Tuesday, 23 September 2014

New Chromixium Alpha out for testing

Chromixium Alpha 5f 


I realised a little too late that I was more than a bit hasty with my initial release of Chromixium as I hadn't sought permission for all the lovely wallpapers contained therein. I apologise to any authors/creators, and I have since pulled that release from Sourceforge and updated the ISO. Grab the new one here:


I managed to get in touch with Clemens G√ľnthermann who took that amazing photograph that I used as the default wallpaper and that is also found within ChromeOS. I am delighted and most grateful that he has given permission for it to be included (in spite of the fact that I jumped the gun somewhat). You will now see a small watermark on the login screen and the filename in the wallpaper picker contains his name and website:

His work is truly inspirational and I suggest you all have a look at the other amazing photographs he has taken.

There are still some other very beautiful wallpapers in the new Alpha release, courtesy of the free photo group on Flickr:

I just picked out a number of my favourites, but there are plenty more to choose from.

I will also be trawling through my own photo collection for anything suitable - yes, I have managed to take one or two good shots in my lifetime (well my wife has anyway!) If there is anyone out there who has an amazing photo that could be included in a future release, please get in touch. I'll be setting up a Google+ group soon which will be a good place to share such things.

And if any of you are hankering after the original ChromeOS wallpapers, this site has them all and all appropriately referenced:

Some of the best ones are taken by famous travel photographer, Trey Ratcliff, and there are countless, breathtaking shots on his website that you can download for personal use:

Finally, if anyone wants the official ChromeOS avatars, you can find them on the web here:

I'm not sure I can use the avatars yet as I see they have been committed to ChromiumOS, which is meant to be the open source project upon which ChromeOS is based, so I will look into whether these can be added back in or not.

I have also taken this opportunity to include GParted which will help you partition your disk prior to installation and updated the brightness script which will hopefully work better (tested working on Intel graphics). The live ISO might still hang for a couple of minutes while it tries to detect the network. I'm still not sure exactly why this is happening - some remnant of the build environment? Happily it is not a problem post-install and I will share a fix for anyone who wants to create a persistent live USB in due course.

The ISO is now much reduced in size and will probably fit on a CD should anybody still use them!

Now I am going to get to work on some much needed documentation!!!


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Chromixium Project - please test & volunteer

UPDATE: Chromixium Live ISO now available to download. Read on for more details.

DOWNLOAD: https://sourceforge.net/projects/theme-ix/files/Chromixium/

For a while now I've been working on a new Linux project with the working title Chromixium:




The idea: to create a ChromeOS/ChromiumOS-like experience using conventional Linux desktop technologies... and I am putting a call out for volunteers.

Disclaimer: if you do not approve of Google, do not read any further, this project is not for you.

Here's the why, how, when and who:

WHY

As an Android user for some years, I spend most of my time using Google's services. I have an Android phone and tablet - I use Gmail, Google Calendar, Blogger, Google Keep, Drive and a range of Chrome extensions on my laptop and similar apps on my tablet and phone. Chromebooks have been a growth area over the last 2 years. ChromeOS and its open source counter-part ChromiumOS are interesting operating systems and cheap way of owning a new laptop, but they are not without their drawbacks.

Chromebooks have very limited local storage and limited offline abilities. You are restricted to Chrome + extensions, no other software can be loaded. And of course, you must buy a Chromebook to use the operating system. It is possible to install ChromiumOS on a conventional laptop, but it isn't an easy experience and requires a lot of tweaking to enable simple things like flash, PDF support and Google Drive integration.

On the other hand, unless I perform a minimal installation of say Debian or Ubuntu, desktop Linux is shipping with too much bloat for my needs and few distributions are shipping Chromium as the default browser. I also find the default interface of ChromeOS uncluttered, yet modern and pretty.

HOW

By taking a modular approach, I intend to create an installable system that matches as best as possible the appearance and usability of ChromeOS. Since I want it be a modern OS with a consistent interface, I will be aiming to use mostly GTK3 applications. The operating system has to be light on resources. One of the aims has to be to help users create Chromebooks from old laptops. It has to overcome the limitations of current Chromebooks and allow access to local storage and applications. It has to boot up and shut down fast. Above all it should feel integrated and all files should be managed by one application.

I have been steadily building up such a system in VirtualBox based on the following:


  • Ubuntu 14.04 LTS kernel and repositories (though this may change to Debian Jessie in future)
  • Upstart - for quick bootup (may change to Systemd in future)
  • Openbox - window manager with XFCE menu plugin
  • Synaptic package manager - to allow installation of local applications
  • Plank + Compton - provides the Chrome Ash style dock with transparency
  • LXPanel - provides system notification area
  • LightDM login manager
  • Chromium browser + pepperflash plugin + pdfviewer extension
  • Chrome app launcher
  • Nautilus (Files)
  • Parole media player - latest GTK3 version
  • Wicd network manager
  • Le3fpad text editor, GPicView photo viewer, Catfish file search
  • Systemback for live ISO creation and installation
  • A collection of bespoke scripts.


One of the important concepts of Chromebooks is that they are self updating. I hope to achieve a similar system using unattended upgrades.

WHEN

The alpha is already uploaded for initial testing:
https://sourceforge.net/projects/theme-ix/files/Chromixium/.

The live ISO can be installed to hard disk or can be used to create a live & persistent USB install. It is pre-configured with VirtualBox guest additions.

The current ISO is a bit hefty at 900MB but this is mostly due to the high-res Chrome backgrounds that I have included. They really are quite stunning!

After some initial testing I would want to get a beta out for wider public testing by November and a final release by late 2014/early 2015.

WHO

I can do it on my own, but I would much prefer it to build a small team to bounce ideas off. I am not a Linux guru, but I have experience of developing small scale distros/re-spins. I do them my way, but I know there are technically better ways to do things. I can write custom scripts, but I am no coder. I have enthusiasm for Linux projects, but I would love to share that with others.

How can you help?


  • By offering to discuss the pros and cons of the project, best base system and applications.
  • By offering to be an early tester and reporting back. 
  • By offering to help with any technical skills you might have. And I mean anything and these can be very specific.
  • By offering to help with hosting or website design. Although this isn't terribly necessary at this stage in the project, it will still be most welcome.


Of course it might be that nobody is interested, but I hope enough will be to take this project forward and get it out to the masses! Please leave your comments here at the end of this post and if needs be, I'll set up a forum or Google Groups page to continue the discussion.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Docks for XFCE (with Window Control)

Edit: This post has now been updated with all the reviews and a final summary! 

The dock was first given to us by RISC OS as far back as 1987, but in more recent years they have evolved from a simple panel containing application launchers into all-purpose task and window controllers. This format was popularised by Apple in OSX and much copied since - by Microsoft in Windows 7, ChromeOS, Unity and Gnome 3.

The XFCE4 panel, venerable and customizable as it is, does not (yet) offer this sort of functionality. You can add launchers, you can add a window switcher/window buttons, but you can’t combine the two. So if you want a modern dock, you need to go 3rd party.

Edit: Just to be clear, this post and the following reviews are concerned with docks rather than launch bars or panels. My definition of a dock is a bar that contains an icon for every open application, usually grouping similar windows together. The dock will indicate which applications are active or minimized. Clicking on the icon allows the user show, hide or close the application or in some cases switch between windows and tabs. Icons can be pinned so they are permanently on the dock. The obvious examples are given above in the intro. The main point being that when pinned, the dock uses the same pinned icon for window/task control. You can create a very good looking launch bar using the XFCE panel (see my post on recreating the ChromeOS look) and you can add launchers or customize the window buttons to display icons only, but you cannot merge the two.

There are number of docks that can be installed independently of your desktop environment. Most of these require a compositing window manager. Luckily, XFWM is just one of these. So without further ado, here are the contenders (click on the name to read the review).:
I will be testing each one within Debian (Jessie) Linux running XFCE 4.10 and rating each one against the following criteria:
  1. Ease of installation
  2. Customization
  3. Features/Applets
  4. Stability/Resource use

Results


The results are in, and based purely on the overall scores that I gave each dock in the individual reviews, the winner is...

DOCKBARX

DockbarX is certainly the best dock to use within XFCE as it is the only one that provides a plugin for the XFCE Panel and provides the best compromise between simplicity, functionality, good looks and customization:



However, do make sure you read all the reviews before making your mind up. Everyone has their own ideas about what looks good, what is easy to install and configure and what their working practices are. With that in mind, read the following summary including the caveats about tabbed windows and Chrome/Chromium apps.

Summary


Only 2 of the docks that I tested were available in the Debian Jessie repositories but they were all hosted on Launchpad and available via Ubuntu ppas. I felt that Ubuntu was definitely the target system for some of these docks as most supported Unity quicklists. That being said, after a bit of trial and error, I did get them all installed on Debian.

Development was at different stages with each dock and each one seemed to be based on a different toolset and libraries.


  • AWN -  Written in C but currently under major rewrite. Development restarted in 2013. Plenty of themes and plugins available. Score = 7/10.
  • Cairo/GLX - Can make use of OpenGL hardware acceleration. Can be used as a session manager under Gnome3/Unity. Highly configurable. Under active development but buggy. Score = 6/10.
  • DockbarX - Supports full screen previews using Compiz and has an XFCE panel plugin. Easy to customize with plenty of supplied themes. Score 8.5/10.
  • Docky - Built on Plank using mono for docklets. Currently lags behind Plank development build. Score 7.5/10.
  • Plank - Lightweight and simple dock. No plugins, themes available but has to be configured manually. Latest version uses libbamf for window identification. Score 8/10.
  • Simdock - Features pseudo-transparency so no window compositor required. Onli provides builds against current Ubuntu system, but development of features is static since 2007. Awkward to configure. 5/10.

Support for tabbed windows


None of the docks that I tried could show a list of open tabs, in for example, Firefox in the way that Windows 7 does. This may be a limitation of Linux window managers but it's about time at least one these docks integrated this feature. This is the main reason that none of the docks achieved a score of 9 or 10.

Support for Chrome/Chromium Apps


If anyone uses Chrome/Chromium apps in a standalone windows (ie by creating app shortcuts) then you will find they are all grouped under Chromium on the docks. Since the docks don't support showing tab lists (see above) then all Chrome apps are hidden/shown at once by the one icon. That is all except Plank.

Plank uses Libbamf to identify window class and ID and this makes a much better job, than libwnck (which most of the other docks use). With Plank, you can pin Chrome apps like gmail and YouTube separately to Chrome itself and their windows are treated as individual apps. Docky 3.0 will most likely support this feature in future.

Panel features


Remember, these applications are docks not panels, but some do come with clocks, notification areas, application menu and other panel-type plugins (AWN, Cairo, DockbarX). However, don't necessarily expect to be able to totally do away with a standard desktop panel. That is why I recommend DockbarX for any XFCE user as it is the only one to integrate within the XFCE panel.


Click here for the first review - Avant Window Navigator
Click here for the second review - Cairo-Dock
Click here for the third review - DockbarX
Click here for the fourth review - Docky
Click here for the fifth review - Plank
Click here for the sixth review - Simdock

Let me know what your favorite dock is and why in the comments below. If you are a developer of any of these docks and anything is inaccurate or you would like to explain a feature, please contact me or leave a comment.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Give Ted some love!

In the land of [Microsoft] word processing, Microsoft Word is King, but perhaps WordPad is the Prince. WordPad has been a default part of the Microsoft Windows operating system since Windows 95. After some years of neglect, it got a new makeover for Windows 7 and in all honesty, is all that most home users need to accomplish their word processing tasks.

In the land of FOSS/Linux, Libre Office is King, but who is Prince - AbiWord?

I would like to put forward an alternative, and it goes by the unlikely name of Ted.

If you are looking for a word processor more akin to WordPad, for simple tasks, that doesn't get in the way or try to do too many things, then you might be surprised at how nice Ted is to use:

Its author, Mark de Does, calls it "an easy rich text processor" and that's exactly what this is. Moreover, it was always intended to be the de-facto WordPad replacement for Unix/Linux. The default file format is RTF - a format that, although proprietary, is cross-platform and has been stable for many years. That means that whatever Ted produces and saves on Linux, will be untouched and replicated exactly on any other *Nix system, Microsoft, Apple, or even Android. 

Originally built on the LessTif toolkit, it hasn't changed much over the years from inception, but is now compiled with the GTK+2 toolkit, so blends in much better on a conventional Linux desktop.

Ted is a bit quirky, but once you get used to the quirks, you will realise what a nice, clutter-free change from the norm it is.

Get Ted


Ted is quite hard to find in many Linux repositories even though it was last updated in 2013. However, it's quite easy to download a .deb for Debian/Ubuntu or an RPM for Fedora/SUSE/Mandriva as the Author has kindly uploaded them to his own site:

There are some dependencies, most of which should be handled by your package manager, but certainly on Debian, you are going to need libtiff4 which you can download from Ubuntu. Install this first then install the Ted deb file:

Or, I have both packages on Github:

Start using Ted


One quirk of Ted is that is doesn't open to a new blank document by default. This is the screen you will see:

You'll have to click File|New or press Ctrl+N on your keyboard to get a new document.

Then you are presented with a clutter-free page ready for typing. The first thing you notice is the lack of a toolbar. Don't let this fool you into thinking that it is a plain text only editor - everything is found in the menus, or by bring up the Format Tool dialog.

Right-click to bring up the Format Tool which will open by default at the font dialog where you can change the font type, size and apply bold, italics or underline:

Leave this tool open and come back to it each time you need to change an aspect of the page. Click on the drop-down menu at the top and you'll see that you can use it to alter page characteristics, paragraph styles, insert a table, check spelling amongst other things.

A quick look through main application menu indicates you can insert images (which can be resized) and tables as well as other page processing commands.

If you don't already know your basic keyboard shortcuts, now's the time to learn as they'll help you use Ted with a minimum amount of fuss. They are indicated next to certain menu entries:

Conclusion


Ted is lightweight to install, in terms of memory use and in terms of it's GUI. There are enough features 'under the hood' for the vast majority of anyone's home word processing tasks. In fact, it's on a par with Google Docs for text processing features. If you want a distraction-free word processor that won't take up much room on your hard drive or use precious CPU cycles, then I can heartedly recommend this product.

Post-script


Ted is the default word processor on Theme-ix Linux releases.

To start Ted with a blank page try this:
  1. Install xdotool from your distro's repositories
  2. Create a new batch file as follows:
    #/bin/bash
    Ted &
    sleep 1
    xdotool key ctrl+n
  3. Save the batch file onto your desktop
  4. Make it executable (use Thunar or from a command line: chmod a+x batchfilename)
  5. Ted will open and a second after open a new blank file.
The online Ted manual is here:

Similar projects: FocusWriter


Thursday, 26 June 2014

First Live CD released: DebianXbluebuntu

If any of you have read my About page, you will know that I originally intended this project to be a theming project where I will share my experience with the wider community via tutorials. I hadn't intended or expected to be releasing any 'images'.

But then I thought, if I am going to go to all the trouble of starting with a Debian net install and creating a themed Linux desktop from scratch and then I might as well share the results with the world.

So here I am announcing the first release from the project code-named THEME-IX, download link below:

DebianXbluebuntu 14-06 Beta3 <-- Download now!


It's my 'port' of Xubuntu 14.04 to Debian (Testing/Jessie). It is a fully functional LiveCD that can be installed thanks to the efforts of the guys at Refracta. I have set up a Sourceforge page which will handle hosting and contains extra info such as a full packages list and a support forum.

Here's some information you might need to get going:

Live username = user 
Live user password = user 
Live root password = root

DebianXbluebuntu-14-06-beta3.iso = 650,278 KB
MD5 = c0d9142e1fde334f9cd37be6c0fb353a

It's my first public beta and I appears stable on my hardware, in fact it flies. It is almost an exact replica of Xubuntu with the exception of a slight nod towards a couple of lighter-weight applications. Here's the full list:

Base: Debian Testing (Jessie)

Desktop: XFCE 4.10

Theme: Xubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr (Greybird GTK + Elementary XFCE icon set)

Desktop Applications:

  • Firefox web browser with Adobe Flashplayer
  • Sylpheed emai client
  • Ted word processor (like MS WordPad)
  • Gnome paint (MS Paint clone)
  • Transmission bittorrent client
  • Gmusicbrowser for playing tunes
  • Parole for playing movies
  • Printing support
  • GADMIN - Samba configuration manager
  • Xfburn CD/DVD burning application
  • Wicd network including wireless support
  • Various accessories including calculator, notes, archiver, file search, dictionary, pdf viewer
  • XFCE Settings manager
  • Lightdm & lightlocker control logging in, switching users and screen locking
  • Synaptic package manager
  • Refracta tools: installer, snapshot and liveUSB creator

Average memory usage when idle = 160-200MB
Hard disk space required = 4GB+
Recommended RAM = 512MB+ (should run in 256MB)
Processor = i686 with pae

Friday, 13 June 2014

Xubuntu with a *pure* Debian Base (from scratch)

Or, rather... How to make Debian look and behave like Xubuntu.

Why? Xubuntu is a very polished distro and has gained many fans over the last couple of years as Ubuntu users dissatisfied with the Unity interface have looked for something more akin to the old Gnome 2 way of working, or wanted something that would run well on hardware no longer supported by Unity. The current version, 14.04 is an LTS release and is as good an Xubuntu release as I have used, and looks stunning - modern, but straight-forward.

Still, Xubuntu has always been a little 'heavy' for an XFCE-based distribution, both in terms of RAM usage and it's reliance on many gnome packages and dependencies.

Debian is a leaner system, though out-of-the-box, XFCE looks really dated on Debian.

The Goal: Create a pure Debian installation with XFCE, themed to look like Xubuntu, but with as few gnome dependencies as possible, whilst maintaining the same functionality.

How: Starting with a net install, install the packages one by one, check dependencies, replace with alternative packages if available, then configure and theme like Xubuntu.

Difficultly: intermediate. Some prior use of Linux is assumed, with some exposure to the command line and packaging tools, although all commands will be given in full.

Time: 1 -2 days. You will be installing a base system and then adding the packages one by one to build a complete system. You will be editing configuration files and using the command line.

This tutorial will be in a number of parts so that you can follow easily if you want to have a go too:


Part 1  - will get you a minimal Debian install with working X, sound, login manager and basic XFCE desktop environment.

Part 2 - will get the XFCE desktop themed like Xubuntu.

Part 3 - will complete the Xubuntu theming through boot up and log on.

Part 4 - will install all the required applications for a fully functional system and perform final tweaks.

Part 5 - will set up the system for remastering and create an installable live ISO.

Edit 20/06/2014 You can now download the entire tutorial in PDF format:


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Make XFCE look like ChromeOS Part 2

In Part 1, I demonstrated how you could alter the theme and panel layout of XFCE to mimic the appearance of a Chromebook/ChromeOS. If you followed that tutorial, then you will have pulled some Google Apps down and created a transparent toolbar and dock.

It's nearly there, but not quite. First of all, the icons on the dock are too close together. Secondly, if you look closely at a ChromeOS screenshot, you can see that the docks 'float' a little off the bottom of the screen.

Finally, I have never been happy with the launcher icon, so let's fix that too!