Forth and back again – having a look at Fedora 9 and KDE 4.1beta

Recently my distribution of choice, Fedora, published a new version, Fedora 9. This one featured KDE 4.0, and there were also KDE 4.0.80 packages available, and I decided to take a look at them. Unfortunately, I had to return to Fedora 8 and KDE 3.5.9 – but not for long, that’s for sure.

The background

Recently I wanted to try two new “tools” – Fedora 9 and KDE 4.1dev. The reason behind was that both came along with a whole bunch of new features. Fedora 9 promised full disk encryption, a new X-server, PackageKit, a new NetworkManger, Upstart and so on, while KDE 4.1dev promised me first and foremost KDE 4.x. I was still in KDE 3.5.9 because I had to write a thesis during the upcoming of KDE 4.0 and wasn’t able to switch. Therefore I decided to install Fedora 9 and afterwards update the system to KDE 4.80 with packages from kdeforge. KDE 4.0.x wasn’t an option because I wanted to have the KDE 4 PIM suite.

The bad experiences

However, the journey did not went as well as hoped. First of all Fedora itself did not boot up any faster. Of course I know that switching the init system itself doesn’t make the scripts go faster, but somehow I expected it to go at least a bit faster than maybe a minute. But the problems with the new KDE were more pressing: KDE froze X several times (Gnome didn’t), most often when the kerneloops popup tried to tell me something. This happened regularly after only a few minutes, and made the system unusable. I deactivated kerneloops, selinux and other usual suspects, but X still froze after some minutes most of the times.
Additionally, Plasma is not able to enlarge to a new size when for example an external monitor with a higher resolution is plugged in. That is however my daily setup, and must work before I can switch to KDE 4.x.
Last but not least I had two issues with Dolphin: first of all, the Ctrl key doesn’t work as expected. Seems to be a bug in Qt 4.4, but nevertheless, I rely heavily on that feature. Second, Dolphin is quite slow when scrolling through large folders. I deactivated the information panel and it was quicker, but still not as fast as I am used to from KDE 3.5.

I did suspect that these problems could be related with Fedora or were fixed with newer devel versions of KDE, and therefore I switched my system to OpenSuse 11RC with the unstable KDE 4.1dev packages. But all mentioned problems were still present except for the X freezes (not entirely sure about that one).

So, in the end I had to switch back to KDE 3.5.9. There are only few things, mostly corner cases, which keep me there, but these are, unfortunately, existential to me.

The positive outlook

However: the impression I got from just playing around and testing the system was the same I already got from testing it only for minutes in virtual machines or demoing the system at LinuxTag: KDE 4 is awesome.
One of the best examples work-flow wise is probably the new menu. I newer was a fan of menus (Alt+F2 does the job quicker) and wasn’t really interesting in the change introduced with KDE 4. However, just using it for minutes already changed the way I worked. The ability to search through the menu is a nice and helpful add-on and just makes sense today. But the main advantage is the easy and intuitive way of setting favorites. It is a blast once you get the idea behind it and actually try to use it. I got accustomed to it after minutes, that was almost scary.
Also, I’m someone who never uses icons or links to clutter the wallpaper – but the folder view might be a good solution when I have to work with a bunch of files (think of TeX here, or of merging different images or text files). It still has some rough edges and could use a way to have no background at all, but it is definitely on a very promising way.

Besides these work-flow improvements there are of course the improvements within the apps, and the new apps in general: just some days ago I was chatting with a friend about city distances, and right in the discussion she said “so just check it with Marble”. Well, I would like to!
Another application I’m really looking forward to is Gwenview – the KDE 4 version is very, very neat. Also, KDE3’s KHTML engine is a bit notchy at the edges, holey in the middle and has a crack at one side. But KDE 4’s KHTML engine is much improved and is therefore a reason on its own to switch. And I haven’t even tested yet (that means: used in daily live) apps like Okular or the improved Kopete.

So I am very eager to see the above mentioned bugs fixed and will afterwards give it yet another try. I’m already sure that my work flow will be more efficient, and that’s in the end what really counts!

Closing words

Besides KDE 4.1 there is also Qt 4.4: some new apps I would like to test are based on Qt 4.4: Screenie and Arora/Foxkit are just the most prominent examples.
There are also bew 3rd party KDE 4.x applications: while the “usual” programs like Ktorrent, Krusader, digikam, Amarok or Konversation already have KDE 4.x versions or are working at it, there are also some new interesting programs around, like Audex or KGrubeditor.

Having said that all that, I’m still very happy with KDE 3.5 right now. It is still a supported platform which just works as I expect it, as I am used to. It even gets bugfix updates if necessary, for example KDE 3.5.9 was released after KDE 4.0, and I’m very thankful for it.
So I’m totally free to choose what I want – and that’s the most important point!

Future of FLOSS password storages: combined solution soon?

In a recent discussion about the future of KDE’s password manager KWalletManager it was mentioned that it is currently discussed to share a common password manager across all important FLOSS projects. While there is no result yet this is indeed a promising – and necessary – development.

It started with a question by Michael on the list kde-core-devel regarding the possibility to switch KWalletManager’s backend to the Qt Cryptographic Architecture (QCA) entirely. Robert answered that there was indeed discussion going on during FOSSCamp to merge all existing solutions (KDE, GNOME, OpenOffice, Firefox) to make it easier for the user to use these applications, but also to have the ability to sing-sign-on (meaning one login as user, and than automatically login everywhere else), which is a need for modern desktops. Afaik Fedora also has this topic on its radar, and it would surprise me if no one at OpenSuse, which constantly tries to bring these two desktops closer, has already put some thought into that.

While there are no visible results currently the need for such a solution is definitely present: At the moment it can happen that there are multiple programs used to store different keys in one single user session: Firefox on KDE introduces for example a second key storage right besides KWalletManager. Since the Open Source world does not want to force any solution on anyone, it should be possible to switch between Konqueror and Firefox without the need to take care of your passwords.
Technically there is no reason against a shared password storage, but it might tricky to convince the application/desktop developers. On the other hand, if KDE would get a pluggable KWalletManager backend it could even become possible to use the native key storages on other platforms if such APIs exist.

Short Tip: Move an X window in Linux with the Alt key

Usually an X window is moved under Linux via a click on the tile bar (and a following drag&drop). However, sometimes there are over-sized configuration dialogs or some strange behaviours of windows which move the title bar out of the screen. At that moment the window cannot be moved anymore via the window bar because it is not reachable.

But there is an easy way in Linux (and I wish Windows would have the same!) to move X windows regardless of the window title bar: by pressing and holding the Alt key any window can be moved with the left mouse button. This works under KDE as well as under Gnome.

Everyone who used Linux for a longer time knows that simple shortcut – but maybe there are some new users who don’t know it, and this post is for them.

Arora, a WebKit browser in Qt

The release of Qt 4.4 came along with the WebKit browser engine which could be tested with an included demo browser. This demo browser is now developed independent under the name Arora and is already, while in early development a cross platform Qt browser.

WebKit is a browser engine which was originally forked from KHTML and is now developed further by Apple, Nokia, Adobe, Trolltech and others. Up to a certain point there is also cooperation going on between KHTML and WebKit.

With Qt 4.4 WebKit is officially part of Qt, and therefore every Qt app can take advantage of WebKit (this is also true for every KDE app, but they can use KHTML for quite some time now anyway). The demo browser of Qt 4.4 was shipped with the release to show what the engine is actually capable off. Since it was already a (basically) working browser its own code repository under the name Arora. The WebKit code used is the one of Qt which is directly developd in the WebKit trunk.

Arora main window

Arora preferences

The browser is currently under heavy development and is still in an early phase, so it can hardly be compared against the “old” ones like Firefox or Konqueror/KHTML. However, the browser already has a nicely working Rich Text Editor support which for example works with WordPress blogs:

Arora support for the WordPress Rich Text Editor

Also, there special private browsing mode which makes it possible to deactivate the history and cookies just for a short time:

Private browsing mode Arora

Besides, recently the support for flash plugins was included, and Arora can restore closed tabs. Currently planned features include the support for password store mechanisms in the form of plugins which will make it possible to connect Arora to kwalletmanager and therefore integrate it seamless with KDE – or to connect it with the Gnome keyring and integrate it with Gnome.

But it can also be seen that Arora is still in development: in the version tested on this machine there were some issues with the scroll bar and also with the line-edit field and the buttons on the Google home page:

Arora display errors

Additionally, there are some things missing: especially web shortcuts which I really got used to should be added at some point in the future. Also, the preferences dialog does not list options which are normal for other browsers (always display tabs, always open in a new tab, etc.).

However, given that the development continues at the current speed these features should be available soon. In the long term Arora could become a real competitor to Firefox: while it is also cross platform like Firefox it could actually adapt the native design of each platform thanks to Qt. Additionally, with intelligent chosen plugins it should be easy to integrate it into the platform (password storage, favourites, desktop search, etc.). Last but not least thanks to its origins it features a much smaller memory foot print and is simply faster than Firefox.

For KDE users it could be an interesting alternative to Konqueror to have a look at WebKit and simply as a stand alone browser inside KDE.

In case you want to give Arora a first test the easiest is to run Ubuntu (probably in a virtual machine) and install the precompiled binary. Since Arora does require quite recent Qt packages it can’t be compiled in Fedora 8, and even Fedora 9 might not be sufficient at the moment.

Using Dell’s D/Dock docking station with Linux

Dell is shipping docking stations for it’s Latitude Laptops. I’ve tested a D/Dock and it does work with Linux. The only real problems have their roots in Linux’ shortcomings.

My new laptop has docking station support, and since these docking stations can be bought second hand at very reasonable prices I got myself a D/Dock.

It worked out of the box: the laptop, plugged to the docking station, just works. External devices connected via USB or the external monitor also work as they would be plugged directly to the laptop. I didn’t test the media bay, the DVI connector or the additional PCI slot, so I’m not sure if they would work. However, since there were no other problems I would at least be confident in trying these.

Hotplugging is also not an issue: the laptop can be plugged on or off the docking station while it is running. Of course, mounted USB devices connected to the docking stations should be unmounted before plugging off! But besides that there are no real problems.

The only real disadvantages of the docking station itself I was so far able to recognize are that it has too few USB ports and that it is a bit noisier than I would have expected.
There are just 3 USB slots at the back plus one at the side (which is a bit extended to work with Dell stuff, but still works as a normal USB slot), but I would have preferred to have at least 6. Mouse, keyboard, external hard disk, webcam, USB stick and a MP3 player are not uncommon devices these days.
The other problem is the noise of the docking station fan: while it is not really disturbing and far away from the fan of my former laptop it is at least noisier than the laptop’s fan. But since the docking station was quite cheap I might open it to check if I can do anything about it.

So basically everything works very well – however, there is one problem due to the shortcoming of Linux – or X to be more specific – itself: the external monitor is not detected and activated automatically. And the other way around, if the external monitor is activated alone and the laptop is unplugged, the laptop screen stays blank and there is no way to bring it back.
So the actual shortcoming is that, while the basic hotplugging support is available, there is too little automation there: X should make clear that at least one connected output device is active all the time! Also, there should be easy ways to define specific situations: if monitor xyz is connected, switch to xyz only, if monitor abc is connected, switch to abc and laptop monitor. The first one would be the external monitor of the docking station, the second one could be a projector.

But again, this is a problem due to Linux, not due to the docking station. I guess this will have to wait until the proprietary drivers deliver XRandR 1.2 support and until the distributions ship XRandR 1.2 GUIs at a larger scale and really implement these into the system. Fedora 9 will ship with a Gnome interface, and afaik KDE 4 has basic XRandR 1.2 support anyway. Still, I’m not aware of any demon like capabilities to enable automatic device selection as mentioned above…

Howto: Test the WebKit engine in Fedora

The Fedora repository contains a set of WebKit packages. Once installed they can give a first impression of WebKit’s abilities.

WebKit is a browser engine which was once forked from KHTML by Apple. Nowadays it is developed by the WebKit project where Apple still has quite some weight, but others are in the boat as well: Trolltech, Nokia, Adobe, some KDE developers, some GNOME developers, etc. Besides, WebKit will be part of the upcoming Qt 4.4, will play an important role in KDE’s Plasma and can also be used as a backend in GNOME’s Epiphany browser.

However, at the moment most of these developments are not here yet. But Fedora’s WebKit packages come along with basic WebKit browsers which can be used to test some websites against WebKit:

# rpm -qa|grep -i webkit

# rpm -ql WebKit-qt

# ls /usr/libexec/WebKit/
DumpRenderTree  GtkLauncher  QtLauncher

The two executables QtLauncher and GtkLauncher are a simple browser based on Qt or Gtk, respectively. Since the path is usually not part of PATH the browsers must be started from the command line with the full path, /usr/libexec/WebKit/QtLauncher for example. After you’ve called that line via ALT+F2 the browser comes up.

But don’t expect too much: these are just basic browsers to show off the capabilities of the WebKit engine – nothing more. They are definitely not ready for production use – or any real use at all. The Qt version does not know how to handle addresses without the http://, usual shortcuts like Ctrl+L are not working, and plugins are not embedded at all. However, the Qt launcher has a nice effect of showing a link address when you hover over a link. The Gtk launcher is in a bit better shape: it does at least understand addresses, but than again it does not fill in the http:// after loading the page.

But nevertheless these two launchers can give you a first impression how this web engine works on a web page – in case you are a web developer this might come in handy. Also, if you are up for tests, you can check the current state of WebKit in regards to the Acid3-Test. Also, the first impression of the engine is rather nice: it seems to be rather quick and layouts web pages just nice. I’m looking forward to see new browsers based on WebKit.

An incomplete list of high quality Open Source games

It is often mentioned that many games are not available on Linux. While several big titles are indeed missing such Linux ports, the Open Source community itself produced some impressive titles. Here is a short list together with some promo videos.

Most of the Linux Distributions out there are shipped with the set of games included in GNOME or KDE. These games are nice for short breaks, but not comparable with big, hour consuming games sold by the big publishers. However, the Open Source community stepped up there to deliver its own products, and many of them are not only interesting, but simply impressive. Also, there is a game for almost every taste available.

First of all the games where I also found a promo video:
The first person shooter Nexuiz speaks for itself:

The same is true for the first person shooter Tremulous:

In case you loved the UFO-XCOM series, you will find yourself at home at UFO: Alien Invasion:

Glest, a real time strategy game with wizards, trolls and the like:

In case you love classical Jump’n’Run games, Secret Maryo Chronicles is the way to go:

Next a set of games which might be a bit calmer (and don’t have a promo video), but are nevertheless exciting:

  • Freeciv is the game of choice for everyone who loves to crush and rebuild entire civilizations.
  • Wormux is – as the name suggests – a Worms clone.
  • FlightGear gives you a fuzzy feeling if you love to fly from one airport to another with different types of machines.

All of these entries above have three things in common: they are all actively developed by a healthy community, they are all very appealing and have high quality graphics, and they are all comparable to the proprietary competitors of the corresponding game type. Some of them are better, some of them are as good as, some of them fall a bit behind – but not much. And they definitely meet the requirements of the occasional player and are a way to spend hours and hours.

Of course I’m well aware that there are many more Free Software games – but I’ve kept my focus on the games which at least released one full working (feature complete, playable) version and are in active development. And of course I only listed games I know of. Although I think I covered all the shooting stars of the Free Software games genre I am open to any other suggestion!

But while these games are great, the Open Source community sometimes fails to advertise them. For example, many of these games are included in the distributions – but did you ever see a Linux distribution review featuring the included games? It should be included in the release notes and reviews that a Linux distribution most often is not only a nice set of Office software but also comes along with a rich set of high quality games.

Fedora for example has a dedicated project for games, the Fedora Special Interest Group Games which helped to bring many games to Fedora. Except Secret Maryo Chronicles all games above are available on Fedora and just a click away. It takes more than 1 GB to install all these games – but that is definitely worth the space. And if you like them: promote them!

There is btw. only one genre which I personally miss badly: MMORPG. Of course there are projects dealing with it, but none of them has released a full, stable version yet. But that might be not too bad for my person because I still have to finish and hand in my final thesis these days, and a free MMORPG would give me quite some time problems.