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Distro Dinosaur

Having successfully installed Ubuntu MATE at the start of the year, to replace a defunct Manjaro installation that had done good service for many months before succumbing to the problems of being a rolling distro, I can now report what a fortnight of using it feels like.

First thing to say, emphatically: it works! It works fine, in fact. All the applications I need (which often weren't in other distro repositories whenever I tried them a few years back) were swiftly and painlessly installed and work just as you'd expect them to. Despite MATE being a GTK (and hence Gnome-ish) desktop environment, key bits of KDE-based functionality work flawlessly -in particular, Clementine is happily playing its way through my music collection.

It also manages to work whilst wobbling nicely. Which is to say, I am afraid I am a fan of desktop bling and thus require my windows to wobble (and my virtual desktops to switch by appearing as faces on a rotating cube). Happily, Compiz integrates with MATE well, so all my required desktop effects are in place and mostly work without drama (the occasional tearing of a wobbling window as it's dragged can be a little annoying, but it's rare enough that I don't mind).

But… but… Whilst all the required functionality is definitely there, it looks dated. I didn't think this would bother me: as an old Gnome 1.4 user, I thought I liked things to be a tad old-fashioned! But there's old-fashioned and then there's Jurassic: and MATE is definitely in the latter park, as far as I'm concerned.

So: this week, I decided to pull the plug on Ubuntu MATE for its cosmetics, not its functionality. Casting about for a suitable replacement, I realised I've acquired the following internal rules about Desktop Environments:

  • Gnome is a no-no. It's just extremely irritating. It doesn't work out of the box the way I like, requiring instead a ton of post-install configuration with a bunch of extensions of sometimes dubious provenance to get there. And its native applications increasingly fail to provide the options and tweaks I feel I need. No Gnome-based distro for me, therefore.
  • Rolling distros are a no-no. It's me, not them, but I keep adding little bits and pieces of software as I go and the mix of me constantly altering things and the distro constantly updating itself is a recipe for going bang! at some point (as neatly demonstrated by Manjaro on New Years Eve!) So, no Arch, no Manjaro, no rolling distros of any sort. Stability before bleeding edge.
  • MATE is also a no-no. See above: I studied history at Uni and I love my Ancient Romans and Greeks, but MATE is just too “2000s” to pass muster today.

On the same “ye ancient desktops don't do it for me” principle, I can also rule out things like XFCE and LXDE. I'm also not young and adventurous enough to be enticed by the prospect of Budgie -which, in any case, I find very Gnome-like and thus comes lumbered with all Gnome's attendant problems!

Which leaves? Cinnamon and KDE, I think.

I have some experience with Cinnamon: it is again quite Gnome-y, and although it is now a desktop option for many distros, it began and is still heavily-driven by the Linux Mint developers. I have quite liked it in the past, but it's Minty heritage makes it a bit of a non-starter for me these days. I like Linux Mint a lot, but it's essentially Ubuntu with knobs on, and my last fortnight means I'm a bit over the Ubuntu-experience for at least a few months! It's also still Gnome-like, and 'native' applications for it would be GTK-based ones, and thus subject to Gnome-inspired design principles (meaning menus lacking most of the options you'd like them to have!).

So, for me, at the moment, it comes down to this: use a KDE distro. KDE has lots of graphical bling; it's got more configuration options than you can shake a stick at; its native apps are highly functional and the functionality is readily accessible and tweakable in ye olde fashioned menu-option fashion! It's a little too Windows-like, if I'm being completely honest, but if that bugs you, you can at least tweak it away. But you don't have to tweak much to get a good-looking, bling-filled, desktop experience that's modern and a pleasure to use.

Which brings me to the next question, of course: what's the best KDE-based distro? Obviously, you can install KDE on the top of most distros these days, but I'm after one where it's baked in as a primary option, not added in as an afterthought. Linux Mint is definitely not an option here, of course, because they long ago stopped developing a specifically-KDE version of their distro.

Incidentally, if I were contemplating using Red Hat or CentOS as a desktop distro, I would also have concerns about KDE there. But I'm not, and I don't think Red Hat's refusal to back KDE from 2024 and beyond is a show-stopper for using KDE in other distros in the meantime. You might reasonably expect Fedora to deprecate KDE in the same fashion sooner than that, though -but even if it doesn't, Fedora's integration with KDE in the past has never been exactly a triumph!

So if not Mint or Fedora, what?

Well, this is quite a handy list of distros that primarily use KDE -and implement it well. I'll say right up-front that no matter how good the reviews of those distros are, I'm not touching distros like “Chakra”, “Kaos” and “Netrunner”: I know nothing of where they come from, how big their developer community is, how good (and friendly) their user communities are… nor their long-term prospects, putting it bluntly.

That leaves me a choice of: Kubuntu (forget it: it's Ubuntu with KDE slapped on top); KDE Neon (forget it; it's Ubuntu!); Fedora KDE Spin (see above: forget it, because it's Fedora with KDE slapped on top, badly, and the long-term future of anything Red Hat and KDE is suspect)… and OpenSuse.

It's a Hobson's choice, in other words. If you want a mainstream, KDE-first, distro these days, you can choose OpenSuse or… nothing much!

Accordingly, yesterday evening, I wiped my Ubuntu MATE installation and put OpenSuse 15 on instead (note: OpenSuse has a 'Tumbleweed' offering, which is a rolling distro… and is therefore another no-no these days for me!) It is a pleasure to be back in the arms of KDE, with wobbling windows, desktop cubes, good looks and a sense of the modern!

I've put together a little article about how I did my post-installation tweaking, should anyone be interested (or should I need to do it again in the future… which given my propensity to switch OSes isn't beyond the realms of probability!)

2019/01/18 12:09 · dizwell

Distro Doom

So I installed Manjaro as my Desktop's only operating system several months ago and have been enjoying it (and KDE) since then without too much drama. But it's a “rolling distro”, meaning that it updates all its components all the time (instead of only releasing security fixes regularly and then going for a 'big-bang' new version once or twice a year). This has not caused me too much grief, to be honest: there was an update months ago that rendered my ZFS disks inaccessible, but only for a day or two and I could live with it, as I was getting merry in Riga at the time.

But just after Christmas, either an update too far happened or (more likely, if I'm being honest) I installed something new and untested and my entire O/S, at the next reboot, refused to boot into graphical mode. It instead parked itself into command-line-only mode… and even that was rendered impossible to use because the command line would auto-dim to the point of illegibility about 10 seconds after coming up. I could switch the monitor off and on and the command line would be normal brightness and usable again… for another 10 seconds! After that, 'dim, switch off monitor, switch on monitor and type fast' became the order of the day.

My backup scripts were functioning entirely normally, so the “operating system” as such was just fine; but the graphical stack was borked. I once managed to get a message saying 'KWin was unstable' but that didn't help me much!

Which is all a bit of shame, as I was having such a good time with Manjaro (an Arch-based distro) that I was contemplating writing an article about how to install it and configure it as a desktop for the general user. If I could put my finger on what I installed, tweaked or otherwise contributed to the breakage, I wouldn't mind so much: blame me, not the distro, basically. But as I can't think of any likely suspects, I shall think rather the less of the distro instead!

On a spare laptop, I therefore installed Ubuntu 18.10 with it's Gnome desktop (instead of the monstrosity that was Unity!). It's new, it's reportedly sexy and Gnome is allegedly getting pretty good these days as a Desktop Environment (DE). But it was horrible. Really, really horrible! I had it installed for three hours before deciding that it was irritating me to the point of irrationality!

So I had another go and installed Ubuntu Mate 18.10. It's still Ubuntu, but with a default Mate DE, which is sort-of like the old Gnome 2 desktop (or can be made to look like it with a bit of tweaking). It felt sane, it behaved predictably, all my essential software was readily available and I decided to take the plunge and re-install my main Desktop PC with it.

Fortunately, my Manjaro installation had used separate mountpoints for /home, /root, /boot and some other stuff: since a fresh O/S installation only involves wiping /boot and /root, my old documents and program settings were preserved and I was thus up-and-running with the new distro in only an hour or so, with all the stuff I care about kept safe and sound throughout.

Not a brilliant start to the New Year, therefore -but a lot less painful than it otherwise could have been :-)

2019/01/02 13:00 · dizwell

Dropbox Doom

I think I've been using Dropbox for just over ten years to synchronise files between my various desktops, laptops, tablets and phones, for the princely sum of $0. Sure, you only get 2GB of storage at that price, but with clients available for pretty much every operating system known to mankind, it has worked transparently for all those years -to the point where I basically forgot about it and assumed it would always be thus.

I therefore missed this not-so-minor news: Dropbox stopped supporting 'non-standard' file systems in November 2018.

As of November 7th 2018, Dropbox now only supports (and therefore only really works on) NTFS, ext4 and a couple of Apple-specific file systems. File systems such as ZFS, Btrfs and XFS miss the cut.

Which is a bit of a show-stopper for many (if not most) Linux distros, since ext4 hasn't been the default file system for lots of distros for quite a while. Even when it is, there are lots of good reasons for choosing an alternative file system that Linux supports well. In my own case, for example, my /home partition is formatted with XFS by choice. Red Hat use it as its default; OpenSuse uses Btrfs as its default -these are not minor players in the Linux universe!!

Now, there are ways of making Dropbox work even if you are using one of these 'weird' file systems. For a start, you could download and run the dropbox-filesystem-fix script. I tried it and it mostly worked fine -but there's no guarantee it will always work and the project producing it explicitly warns that “This is an experimental fix, not supported by Dropbox. It might cause data loss”… which isn't exactly encouraging!

Another approach I tried:

cd /home/hjr
dd if=/dev/zero of=dropbox_drive.img bs=1M count=2048
fdisk dropbox_drive.img (select: g, n and then w options; press Enter to accept sizing defaults)
mkfs.ext4 dropbox_drive.img
sudo losetup -Pf --show dropbox_drive.img
mkdir /home/hjr/newdropbox
sudo mount /dev/loop0 /home/hjr/newdropbox
sudo chown hjr. /home/hjr/newdropbox/

…which creates a 2GB 'fake hard disk' formatted with ext4 and mounts it in a place where the Dropbox client can make use of it, after you tell it to by fiddling with its Preferences → Sync options. Automatically re-mounting all that at startup can be a bit of a fiddle, but not an insuperable problem.

So there are possible workarounds.

But I don't think Dropbox deserves a pass on this: their decision to drop support for more than just one Linux file system is corporate bone-headedness of the 'deserves to be punished' sort, in my view. They have decided to mandate a specific (and fairly old!) file system for Linux users -and this seems to me to fly in the face of the entire Linux ethic: freedom of choice. The only way to respond to their behaviour, in my view, is to simply stop using Dropbox completely. (Since I'm not a paying customer anyway, they won't shed any tears about this, but anything to dent their market- and mind-share, basically!)

However, that's easier said than done: there are not too many free file synchronization tools out there which work on multiple platforms -including Linux and Android (my two must-haves). Obviously, one could use something like Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive -but I don't particularly want to put my files into the hands of the mega-corporations and their data-mining proclivities. So what I'm looking for is cross-platform, free and not run by one of the monster-corps in the IT world…

I researched a number of them: pCloud, SpiderOak and Tonido amongst them.

  • pCloud offers up to 10GB free (2GB out of the gate, just like Dropbox), has a client for Android and an easily-installable Linux client for most distros. Transparent, client-side encryption is not, however, available with the free plan and doesn't come cheap: US$4 a month. I should mention, too, that the recommended Linux client is now an AppImage, so isn't installed like you would a 'regular' application and doesn't get integrated into your disto as a regular package would: it's more like one of those 'portable' applications you can run on Windows without actually running a setup.exe. As such, I am less than comfortable with it (for what are quite probably unreasonable and irrational reasons, I accept!)
  • SpiderOak sells the 'SpiderOak ONE' cloud backup product. As far as I could tell, it does not have a free product offering (just a free 21-day trial). It's cheapest offering seems to be US$5 per month for 100GB: too expensive for my tastes! There are clients for Linux and Android.
  • Tonido (like NextCloud and OwnCloud) is something you download and host on your own server. Clients can then access that server via a URL. Your files don't specifically reside in 'the cloud' unless you happen to install it on a host you've rented that's 'out there' somewhere. I ruled all these options out on the grounds that I don't want to do my own hosting, but want someone else to host it all for me.

Of all these sorts of options (and I looked at quite a few more than those listed), none completely won me over, though pCloud came close. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to actually sign up to the pCloud 10GB free offering: it could just be me, but when I signed up, I had to pay for the 2TB Premium product (£100 a year!) and then immediately cancel it and ask for a refund. Those are murky waters, especially since when you click to cancel your paid-for subscription, there's no indication that a refund then has to be manually applied for. By the time all that's sorted out with their Help Desk (who were actually very helpful!), you could well find yourself liable for some moolah after all!

I also disliked their desktop client application -click it, and new File Manager windows open every time. If you just want to check your storage quantities, free space and so on, you have to remember to right-click, not left-click. It's fiddly and irritated me a lot.

So, all-in-all, I found pCloud a less-than-satisfactory replacement for Dropbox.

Which brings me onto the one alternative which I did find acceptable: Mega. Now, before we go any further, let's be clear that although Mega was originally established by Kim Dotcom (whose apparent personal ethics would rule out me using Mega in a heartbeat), it has had nothing to do with him since 2015. His claims that the company he founded had been taken over by the Chinese, and then essentially nationalised by the New Zealand government, would seem to be untrue (though I wouldn't think the worse of it if it was owned by the New Zealand government!) The truth would appear to be that he was indeed ousted by a Chinese investor, but that it is now owned by publicly-listed shareholders in the normal way.

The free product offering from Mega comes with, essentially, 15GB of storage. You get more as you unlock 'achievements', such as installing their desktop or phone client software or recommending the product to others. Those achievements have a fixed life-time, however, so you will eventually end up back at the 'base' 15GB soon enough, unless you start paying. Their paid product offerings seem quite reasonable, too, though: £9 a month for 1TB, for example; cheaper if you pay annually. End-to-End transparent encryption is provided as part of the base product, with Mega themselves therefore unable to access your files (your password acts as the private key and cannot be recovered if you forget it!)

Their Linux client is a properly-installed affair (on Manjaro, yay -S megasync will fetch the relevant software from the AUR repositories for you). It looks good and behaves properly: a left-click on the system tray icon will not open a file manager window, for example, but will bring up a small configuration window in which various options can then be selected as you like, only one of which opens a file manager window!

There are equivalently-good Mega clients for Windows and Android (and the Apple ecosystem), so cross-device synchronisation is a… er, synch!

So, in conclusion: you can spend a lot of time (and, potentially, money) evaluating alternatives to Dropbox, but as Dropbox no longer properly support Linux users, it's an investment that this Linux user thinks is worth making. In my opinion, pCloud and Mega are both worthy contenders for the Dropbox-replacement crown, but pCloud's obscure way of getting to its freebie offering and the poor quality of its Linux desktop client means that, for me, Mega is my preferred choice of free cloud storage for desktop and phone. YMMV, of course!!

2018/12/12 14:06 · dizwell

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