26 March 2008

File managers

Linux gives you a choice of about a million different file managers. They differ in how much they do, how they do it, whether they are text or graphic based, etc. I have been able to narrow things down from the available choices to three that make sense to me. Each have their pros and cons and are discussed below.

The standards for selection are that the manager be fully GUI based and it must behave well. Even though this whole deal is about being light and lean, I consider ncurses or otherwise not fully GUI managers just too primitive for most users—including myself.

The three finalists currently on the shortlist are Thunar, ROX-filer, and PCManFM. An honorable mention needs to go out to XFE. It has its heart in the right place, but I just couldn't get it to look right.

Thunar is the file manager used in the Xfce desktop package. Although part of the Xfce desktop, there is nothing to keep you from using it under other window managers.

* Looks good.
* Automounts removable media (this is huge).
* Talks to Firefox/Iceweasel's download window—meaning that "Open" and "Open containing folder" links in Firefox/Iceweasel's download window work as expected.

* It's the biggest of the three and therefore takes a relatively long time to load.

ROX has been around for a while and is part of a larger ROX-desktop initiative. It is actively developed and has a strong following. Many of the parts that make up the whole ROX-desktop world are also worth investigating, particularly the concept of "zero install"—which replaces the idea of installing software with the idea of requesting software execution.

* Fastest of the three
* Built-in drag-and-drop desktop management (and more).
* Looks, while not as conventional as the other two, are good. You might even call it cute.

* Locating and selecting files/directories using just the keyboard is frustrating (e.g., typing the name of a file does not select it).
* Doesn't talk to Firefox/Iceweasel
* No "sidebar"

If I remember correctly, PCManFM is developed as a side-project by a Taiwanese medial student. (And I whine because I never seem to have enough time ...) It's designed to be lightweight and useful.

* Faster than Thunar (but not as fast as ROX).
* Has tabbed panes.
* Can manage the desktop (though support for this in the version I tried was not very good).

* Development is slow
* Doesn't talk to Firefox/Iceweasel
* Some reports of stability issues

Of the three, I think ROX has the most balanced promise, and that is what I am trying to make go at the moment. However, the other two are still quite tempting—especially Thunar's automounting.

Posted: An Even Lighter Debian

An Even Lighter Debian has been posted. Phew.

21 March 2008


I added a new "Guides" section in the Links section (on the right) where I will try to summarize what I've learned so far in this adventure in a way that's operationally relevant. A beta version of the first guide, "A Lighter Debian", has been posted. I have also added a "Recommended Practices" section to make deciding what to do a little easier. Following these will be "An Even Lighter Debian" that documents how to make an, er, even lighter Debian. Eventually I will also publish a "Minimal usable Debian" guide to help you setup a minimal GUI system that you can then tweak to your heart's content.

19 March 2008

Xubuntu--the hard way

I recently tried installing Xubuntu "Gutsy Gibbon" on an older laptop using a whole bunch of methods: the "alternate" Xubuntu 7.10 installer CD, the "alternate" Ubuntu 7.10 installer CD, the "server" Ubuntu 7.10 installer CD ... and they all failed. In all cases, the problem was the same. After the installer booted off the CD and moved through some preliminary information gathering, it would complain that the CD-ROM from which it had been loading was no longer mounted/found (Do you want to install the drivers from a floppy?).


A visit to the Ubuntu forums didn't really help... a couple other people had the same problem but with no solution. My best working theory at this point is that the problem is caused by the CD-ROM being an older LG device. There was a time where installing (some?) Linux would allegedly destroy (some?) LG CD-ROM drives. I think that this made a lot of developers paranoid and build kernels without support for many (all?) LG CD-ROM drives. Or not.

In any case, I managed to work around the problem and get Xubuntu installed. That's the good news. The bad news is that the system doesn't recognize the CD-ROM drive, but I was expecting that to happen anyway.

Here's what I did:
1. Download the "Minimal CD" version of the Ubuntu install CD--which basically does a network installation, sucking in what it needs over the Internet.
2. When you get to the point in the process that asks you if you want to install a desktop environment, indicate that you want XFCE/Xubuntu.
3. There is no third step.

It took forever to download the desktop environment, but it worked. It's a little interesting (and scary) that I didn't have this problem with Debian Etch, and I hope the next version of Ubuntu fixes the problem and/or the next version of Debian doesn't break it.


I decided to take a closer look at SLiM--the Simple Login Manager--as used by Fluxbuntu (instead of GDM). SLiM is light (about the same as XDM) and it looks really good, even in its default state. What more could you want?

Turns out that while SLiM makes logging into your session easy, it makes powering off or restarting your system from the login screen something of a pain. You need to use "special names" or setup special accounts with special permissions. Either approach is 1) not intuitive from the user's point of view and 2) a security risk. The developers say that implementing a better method is on the TODO list. Once this is done, I think SLiM will be a credible and much more attractive alternative to XDM.