testing will be needed to determine whether an IceWM or a Fluxbox-based solution will be best.

25 October 2007

Converge, diverge

Things were beginning to converge and congeal up until last week, but now they have begun to diverge again.

First, I was settling on a solution using an Ubuntu/Xubuntu command-line system as the base. But I am running into some difficulties with some of the non-standard ways that Ubuntu/Xubuntu handles some things--having no real "root" for starters. This is making it harder to get e.g. sound going in this context.

So... now I am working with a minimal Debian install in the hopes that it will be less irregular and more completely documented. (Ubuntu/Xubuntu doesn't need to document a lot its inner workings because they wrap those workings in GUI goodness. It's only to people with geek interests like me that it matters.)

Another alternative I am considering is starting with a full Xubuntu install and then stripping away the heavy bits and replacing them with lighter ones. But I think I am going to try working with building up a command-line based Debian install first. If I can get this to go without too much pain, I think it will make future maintenance a lot easier.

Second, I was settling on IceWM as a window manager/desktop environment solution because it does both in one swoop, integrates some widgets as well (CPU load, etc.), and does it at a very low cost. But I am having a hard time accepting the way it structures its program launching menu. The default setup is kind of klunky and modifying it involves hacking a text file. Also, even though the whole package is theme-able, I have yet to see a theme for the taskbar that makes me really love the visuals. It's a good solution for sure, but I am wondering if there is better.

One option I have considered on-and-off is Fluxbox. It's configuration isn't that awful mostly because there are nice GUI tools available to help you. But the WM's behavior doesn't feel 'right' to me. For example, the right-click nested menu options are tweaky to navigate no matter what theme you use. I have yet to figure out exactly why this is so, but I suspect the nested menus are a bit too eager to let go of their states. Also, while I think Fluxbox's panel looks really neat, I don't like the way open windows are dynamically sized on it starting from 100% for one window and then shrinking linearly. Finally, to make it work with ROX-filer (the leading contender for file management) you have to use ROX's "Blackbox hack." And even then I've seen one or two weird things happen. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on.

The option I am currently most seriously considering is a combination of Openbox and fbpanel. Openbox is fast and lean; fbpanel can be made to look good fairly easily, isn't a total pain to configure, and handles default menus in its program launcher better than IceWM. fbpanel isn't as lean or as widget-full as IceWM's taskbar, and I don't completely love Openbox's context menus or the poor frame grab hints, but the combination is a credible alternative to IceWM and is worthy of further exploration.

I looked at PerlPanel and PyPanel as alternatives to fbpanel. PerlPanel is awesome in the configurability department, but it's quite a memory monster and it no longer seems to be actively maintained. PyPanel was just weird. Maybe I need to spend more time with it, but its default setup was nearly unusable with Openbox+ROX.

I also made an Openbox+ROX-desktop detour (using ROX-Session) but had setup issues that no end-user would want to have to deal with. I love the ideas behind a lot of what the ROX project is trying to do, but I am not sure they've got the implementation quite right yet. So unless ROX's desktop setup gets better organized, I am not going to further investigate that route right now.

09 October 2007


My "short break" from making entries is going to be longer than I expected. I've been hammered with an especially demanding course load this term and so I won't have much time at all for anything else!

I will try to add what wisdom I have collected so far when I can, but I think it will take a while before I have the mental space to collect additional thoughts.