Monday, January 16, 2012

New laptop, and Ubuntu Ocelot comments

Some news about my finances made me buy a laptop just after Christmas, not because they're good, but because this'll probably be the last time I get the chance to buy one for the next five years or so. Don't worry, the news is good news. I'll share more in a few weeks.

What I got was a Dell. Yes, I voluntarily went out and bought a Dell. Nobody buys Dells except (1) corporate IT departments and (2) "PC owners" in the fevered imagination of Mac zealots, until now. And in classic Dell style, the machine looks and feels boring. Corporate. Depressing. Urgh.

So why Dell? Well, because the alternative was Lenovo, and quite honestly, my last few experiences with Lenovo have not been good. I was thinking HP, but for some reason they refuse to include nipples on their laptops unless they cost four digits, which is a shame because I'd have gone in that direction given the budget PC I bought from them is excellent. And it gets harder to get nipples on your laptop with other brands. As it is, the Dell nipple could be a lot better, I'm on the look out for a better nub because it's actually quite painful to use.

What did I get? Well: It's a Latitude E6420, which is a Toyota Camry of the laptop world I guess. It has a Core i7, albeit a low end version (ie just the two cores, made to look like four using hyperthreading). The screen is a 1600x900 14" thing, which is very nice indeed, and there's a low end nVidia in there that, even under Wine, does a pretty good job on everything I've thrown at it, although GTA 4 is wanting. There's a (fairly crappy) webcam, an SD card reader, and a few things Ubuntu doesn't have drivers for like an RFID reader, finger print reader, etc. I've upgraded it to have a 750G disk, and 8G of RAM (which maxes it out unfortunately. With 4G being the standard today I'm bothered 8G will look pretty crappy in five years.)

I put Ubuntu 11.10 on it. Now, I'll be honest with you, while I like the direction Unity is going in, I do think - fairly strongly - that it was released too early. It's still not ready for prime time, in my opinion. There are major and minor complaints I have with it:

  • Running an app that isn't on the dock is a PITA.
  • The dock doesn't really understand/respect the "multiple workspaces" thing.
  • The single menu thing is a great idea, but the whole "Move the mouse to it to see it" thing is bad. I'm a fan of Apple's solution here, change the "File" menu to have the same of the app and otherwise show the menu all the time. Or go the Commodore Amiga route and use the right mouse button. And, just showing the menu and not trying to id the app is OK in practice too (see below.) But however you do it, understand Fitts Law doesn't work well if you don't know where to send the mouse.
Some of these may seem minor, and it may not be a long list, but honestly, it's enough for me to not be able to stand the system for any great length of time. What I did instead was:
  • Use the GNOME 3 "fallback" system
  • Install the third party GNOME 3 panel applets that implement the Ubuntu menus (including the single menu) and that thing on the right with all the icons and your name and so on.
  • Installed "Docky" and had that be the bottom panel. Docky isn't perfect, but it's slightly better at the multiple workspaces thing, and I prefer that style of window management - slightly - to the Windows 95 taskbar thing.
The third party PPA that includes Ubuntu panel applets for GNOME 3 is described by this article. The menu thing actually shows the menu at all times (no hiding it when the mouse isn't near it), and that works for me.

People are switching in droves to alternatives to Ubuntu because of Unity. I'm not convinced that it's quite as high as some of the claims - many people are citing figures from ISO distribution sites for instance, but most people upgrading from Ubuntu X to Ubuntu Y will never be in those figures. But still, Canonical does need to be a little more careful when releasing their new technologies. It's hard seeing giants of the Open Source/Free Software world fall not because their technologies are bad, but because they're willing to release unfinished crap as production code when they should sit on it and make it work properly before releasing it. Unity is getting there though. And from my brief testing of GNOME 3's Shell, I'm of the opinion Canonical are slightly ahead, although the GNOME 3 people have some great ideas too.

On that note, would it be too much to ask for Ubuntu to put Firefox 3.6 back in the repositories?

Also: Thunderbird is OK, but it's not Evolution, and quite honestly, I think Evolution is a much better product. It's much faster, and does more without the need for extensions. It's a little annoying that Ubuntu is supporting the former over the latter because even if you install the latter, it doesn't automatically integrate with Ubuntu's notification bar, while Thunderbird just sits there thumbing its nose at you.

Here's what I think Canonical needs to do for Ubuntu 12.04 (or 12.10, it's probably too late for 12.04.)
  • Bring back hierarchical menus as a way to launch applications. Big translucent panels with huge icons that leave most apps hidden and with it being confusing as to whether an app is even on your computer or not doesn't work. It really doesn't. If you must do something like that, make the icons smaller.
  • The dock really needs a lot of fixing. There's not enough space to show everything on most PCs which leads to awkward hacks involving scrolling. And it doesn't respect multiple workspaces. So, to that end:
    • Make the dock thinner
    • Let the user place the dock on the bottom of the screen if they so wish
    • Only show icons for apps on the current workspace (plus launchers, widgets, etc), and if the same app has windows open on multiple workspaces, pretend those windows don't exist.
    • Disable multiple workspaces by default (but make it easy for us to enable.)
    • Reduce the number of circumstances in which the dock is hidden.
  • The single menu needs to be implemented in all Ubuntu supported apps, including LibreOffice. It should not be hidden with the current window's name.
  • Replace Thunderbird with Evolution.
  • Replace Banshee (OMG. You know that thing causes the fan to start running, and both memory and CPU to be maxed out, immediately upon starting on my Netbook?) with RhythmBox. As a general rule, avoid replacing working software in the future just because it's imperfect and something else looks like it's going in the right direction - wait until that other app is proven first.
So, those are my opinions.

Finally, when did Wine get so good? With some minor exceptions, pretty much everything I've got on Steam that I tried has worked perfectly right out of the box. GTA IV needed some tweaking, and a third party DLL to disable Windows Live (which unfortunately disables all multiplayer, including LAN, alas) but once it works it's hard to believe it's not running natively. Awesome job.

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