Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/22/netbook_linux_guide_4/

The Netbook Newbie's Guide to Linux

'F/X'

By Chris Bidmead

Posted in Software, 22nd January 2009 13:48 GMT

Episode 4

Book Reader

True to its name, a netbook makes a very decent ebook reader. Here's the freely-downloadable Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, complete with original Tenniel illustrations, as it appears on the MSI Wind:

wind as ebook reader

This is the PDF version of the original 1866 edition, downloaded from GASL.org. There's a tiny trick to getting this working optimally, but you should be able to do this with just about any netbook that comes with Adobe Reader. I also tried it with Evince, the general purpose document reader that's part of the Gnome Desktop Environment used by Suse Linux on the MSI wind. Unfortunately, Evince seems to crash with large PDFs (see box below).

If the version of Firefox you're using to browse the link is equipped to read PDFs with an add-on don't just click on the link. That'll open the PDF inside Firefox, with the Firefox gubbins attached. To get a clean, full-screen view you need to download the PDF first with a right mouse-click, and then load the file in Adobe Reader. The View sub-menu allows you to rotate the image to fit the shape of the netbook's screen, and then expand it to full-screen as the illustration shows. Then use the Page Up and Page Down keys to navigate through the book.

You're going to look a bit weird on the bus holding your NetBook sideways, but you get a nice, readable full-size page, and at 15MB for the full illustrated versions of both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, you can carry a good stock of books before your netbook fills up.

Evince Crashes

Like the rest of the Gnome Desktop Environment, and indeed like Linux itself, Evince is free software. This doesn't just mean that you don't pay for it - see Gnu free software - it means that it comes with important, guaranteed freedoms attached. One of these is the freedom to sing out to the developers, a freedom that some users (like me) interpret as tantamount to an obligation.

The corollary of help-seeking as discussed on the next page is the custom for user of free software to help developers by reporting bugs - even (or perhaps particularly) in a situation like this where I'm not in trouble because I have alternatives.

The first thing to do is to check whether the bug is already known. Googling "evince pdf" lead me to the web-based bug-reporting system Bugzilla. The case of PDFs crashing Evince turns out to be well-documented, so I didn't bother to file a report. With a little more time on my hands, I might have read the existing reports carefully to see if I could add useful detail, but this is beyond the call of duty.

Help with Help

When things go wrong - with any operating system - we panic. A healthy response: operating systems are complex machines that take a lot more understanding than we typically have time for. Linux, together with its associated applications and utilities, has the advantage of having been put together by extremely clueful people, many of whom are available on the Web, on forums, newsgroups or directly approachable by email.

That 'About Xfce' dialogue box we mentioned last time, for example, lists Xfce creator Olivier Fourdan's email address, along with the email addresses of the leading members of the Xfce development team. So you can drop a line to the man himself about any Xfce problems you encounter. In fact, in the early days of Xfce I did just that, and you can too.

About XFCE

But don't. At least not until you've read How to Ask Questions the Smart Way, which will urge you to exhaust other channels of information first. To quote Smart Way, Linux cognoscenti "have a reputation for meeting simple questions with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like we're reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn't really true".

Smart Way is written by a couple of dyed-in-the-wool old Open Source hackers, so they would say that, wouldn't they? But hear them out: "What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks - they take without giving back, and they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer. We call people like this 'losers' (and for historical reasons we sometimes spell it 'lusers')."

Smart Way is a lengthy read - hackers tend to be very thorough - but definitely worth it if you're a newbie questing into hacker territory in search of answers. Where, by the way, you'll be more than welcome, as long as you observe the mores. A good rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time thinking about and putting together your question as you would reasonably expect your responding hacker(s) to spend putting together an answer.

Bouncy Windows and other Visual Delights

I'm not a great one for GUI-twiddling, but here's a twist to the Acer Aspire One interface that I've found irresistible. And it's functional as well. Last time, we talked about the usefulness of multiple workspaces, particularly on a small-screen machine, and here's how to do them in style. You can probably get something like this going on the MSI Wind and the Eee PC too, but I haven't explored that yet, and I can't wait to tell you about this.

Lurking unused behind the AAI's Tonka Toy interface is a hugely sophisticated Window Manager called Compiz. It offers most of the functionality of, say, the Mac OS X GUI, but is much more malleable, once you know how how to get to its inner workings. And this isn't obscure command line stuff this time - the relevant levers and buttons are nicely exposed through a GUI interface that's accessible through the Desktop Menu we set up in Episode 3.

Compiz Settings Manager

CompizConfig Settings Manager

Let's start by getting Compiz running. Open a terminal and run the command compiz-manager. The script scrolls a bunch of text down the terminal - read it later to get some picture of what's happening, but for now just minimise the terminal (don't close it) and open the Desktop Menu with a right mouse-click anywhere on the Startup Screen. Pick Settings and then the CompizConfig Settings Manager option and open the General submenu. From there click on the General Options icon and then choose the Desktop Size tab.

Set the Number of Desktops to 1 and the Horizontal Virtual Size to 4. Leave Vertical Virtual Size at its default of 1. The logic of this is that we're going to emulate four separate workspaces by sliding around a virtual screen that is four times wider than our physical screen.

Now back off to the CompizConfig Settings Manager main screen and put a tick against the Desktop Cube icon. Clicking on this icon opens up a feast of options, but for now let's just accept the defaults. A couple of lines below you'll find a 'Rotate Cube' icon. Tick that too. Further down, under Effects, is a Wobbly Windows icon. It may already be ticked by default - if not, give it a tick too. You can come back later and try all or any of the other effects. But remember they're only active if Compiz is running, which is the purpose of the compiz-manager script we ran at the beginning.

Close down the CCSM and open your favorite app. Now hit Ctrl-Alt-LeftCursor (or RightCursor). You should see your original screen become the side of a cube, which rotates in the direction selected by your cursor arrow. Something like this:

Desktop Cube

The screenshot should give you a rough idea, but ignore the Aztec-temple stepping, which is due to the cube rotation being slowed down in order to take the screen grab.

"Cube", of course, is a misnomer, because the screens forming the sides aren't square. And you can make yourself a five-, six- or whatever-sided 'cube' by adjusting the Horizontal Virtual Size of your desktop.

To make the cube appear to retreat down the z-axis as it rotates, adjust the Zoom slider in the Rotate Cube settings.

That Wobbly Windows box we checked gives the cube a seductive bounce when it comes to rest, and also adds a suggestive wriggle to any windows or menus - like the Desktop Menu - you open or move. That won't include menus you open in, say, Firefox, which are the sole responsibility of the owning application.

The Eee PC and video

The Asus Eee comes with a video player application called smplayer which is a fancy front-end to the multi-talented, cross-platform command line utility mplayer. It seems to do a pretty good job, but there have been complaints on that Web about limitations of the formats it can handle. And, of course, some suggested remedies.

smplayer on the Eee PC

smplayer on the Eee

mplayer has its own set of inbuilt codecs, ready to play most of the common multimedia file types. Notably missing from the version supplied with the Eee is H.264, widely used by Apple and others. It was withdrawn allegedly for intellectual property reasons, but the Eee User Wiki gives instructions on how to revert to the earlier version.

I couldn't get this to work - it appears that the earlier version of mplayer is no longer in the repositories. Instead, I tried this method of extending mplayer's codec list. The script recommends running sudo apt-get install netselect first. netselect reads the list of servers in your /etc/apt/sources.list file and picks the fastest one to download from.

Alas, this didn't add the H.264 codec to mplayer either. The solution seem to be to install an alternative video player, the venerable vlc, which, like, mplayer, brings its own comprehensive list of codecs to the party. Unlike mplayer, this list includes H.264. Installation is simple:

sudo apt-get install vlc

Once you've done this, vlc is available from the command line, or you can add it as an icon to the Simple Desktop using the procedure we discussed last time. If you're running your EEE PC in full desktop mode, vlc turns up automatically as an option in the Launch Menu under Applications/Multimedia.

Eee Full Desktop

Full Desktop Mode

If you've found a way of getting (s)mplayer to play H.264 encoded files, or have come up with a better solution than vlc, perhaps you'll let me know*.

In the next episode, I'm hoping to explore the Bluetooth possibilities of these machines, and we'll be discussing some more of the underlying Linux/Unix fundamentals that underpin these netbooks. ®

Stop Press

As of the time of writing, there's a copy of mplayer 1.0 at http://download.tuxfamily.org/eeepcrepos/pool/etch/. It's listed there as mplayer_1.0~rc1-12etch1_i386.deb, so with an as yet incomplete understanding of what I was doing I kluged an install by adding the following line to my /etc/apt/sources.list file:

deb http://download.tuxfamily.org/eeepcrepos pool etch

...and then running the command:

sudo aptitude install mplayer=1.0~rc1-12etch1

The install threw up some minor errors, but I now have an smplayer that works with H.264. Perhaps helpful readers with more experience of apt-get can help fill out the details. Meanwhile proceed - if at all - with caution.