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Using Linux to keep an old work PC alive

November 19th, 2012 1 comment

A couple of years ago I helped a small business convert their old virus infected Windows XP computer into a Linux Mint 11 (Katya) Xfce. This was done after a long time of trying to help them keep that machine running at a half-decent speed – the virus being the last straw that finally had them make the switch to Linux. Amazingly, well maybe not to the Linux faithful but to most people, this transition not only went smoothly but was actually extremely well received. Outside of a question or two every couple of months I have heard of no issues whatsoever. Sadly Linux Mint 11 has recently reached its end of life stage and so the time has come to find a replacement.

The Situation

When I said this was an old Windows XP machine I wasn’t kidding. It sports a speedy (sarcasm) 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 512 whole megabytes of RAM and an Intel integrated graphics card. With specs like those it is pretty obvious that the only two real considerations (from a technical standpoint) are low resource requirements and speed. I’d be tempted to jump to a more specialized distribution like Puppy Linux but the people using the machine are A) used to Linux Mint already and B) expected a familiar, fully featured operating system experience.

Where is Linux Mint today?

Linux Mint 13 has recently been released (including an Xfce version) based on the latest Ubuntu 12.04 stable release. This makes it an ideal candidate for an upgrade because it is something already familiar to the users and will be supported until April 2017.

The following are the steps I took, in no real order, to setup and configure Linux Mint 13 Xfce for their use:

Pre/During Install Configuration

  1. Encrypt the home directory
    Because this is a work computer and will be storing sensitive financial information I configured it to encrypt everything in the home directory. Better safe than sorry.

Post Install Configuration

  1. Install Google Chrome
    I removed Mozilla Firefox and installed Google Chrome for two reasons. First Chrome tends to be, or at least feel, a little bit snappier than even the latest version of Firefox and as I mentioned above speed is king. Secondly, unless something changes, Google’s Chrome (not even Chromium) will be the only Linux browser that will continue to get Adobe Flash updates in a straightforward and easy way for the user. UPDATE: ironically the only issue I found with this whole install related to Google’s embedded Adobe Flash. For some reason the audio on the particular version ran at double speed. This is apparently a known issue.
  2. Install Rhythmbox
    I also removed Banshee and installed Rhythmbox instead. This was done not because I consider one better than the other (or even that these two represent the only options), but simply because the users were already familiar with Rhythmbox. They use Rhythmbox to listen to streaming Internet radio.
  3. Remove unnecessary software (Pidgin, XChat, GNOME Mplayer and Totem)
    Not because they are bad applications, they just simply weren’t needed. I kept VLC because it can pretty much play all audio-video.
  4. Add Trash can to desktop and remove Filesystem icon
  5. Remove all but one workspace
  6. Install preload to speed up commonly used packages on startup
  7. Configure LibreOffice
    The goal of this step is to set up LibreOffice in such a way as to make it use less memory while still keeping most of the functionality. In order to accomplish this I changed the number of undo steps from 100 to 30 and disabled the Java components.
  8. Change screensaver to blank screen
    This looks more professional and uses less memory.
  9. Spin down hard drive when possible
    While I was at it I also went into power management and had the system spin down the hard drives when possible. This configuration had nothing to do with performance, in fact spinning down the drives can slow access to files, but was done because they often just leave the PC running 24-7 and it is not in use at all during the night. I’m sure this will save them a couple of cents per year or something.
  10. Disabled unused startup services like Bluetooth
    The machine doesn’t even have a Bluetooth radio.
  11. Set it so that inserting a removable drive causes the system to open a window for browsing the contents
  12. Change the system tray clock time format from 24 hour time to 12 hour time.
    This was a user preference.
  13. Set updates to be downloaded from best available server

  14. Install Microsoft fonts (i.e. ttf-mscorefonts-installer)
  15. Install 7zip, rar and unrar
    You never know what kind of random archive formats they might need to open so it is better to support them all.
  16. Change login screen theme
    The default login screen is nice but it isn’t the most user friendly. I opted to install the Mint Pro (MDM) theme from GNOME-Look.org.
  17. Install all updates
  18. Run Grub boot profiler to speed up the boot process
    If you’re not aware of this it is a great trick. Essentially once you have everything installed (driver wise at least) you do the following:
    -Modify /etc/default/grub and change the line GRUB_CMD_LINE_LINUX_DEFAULT=”quiet splash” to GRUB_CMD_LINE_LINUX_DEFAULT=”quiet splash profile”.
    -Then run sudo update-grub2 and reboot.
    -The next reboot might be slower but once the machine comes back up simply edit that file again and remove the “profile” text. Your computer will now intelligently load drivers as the hard drive head travels across their location, instead of in some other arbitrary order which can actually shave a couple of seconds off of your total boot time.

How did it turn out?

Surprisingly well. The machine isn’t a speed demon by any stretch of the imagination but it does perform its simple tasks well enough. It remains to be seen if the computer will make it to the next long term release of Linux Mint Xfce, or even if it will be able to run it at that time, but for now the users are happy and that is what matters.

 




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Limit Bandwitdth Used by apt-get

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

It’s easy. Simply throw “-o Acquire::http::Dl-Limit=X” in your apt-get command where X is the kb/s you wish to limit it to. So for example let’s say that you want to limit an apt-get upgrade command to roughly 50kb/s of bandwidth. Simply issue the following command:

sudo apt-get -o Acquire::http::Dl-Limit=50 upgrade

Simple right?




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Ubuntu 12.10 Beta 1 (Report #3)

September 22nd, 2012 No comments

Just a quick update on my experience running the pre-release version of Ubuntu (this time upgraded to Ubuntu 12.10 Beta 1!). Not a whole lot new to report – Beta 1 is basically the same as Alpha 3 but with the addition of an option to connect to a Remote Server directly from the login screen. Unfortunately the bugs that I have filed so far have yet to be resolved, but I’m still hopeful someone has a chance to correct them prior to release.

It is already almost the end of September which means there are only a couple more weeks before the official 12.10 launch. From what I’ve seen so far this upgrade will be a pretty small, evolutionary update to the already good 12.04 release.

Previous posts in this series:




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: Tyler B, Ubuntu Tags: ,

Big distributions, little RAM 5

September 14th, 2012 2 comments

Once again I’ve compiled some charts to show what the major, full desktop distributions look like while running on limited hardware. Just like before I’ve decided to re-run my previous tests this time using the following distributions:

  • Fedora 17 (GNOME)
  • Fedora 17 (KDE)
  • Kubuntu 12.04 (KDE)
  • Linux Mint 13 (Cinnamon)
  • Linux Mint 13 (KDE)
  • Linux Mint 13 (Mate)
  • Linux Mint 13 (Xfce)
  • Mageia (GNOME)
  • Mageia (KDE)
  • OpenSUSE 12.2 (GNOME)
  • OpenSUSE 12.2 (KDE)
  • Ubuntu 12.04 (Unity)
  • Xubuntu 12.04 (Xfce)

I will be testing all of this within VirtualBox on ‘machines’ with the following specifications:

  • Total RAM: 512MB
  • Hard drive: 8GB
  • CPU type: x86 with PAE/NX
  • Graphics: 3D Acceleration enabled

The tests were all done using VirtualBox 4.1.22, and I did not install VirtualBox tools (although some distributions may have shipped with them). I also left the screen resolution at the default (whatever the distribution chose) and accepted the installation defaults. All tests were run between September 3rd, 2012 and September 14th, 2012 so your results may not be identical.

Results

Following in the tradition of my previous posts I have once again gone through the effort to bring you nothing but the most state of the art in picture graphs for your enjoyment.

Things to know before looking at the graphs

First off if your distribution of choice didn’t appear in the list above its probably not reasonably possible to installed (i.e. I don’t have hours to compile Gentoo) or I didn’t feel it was mainstream enough (pretty much anything with LXDE). Secondly there may be some distributions that don’t appear on all of the graphs, for example Mandriva (now replaced by Mageia). Finally I did not include Debian this time around because it is still at the same version as last time. As always feel free to run your own tests.

First boot memory (RAM) usage

This test was measured on the first startup after finishing a fresh install.

Memory (RAM) usage after updates

This test was performed after all updates were installed and a reboot was performed.

Memory (RAM) usage change after updates

The net growth or decline in RAM usage after applying all of the updates.

Install size after updates

The hard drive space used by the distribution after applying all of the updates.

Conclusion

As before I’m going to leave you to drawing your own conclusions.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Ubuntu 12.10 Alpha 3 (Report #2)

September 1st, 2012 No comments

Running an alpha version of an operating system, Linux or otherwise, is quite a different experience. It means, for instance, that you are not allowed to complain when minor things have bugs or simply don’t work – it is all par for the course, after all this is alpha software. That doesn’t mean however that when you do run into problems that it doesn’t still suck.

I ran into one of these problems earlier today while trying to connect via SSH to a remote computer within Nautilus. It seems that this release of the software is currently broken resulting in the following error message every time I try and browse my remote server’s directories:

The second really annoying issue I ran into was GIMP no longer showing menu items in Ubuntu’s global appmenu. This was especially infuriating because, prior to installing some updates today, it had worked perfectly fine in the past. I even had to hunt down a sub-par paint (GNU Paint) application just to crop the above screenshot.

Hopefully my annoying experiences, and subsequent bug filings, will prevent other users from experiencing the same pains when 12.10 is finally released to all. Here’s hoping anyway…

Update: It turns out that it wasn’t just the GIMP that wasn’t displaying menu items, no applications are. Off to file another bug…

Previous posts in this series:




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: Tyler B, Ubuntu Tags:

Ubuntu 12.10 Alpha 3 (Report #1)

August 27th, 2012 No comments

Well it’s been a little while since I made the mistake (joking) of installing Ubuntu 12.10 Alpha 3. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  1. My laptop really does not like the open source ATI graphics driver – and there are no proprietary drivers for this release yet. It’s not that the driver doesn’t perform well enough graphically, its just that it causes my card to give off more heat than the proprietary driver. This in turn causes my laptop’s fan to run non-stop and drains my battery at a considerable rate.
  2. Ubuntu has changed the way they do updates in this release. Instead of the old Update Manager there is a new application (maybe just a re-skinning of the old) that is much more refined and really quite simple. Interestingly enough the old hardware drivers application is also now gone, instead it is merged into the update manager. Overall I’m neutral on both changes.

    Updates are quite frequent when running an alpha release

  3. There is a new Online Accounts application (part of the system settings) included in this release. This application seems to work like an extension of the GNOME keyring – saving passwords for your various online accounts (go figure). I haven’t really had a chance to play around with it too much yet but it seems to work well enough.

That’s it for now. I’m off to file a bug over this open source driver that is currently melting my computer. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: Tyler B, Ubuntu Tags: ,

Test driving the new Ubuntu (12.10)

August 26th, 2012 No comments

Call it crazy but I’ve decided to actually install an Ubuntu Alpha release, specifically Ubuntu 12.10 Alpha 3. Why would anyone in their right mind install an operating system that is bound to be full of bugs and likely destroy all of my data? My reasons are twofold:

  1. I regularly use Ubuntu or Ubuntu derivatives and would like to help in the process of making them better
  2. There are still a few quirks with my particular laptop that I would like to help iron out once and for all, hopefully correcting them in a more universal sense for Linux as a whole

So join me over the next few posts as I relate my most recent experiences running… shall we say, less than production code.

 




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: Tyler B, Ubuntu Tags: ,

Listener Feedback Podcast Update

July 22nd, 2012 No comments

Five new Listener Feedback podcast episodes have been released in case you missed them:

And as always you can grab the MP3 or Ogg version of this Creative Commons podcast.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Automatically put computer to sleep and wake it up on a schedule

June 24th, 2012 No comments

Ever wanted your computer to be on when you need it but automatically put itself to sleep (suspended) when you don’t? Or maybe you just wanted to create a really elaborate alarm clock?

I stumbled across this very useful command a while back but only recently created a script that I now run to control when my computer is suspended and when it is awake.

#!/bin/sh
t=`date –date “17:00″ +%s`
sudo /bin/true
sudo rtcwake -u -t $t -m on &
sleep 2
sudo pm-suspend

This creates a variable, t above, with an assigned time and then runs the command rtcwake to tell the computer to automatically wake itself up at that time. In the above example I’m telling the computer that it should wake itself up automatically at 17:00 (5pm). It then sleeps for 2 seconds (just to let the rtcwake command finish what it is doing) and runs pm-suspend which actually puts the computer to sleep. When run the computer will put itself right to sleep and then wake up at whatever time you specify.

For the final piece of the puzzle, I’ve scheduled this script to run daily (when I want the PC to actually go to sleep) and the rest is taken care of for me. As an example, say you use your PC from 5pm to midnight but the rest of the time you are sleeping or at work. Simply schedule the above script to run at midnight and when you get home from work it will be already up and running and waiting for you.

I should note that your computer must have compatible hardware to make advanced power management features like suspend and wake work so, as with everything, your mileage may vary.

This post originally appeared on my personal website here.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Listener Feedback Podcast Episode 10: Bill Borman

June 10th, 2012 No comments

A new episode of the Listener Feedback podcast has been released. This episode features the folk rock artist Bill Borman with his Creative Commons album In Our Dreams We’re Flying. Download it here.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.