Eee 701 Planetoid

2012/01/03

Happy New Year

Filed under: housekeeping — Tags: — Tim @ 12:21

Well, just as the title says, really 🙂

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with this blog since I resurrected it last July—it has had a few quiet periods since then (including December, as it happens), but I have a couple of thoughts for posts this month, the first of which you should see here in a few days’ time.

I’m not sure yet whether I’ll do a “My Eee Desktop” post in January, as my 701’s desktop is likely to look virtually identical to the screenshot in this article (i.e. virtually unchanged), but perhaps I’ll upload a pic anyway to keep the tradition going.

Anyway, thanks again for reading, and best wishes to all you good readers for 2012!

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2011/12/01

My Eee Desktop – December 2011

Filed under: Desktops — Tags: , , , , — Tim @ 17:39

With the festive season bearing down on us like Santa and his reindeer in a round-the-world race, and Christmas is ho-ho-hoving into view [that’s enough awful metaphors and puns, Tim – Ed.], it’s time to wheel out my suitably seasonal Eee desktop screenshot for December 2011:

Desktop screenshot with Christmas theme

My Eee Desktop - December 2011

Actually, I’m already thinking about revamping this setup, at least with regard to the wallpaper, which I feel is a bit “busy” (especially as Conky is being displayed on top of it). Otherwise, I think it captures the mood of this time of year pretty well…

You may have noticed that Cairo Composite Manager is still running—I was wondering recently if it was possible to run Conky, xsnow and Cairo at the same time, but I haven’t found a way at time of writing, so I’ve decided to leave xsnow on the sidelines for the moment.

Not much else to report here, except to explain the white square in the “slit” on the right-hand side: it’s supposed to be the XMMS spectrum analyser dockapp, but for some reason it didn’t show up in this screenshot.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this month’s My Eee Desktop, and if that’s not enough festive fun for you, try checking out  the December 2009 and December 2010 entries 🙂

2011/11/15

cairo-compmgr, Conky AND xsnow: is it possible?

Filed under: Desktops, Software — Tags: , , , , — Tim @ 18:14

I don’t often ask you good readers for help on this blog (sorry about that!), but I was hoping that someone reading this might be able to dig me out of a metaphorical snowdrift…

At the moment, I am trying to assemble a suitably Christmassy instalment of “My Eee Desktop” for next month, but I’ve run into a small problem. At the moment, I am running Cairo Composite Manager on top of Fluxbox, and for the most part it works fine, providing various desktop effects (translucent windows, animations, etc.). At the same time, I also run Conky, with the “own window” setting enabled so that it will appear when cairo-compmgr is operational.

For my Christmas Eee desktop, I’d like to add the old X favourite xsnow… but there’s a problem: xsnow draws to the “root window” (i.e. desktop), as does cairo-compmgr. In other words: if the latter is running, you can’t see xsnow. (This has been a known problem with desktop environments like GNOME and KDE for years, as they too use the root desktop to draw folders, icons and so on.)

Basically, if I turn off Cairo, I can get xsnow and Conky running together, due to the latter’s “own window” setting, but Conky “blocks” the view of xsnow (as Conky is running in its own window, on top of xsnow). There are solutions for running xsnow with GNOME and KDE, but neither seems to work with cairo-compmgr—I would’ve thought there was a way to add some kind of “exception” in Cairo for xsnow, but I haven’t yet found it.

So, in short: can anyone think of a way to run xsnow with cairo-compmgr?

(Also, I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows of any other “festive” Linux applications, such as “strings of blinking lights across the top of the screen” and that sort of thing—frankly, the cheesier the better 🙂 )

Thanks in advance for any help, and I’ll be glad to reveal the results in a few weeks’ time…

2011/11/02

Adding visual effects to Fluxbox with Cairo Composite Manager

Filed under: Desktops, Linux, Software — Tags: , , , , — Tim @ 17:30

(or “My Eee Desktop – November 2011” 🙂 )

The other day, I was skimming through the Wikipedia article on the Fluxbox window manager (which I use on my Eee), and a sentence which I hadn’t spotted before, caught my eye:

Effects managers such as xcompmgr, cairo-compmgr and transset-df (deprecated) can add true transparency to desktop elements and windows.

In (relatively) plain English, it seemed to be saying: if you use Fluxbox, you can now add desktop “eye candy” such as translucent windows, fades, slides, etc. to your slimline desktop.

This came as a surprise to me. I’d always believed that you couldn’t add “compositing” effects to Fluxbox, because the leading compositing effects managers like Compiz used their own window manager—in other words, if you want the whizz-bang visuals, it was “bye-bye Fluxbox”.

In fact, there is a composite manager which works with the window manager of your choice (including Fluxbox): Cairo Composite Manager.

The article on Cairo in the Arch Linux Wiki tells you how simple it is to install from the Arch community package repository (sudo pacman -S cairo-compmgr), and from there you can test it by running cairo-compmgr & from the terminal. If you like what you see, and want the manager to start with your X session, you just add cairo-compmgr & to your .xinitrc file.

Image of Fluxbox desktop with Cairo Composite Manager

Fluxbox desktop with cairo-compmgr (note the transparent terminal window)

For me, it really was as simple as that, and here is the obligatory screenshot to prove it 🙂 The main indicator that cairo-compmgr is running, is the truly-translucent XFCE Terminal window in the middle—I could’ve experimented a bit more with the translucency effects, but at present I haven’t had time to do much more than use the default settings. I’d like to see if the Fluxbox “slit” (dock) can exhibit true transparency/translucency, and I’ll probably try that out when I put together the December (Christmas) instalment of “My Eee Desktop”. (Yes, that time is coming around again…)

I would’ve liked to add a video as well, to show off some of the animated desktop effects, but am not sure that the screen-capture solutions available would display them to best effect. I’d probably end up pointing a camcorder at the Eee’s screen!

Oh, and in case anyone wondered: the only different addition to the desktop since last month aside from Cairo, is the XMMS Spectrum analyzer dockapp I found in the AUR. It installs as an XMMS plugin, and I thought it might make a change to add this to the slit this time around.

One small tweak I had to make as a result of Cairo’s arrival, was to my Conky setup file (.conkyrc). When I activated Cairo, my Conky display disappeared—a quick Google revealed that this was basically Cairo and Conky disagreeing about which program could draw to the root window. This is similar to how Conky works with the GNOME desktop (Nautilus grabs the root desktop for itself), so the solution is to add some lines like this to your .conkyrc:

own_window yes
own_window_type desktop
own_window_transparent yes

As ever, you may have to experiment if you try this for yourself, but it fixed the Conky issue for me.

I haven’t noticed Cairo making the Eee work much harder, although clearly there will be an impact on the system (even if it is a small one). Until (if?) I notice anything untoward, I’m content to keep this app running, simply because it adds some polish to an already lean and functional desktop—I’ll be sure to come back here and update you, should this change.

In the meantime, if you’re running a lightweight desktop or window manager, but still crave some of that composited eye-candy goodness, you may find Cairo Composite Manager fits the bill nicely.

2011/10/12

Automounting removable drives with devmon

Filed under: Linux, Software — Tags: , , , , , , — Tim @ 18:46

One of the early issues I grappled with when I installed Arch Linux on my Eee, was that removable drives were not mounted automatically when connected—i.e. it was not a case of “plug and play”.

This isn’t a case of “oh, Linux can’t do that”—distributions like Ubuntu come ready to automount removable drives “out of the box”. This behaviour is standard with desktop environments such as GNOME or KDE (which usually take care of it themselves), but as you’ll know if you’ve been reading here for a bit, my Eee 701 isn’t running a DE, but “simply” the Fluxbox window manager (mostly for the sake of speed).

Also, the “keep it simple” philosophy of Arch Linux, doesn’t tend to add features “by default” because not all users will want or need them. If you want your Arch system to include a given feature, most likely the maintainers and community have provided the means (applications and guidance) to add it, but it’s down to the user to do the “donkey work” from there.

I certainly wanted to have automounting enabled on my Eee, so after some Googling and Arch wiki/forum-ing I found a udev rule which looked as if it would fit the bill. And so it did… within limitations. The rule would create a mountpoint directory within /media/, and mount the drive contents there; however, it wouldn’t “clean up” after itself, leaving the mountpoint directory within /media/ once the drive was umounted. Also, the rule usually failed to mount some drive volumes, and most annoyingly, wouldn’t mount the disc inside my USB CD/DVD drive.

This last is what led me to the Arch wiki page on udev, which suggested using a “udev wrapper script” (these have their own wiki page) for handling optical drives. The wrapper page in turn put forward a few candidates, of which devmon came at the top of the list. It’s in the AUR rather than the main Arch repositories, but no matter—I built the package and installed devmon as per the instructions on its home page. I also moved the “old” udev rule to another location where it couldn’t be accessed by udev itself, just in case it might disagree with the newcomer.

In short: how I wish I’d found devmon earlier.

So far, it has handled the mounting of almost every device I have “thrown” at it, including my optical drive. I have assigned a Fluxbox key combination (Ctrl-Alt-J) to devmon‘s command for umounting and ejecting an optical disc, though I’d prefer to find out how to have devmon eject the disc on receiving an umount from elsewhere (e.g. the wmvolman dockapp, which doesn’t even display the mounted optical disc). The script also removes the device’s mountpoint upon umounting, which I definitely appreciate.

The only “drive” that devmon has yet to work with, is the “mass memory” on my Nokia N8, which the old udev rule couldn’t handle either. I suspect this is something to do with the device number that shows up when the phone is connected to the Eee in “mass storage” mode (/dev/sdX rather than /dev/sdX1), but this is something I have to look into further when I can be bothered 🙂 It’s not the fault of devmon, as far as I can see, as the udev rule also exhibited the same issue. (Update (2011/10/17): I have a lead on this—see the update below…)

In summary: if you’re assembling a Linux system without GNOME or KDE (and certainly if you want to use a “light” window manager like Fluxbox or Openbox), but you would still like the system to automount removable drives, you owe it to yourself at least to give devmon a try.

Update (2011/10/17):

I received an email from the developer of devmon, who judging by the script’s home page, is often on hand to help users who run into issues. Between us, we confirmed my suspicions that devmon isn’t the source of the N8 mounting problem—it looks to be a bug in udisks, which devmon interacts with.

Just like to point out I haven’t had any other issues with the script, and am grateful to “IgnorantGuru” for helping to clear that up 🙂

2011/10/07

Steve Jobs – 1956-2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tim @ 07:46
Screenshot of this blog with retro Mac OS theme

E7P with retro Mac OS theme

As the wonderful folk at wordpress.com laboured through the night to bring Boing Boing’s fine “retro Macintosh” WP theme to wordpress.com blogs, I couldn’t resist switching to it for a few days, in tribute to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. (If you’re reading this more than a week or so after the date of this post, I’ve probably switched back to the old theme.)

Yes, I know this is a blog about a Linux-powered Eee netbook, but we have had two Macs in the house, and I certainly have no difficulty using Mac OS X alongside my “penguin-powered” devices. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone would deny that the last ten years in computing would’ve turned out quite differently without Apple’s influence, especially from the “iDevices”. For one thing, I’m pretty sure my current Nokia mobile (an N8) would look more like my previous one (an N95) if the iPhone hadn’t made such a splash.

However expected Steve Jobs’ death may have been, his loss is felt by millions around the world, and although the nature of his legacy may be fought over in the months and years to come, perhaps only Bill Gates (for better or worse) can claim to have made a comparable impact on computing for the masses.

RIP Steve, and my condolences to his family at this time.

2011/10/03

My Eee Desktop – October 2011

Filed under: Desktops, Software — Tags: , , — Tim @ 12:20

For this month’s “My Eee Desktop”, I’ve a special treat for you: not one, but two screenshots, both taken within the last two weeks…

Screenshot of desktop

My Eee Desktop - October 2011 (modified WinSpace)

Here is the first, and let’s start with the “theme”: it’s a modified version of the Windows 95-influenced “WinSpace”, one of a set of themes created for Fluxbox’s predecessor Blackbox. I needed to make a few adjustments, mainly to the fonts (to adapt to the Eee’s 800×480 screen), but also to make the window borders match the background colour for the main feature…

The apps in the “slit” on the right-hand side here, have changed quite a bit even since the last desktop shot from a few weeks ago. Two apps have remained (wmdrawer at the top, with the Arch Linux logo, and wmvolman (the one with the disk icon)), but the other dockapps have “gone on holiday”, to be replaced by two others.

In the bottom-right is wmbinclock, a binary clock display (check out the app’s home page to find out how to tell the time from it). This app is not even in the Arch User Repository (AUR), so I had to compile it from the source code—still, it scores me a few points on the “geek scale”…

Sandwiched inbetween the dockapps, is another old fave: the venerable GKrellM system monitor, here using the “Hardware” “skin”. The slit has “pseudo-transparency” switched on, mainly to show off the GKrellM design.

Call the above the cartoon before the main feature…

Screenshot image of "TheGrid" Fluxbox theme

My Eee Desktop - October 2011 (TheGrid)

Here is my current desktop setup, which I can see myself sticking with for a while. I have to say I’m quite pleased with my latest Fluxbox theme here, which I modified heavily from an earlier one of mine. I was going for a “TRON”-influenced look—all cyan-neon text and lines—and call this theme “TheGrid”. The background isn’t an image, but a gradient-fill defined in the theme file—the computer world in the original “TRON” always seemed to have that “just before dawn” look, which inspired my choice of background.

The “slit” has been reworked again, and I’ve added a couple of new monitors to the GKrellM stack (still experimenting on that front; since this shot was taken, I’ve replaced the CPU graph with a “photo frame” plugin). The GKrellM “skin” is called “CoplandOS”, and I think it blends quite well with the rest of the theme. Note the XMMS plugin in the GKrellM stack—that’s quite handy, and can almost replace the main XMMS interface (but for me, not quite).

Only two dockapps remain: wmdrawer at the top (with a new Arch Linux logo image for the “button”—I have also activated the drawer in this shot), and wmvolman at the bottom (I haven’t yet found a GKrellM plugin which does the same job with automounted volumes).

I may not present a desktop post next month, but if not, I’ll treat you to something suitably festive for December 🙂

2011/09/20

Lightweight network access with wicd

Filed under: Linux, Software — Tags: , , , — Tim @ 18:42

One of the double-edged features of Arch Linux, is that it encourages the user to put together a software system which suits their needs, and not necessarily the system which someone else has assembled for them.

That’s not meant as a criticism—Linux distros like Ubuntu are great if you want/need a workable OS “out of the box”. However, as I’ve written here before, it’s not what I wanted for my Eee 701—my aim was to put together a “leaner” OS for the machine, which would use as many “lightweight” alternatives to the usual GNOME and KDE applications as possible.

Desktop environments like GNOME do a lot for the user, that they don’t always realise—one example is GNOME’s NetworkManager. It sits unobtrusively in the GNOME panel, quietly doing its best to connect the user to wired and wireless networks. If you want a Linux setup without GNOME and its associated apps, but would still like a measure of “hand-holding” managing your network connections, what is the alternative?

Image of wicd graphical and console clients

wicd graphical and console clients, running under Arch Linux (with Fluxbox)

For me: the answer is wicd. Wicd (pronounced “wicked”, apparently) is a network manager for Linux, which at its simplest has no GNOME or KDE dependencies, so it is well-suited to running under lightweight window managers like Fluxbox or IceWM (and is installed as part of quite a few “light” Linuxes, such as Zenwalk). In fact, wicd doesn’t need to run under X at all—it operates as a client-server application, where the server (daemon) does all the network-connection work, and you use a client application to interact with it. There are graphical (Python/GTK+) and console (ncurses) clients, so you can choose which you prefer (or need) to use.

Should you wish to give wicd a spin on your Linux system, you should be able to install it via your package manager, or compile it if you prefer. You need to start the wicd daemon at boot time; in Arch Linux, I add it to the “daemons array” in /etc/rc.conf. (For the finer points of setting-up, the wicd page at the Arch wiki is most useful.)

Most of the time, I’ve found wicd a “set it and forget it” kind of application—it stays in the background and just gets on with managing your connections. It’s not perfect—sometimes it fails to reconnect a dropped wireless link (giving a “bad password” error, even if the password is given correctly), though I believe I read this is a DHCP client issue, rather than wicd specifically—but in general I find wicd a pretty essential part of my Eee’s software setup. I especially appreciate that because of its client/server design, wicd is always running on the Eee, whether I am using the graphical interface or console. In X, the graphical wicd client can always be found in the system tray, and checking the network link is just as easy at the command-line.

Compared with GNOME NetworkManager, there are a few missing features; the main one that I would like to see, is a graphical interface for managing VPN connections. The wicd FAQ states that direct VPN support is planned for version 2—in the meantime, wicd offers the option to trigger per-connection scripts (a bit fiddly-looking to set up, but probably better than nothing). The developers have also expressed an interest in adding options such as management of 3G modem connections, but it looks like a lack of resources is holding this back for the moment. I think I’d like to keep an eye on the VeryPluggableBackends development branch, though…

In short: if you’re looking to build a Linux system without GNOME or KDE, but still want help managing your network connections, wicd is definitely worth investigating.

2011/09/15

Hot-rodding an Eee 701: upgrading the RAM

Filed under: Hardware — Tags: , , , , — Tim @ 20:43
Photo of RAM and SSD in an Eee 701SD

RAM (lower) and SSD (upper) in an Eee 701SD

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I have been thinking for some time, about various ways to boost my Eee 701’s performance—partly by a change of Linux operating system, but also by upgrading the RAM and SSD (storage) to larger/faster alternatives.

I explained that whilst I felt upgrading the SSD was desirable, but would need to wait (on the grounds of cost and complexity), boosting the RAM was something of a “no-brainer”—it was more affordable, easier to undertake and would hopefully result in noticeable performance gains. With that in mind, I put in an order for a 2GB DDR2 memory module from Kingston’s ValueRAM range (around £15), figuring that a 400% increase in RAM capacity would be sure to have an obvious effect… wouldn’t it?

The module arrived this morning, and when I got the opportunity, I reached for the screwdriver and popped off the RAM/SSD cover on the Eee’s underside. Thankfully, Asus made upgrading the RAM pretty straightforward—simply release the two metal clips either side, give the module a gentle lever-up at the “middle” end, and it springs up at a slight angle, allowing you to swap over the RAM modules.

Readout in "hardinfo" (note the "Total Memory" figure)

Readout in "hardinfo" (note the "Total Memory" figure)

Aside from a brief scare when the Eee wouldn’t power on (I think the battery wasn’t plugged in fully!), I was soon looking at the output of “hardinfo” (a system diagnostics app for X), informing me that the system was now looking at a nice 2GB of RAM.

If you’ve read this far, I expect you’re curious to hear whether I can notice any difference in the Eee’s performance yet. Well, it’s early days yet, but first impressions are undoubtedly positive.  Before the upgrade (512Mb RAM), bubblemon showed about 30% “water” (i.e. RAM used) simply by starting the X display, and opening Chromium (even without loading a Web site) would push the level up to more than 50% (not a “scientific” benchmark, but you get the idea). Opening more than four or five “multimedia” tabs (e.g. YouTube) in Chromium would slow the system to a crawl, and I didn’t really want to “push” this, as the Eee has no swap partition (to avoid excessive wear on the SSD). I didn’t know what would happen if I ran out of system RAM with no swap to fall back on…

Now, when I start X, under 5% of RAM is in use, and starting Chromium still leaves me with over 90% RAM free—the “rubber duck” in bubblemon hardly has any water to float on! I haven’t done any proper benchmarking tests, but subjectively the Eee seems to run a bit more smoothly than before, with application windows opening and closing more quickly. Perhaps later on, I should replicate the “five YouTube tabs” test of a few days ago!

So, it’s a bit soon to proclaim a huge difference in performance, but so far I’m very pleased by the Eee’s new RAM “ceiling”, and hope it should be enough for the rest of the machine’s lifespan.

The irony of owning a laptop with 25% as much RAM as data storage capacity (for the unitiated, an extremely high proportion for a computer that’s not a mobile phone), is not lost on me, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of upgrading the SSD in the future, once I can be sure of overcoming the potential (and actual) issues, such as “cloning” the contents of the old drive to the new one, and ensuring I buy the correct model of SSD…

…but for now, I think I’ll stick happily with what I have 🙂

2011/09/06

My Eee Desktop – September 2011

Filed under: Desktops, Software — Tags: , , , — Tim @ 19:23

I’m back from my late summer break, and as autumn hoves into view, it feels like time to share my current Eee desktop:

Desktop screenshot image

My Eee Desktop - September 2011

You can see from the screenshot, that I have a new Fluxbox theme which I have knocked together: I call it “Pugin“, after the Victorian “Gothic Revival” designer perhaps best known for the interiors of the Houses of Parliament in London. I created the tiled wallpaper at BgPatterns, using the wine-red and deep gold colours which are often associated with Pugin’s designs, and also applied these to the various Fluxbox window decorations (apologies for forgetting to include the Fluxbox menu in this shot).
(A word of caution about BgPatterns: it’s highly addictive, especially if you have a penchant for tiled desktop patterns, so I wouldn’t visit if you don’t have time to kill 😉 )

The main apps visible are “top” (running in XFCE Terminal), XMMS and xfontsel. For the “dockapps” down the right-hand side, you can refer to the last desktop article to find out the purpose of most of them—Conky is also running on the root desktop, but it is mostly obscured here by the other application windows.

Until next month…

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