The Linux Moderate

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Transparency in XFCE

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You know all those impressive transparent effects that Windows Vista can’t do unless you buy it a new computer? You can have some of the same neato stuff running on a computer with a sticker that says “Built for Windows 98.” Xubuntu, or PC/OS, or any other distribution that uses the XFCE desktop will do it for you.

Here’s how you set up transparent effects in Xubuntu (actually, I’m using PC/OS at the moment, but the instructions are exactly the same):

  1. From the main menu, choose Settings, then Settings Manager.
  2. Click on Window Manager Tweaks.
  3. Click on the Compositor tab.
  4. Check the box for Enable display compositing.
  5. Move the bars to choose what you want to be transparent and how transparent you want it. I’ve just set inactive windows to be about halfway transparent.
Setting transparency in Xubuntu or PC/OS.
Setting transparency in Xubuntu or PC/OS.

(You’ll notice, by the way, that I’ve tweaked PC/OS considerably since I reviewed it. I even fixed the incorrect indefinite article in the main menu.)

And now here’s an example of why transparency might not be such a good idea after all:

The GIMP; or, Why I Turned Off Transparency.
The GIMP; or, Why I Turned Off Transparency.

In the GIMP, everything you work with is a separate window. Here I am trying to adjust the contrast of a picture that turns transparent every time I touch the Brightness-Contrast window.

Still, it’s fun to show off transparency on a nine-year-old computer and blow a big fat raspberry in the general direction of Redmond.

Written by cbaile19

July 18, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Review: PC/OS

with 4 comments

I think my impression of PC/OS can be summarized in an equation:

Xubuntu + (1 hour’s fiddling) = PC/OS

That’s dreadfully unfair to the creator, who I know has put months of work into this distribution. But the differences from stock Xubuntu seem superficial. There’s not much changed here that I couldn’t have changed easily myself, and remember that I’m relatively new to Linux.

Since I’m going to say some uncharitable things, I should come right out at the beginning and say that PC/OS worked well, and that, if it were installed on my only computer, I wouldn’t hesitate to leave it there. In the most important respect—helping me get real work done—PC/OS does its job, and does it well.

So that’s out of the way.

I was a little leery of PC/OS to begin with. The Web site is on the border of illiteracy, which is never a good sign. Here’s what the site has to say right at the top:

About PC/OS

So whats unique regarding PC/OS.  Its the first Linux based distribution that provides ease of use out of the box. It provides all multimedia codecs out of the box, an easy to use and simplified interface. Great compatibility with older hardware to help you extend your hardware and software investments. Being based on Ubuntu Linux all software and hardware that is compatible with Ubuntu is compatible with PC/OS. Our mission statement is summed up in two words “Simplified Computing”

Not a sentence in that paragraph makes it all the way to the end without a serious grammatical stumble along the way. On the rest of the site, and in his blog, the developer continues his victorious war against apostrophes.

But PC/OS is based on Xubuntu, which so far is my favorite Linux distribution for older computers like my testing machine. And, after all, I do have this testing machine sitting around for the sole purpose of, you know, testing. I was curious, so I tried it.

Installation was stock Ubuntu, right down to the Hardy Heron in the background. Aside from my name and password, the only place I didn’t accept the defaults was when the installer offered to set up a dual boot with openSUSE. I had no more use for openSUSE, so I told it to use the whole disk.

The installed system boots up into an XFCE desktop with a tastefully abstract greenish-bluish background and a peculiar placement of the upper panel. I always knew XFCE would allow you to put the panel in the upper right, but I had no idea anyone would actually try it. Superficially, of course, this setup looks very different from stock Xubuntu; but it doesn’t take more than forty-five seconds of tweaking to get from Xubuntu to here.

As soon as you open a window, you’re in for your second surprise. The developer has chosen the NewBe theme for the window manager, which looks like the late and apparently lamented BeOS operating system. The buttons are in Mac order, on the left side of the title bar, which is a tab rather than a full bar. It seems like an odd choice of theme, but if looking as different from Xubuntu as possible is the goal, then it accomplishes the goal. Again, forty-five seconds in the Settings Manager accomplishes this tweak. If you don’t like it, XFCE comes with a broad selection of other themes, and you can rearrange the buttons in whatever order you like.

Some of the illiteracy even creeps into the menus.
Some of the illiteracy even creeps into the menus.

One of the main differences between PC/OS and Xubuntu is that PC/OS has all the multimedia codecs installed by default. “It is your computer, do with it what you want,” says the Web site, continuing its war on apostrophes and opening a second front against capitalization. “if you want to watch that Windows Media file, go right ahead. Your music files not in .ogg, thats fine by us. Do you want to watch that flash video on YouTube? go ahead.”

My test files—old cartoons that have passed into the public domain, just so you know—played perfectly. Video on the BBC site played fine, though my hardware isn’t always up to playing it at full speed. A commercial DVD did not play at all, so DVD playback either isn’t installed or didn’t work.

The applications are mostly the same as in Xubuntu, but with a few extras added. There’s a whole “Mobile” category with Web-based applications like Google Maps. The Network category is beefed up a bit; it includes the non-free Skype and Java. It also includes “gufw,” which is a graphical front-end to “ufw,” which is a text front-end to the firewall settings. I think “gufw” is nearly useless for beginners and people with skill levels up to and including mine; Firestarter would have been a better choice for me.

One of the fiddlings removed the Update Manager, so PC/OS doesn’t get the updates that come down the line for Xubuntu. Some of those have been important security updates, and some of the rest have been bug fixes. I think the frequent updates are one of the big advantages that Ubuntu and its derivatives have over many other distributions, so cutting them off seemed like an odd choice.

But since PC/OS uses the Ubuntu repositories, there’s no reason I can’t install the Update Manager myself. It’s right there for the taking in Synaptic Package Manager.

Finding the Update Manager and Notifier in Synaptic.
Finding the Update Manager and Notifier in Synaptic.

So that’s what I did. It could break the system, depending on how far PC/OS departs from plain Ubuntu. But what’s the use of having a dedicated testing computer if you can’t live dangerously? While I was at it, I installed the Update Notifier, which should put a little icon in the panel when new updates arrive.

As soon as I started the newly installed Update Manager, it told me I could install 167 updates. (The version of Xubuntu on which PC/OS is based came out at the end of April 2008, so you can see how frequently it’s updated.)

One hundred sixty-seven. That's a lot.
One hundred sixty-seven. That’s a lot.

I told the thing to go ahead and update. Every once in a while it found a file that had been modified from its original Xubuntu state and asked me whether I wanted to overwrite it. I told it to leave those files alone, figuring those were some of the things that had been tweaked to change Xubuntu into PC/OS. Otherwise, I just let it go about its business and made a pot of tea while I waited.

And now, the moment of truth: after half an hour or so, I was ready to reboot and see what I’d broken.

Now I discovered why the Update Manager wasn’t included. In place of the PC/OS login screen, the standard Xubuntu screen appeared.

Otherwise, though, nothing important had changed. I logged in; everything looked the same, everything worked, and I had an updated Xubuntu system with the same sprinkling of PC/OS flavoring as before. Firefox was updated from the beta to the released version, and all the under-the-hood updates were made, but the desktop didn’t look any different.

looks the same, but updated.
After the update: looks the same, but updated.
And the Update Notifier works now, too.
And the Update Notifier works now, too.

So if you decided to install PC/OS, I’d recommend installing the Update Manager along with it. It didn’t break the system or even change the look of it, except for the login screen. And it fixed some security holes and some bugs that were worth fixing. If someone knows a good reason (other than the login screen) why I shouldn’t have installed Update Manager, please let me know.

Which brings me to the final question: Do I recommend PC/OS?

Well, as I said, it’s basically Xubuntu with some fiddling. So the question is whether you like the fiddling or not. It’s convenient to have all the multimedia codecs and Flash installed from the start. On the other hand, installing those in Xubuntu isn’t a big deal, and I had to do some fiddling in the opposite direction to make PC/OS do what I wanted.

A default installation of PC/OS probably won’t disappoint you. In every important respect it works as well as Xubuntu does, and that’s very well. But given the choice, I’ll take plain Xubuntu: I won’t have to alter it as much as I did PC/OS to make it work the way I want. Nevertheless, PC/OS makes the short list of distributions you could actually get real work done with, and in spite of my reservations, that’s high praise.

Written by cbaile19

July 17, 2008 at 11:25 am

Posted in PC/OS, Reviews, Xubuntu