PeppermintOS: Minty Fresh!

A while ago, I decided it was time to get a laptop.  I’ve been meeting with local clients more and having a laptop handy would make a lot of that stuff go more smoothly.  I’m also on the web committee for my kids’ school, and have had to borrow someone else’s laptop to do WordPress demos and show them things.

So, I started looking around at netbooks and my first thought was to (of course) install Ubuntu.  But after initially throwing a distribution of Linux onto a thumb drive and finding out that the thumb drive installation of Ubuntu is 2GB and requires you to format the drive (meaning I couldn’t use it for other things as well), I instead used Puppy Linux, which worked well for that.  Then I became aware of PeppermintOS via someone on Empire Avenue.  I took a look at the screenshots and read the descriptions and the mission statement and thought it would be perfect for the netbook I didn’t have yet.

Fast forward to now.  I don’t have a netbook, but I do have a hand-me-down Dell Latitude from my father-in-law who was looking to get a new laptop as well.  I helped him pick it out (a sweet Acer Aspire with 6GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive — most of which will go unused since it’s been set up to do most of his work on the cloud) and I set it up and migrated his old Outlook file over to keep his email archives while he migrates to using Google Apps for email and docs.  (The conversion process went remarkably smoothly with the help of Dropbox for backing up his entire My Documents folder and syncing it up on the new machine.)

Once I said goodbye to his brand new laptop, I said hello to the old one and immediately pulled out an old Ubuntu 10.04 disc I had lying around.  I started the install — wiping the hard drive clean of Windows XP — and in an hour or so was looking at an Ubuntu desktop with one problem — though the sound worked beautifully, I wasn’t connected to the internet.  I quickly realized/remembered that most Linux distros don’t really like the wifi adapter in Dells and require ndiswrapper or some other hack to get them to work.  I tried to dig out the documentation and remember how I dealt with this last time, but gave up quickly — having no internet access (and being too lazy to dig out my extra ethernet cable) as well as running an old version of Ubuntu just didn’t seem worth the trouble to get it running right.  I decided to download the current version and use that instead.

Of course, part of the problem with Ubuntu is that it’s bundled with Firefox, and I rarely — if ever — use Firefox these days.  I wondered if there was a fork of Ubuntu that came with Chromium instead and started looking around when I remembered Peppermint, with its two flavors — one built with Firefox and Prism, and the other built with Chromium and Ice (a variant of Chrome’s application shortcuts).  I downloaded the light (478MB for Peppermint Two vs the 699MB crammed onto the Ubuntu installation disc) .iso file and burned it and started a Peppermint install.  The process was more or less identical to the Ubuntu install I just finished.

Like Ubuntu, I had no wifi.  This I expected.  I had the recommended drivers I found from somewhere and discovered ndiswrapper already installed in Peppermint (vs. not being installed in Ubuntu 10.04) — in fact, I later found a gui for ndiswrapper, which I thought was pretty cool, even if I didn’t use it.  However, after using ndiswrapper from the commandline to get my driver installed, the wifi card was still not detected.  I did some Googling and found that Peppermint has a utility to scan the hardware and look for third-party drivers.  That required an internet connection, so I got it hooked up, ran the scan, and found some Broadcomm drivers.  I clicked the little activate button and, after a restart, it worked!  Wow, seriously?  That was easy.

That wasn’t the only thing that was easy, though.  I recalled from when I was dual-booting Ubuntu and Windows 7 on my desktop that creating application shotcuts in Chromium on Linux was a losing proposition.  It was a pain to get the shortcut set up and actually functional and I ended up giving up on the whole thing.  Not so with Ice.  All you need to do is tell Ice what the url to the webapp you’re trying to create a shortcut for is and chose an icon you want to use and you’re done.  More than that, the “create application shortcut” (my first impulse being a Chrome user) option actually works!  Maybe this is just a result of the updates to Chromium since last I used it, but I kind of suspect not (if they cared that much about that option on Linux, it wouldn’t be a menu item — at least, it shouldn’t be).  This makes me think it has to do with the Ice app that was specifically designed for PeppermintOS and Chromium.

Peppermint is designed for netbooks — which is good, because that’s how I wanted to use my laptop.  It’s built to be a work laptop that I can take with me on the road, so most of the stuff I want will be web-based.  So Peppermint comes with integrated Ice (or Prism, depending on your flavor of Peppermint) shortcuts to web-based applications like Gmail, YouTube, Pixlr (rather than coming with GIMP installed), Seesmic Web (which I replaced with HootSuite), and Google Apps.  It also has a shortcut to Dropbox which — upon a first run — will download and install the Linux Dropbox client to get you synced up with your Dropbox files.  Possibly my favorite part is that there are no bundled obnoxious sounds for everything.  As much as I appreciate the quasi-tribal boot-up sound of Ubuntu, in almost every case for every install of Ubuntu I’ve ever done, the volume is set to deafening, and that sound quickly loses it’s novelty when the volume is cranked up to eleven.  Peppermint — focusing on being a stripped-down, lightweight netbook-style distribution — doesn’t come with any of those sounds.  To the extent that I started wondering if I even had the sound set up at all and, after deciding I didn’t really care if the laptop had sound or not, tried popping a CD in there to finally test and was surprised when it started playing.

The only possible criticism I have is with the built-in music player Guayadeque, which, while it has loads of tools for streaming and playing local media files, has a clunky interface for playing CDs and no real way (that I can see) to drag and drop tracks from the file manager to the music player or create a playlist without clicking on each track from the CD.  That’s not a huge issue for me, particularly since there’s so many web-based options that are already built into the OS like Last.fm and Pandora could be added easily with an Ice shortcut.

Peppermint is my new favorite Linux distribution.  It beats Ubuntu by a longshot with extra credit for being small, not bundling a bunch of crap I don’t want (particularly Rhythmbox, a bloated music player that I’ve never liked — only tolerated because I had to — and generally ignored in favor of some flavor of XMMS), and making the setup and customization processes a snap.  Even though I had to go online to get a driver for the wifi card, that itself was so easy an idiot could figure it out, and once it was installed, I haven’t needed to plug in my ethernet cable (as opposed to Puppy which often dropped a local wifi connection and forced me to reconfigure the thing every time).  Peppermint compliments my style of computing, which is to give me the bare essentials and let me put on my own damn apps, thank you, rather than assuming some software bundle that would be most useful for the average user the way most Linux distributions (and Ubuntu, in particular) do.  I’d also like to give props to the Software Manager, which pulls from a variety of repositories with an easy-to-use-and-navigate interface that makes installing new packages super-easy.

If you have even a casual interest in either Linux or just dumping Windows and trying another operating system, I highly recommend checking out and downloading yourself a copy of Peppermint.

now in penguin-vision

i’ve been a longtime fan and occasional user of linux.  i had it running for about a  year as my primary operating system under ubuntu.  microsoft announced the release of their windows 7 RC-1 the other day, and as part of the announcement stated that all of their beta testers, whether you’re using win 7 beta or a win 7 RC, will need to do a wipe/reinstall to get the final, retail windows 7 installed.  not only that — which is somewhat expected — but to upgrade from beta to RC1, you also have to do a wipe/reinstall.  seeing as how i’m going to have to wipe/reinstall my system in the summer when the beta expires, i’m not overly inclined to wipe/reinstall my system now to get the RC1 running on it.

this got me thinking again about linux and osx as desktop operating systems and curiosity got the best of me.  it’s been a few iterations since i’ve played in ubuntu and i don’t think i’ve used wine since it hit 1.0 (and never used it for photoshop or ms office, really), so i decided it was time to poke around again.  the first thing i noticed was when i was looking for a version to download; in addition to the direct download and bit torrent downloads that they’ve had for a while, there was now a windows-based installer called Wubi (i’m guessing Windows UBuntu Installer?).  since i had my 1yr old daughter sleeping on my shoulder at the time, and moving to grab a blank cd-r may mean waking her up, i thought i’d see what Wubi was about.

wubi1wubi is a tiny download, but that’s because part of it is a downloader.  the speeds seemed too fast to be anything other than bit torrent, but even so, it’s a little unrealistic as a straight downloader/installer since even on my (really fast) connection, i still needed to wait about an hour for it to finish downloading, which is a bit much for one sitting (i’d be just as happy starting a torrent and walking away, then coming back to it later).  still, it offers 4 flavors of ubuntu, straight ubuntu, xubuntukubuntu, and mythbuntu.  i might suggest customizing it a bit so that the first step is just downloading core ubuntu files and the kernel, stuff that would be the same across the distributions, then offering a choice and a package list to pick what applications you want to install — that way you’re only waiting for the bits you actually want to install.  that kind of goes against the ubuntu philosophy of creating a package deal with everything you’d want out of the box, but i know a lot of non-n00bs use ubuntu, and for the advanced users, something like this would be a lot more useful to get out of a windows-based installer.

it’s been so long, i’d forgotten what a really fast operating system was like.

it finishes an asks me to reboot.  one interesting thing is it adds itself to the windows boot menu, as opposed to using grub as the boot loader — well, in addition to using grub, really, since grub is mostly irreplaceable in a linux install.  this means i was confronted by a windows menu asking if i wanted to boot to windows 7 or ubuntu rather than a grub menu.   then it loads a much prettier ubuntu loading screen than last i saw,  asks me to log in, and loads the desktop.  it actually loads so quickly, that i end up staring at the screen waiting for something to happen, sure that it must be loading something.  it’s been so long, i’d forgotten what a really fast operating system was like.

my primary goal here is productivity.  i am dependant on my windows apps that i use daily for design work.  namely, adobe creative suite, and, recently ms office.  i can probably do without office, using OpenOffice.org and Evolution for email, but the docx  has become so ubiquitous and, last i checked OOo still wasn’t supporting it, and being so familiar already with Outlook (and there really isn’t another email app with calendar integration that compares, unfortunately, especially with the Google Calendar Sync tool) that i made the switch.

i’m sure i could get this stuff to install under wine if i spent enough time futzing with them.

so i set out to figure out if Wine was going to cut it for office and adobe cs.

the short answer is i’m several hours into this experiment and i’ve booted back into windows after having thrown in the towel.

the somewhat longer answer is this: i’m sure i could get the adobe and office products to install if i spent enough time futzing with them.  i found and tried various tricks and hacks and ultimately for office got to the documented error of getting 2/3 through the install before it crashes. (apparently it runs fine if it was installed on a different version.  however, the different version that would be functional is not the 1.0.1 that ships with the latest ubuntu, and not the 1.1.20 which is the most recent wine — it’s somewhere in between 1.1.13 and 1.1.17 and i didn’t spend the time futzing with older versions to try to get it to work.)  there were a few workaround/hacks and i was trying them, but one of them was sketchy (download dlls from random site with popups) and one of them required me to download CrossOver Games, which required an email, which i couldn’t really get since i didn’t have office installed and i didn’t really want to set up Evolution just for one email.  and my gmail inbox is inundated with thousands of messages now since i’ve switched to using outlook via pop3.

in the process, i learned a few things: pidgin has a plugin for facebook chat.  there’s a very nice osx dock-like window manager from google called avant.  you can now write to an NTFS file system — a previously impossible feat in linux, which really opens the doors a huge amount in ways that don’t really translate well into non-geek-speak, but basically means that you can now save stuff on your windows side of things (which means, among other things, that you don’t need to reserve nearly as much space for your linux install since you can now use your windows partitions natively — see, non-geek-speak-untranslatable…). also, my desktop resolution was matched 1:1 when i booted to linux — previously, in other installs, i had to downgrade to a lower res because it wouldn’t handle the higher display.  either my graphics card is better, the nvidia graphics driver is better, or there’s some other magic going on that makes the hardware more supportable.  whatever the reason, it not only displayed at my 1440 x 900 display but recognized the type of monitor i was using (considering that not all monitors identify themselves and even windows defaults to “generic plug and play monitor” about 90% of the time, i was impressed).

running windows is still a necessary evil for graphic design if you don’t want to drop $2500 for a mac pro

as i’m typing, i’m wondering if it may be possible to export my entire registry (or at least just the keys that apply to office and creative suite) and import them into the Wine registry and run my already installed versions that way.  and maybe i’ll try that.  eventually.  for now, running windows is a necessary evil, still, for graphic design.  now all you mac addicts will throw your arms in the air and gape about what kind of freak would use windows for design rather than a mac.  well, i’m not arguing with you — but the kind of freak that would do that is the kind of freak who would rather spend $600 and build his own, custom, kickass system rather than dropping $2500 for a mac pro.  period.  i would really like to try photoshop under linux, to see how well it handled memory allocation and if it’s more/less likely to crash when dealing with large files.  and really, dreamweaver isn’t all that irreplaceable, there’s plenty of other options under linux that would do just as well.  but that will, alas, have to wait.