This is my cyberhome!

October 15, 2010

How to fix gapless analysis problems in iTunes?

Filed under: Apple,Audio,Software — Manish Bansal @ 3:56 pm

The Problem:
If you use iTunes, on windows or mac, it is inevitable that you’d come across this dialog where iTunes says that it’s Determining Gapless Playback Information. It doesn’t matter whether you want your albums to play gapless or not. iTunes just goes ahead and does it. There is no way to turn it off. It would have been pretty harmless, except for one little thing – it often gets stuck and the only way out is to reboot your computer (and lose any unsaved data, not to mention the frustration caused). Though there is no way to turn this process off, there is a way to make it go smooth. The solution is to repair your corrupt MP3 files.

The Reason:
There are plenty of reasons for MP3 files being corrupt but the most common one is bad encoders. All the modern encoders are ok but those present during Napster era (late 90s and early 2000s) were really bad. So if you have any songs encoded during that period, chances are that they are not as per MP3 encoding standards. These songs would play just fine but otherwise cause a lot of problems in terms of tagging and gapless analysis etc. If you do a scan on your collection, you’d be surprised by the number of songs with potential problems. These kind of files are the reason iTunes gets stuck.

The Fix:
The fix is pretty simple, fortunately. All you need is foobar and a bit of time. Don’t worry. The songs will NOT be re-encoded or subject to anything else which might reduce their audio quality. These operations are completely harmless. You can take a backup in case you’d like to be really careful.

Ok, here we go:

  1. Download and install foobar. Make sure that you choose all the utilities and extras during the install.
  2. Launch foobar and go to ‘File -> Preferences -> Shell Integration’. In the right-hand side pane, enable the option ‘Folder context menus’. In the same pane, type ‘*.mp3’ for ‘Restrict incoming files to’. This will make sure that only MP3 files come into foobar as this fix is not applicable for AAC or WAV files etc.
  3. Go to your songs folder in Windows explorer, right-click and choose ‘Enqueue in foobar2000’. Or you and drag your songs folder to foobar.
  4. In foobar, Select all files, right-click and choose ‘Utilities -> Rebuild MP3 Stream’. This will recreate the MP3 file by removing all the non-standard data and other garbage. It will also fix the tags by rewriting them in a standard-compliant way. It took about 3 hours to fix 20k files on my aging PC. A nice side benefit of this fix is that a few more songs will now show up in your iTunes library because of standards-compliant tags.
  5. Once step 4 is over, select all files again, right-click and choose ‘Utilities -> Fix VBR MP3 Header’. This will add the missing VBR header data to the Variable Bit Rate files. The absence of this header causes problems in seeking and also in calculating the duration of song which impacts gapless analysis. This process also took about 3 hours on my somewhat old PC.
  6. This step is optional but I did it anyway. Clean up your iTunes library and add all the songs again. The only thing I care about is song ratings which I store in BPM field so I don’t lose them even if I clean up the iTunes library.
  7. Let iTunes go through ‘Determining Gapless Playback Information’. Typically it won’t get stuck now but there are chances that it still won’t like a few of the songs. The only fix for these songs is to remove them from iTunes library. In my case, I had about 1000 songs in a particular folder which were giving problems. These were the songs which I had converted from FLAC to MP3 a long time back, prehaps using a crappy non-standard encoder. I just removed these songs from iTunes, re-encoded them from FLAC using Lame and everything went fine.

Notes:
To validate your MP3 files, you can use a free program called MP3val. It can even fix some of the common problems.

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February 25, 2009

How to make Nikon Capture NX2 run faster.

Filed under: Photography,Software — Manish Bansal @ 10:14 am
Tags: , ,

To say that Nikon Capture NX (or Capture Nx2) is slow would be an understatement. The reason for its slowness is that it ships with older versions of certain Windows files which it uses. So all we need to do to make it run faster is to install the latest and greatest versions of these files. It really is that simple and it makes a significant difference. But why Nikon doesn’t document it or doesn’t do it by default is beyond me.

Here are the steps (Please read the whole post before proceeding with the install):

1. Download and install Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 with Service Pack 1 from this page on Microsoft’s site. Capture NX2 installer specifies that it needs .NET framework 2.0 but if you install .NET framework 3.5, you do not need .NET Framework 2.0 or any other earlier version.

Note: If you do not want to install .NET Framework 3.5 for any reason and want to use version 2.0 itself, download the latest version of 2.0 with SP1 from this page.

Install updates, if any, through Windows Update (in Internet Explorer). If you already have .NET framework installed (2.0 or later), use Windows Update to get the latest version. Reboot if prompted.

2. Download and install Microsoft Visual C++ 2008 SP1 Redistributable Package from this page on Microsoft’s site. It’s a very small download (only 4 MB). If you install this, you do not need Microsoft Visual C++ 2005 Redistributable Package or any other earlier version. Capture NX2 ships with a very old version of this file (from 2005 or earlier) which is the main reason it runs slow.

3. Reboot your computer.

4. Install Nikon Capture NX (or NX2). If you have already installed it, you do not have to install it again. But if you are doing a fresh install, it’s better if you install it in the end.

5. Enjoy editing. (more…)

December 15, 2007

Making your DSLR show Linear Histogram

Filed under: Photography,Software — Manish Bansal @ 4:39 pm

In addition to having greater flexibility during post-processing, one of the main reasons for shooting raw is to capture greater dynamic range. But if you are relying on the histogram on your camera’s LCD to judge exposure, you may not be capturing the full dynamic range that your camera is capable of.

The Problem:
The histogram shown on the LCD of a digital camera is based on the gamma-corrected jpeg image and not on the linear raw data. This is true even if you are shooting raw. It is not possible technically to create this histogram from raw data because raw data is unusable until it is processed and converted into an image. Since the raw files typically have an exposure latitude of one f-stop and the blown out highlights can be recovered easily in the raw converter, we don’t want the in-camera histogram to treat this as over-exposure. Otherwise we’d be doing negative exposure compensation to get a pleasing in-camera histogram and thus losing valuable shadow detail. In other words, instead of following ‘Expose to the Right (for jpeg)’ (ETTR) principle, we want to follow ‘Expose to the Right (for raw)’. We want to push the shadows as far to the right as possible without really blowing out the highlights. And we want to do this because the way a digital sensor works, shadows are given very little importance when compared to highlights.

Human Vision vs. Sensor Vision:
Imagine you are sitting in a room where there is one light bulb of 100w burning. You can see things around you and the room appears to be at a certain level of brightness. Now, if a second 100w bulb is turned on, the room appears brighter but it does not appear twice as bright. You’d need lot more bulbs to make the room appear twice as bright. The same is true of human ears when it comes to listening ability. Doubling the sound pressure does not make the music sound twice as loud. This relationship between the actual light intensity and perceived light intensity is said to be logarithmic in nature. In other words, an increase in physical stimuli does not produce an equal increase in its perception. This relationship is described in mathematical terms by Weber–Fechner law or Stevens’ power law.

On the other hand, digital sensors (CCD or CMOS) in our digital cameras are linear. Doubling the ambient light will make things appear twice as bright to the digital sensor. This is an important point as the raw files in our digital cameras store linear data.

Linear Data:
The digital sensor in our cameras being linear, the raw files produced by them are also linear. The brightest f-stop in a linear file is twice as bright as the next f-stop and thus requires twice as many levels. In a 12-bit raw file, there are a total of 4096 brightness levels. That means that the brightest f-stop has 2048 levels in it, the next f-stop has 1024 levels and so on. The deep shadows in this linear file will have only 16 levels! Imagine the banding that will occur if you try to open up these shadows. Thus the brightest f-stop has far more levels in it than our eyes can perceive while the lower f-stops have far fewer levels than required. This non-uniform distribution of luminosity data can be fixed by applying gamma correction on the linear data.

Gamma:
A cathode-ray tube (CRT), which is used in the computer monitors, is inherently non-linear. The intensity of light reproduced at the screen of a CRT monitor is a non-linear function of its voltage input. This relationship between the input voltage and the output intensity is described by a parameter called gamma. To compensate for this non-linearity, the input signal to a CRT is encoded in such a way so as to make the light produced by the monitor perceptually uniform. This is called gamma correction.

As it turns out, the non-linearity of our eyes is very nearly the inverse of non-linearity of CRT. Thus gamma-correcting a raw image (converting to jpeg) not only takes care of the CRT non-linearity, it is also the best perceptual encoding for visual data. It makes the best use of limited bits (8 bits or 255 levels) available to achieve the most appealing visual reproduction. MP3 encoding does the similar thing for audio data. Note that it’s only the input to the CRT (jpeg on the hard disk) which is gamma-corrected. Once an image is displayed on the CRT screen, it’s as good as seeing the image subject in real life. It is this gamma-corrected image from which the LCD histogram is derived.

LCD Histogram:
To create an in-camera histogram out of raw data, four things have to be done. First, the raw data has to be de-mosaiced, and second, a color space has to be imposed on it. The third step is to apply gamma correction. If a histogram were to be plotted at this stage, it would be bunched up to the left because even though the brightest f-stop occupies half the total number of levels (2048 in a 12-bit raw file) and thus the complete right half of the histogram, there are very few pixels in it. This is true for typical images which comprise mostly of mid-tones and do not contain much shadow or highlight data. This is the histogram (from linear data) that we are after.

The fourth step is to apply all other settings like sharpening, contrast, saturation etc. and create a jpeg image. This jpeg image is then used to plot the in-camera histogram. This histogram looks very different from the linear histogram because gamma correction spreads the luminosity data uniformly (perceptually) across the tonal range. As long as the linear histogram does not show highlight clipping, we are ok even though the gamma-corrected version might indicate that clipping is happening.

So all we need to do to get a linear histogram is get rid of gamma correction and we can do that through custom curves (on Nikon cameras at least).

Custom Curves:
Most of the Nikon DSLRs have the option to upload a custom tone curve to be applied to the jpeg images and hence to the in-camera histogram. The custom tone curve (or the default tone curves for that matter) is comprised of two parts – an implicit gamma correction and the actual tone manipulation. All the tone curves work on gamma corrected images by default. What we are looking for is a tone curve, which:

  1. Does not apply gamma correction so that our data stays linear, and
  2. Does not apply any tone manipulation so that the linear data stays pristine.

Enter ToneUp Studio.

Applying a Custom Curve:
ToneUp Studio is a raw converter written by Todd Gibbs, and indie software developer. For all of $14 dollars, it not only provides custom curve uploading, but also tethered shooting (only for Nikon cameras). And you have the option to use Nikon SDK so that you see your images exactly as Nikon intended. Here is what is to be done to make your camera show raw histogram using ToneUp Studio (This feature is available only in latest beta as of now).

I have tested this process on D80 and it should work fine on other Nikon cameras too. Please do check the camera compatibility list on the author’s website.

  1. Put your camera in PTP (Picture Transfer Protocol) mode instead of USB mass storage mode and turn it off.
  2. Connect your camera to your computer with the USB cable and turn it on.
  3. Launch ToneUp Studio. You have to connect your camera before you launch this software otherwise it won’t recognize the camera.
  4. Go to Edit-> Preferences and enable the option to “Disable Gamma curve when uploading curves”.
  5. Go to File->New Curve. A new window with a straight line curve will be displayed. Choose File->Upload Curve. A progress bar will be displayed while the custom curve gets uploaded to the camera.
  6. Turn off your camera and disconnect.
  7. In your camera menu, choose Optimize Image->Custom Tone curve.
  8. Shoot.

That’s it. The images on your camera’s LCD will appear too dark but that’s ok. When you open your images in a raw converter, this custom curve will get ignored and you’ll see a normal (gamma corrected) image. If it looks over-exposed, just use the highlight recovery slider and bring back the detail. If you are using Capture NX or any other Nikon SDK based software, just choose a different tone curve.

Credits/Links:

  1. ToneUp Studio
  2. Expose to the Right
  3. Exposing for RAW
  4. Weber-Fechner Law
  5. Steven’s Power Law
  6. Gamma Correction
  7. Gamma FAQ

May 23, 2006

Kernel Streaming with iTunes.

Filed under: Apple,Audio,Software — Manish Bansal @ 5:36 am

iTunes is considered to be the best music organizer and foobar to be the best music player. But what if you could have the interface of iTunes but guts of foobar in one application? Enter Multi-plugin.

Here is what you’ll need:

  1. foobar (0.9.4) and Kernel Streaming plugin for foobar.
  2. iTunes (for Windows, ver 7.0.1)
  3. Multi-plugin (latest version is 2.4.2 as of September 22, 2006)

Install iTunes, foobar, and Multi-plugin. To install Kernel Streaming plugin for foobar, just copy the file “foo_out_ks.dll” to foobar components directory.

Run foobar, go to file-> preferences -> playback -> output and choose Kernel Streaming as the output method.

Run iTunes, go to Edit -> preferences -> Multi-plugin and make the following changes:

  1. Under “Appearance”, choose the default skin.
  2. Under “Other”, choose “foobar2000 passthrough”.

Now whenever you hit play on a song in iTunes, it would be played through foobar. This means that you get access to all the foobar DSP goodness too. Enjoy!

Notes:

  1. You might get the message “foobar not installed” when you enable “foobar2000 passthrough”. This happens because Multi-plugin looks for foobar information in the wrong place in the registry. It’s pretty easy to fix though. Just transfer the keys from “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Foobar2000” to “HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Foobar2000”.
    To do that, go to “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Foobar2000” in the registry and choose File->Export. Then open the resulting *.reg file using notepad and change “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Foobar2000” to “HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Foobar2000”. Save the file and double-click. Done!
  2. You need to set the volume to maximum in iTunes to avoid any loss of quality because of attenuation.
  3. Even if you don’t notice any improvement in the sound quality, this would at least take care of the songs skipping in iTunes (a big problem in iTunes 7.x.x).
  4. You can not run both foobar and iTunes at the same time. Otherwise you’d get error “KS output error: error opening device”. In fact, you don’t have to run foobar to use Multi-plugin. iTunes would launch it automatically in the background.

Update on September 20, 2006:
Links now point to the latest version of Multi-plugin, 2.4.2.

February 14, 2006

A really sweet plugin for Yahoo Music Engine.

Filed under: Audio,Software — Manish Bansal @ 6:55 am

I am a big fan of Magnatune record label. They allow you to stream/download all of their catalog in 128 kbps DRM free MP3 files. It used to be a pain to browse the site and download though ’cause they didn’t give a direct link to the download page. You had to google it and then click on each and every file on that page. Not anymore.

Enter Web Media Browser plugin for Yahoo Music Engine by YMediaShare. It allows you to browse, queue, and download the Magnatune music directly from YME. No more hunting on Google. You can even queue up all the files you want and it will keep on downloading them in the background. And after downloading, the new music automatically gets added to your media library. Sweet! I was just about to swear off YME for good but this plugin has made me change my mind.

This plugin lets you do some more things also like Browse WebJay playlists directly from YME, download music from lots of different sources, rate them etc. But I am keeping it for the Magnatune thing.

August 10, 2004

Windows + Freeware = Bliss!!

Filed under: Software — Manish Bansal @ 10:58 pm

This article originally appeared on Osnews.com.
Recently I upgraded my home PC and I thought, well, how about loading it with only freeware/open source software (On top of Windows XP)? So I started looking around and found some excellent freeware, alongwith a lot of trash. It took some work to evaluate all the applications but in the end, it was worth it. I have nothing against Micro$oft or any other ISV making money though. It was just that I was on a tight budget and I wanted to see whether it was really possible to live without commercial software. Here is what I have settled on in the end.

Audio:
Nothing beats good ol’ Winamp (classic) here for playing songs. For cataloging my music collection, I use MPEG Audio Collection. It is very lightweight and can read all types of audio files. It uses Windows default player (winamp here) to play music. Apple’s iTunes is also good but it’s very resource intensive, especially if you choose to normalize the volume. I use both MAC and iTunes as they serve two different purposes. With MPEG Audio Collection, you can catalog all your CDs and search for the songs without needing the original CD. On the other hand, iTunes does not allow you to play songs based on the folders (location) but you can do that in MPEG Audio Collection.

What good is winamp without some music for it to play and again I turned to freeware. There are more sources of legal free music on the internet than we know or care about and that’s where irate comes in. When you run this program for the first time, it will download 10 tracks at random from different sources. You listen to each song and rate it on a scale of 0 to 10. Say you rate country songs higher than Blues. Then the program will start downloading more of country songs. With a little bit of training, the program can give you a hit ratio of 70% or more. And these are not streams or samples or pirated songs. These are free-as-in-beer full songs. And you can just right click on an artist’s name and visit their website.

I use CDex for CD ripping and mp3Trim for occasional mp3 editing.

Video:
Even though I got a copy of PowerDVD when I bought my DVD-ROM drive, I don’t use it as I am planning to use only freeware. But this is one area where I was disappointed. I could not find any good DVD players which are also freeware. The best I could find was VideoLan. Its interface is not as eye-candy as PowerDVD but it does play every imaginable file format, even those files that other softwares refuse to play. It’s very lightweight and highly customizable. Don’t be put off by its interface.

Updated on Aug 20, 2004 – BSPlayer is a terrific piece of software which specialises in video and divx playback. It has ton of features and plays all kind of media files.

For video editing and capturing, the most popular freeware application is VirtualDub. For casual use, Windows Movie Maker 2 is a good choice.

CD/DVD writing:
I had always used Nero for this but CD Burner XP Pro is an excellent piece of software. It’s hard to believe that something like this is free! It works with IDE, USB, IEEE1384, SCSI CD/DVD recorders, can create bootable discs, iso files, audio CDs etc. And best of all, it has a very powerful CD ripper, featuring ogg and wma, in addition to mp3. It has made me forget Nero and that’s saying a lot.

Free version of DeepBurner is also an excellent software. Though pro version has much more functionality, free version is more than enough for daily use.

For viewing image file, I use CDmage. It supports more than 25 formats, including .nrg, .ccd, .iso, and does an amazing variety of things.

Productivity:
The first application that comes to mind in this category is OpenOffice. It should serve you well for almost all of your needs. In case you get a complex layout file that was created in MS Office and OpenOffice is unable to render it properly, you can always download the free viewers for Word/Excel/Powerpoint/Visio from Microsoft site. I tried Abiword also but I did not like its interface that much. And since you’d be installing OpenOffice anyway, there is no need for any other word processor.

I use Keynote for note taking. It is very lightweight and has a nice tabbed interface. You can also use free version of Treepad but it does not support images.

Internet Browsing:
There are two choices for browsing the internet. Firefox and MyIE2. I do not prefer firefox that much because of its memory leak problems. Use it for 10 minutes and it would start taking 60-70 MB of RAM. But it’s very secure and comes with a built-in pop up blocker. It is recommended only if you have atleast 256 MB of RAM. Otherwise it’s better to use MyIE2 which is a shell around IE. It also supports tabbed browsing and has many more features than firefox.

Mail:
Thunderbird from mozilla organization. Though I mostly use gmail/yahoo for personal emails (at home).

IM:
Gaim is a multi-protocol IM software, supporting Yahoo, MSN messanger, AIM, ICQ, IRC, and few more. It allows you to compose your messages using its built-in WYSIWYG interface. And if your friends have multiple accounts, it can club them into one single entry which you can expand if needed. It even has RSA encryption (through a plugin). Miranda is another very good IM software.

Anti-virus:
I use a product (appropriately) called antivir from H+BEDV. It is very light on the resources and gets updated daily. You can also use AVG anti-virus from Grisoft but antivir gives you much more fine-grained control over dealing with viruses.

Firewall:
I use Kerio personal firewall from Kerio technologies. It’s highly customizable and in addition to providing network security, it also provides very good system level security. Meaning it will alert you if an executable tries to launch another executable. And you can create custom access rules for different programs. Zonelabs also gives a free version of their famous zonealarm firewall but free version does not allow you to specify policies for individual programs. Though Sygate personal firewall is also good, you can create only 20 custom rules in free version. Needless to say, do not trust Windows firewall that comes with XP SP2.

Data Compression:
7-Zip is the best freeware compression tool out there. Its proprietary compression format 7z claims 30-70% better compression ratios when compared to regular zip format. It even supports rpms and deb formats,in addition to all the other major ones.

Imaging:
irfanview is the best freeware image viewer/editor that I have used till date. It supports any image file format that you have ever heard of. And its editing capablities are more than sufficient for casual users. You can crop/convert/apply filters/get EXIF/create slideshows/change color depth and do many more things. Don’t forget to install the plugins though.

For everything else, there is of course gimp. One more good application is Paint.net. It is under active development but looks very promising. You need .Net runtime for this though.

File Utilities:
SC-DiskInfo will quickly show you how much disk space is being used by different directories. Run it on ‘Documents and Settings’ folder and be surprised by the amount of space being taken by temp files. It displays the space usage in a very nice bar graph. If you keep wondering where your disk space has gone, get this software.

To recover files that got emptied from recycle bin also, Restoration is a very handy utility. It woks on all versions of Windows and does not need any installation. Just unzip and run it, preferrably from a floppy.

Misc:
Some other programs that I use are – Spybot Search&Destroy for removing spyware, CmdHere power toy from Microsoft (for Windows XP), free version of Joel Spolsky’s CityDesk for (clean) HTML composing, and Clip Path for capturing the full path of a file/directory to clipboard.

There are many more programs out there than I could ever test. But these should be sufficient for an average home user. And if you like any of these, consider donating some money to the developers. Even five or ten dollars go a long way towards paying bandwidth and hardware costs. You can also help with documentation or programming. At the minimum, send an appreciation email to the developers and thank them. It does wonders for their motivation and encourages them to continue working on the application. Some sites like SourceForge sell T-shirts and you can show your support by buying them. Remember, no help is small help.

Let’s go exploring:
If you want all this software and more on one CD, here are some links to explore –

The Open CD – Offers CDs and free iso images containing most of the applications listed here and many more. Updated regularly.

GNUWin – This is similar to OpenCD but offers a lot more software. It was lagging a bit in terms of updates (at the time of this writing) by abount two months.

Open Source Software CD – Offers a lot of software and is updated regularly. Better than both ‘The Open CD’ and ‘GNUWin’.

TTCS OSSWin CD – This one seems to be the best of all.

January 6, 2004

Mandrake Linux 10 Preview

Filed under: Linux,Software — Manish Bansal @ 6:38 pm

This article originally appeared on Osnews.com.

Mandrake Linux Preview Edition pretty much defines the shape of things to come in Linux land in 2004. With Kernel 2.6, KDE 3.2 beta and XFree86 4.4 beta, it doesn’t leave much to be desired. This article refers to cooker snapshot as of December 31, 2003. Please note that this release is not a beta release. This is not even an alpha release. Its just something put together to show what we can expect from Mandrake 10.0. This release comes on only two CDs so some of the packages are missing. And as there are bound to be lot of bugs in this kind of release, I’ll be concentrating more on the usability aspect. So let’s see if it is worth drooling over.

Install:

I did not want burn the iso images to the CDs so I chose to install directly from the harddisk. First thing I did was to bust the iso files using winrar. Then inserted a floppy and double clicked on ‘rawwritewin.exe’ in directory ‘dosutils’. Pointed it to the directory called ‘image’ and chose ‘hdcdrom_usb.img’ . The boot floppy was ready in 4 minutes. All this was done from within Windows. Booted using the boot floppy just created. Chose ‘harddisk install’ method and pointed the installer to the place where the packages were lying. Note that the installer expects names like hda5 while asking for the package location. It won’t understand what C:\ means. and while busting second iso, make sure that the rpms from this image are extracted in a folder called RPMS2 under ‘Mandrake’ directory. Otherwise the installer won’t be able to find them. The install process itself is essentially same as before. I chose Hindi as one additional language and the installer offered to install ‘Devanagiri’ keyboard layout. Very helpful. While installing individual packages, the installer does not show the package version number. Not a big deal though but I am used to it from my Redhat days.

I had chosen ext3 as the filesystem and the whole install process took about half an hour. No third party ads were displayed during the install. Even though there is a folder called ‘advertising”, it just contains Mandrake’s own promotional ads.

First Boot:

One of the first thing that hits you when you login is the responsiveness of the system. The system seems really fast. Even though lot of RAM (640 MB DDR) and new Kernel/KDE/XFree86 helps but it certainly is much much faster than Redhat 9 and Windows XP on the same hardware. Sometime I got the creepy feeling that the system was anticipating my mouse movements and bringing up the screens even before I could click! The directory listing of same shared drives (songs etc) was coming up much faster than it was in Windows XP. and these shared drives are FAT32, something Windows is supposed to specialize in. I wonder how would it be when pre-linking is enabled. Hope they add that to the final release.

I have two harddisks, first one containing just the OSes and the second one containing songs, docs, videos etc. The second harddisk has four partitions with volume labels songs, docs, videos and junk. Not only the system automatically mounted all of them under /mnt but get this, it created all the mount points by reading the volume labels of the partitions! I was awesome. No other distro has ever done that. Infact I keep a copy of fstab in a separate partition which I use after installing a new distro. Guess I won’t be needing that anymore. Though it mounted my USB harddisk also by itself, it did not read the volume information from that and instead named it as win_c3.

I had created one normal user account ‘manish’ during install. When I booted for the first time, the system automatically logged me in as ‘manish’. But I wanted to login as root to do some onetime settings. I thought I’ll just logout and maybe I’ll get to see the login prompt. On logging out, it showed the login prompt but there was no place where I could enter username. I had to click on the name ‘manish’ but this time it did ask for the password. I Changed some settngs in the login manager and made it show ‘root’ on the login prompt. I know its not a good idea to display ‘root’ as one of the users, atleast a text field should have been supplied where I could type username ‘root’.

Package install:

It turned out that the package ‘Wine’ got left out during the install. Actually I don’t remember seeing it anywhere during the package selection. Anyway, I launched rpmdrake but it ended up in dependency hell. Launched urpmi and gave ‘urpmi.addmedia local’ and gave it the path for ‘Mandrake’ directory where the rpm packages were stored. It could not load the rpm package list. Gave an error message saying that the files hdlist and synthesis.hdlist could not be parsed/located even though they were peresent. Mucked around a bit more with urpmi but could not make it access local rpm files. Then stumbled upon the GUI tool called ‘Software Media Manager’. The same thing that I was trying to do by command line worked flawlessly in GUI. The local rpm files list got created and finally I was able to install ‘Wine’. Well, all I can say is I am yet to find software install nirvana. And I also wonder if it is so tough to put every object file needed in the same rpm package.

Multimedia:

This is the first Mandrake release that has got a beep out of my onboard AC97 audio controller. I had to fiddle with audio mixer a bit but it worked in the end.
Clicking on a mp3 file brought up totem player. I was hoping to see xmms but nothing a few mouse clicks can’t fix. I guess the default should have been xmms in
the first place. Xmms here is highly unstable though. It froze up on the first mp3 itself and took the entire system down. But I guess thats ok in this kind of release. And it still does not contain extra skins and equalizer presets.

There are only two media players included, Mplayer and Totem. Xine is not present and neither is libdvdcss even though there is a package present called xine-plugins. Wonder what that does. Video files play by default in totem. I changed the settings to make Mplayer the default for such files. It showed a progress bar saying ‘changing system settings’. Clicking on a video file now brought up totem again. Also I had associated dat files (VCD clippings) with Mplayer but it had no effect. It still brings up the dialog box asking me to choose a program. These seem to the problems with KDE rather than with the distro but since KDE itself is beta, you can never be sure.

There are lot of programs installed to deal with image files. Infact, there are too many of them, may be 8 or 9. And all of them do more or less the same thing. Though it is good to have choice, this just seems like overkill to me. Good old Gimp is also present but it is quite old 1.2.5 version. With this kind of release, they could have included 1.3 beta and nobody would have complained. It contains much better menu layout and CYMK support.

Productivity:

OO.org 1.1 is present along with KOffice 1.3 beta. Loading time of OO.org has improved a lot since 1.0 but it is still not fast enough. And I think whatever speed gain I saw was because of the new kernel and new XFree86 etc. Filters have also improved for MS Office documents but a lot remains to be done. I opened a simple word document with a few bullet points and all the bullets (in this case, small round dark circles) had big square grey boxes around them. It looked plain ugly. It can ofcourse be fixed but defaults should make sense. KOffice is still very buggy. KWord froze up 2-3 times on opening the same file and just won’t get refreshed. Personally, I think these guys should merge with OO.org. There are 7 text editors present, one for each day of the week I guess. Incidentally, I am typing this review in KWrite while playing around with this release.

The menu layout is pretty intuitive for office applications atleast. Instead of grouping them by brand, they are now grouped by functionality. So all the word processors go under ‘Wordprocessors’. GNOME dictionary turned out to be very helpful in checking some word meanings but it needs internet connection. It would be much better if there is an offline dictionary included, somethink like Wordweb for Windows.

Internet:

Plenty of stuff here. Galeon is also present in addition to Mozilla and Konqueror. And Mozilla still retains its ugly classic theme as default. This point has been talked about so much in online communities but nothing seems to convince the package developers to change it. Flash plugin is not present and neither is Java. What is the point in putting ton of new features in each version if it can’t do the basic stuff right? Konqueror was horrible at reproducing the fonts as intended by the web page. I went to http://www.osnews.com and the page looked terrible in Konqueror. But the same web page looks gorgeous in Mozilla. Maybe there are some font settings that can be changed but default in Konqueror is just hit or miss.

I used gaim to connect to Yahoo chat server and everything worked right the first time. There is an application called ‘Screem’ to build web sites. Its something
similar to Yahoo site builder though not that powerful or that intuitive. I could not find site templates which is the first thing it should have had.

In terms of internet security, the system has a firewall called Shorewall. I chose the standard level of security accepting the default settings. The Zone alarm firewall test on Windows XP shows all the ports to be in stealth mode. Means that it eats up all the incoming ICMP packets and it appears that there is no PC at this IP address. I decided to see how does Shorewall fare. Went to the site ‘http://scan.sygate.com’ and gave a port scan. It showed all the ports to be in ‘closed’ state only. That means that someone could still see that there is a PC at this IP address. It is secure but I won’t have worried had it been in ‘stealth’ mode. I then changed the security level to ‘paranoid’ and sure enough, the port were shown to be ‘Blocked’ which means they are in stealth mode. I felt better but now I could not access my shared drives mounted under /mnt. Oh well..

Did a Nmap scan also on the PC and it showed only port 6000 to be open which was being used by X11.

General usability:

One of my pet peeves is the default application bindings in Linux distros for the common type of files and Mandrake doesn’t fare any better than others. eg double-clicking on an iso image file brings up an application selection dialog. Now the most common use of an iso file is to burn it on to a CD and K3b should have been configured to do so by default. Xandros does this right. Another example is .dat files. There are used in VCDs. Now the only thing I can do with a dat file is to view it. So Mplayer should have got fired up and played the movie. Since this is just a preview release, maybe the things will change in future. Moreover with all the distros having more or less the same standard set of packages, these are the only areas where a distro can differentiate itself from others. I am sure we’ll be seeing a lot of usability enhancements in 2004.

The system seems stable enough for daily use. The only two things that were acting up were xmms and KOffice. Everything else seems to be working fine. I would like to say here that the speed of the system reduced a bit after using it for 2-3 days. Maybe because of all those log files getting written.

Conclusion:

This is going to be a big release for Mandrake especially considering their financial situation. It won’t be wrong to say that this is the release that can make them or break them. Hope they get this one right. Enough has been written about KDE 3.2 beta and how it still needs a lot of polish. As for me, I’ll be giving Fedora core 2 a spin and then decide for myself. If Fedora offers same levels of performance, I don’t mind installing a few multimedia packages and getting on with my work.

December 24, 2003

Introducing Lorma Linux 4.0

Filed under: Linux,Software — Manish Bansal @ 2:29 pm

This article originally appeared on Osnews.com.

Lorma linux 4.0 is the first distribution to be based on Fedora Core, outside of Redhat, that is. It is one of those new breed of single-CD distros that try to include only the best-of-breed applications.

It is primarily a desktop distro and does not include any of the software for setting up http/ftp/mail and other kind of servers. Though the matter of choice vs simplicity is a debatable issue, if you want 5 text editors in addition to OO.org and Koffice, this distro is not for you.

Lorma linux tries to offer what Fedora left out in its release. Redhat users are all too familiar with the process of installing lots of packages after installing the main OS. Its kinda like what you do on Windows only on a smaller scale. But not so with Lorma. Here you get everything that you wish Fedora had included. Don’t get me wrong on this one. I respect the stand taken by Redhat concerning legal issues surrounding mp3 plug-ins and DVD content (un)scrambling systems and other things. But looking at it from an end-user’s perspective, it’s a bit of inconvenience. And that’s exactly what Lorma Linux promises to relieve us from.

I have been using Redhat linux since version 7.1 and my main OS for day-to-day work is Redhat linux 9. I have not used Fedora Core 1 and I don’t plan to do so either. I would definitely be using Fedora Core 2 though. That said; let’s see if how does Lorma linux fare in comparison to Redhat Linux.

Install: The install process is identical to that of standard Redhat linux, except one thing. It gives you a choice of 5 package groups, what it calls “Installation Classes’. Different pre-defined package groups will be installed based on what installation class you choose. This approach has its own good and bad points. It’s very good for people who are new to Linux as it saves them the trouble of choosing from thousands of packages. But on the other hand, ‘office workstation’ installation class does not include development tools and the ‘classroom workstation’ installation class includes games!! It should be noted that the users can either accept these pre-defined package groups as it is or they can make changes as they wish by selecting/deselecting packages. Very handy feature. Anyway, the good old custom mode is present too. As any regular reader of OSnews would have guessed that’s what I chose. Install went smoothly, except for one small hiccup which I describe in the support section.

Multimedia: This is one of the biggest selling points of this distro. The phrase doesn’t make much sense when you consider that this distro is free but anyway. It comes pre-installed with mp3 plug-in for xmms. Though why they don’t include equalizer presets is beyond me. In fact, none of the distros that I have seen so far include these. It’s a very simple thing to import the presets from winamp and I wish this distro had done so. Maybe in the next version!
Mplayer comes with divX and OpenDivX plug-ins pre-installed to watch DVDs ripped in divX format. Among CD writers, k3b has been included which I believe is the best CD burning application in the Linux land.

Internet: Mozilla comes with the Modern theme as the default, which looks beautiful compared to that crappy Classic theme and it comes with Flash plug-in pre-installed. These are small things but these are what give the users a better experience. Version 3.1 of Lorma Linux had java pre-installed but it was removed in release 4.0 because of space constraints. I wish they had retained it and removed some other application instead. One candidate for removal could have been Scribus, used for desktop publishing. It is a very specialized application and there are very few people who would be using it in production environment.

Lorma Linux comes with Yahoo messenger pre-loaded for instant messaging. With recent issues regarding gaim and MSN chat rooms access, who knows if Yahoo would also block access to gaim users. I find it very reassuring to have Yahoo messenger ported to Linux as all my friends are not Linux users and most of them use Yahoo messenger anyway.
For enjoying streaming audio and video, RealPlayer is present. It is the freeware version and it forces you to register it when you launch it for the first time. I wonder why it does that. I just gave it a dummy mail-id and off I went.

Support: Lorma Linux is a project of an educational institution in Philippines. It is not a commercial distro in the true sense. So the basic source of support is the user forums. While I was installing it using VMware, the installer was hanging after installing a few packages. I tried to install it 2 more times but each time it would hang on one package or the other. I posted my problem in the user forum and I had the answer within 5 minutes (I guess it was from one of the developers). Turned out that VMware was using SCSI emulation for the virtual harddisk by default. I changed it to IDE as suggested in the answer to my problem and the install went smoothly. This kind of response is very rare in the freeware world. And I should mention that even I didn’t know at the time of posting the question that I would be doing a review of this distro. So there is no question of favorable treatment or any such thing.

Office/productivity: All too familiar OOffice.org is present, version 1.1. Keeping in with the philosophy of single-CD distros, KOffice has not been included, neither is abiWord.

Misc: Wine package which was removed in Redhat 9 because of developer constraints is present in Lorma Linux. Though you should be careful while selecting packages if you want to install it. It is present under ‘gaming packages’ and it is the only thing that is present there. As gaming is not the only thing it is used for, it should be present either under ‘System utilities’ or ‘Miscellaneous’. Making it a part of the base package would also be a good thing.

Cons: There are lot of places where the installer still uses the word ‘Redhat’. For example, while installing, it gives you a message saying ‘Welcome to Redhat Linux’. There are many more places where it refers to itself as Redhat Linux. Not sure what would be Redhat’s stand on such issues but it should be changed as soon as possible.
Synaptic is not present though there is an entry in the start menu. Nothing happens when you click on that. Guess the it got left out during packaging.

Conclusion: This distro has a great potential to become a mainstream player only if it gets its target audience well defined. Single-CD distros just don’t have enough room to please everyone. With Redhat itself going after corporate users, Lorma Linux should concentrate more on home users. That means installation classes like ‘office workstation’ have to go. Second thing is that as of now, it is not doing any value addition other than supplying packages missing in Fedora. It would be good if it did something like what Lycoris does. Install the whole CD as an image. With just one CD, the package selection should not be an issue.

Considering the nature of its origin, Lorma Linux people have done a very good job. It can become a serious contender for desktop by taking care of a few things. With Redhat’s polish and Lorma’s package selection, it just can’t go wrong.

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