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A Love Letter to Freya - The Operating System, Not the Goddess banner image

A Love Letter to Freya - The Operating System, Not the Goddess

Monday, 24 November, 2014

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User experience matters a lot to me. I have tried, tweaked, installed, removed, loved and hated many desktop environments in the past.

My favorites among them are KDE and XFCE for reasons, too complex to discuss here. But, they all had one thing in common: the way they feel and behave by default (on most distros) does not compliment the way I like to operate a computer. Thus I always found myself applying changes of various extend until I felt “at home”.

About one month ago, I booted into a live session of elementary OS Freya Beta 1. I did this just out of curiosity and without any serious expectations. Having seen screenshots before, I had an idea of how elementary OS looks, but that’s not the whole story. The whole OS is crafted with many aesthetic details that go far beyond “shipping with a nice GTK theme”.  It is hard to describe and highly subjective, but as I perceive it, it feels great to interact with every part of the system.

The design of the user interface is alltogether simple and elegant, with very little room for customization. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Customization has it’s value. Infact, there was a time, that I thought it would be smart for an email client to contain 10 pages of settings. I’d even say that the ability to tweak everything was one of my major motivations to switch to open source software in the first place.

Well …

I’ve learned my lesson:If the default settings are well-wrought, there’s no need to configure every detail. This applies at least for what I call “everyday applications” i.e. email client, PIM, file manager, browser, etc. I still consider it preferable to equip professional tools, like IDEs, CAD software or multimedia production suites, with many options and utilities, because it is of actual use in such an environment.

Performance

If you would have liked to see benchmark results here, I have to apologize. I do not consider numbers a reasonable measurement for “user experience”.

During the last month on a Beta release, I have experienced uptimes of more than 5 days without  lags, screen freezes or desktop crashes. In contrast, while testing Gnome Shell and Cinnamon I experienced stuttering animations and delays before switching from one workspace to another, especially with many windows open. In my opinion that is a deal breaker, as I find these delays very distracting.

On my machine, elmentary’s desktop shell Pantheon and its window manager Gala have performed as good as lightweight desktops like XFCE, which impressed me a lot!

Conclusion

After using elementary OS daily for about a month, I plan to continue using it for my professional needs, because, out of all the computer environments I’ve had my hands on, elementary offers the most pleasant user experience and for me, it “just works”.

That being said I may as well switch to something else out of curiosity or boredom one day, but at least I cannot see any rational reasons to do so at this point :-)

Desktop Touchpads for Linux: Logitech T650 vs. Apple Magic Trackpad banner image

Desktop Touchpads for Linux: Logitech T650 vs. Apple Magic Trackpad

Monday, 03 November, 2014

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Working “on the road” a lot I have grown used to touchpads and have developed a slight aversion to mice (the gadgets, not the animals).

Due to that I caught myself sitting around with my notebook even when I was at home where I could be spending time at my desk with a docking station, a proper keyboard and a bigger screen. So I decided it was time to replace my mouse with a modern touch device.

My requirements were as follows:

  • GNU+Linux compatibility (of course)
  • Ability to recognize a multitude of gestures
  • Appealing haptics, design and build quality

After some research it turned out that the most promising canidates appeared to be the Logitech T650 and Apple’s Magic Trackpad.

Look and Feel

Both devices are a pleasure to interact with, as they have big glassy surfaces and a “valuable overall feeling” to them. The Magic Trackpad feels a bit sturdier as it is mostly composed of metal parts. Moreover it looks somewhat more “modern” whereas I considered the T650 to be a better match for the other components of my setup. Mechanical clicks on the T650 require a decent amount of pressure which can be tedious after a longer usage period.

Connection

The Logitech T650 comes with its own dongle consuming one of my valuable USB slots. It was recognized after plugging in the dongle and turning on the device. As long as one sticks to Logitech products it is possible to connect up to six devices to that dongle using the Unifying Device Technology which is being brought to Linux by the Solaar project.

This policy of urging customers to buy more and more products of a particualar brand by using proprietary interfaces that are desigend to exclude or obstruct competitors’ products is often associated with Apple. In this particular case it is actually the other way round: The Apple Magic Trackpad uses the well established Bluetooth technology for connecting to the computer. This was achieved in less than a minute on Xubuntu 14.04 by pairing the device via the Blueman applet using the PIN 0000.

Gesture Recognition and Setup

The first thing to do with the T650 for Linux support is a firmware upgrade, because otherwise not even “tap to click” is functional. Unfortunately the software required for that procedure is only available for Windows, which was the first obstacle for me. Gestures get interpreted in the device’s hardware which then sends key events that are meant to trigger (Windows 8 specific) events. By mapping these keys to meaningful commands in the XFCE system settings I was able to make use of the built in gestures, which are limited to two and three finger swipes as well as (somewhat uncomfortable) edge swipes. I was not able to manage software like TouchĂ©gg or Ginn to recognize  “real gestures” using both the synaptics and the evdev driver.

The Magic Trackpand on the other hand sends events that can be properly interpreted by TouchĂ©gg. I am using the synaptics driver for gestures of up to two fingers as it provides the smoothest scrolling experience and best integration with certain applications and TouchĂ©gg for dealing with everything that involves three or more fingers. For that purpose one must disable synaptic’s 3 finger recognition. This can be achieved by setting TapButton3 and ClickFinger3 to “0” via the synclient command (temporary) or a specific xorg configuration (permanent). Up to 5 fingers are being recognized and I have used swipe, drag, pinch and (double) tap gestures so far. KWin, which I use as window manager provides a lot of “fancy gimmicks” like smooth workspace switching animations and the “Present Windows” effect (comparable to OSX’s “ExposĂ©”), which feels very natural when triggered by multitouch gestures.

Power

The T650 has a built-in battery. While this has the advantage of being rechargeable, it comes with the downside of being hard to replace (Never forget that batteries are wearing parts!). The Magic Trackpad is powered by 2 AA batteries which means that a regular battery change will be necessary. I cannot judge about the runtime as my testing period is not long enough, but both are reported to run for several weeks when used on a regular base.

Pricing

The Magic Trackpad is about twice as expensive as the T650, which is to be considered when comparing the two. I am lucky to get my mine used for a lower price, because a friend of mine has no need for the one that came bundled to his iMac.

Conclusion

The Magic Trackpad outperforms the T650 in almost every category I consider important. On the other hand you could save $30 if the aforementioned disadvantages of the T650 are not relevant to you. Moreover it must not be left aside that both devices may perform different on the platform they were orignially designed for. So if you are not using GNU+Linux exclusively but dual boot to OSX or Windows 8 then you may choose to buy the corresponding device so you can get the most out of your touchpad.

Some Additional Information about Touchégg

If you do not like to write configuration files by hand you may want to have a look at Touchegg GCE which offers a graphical frontend to set up Touchégg gestures. Moreover it is advised to build Touchégg from source if you want to use pinch gestures, because your distribution may not package the newest version where a pinching related bug has been fixed.

Lightning Talk @ FrOSCon 2014

Thursday, 21 August, 2014

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I hereby invite you to join my lightning talk (5 minute speech) about Icon Set Forge that will be held in the context of this year’s FrOSCon at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences in Sankt Augustin. It will take place next saturday at approximately 14:15 (Better be there 10 mintues earlier, as the talks are in fact short). I do not know where exactly these talks are located, but I guess one can easily find that out on site.

I hope that I can reach further developers and motivate others to contribute to the project, by this means.

The FrOSCon is a worthwhile event with a lot of informative speeches, interesting projects and nice people, that I recommend visiting either way.

Update:

Here is a video of the talk for those interested

A New Project: Icon Set Forge

Wednesday, 20 August, 2014

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Since my return from Scotland, I have not even written a single blog post.

Yes I am ashamed, but I do in fact have a good excuse for my behaviour: I have been working on a new project: Icon Set Forge. It is an application for creating, managing and viewing icon sets in a convenient manner.

A more detailed description of my ideas and motivation can be found in the project description on my website. Further information as well as technical details and source code can be found on GitHub, as Icon Set Forge is a free and open source project.

Adding Subfolders in Qt Creator

Tuesday, 15 July, 2014

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Organizing source code in hierachical subfolders is, in my humble opinion, a mandatory task for keeping code tidy, structured and comprehensible.

Due to this I was pretty astonished about Qt Creator’s lack of an intuitive procedure to create and display subfolders. I would have expected to find an option like “create subdirectory here” next to “Add New…” in the context menu of my project, but was disappointed.

A little research lead me to a stackoverflow thread with solutions to the aforementioned problem.

For moving an existing file into a subdirectory one has to create that subdirectory beforehand. Subsequently the file has to be renamed to subdirectory/file. When creating new files it is possible to specify a subdirectory the same way in the Header / Source file field.

Those are obviously not the most intuitive interactions that one could have thought of, but they get the job done.

I hope this may have been of help for someone out there.

My Website Is Ready

Sunday, 13 July, 2014

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During the last week I have been developing a website for displaying information about me and several software projects I was involved in or am currently contributing to. Futhermore I am going to maintain this blog where I will most likely write about software (development), Linux and music, computer games or other forms of arts.

I hope you enjoy your stay :-)