Category Archives: Software

Xubuntu upgrade: from Heron to Ibex

Usually I install Xubuntu afresh when a new release arrives. This time along, though, I felt like upgrading from Xubuntu 8.04 to Xubuntu 8.10.

The first thing to consider is that Xubuntu 8.04 is a “Long Term Support” release, meaning that it’ll receive security updates for a longer period of time than normal releases. Thus, people using this version won’t need to upgrade Xubuntu every six months when a new version is released. The consequence is that you will not be notified of a new normal release when it arrives.

In order to be able to start the upgrade process, you’ll need to start the Software Sources application from Applications->System. In that application, under the Updates tab, you can select which new distribution releases you want to be notified of at the bottom. By default, this is set to Long term support releases only, but to upgrade to Xubuntu 8.10 you’ll want to set this to Normal releases.



With that set, when you start the Update Manager (Applications->System), you will be notified that a new distribution release is available. To start the upgrade process, just click the Upgrade button on top.



This will then pop up a screen containing the release notes of the new release, which unfortunately are Ubuntu-specific.



After confirming that you want to upgrade, Xubuntu will download an upgrade tool. It will start preparing the upgrade and will update your software sources to make sure you will be downloading software for the newer version. No need to worry though: if you press Cancel, the original configuration will be restored and any other edits the tool might have made will be reverted.





When information has been gathered about the upgrade, a new confirmation window will appear providing an overview of what is going to be done and giving you another chance to back off if you got scared. It also advises you to close all open applications to prevent loss of data – wise words indeed.

Of course, it is always recommended to make a backup of important documents and settings before you upgrade.



Before the upgrade could continue, a window popped up informing me that the (proprietary) driver for my graphics card was no longer available in the new version, giving me another chance to abort the upgrade. I opted to continue and take the risk of losing my shiny desktop effects (due to needing to use the open source driver), but was relieved to find that they still worked after the upgrade – I did not even need to redo the steps to install Compiz in Xubuntu. That said, this does not mean I recommend you to ignore the warning – I have too little knowledge of graphics cards and their drivers to be giving sensible advise on that.



The upgrade tool will then start downloading the packages of the new version. This will take a while (essentially it’s downloading new versions of most of your applications in their entirety) – the final stage in which you will still have the option to cancel the upgrade. Isn’t that great? :)



With the packages downloaded, the tool will start installing them – from this point on there’s no going back!





During the installation of the new packages, you might get some questions about newer configuration files overwriting older ones (I got most of these at the end of this process, so you can make yourself some coffee while it’s installing the bulk of new packages ;) ). In most cases, you’ll probably want the new one unless you recognise the file and know that you need the alterations you made to that file. Going with the default options is often sensible as well.





When the new versions are installed, the upgrade tool will try to remove as much cruft as it can find.







Finally, the upgrade process is almost complete – all it needs you to do to finish it off is to restart your computer and cross your fingers that the upgrade went smoothly and your system is still usable.



As said, I had been warned that the driver for my graphics card was no longer available, but luckily the Hardware Drivers application (Applications->System) pointed out that another proprietary driver was available that allowed me to enable Compiz again.



All in all, the upgrade was a generally a pleasing experience to me, and I hope and expect you will feel the same.


Ubuntu from your flash drive – easier than ever before

As you have probably noticed, new versions have arrived of Ubuntu, Xubuntu and other derivatives. One of the most exciting new features has received far less publicity than it deserves – the ability to “install” it onto your USB flash drive with just a few clicks.

The advantages are obvious: just plug your flash drive into a computer and run your favourite operating system. What’s more, everything you do — installing applications, saving documents, editing preferences — will be saved to your flash drive and will be available to you every time you run it!

The best news is that it’s astoundingly easy: all it takes is a few clicks.

Of course, there are a few requirements. First, you can only run it on computers that support booting from a USB flash drive – this is the case for most computers nowadays. Secondly, you must have a CD or a CD image. The latter can be downloaded free of charge – I, obviously, downloaded Xubuntu. Third, you’ll need to install usb-creator, the new application that is readily available in version 8.10 but which you can also download and install on version 8.04 (with Windows and Qt versions planned). And, last but not least, you’ll obviously need to have a USB flash drive.

Once installed, you can find it in your menu as Create a USB startup disk (on Xubuntu it is located under Applications->System, in Ubuntu this would be System->Administration, IIRC).



The first thing you’ll need to do is to insert the flash drive you’re planning to use. Usb-creator will then detect the drive – if multiple flash drives are inserted, you can pick from a list which one you want to use, and if the drive isn’t formatted yet usb-creator will give you the option to do so (note that this will destroy all files on it!).

The next step is inserting the appropriate CD into your CD drive, or loading the CD image you downloaded before by clicking Other….



Finally, you’ll need to configure whether you want all your documents, settings and applications to be discarded on shutdown (i.e. act as a regular LiveCD) or if you want to save them to your flash drive (this is called persistency, or persistent mode). If you pick the latter, you’ll also be able to select how much space you want to reserve for this.

Do note that usb-creator will not overwrite existing files on the drive – thus, if you want to use your entire drive, you’ll first have to delete all existing files.

Now, with everything configured, click Make Startup Disk, and sit back and relax while usb-creator prepares your flash drive.



You can do something entirely different now, like reading the rest of this blog, viewing all my screenshots of usb-creator, whatever you like. Once usb-creator is finished, it will notify you that it’s done. All that’s left now is to boot your computer from your flash drive and have fun :)



Troubleshooting

If persistency does not work, you might need to edit the file text.cfg in the syslinux folder on your flash drive. Just replace the line default livewith the following lines, adding a new Start Xubuntu option to the boot screen the next time you boot. Note that you might want to replace occurences of “Xubuntu” with the name of the distro you’re using. This has been tested with Xubuntu 8.10;

default persistent
label persistent
menu label ^Start Xubuntu
kernel /casper/vmlinuz
append file=/cdrom/preseed/xubuntu.seed boot=casper initrd=/casper/initrd.gz quiet splash persistent
--


Xfce announces alpha release of version 4.6

After about a year and a half of development, the Xfce team has announced the alpha release of Xfce 4.6, codenamed “Pinky” “Pinkie”.

Xfce is the desktop environment and main reason for the existence of Xubuntu. It provides the file manager, panels and much more, keeping your desktop fast yet easy to use. Thus, Xfce is one of the most important parts of Xubuntu, and the 4.4 release has been enjoyed by many users of Xubuntu since it was released.

Obviously, the 4.6 release will be very significant for Xubuntu, and this is an important milestone in the road towards that release. While it was initially hoped that this release would make it into Xubuntu 8.10 (codenamed “Intrepid Ibex”), the Xfce release schedule suggests that, with three beta releases and two release candidated still scheduled, that target won’t be met. However, you can expect to see the new release in Xubuntu 9.04 (codename “Jaunty Jackalope”), and if you’re running 8.10 you can try the alpha release by adding the xubuntu-dev PPA to your software sources. (Note: at the time of writing this the packaged version is not this actual alpha but a version before that, however, this alpha will be packaged soon.)

The new version of Xfce comes with many new features. Xfce now has a new configuration backend called xfconf, similar to gconf, but simpler and easier to work with. This brings more flexibility and better integration between Xfce components. You can now control your desktop settings through the command-line – this is not only handy for people helping on IRC (i.e. there is no more need to guide the user through all kinds of settings dialogs – though, IMHO, that would be less confusing for the user), it also means automated scripts can easily update your settings. One use I see for this is being able to change your keyboard layout using a key combination, an oft-requested feature by programmers.

Speaking of key combinations: the confusing keyboard shortcut-themes have been removed and conflicts between keyboard shortcuts and window manager shortcuts are now easily resolved. All these new settings also come with updated settings dialogs, which can be started standalone as they are now, but also embedded into the settings manager – a feature of which Jannis made a screencast.

Furthermore, Xfce now ships libxfce4menu. This is a software library aiming to implement the menu standard also implemented by GNOME and KDE and partly implemented by Xfce 4.4. While it is currently in use only by the desktop and the Appfinder (the latter of which has been completely rewritten to support libxfce4menu), it paves the way for a proper menu plugin in the panel that you can actually edit.

Apart from the libxfce4menu support, the desktop manager xfdesktop has also received a few small improvements over the previous version. It has a redesigned preferences dialog, includes a few more options for the desktop background (such as colour saturation adjustment), and can now automatically start and stop managing a new desktop when you respectively plug or unplug a monitor.

Finally, the Xfce mixer plugin has been completely rewritten to use gstreamer. One effect this has is that Xubuntu will probably definitely be switching to gstreamer-based applications (Xubuntu used to include a xine version of Totem, the movie player, but recently switched to the gstreamer-based version). The biggest benefit this brings users is that it will automatically ask to search for additional media support when it is not installed yet, which happens e.g. when you try to play an MP3-file on a freshly installed Xubuntu.

All in all, though not as big as 4.4 was, this is shaping up to be another fine release of Xfce that has me looking forward to it.


Restoring the Xfce panels

One question that people looking for help with Xubuntu often have is some form of “my panels/taskbar/menu disappeared”. Unfortunately, this is something that happens quite frequently.

The good news is that this is fixed easily. All that’s required is to press Alt+F2 to bring forward the Run program window, and run the command xfce4-panel.



Not only is this a quick fix for the problem, it also makes for a quick blog post that might still help quite a few people ;)

Update: Xubuntu 9.04 will include Xfce 4.6 which should be able to automatically restore the panel in the event of a crash. Hooray :)

Update to that: According to willerlite, the panels do not automatically re-appear. Hmm :S


Sharing the love with BitTorrent

Xubuntu 8.04 is out! This release, along with those of Ubuntu, Kubuntu and whatnot, means that the Ubuntu servers are going to have a hard time with everybody and their stork downloading these new releases at the same time. Being the good open source citizen that you are, you are probably more than willing to take some of the load. Look no further, as BitTorrent is here to save the day!

In short, BitTorrent allows you to download files from other people, meanwhile sharing the parts you have already downloaded with other people who, just like you, are eager to try out the latest and greatest the open source community has to offer.

To download files using BitTorrent, you need a BitTorrent client. Since Xubuntu 8.04 includes Transmission, that is what we will be using. If you’re not using 8.04, make sure to install it.

The first thing we need, is a torrent file, a file with a name ending in .torrent that contains all the information Transmission needs to download the appropriate files. The Xubuntu 8.04 torrent can be downloaded from Ubuntu’s torrent website, where you can select the graphical Desktop CD (which is what most people want) or the text-based Alternate Install CD. We want the torrent files for Intel x86 architectures (most computers) or for AMD64 architectures (you’d probably know if you need this, using 64 Bit). A torrent file is not that big, so it should not take too long to download and does not place much of a burden on the servers.

After having downloaded the file to wherever you like, open up Transmission from Applications->Network->Transmission.



When newly installed, Transmission will download all files into the same directory as the torrent file. Instead of adapting to software (by remembering where it downloads files to), I make software adapt to me, so when I open a torrent file with Transmission, I want it to ask me where I want the files to be downloaded to.

Luckily, this is easy: simply open File->Preferences. While the preferences window is filled with cryptic terminology, the option I’m looking for is quickly found: all I need to do, is check the checkbox in front of Always prompt for download directory.



You can configure a whole host of additional options in the prefences window, such as the maximum download and upload speed. Be aware, though, that if you lower the maximum upload speed (i.e. the speed with which you are sharing the files with other people), the download speed will also decrease, so as to encourage everybody to share as much as they can.

When you’re done configuring Transmission, click Close in the Prefences window – it’s time to start downloading! Click File->Add and locate the torrent file you downloaded earlier. After you’ve opened the file and selected a target folder, Transmission will start downloading. While it will still be a long wait (the Xubuntu ISO image is a whopping 544 MB), if a lot of people are sharing the love then it’ll be faster than a direct download, and you’re helping other users at the same time.



Once you’re done downloading, you’ll want to verify that the file you downloaded is the correct one. After you’ve done that, the big moment is there: you can install Xubuntu!

Don’t close Transmission though! If you leave the window open after your download has completed, Transmission will continue sharing the downloaded file with other users – this is called seeding and is a good habit if you want to be a Nice Guy. You can also resume seeding after you’ve closed a torrent – simply re-open the torrent file and select the same download location.

All in all, while often associated with illegal downloading, there are plently of legit situations in which BitTorrent saves the day. Now spread the love!