Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Dell Inspiron 530N With Ubuntu 8.04 LTS

A couple of months ago I purchased a new desktop system for my office, a Dell Inspiron 530N with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS pre-installed by Dell. For those of you unfamiliar with the "N" series, these systems are sold without Microsoft Windows installed. They are available with either Ubuntu Linux pre-installed or with no operating system installed and a copy of FreeDOS (an open source MS-DOS work-alike) installation media in the box.

My previous computer, another Dell N Series (a Dimension 2400 from 2004) still works but since it's Celeron powered, it's a bit slow for my contemporary tastes.

Ordering from the Dell website was very straightforward and I configured my system with the optional Intel Core2 Duo E4600 processor, 2GB RAM, Integrated Intel 3100 Graphics (I'm not a gamer), and a 22 -inch E228WFP wide-screen flat panel monitor. The total system price was $703 including $35 shipping charge.

After it arrived (it only took about three days even with ground shipping), I got it out of the box and set it up. The only interesting thing of note was that no manual for the computer was included in the box. I don't know if this was a shipping mistake or if Dell omits it because the manual is Windows specific. I later went to the Dell support site and downloaded a PDF version.

Physically, the machine is a pretty typical desktop computer. It features an attractive silver and white case with front audio and USB sockets behind a sliding cover and it has a glowing blue power button. When the system powers up, all of its fans turn on (loudly) for about three seconds and then turn off. Besides that, I would rate the system as very quiet. The standard keyboard is on the smallish side, with no excess around the keys themselves and I had concerns at first about using a keyboard that had no wrist rest, but after having used it for a while, I like the small size. It leaves plenty of room on my desk for even more junk.

The Ubuntu installation on the system is pretty good. Dell adds two icons to the desktop, one linked to a folder named "Dell" which contains a single PDF file of technical support contact information, and a second icon that links to a program that generates a DVD recovery image for performing a full system restore to original factory condition. A recovery partition is also included on the hard disk which can be selected at boot up. What is missing is a document that describes how Dell integrated the OS. Such a document is useful if you later decide to switch to another Linux distribution and need to know if any special tweaks are required to support the hardware.

After the system was attached to the Internet, it set about updating itself from the Ubuntu and Dell repositories. Amazingly, there were over 900 updates available, virtually all of them from Ubuntu. One thing to note about the Dell repositories, packages from there will always display "not authenticated" warnings when you attempt to update them. I looked into this (as the warning you receive is pretty dire) and it seems to be an Ubuntu problem in that only packages from the official Ubuntu repositories can be authenticated.

All of the hardware on the machine appears well-supported by Ubuntu. Dell also includes the closed-source LinDVD program from Corel for DVD (and other multimedia) playback. While the program could be said to work, it has two annoying features, first it always sets the volume level (system-wide) to maximum each time it's started. Second, its user interface is visually ugly, looking like a 1998 version of XMMS. This is the inevitable result of it being closed-source. No one in the GNOME or Ubuntu communities is able to properly integrate it into the desktop. Since receiving the system, I have installed all of the usual multimedia packages from the Ubuntu repositories and reserve LinDVD for DVD watching only and use totem for everything else. The integrated Intel graphics system is fast enough to display 720p video playback without problems. This system is also the first system that I have owned that can run compiz-based visual effects on the desktop and it works pretty well.

Overall, I am very pleased with the system. Dell did a good (though not perfect) job with the Ubuntu setup and the hardware performs well. The 22-inch monitor combined with the compiz visual effects is a delight. For the money, I think this is a very good system. I've enjoyed it every day so far.

You can find out more about Dell's Ubuntu systems at:

Also check out Dell's other Linux resources:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Blog

For the last couple of years, I have been using nanoblogger, a bash-based blogging engine to manage the site news portion of this site. While I like the concept of nanoblogger in that it is bash-based (so it seems an appropriate choice for a Linux scripting site like, it's kind of cumbersome to use. So starting now I'm trying out

If you had been subscribed to the RSS feed from the old blog, you will need to update it to the new feed address. See the Who,What,Where,Why page for details.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

New Version Of For Off-Line Viewing Released

A new version of For Off-Line Viewing has been released incorporating all the recent changes to the tutorials. It is available as both a gzip compressed tar file and a zip file. You may download it from the Script Library page.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Today's Site Updates

  • Added some discussion to wss0150 to clarify use of parameter expansion in the final example. Also added a warning about a weakness with the error handling and the cd command.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Today's Site Updates

  • Modified the discussion of wildcards in lts0050 to remove references to character ranges (which have been deprecated in the POSIX standard) and replace them with POSIX character classes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Today's Site Updates

Sunday, March 9, 2008

On The Significance Of The Asus Eee PC

For several months now I have been thinking about the new Eee PC from Asus. In case you haven't heard, the Eee PC is small Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) weighing about two pounds, and costing less than $400. So far, the product has been, according to many sources, a runaway success. For me, of course, the important fact about the Eee PC is that it ships with an easy-to-use Linux OS rather than that other operating system.

While one could certainly dismiss the device as an underpowered little toy running an unpopular OS - and there are those detractors - that would be missing the point.

For those of you who have read The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, you will at once recognize the Eee PC as a "disruptive technology," for it defines an entirely new class of product that expands the laptop market into the new territory of the "portable Internet device." As Christensen observed regarding disruptive technological change,

"Generally disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream."

Think about the laptop computer market. With all the laptops available today, what's the real difference between them? Aside from a few different screen sizes, nothing. In fact, the problem of product differentiation has gotten so dire that manufacturers are now promoting case colors and textures to make their products seem different from their competitors.

Why is that? Why are all laptop computers basically the same? It's because they are all designed to run only Windows.

While MS-DOS and its decedents, along with the PC BIOS vendors, are responsible for creating today's market of ultra low-cost commodity hardware, they have also created a trap for manufacturers. As a manufacturer, the last thing you want is to be in a commodity market. In a commodity market, the only thing you can compete on is price, which is brutal. What you want is to have a product that is different, a product that can command premium pricing. Apple understands this and that's why you can't buy OS X for commodity PC hardware.

As Asus has demonstrated, once you are not tied to Windows compatibility, you can create new, exciting, and innovative products. But why is Windows a trap? Because it lacks freedom. Freedom gives you control. Whereas a manufacturer using Linux can customize the OS to fit whatever hardware design fits their vision of the market, with Windows they are given a simple choice: "take it or leave it." Where is the freedom in that choice?

Asus is also teaching the industry a lesson that in order to be successful with Linux, you have to treat it seriously. Much of the Eee PC's success can be traced to the work Asus did developing a well thought out user interface for its product. Contrast this with the Everex Cloudbook and the various attempts Wal-Mart has made with desktop Linux machines. If you put a junk Linux installation on your low-cost hardware, you get a junk product. Even Dell, whose Ubuntu systems created such excitement in the Linux community, has failed to take advantage of the opportunity that Linux provides. Rather than create a new kind of computer (that isn't forced to meet the hardware requirements for Windows) and crafting a Linux distribution that fully exploits its unique attributes, Dell settled for installing an existing (albeit high-quality) Linux on an existing laptop. This guaranteed that it could be no better than an "almost as good as Windows" computer.

I hope that the industry reflects long and hard on the significance of the Asus Eee PC, as I long for the day when a steady stream of meaningful innovations makes the computer industry exciting again.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Today's Site Updates

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Linux Is About Imagination

The following is from my upcoming book, "The Linux Command Line" due for release in 2009.

When I am asked to explain the difference between Windows and Linux, I often use a toy analogy.

Windows is like a Game Boy. You go to the store and buy one all shiny new in the box. You take it home, turn it on and play with it. Pretty graphics, cute sounds. After a while though, you get tired of the game that came with it so you go back to the store and buy another one. This cycle repeats over and over. Finally, you go back to the store and say to the person behind the counter, "I want a game that does this!" only to be told that no such a game exists because there is no "market demand" for it. Then you say, "But I only need to change this one thing!" The person behind the counter says you can't change it. The games are all sealed up in their cartridges. You discover that your toy is limited to the games that others have decided that you need and no more.

Linux, on the other hand, is like the world's largest Erector Set. You open it up and it's just a huge collection of parts. A lot of steel struts, screws, nuts, gears, pulleys, motors, and a few suggestions on what to build. So you start to play with it. You build one of the suggestions and then another. After a while you discover that you have your own ideas of what to make. You don't ever have to go back to the store, as you already have everything you need. The Erector Set takes on the shape of your imagination. It does what you want.

Your choice of toys is, of course, a personal thing, so which toy would you find more satisfying?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: Linux Phrasebook

Linux Phrasebook by Scott Granneman

After you have learned a few basics about the command line, your next educational step is to increase your "vocabulary" of Linux commands. This book is a handy tool for that purpose. It's physically small and portable, only four and a half by seven inches, but packs a lot of useful information. It's written in a conversational style (not unlike and covers many useful topics. The design is fairly task-oriented, so it explains what command to use for what task. Each command is explained concisely but clearly. A good value for the money.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Today's Site Updates

  • Changed the reference to the "set" command to the "printenv" command on wss0040 which unlike "set", limits output to only include environment variables.
  • Added a discussion of the "sudo" command on lts0070.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Today's Site Updates

More cleanups of Who, What, Where, Why including:

  • Removed some dead links
  • Added Miro to the list of Recommended Stuff

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review: Miro

Miro 1.1 from the Participatory Culture Foundation

A couple of months ago I installed version 1.0 of Miro. What is Miro you ask? It's probably best described as a video podcast feed aggregator. With it, you select from over three thousand "channels" (feeds) and it monitors and automatically downloads new programs as they become available. Once downloaded, Miro provides a full screen viewing experience using its own integrated player based on the popular Xine engine. If you have a complete set of codecs installed on your system, you can pretty much watch any web video. The breadth of available programming is remarkable, everything from the wonderfully thoughtful TED Talks to the wonderfully silly Tiki Bar TV. Shows from the major networks are conspicuously absent though there are some entries from PBS, Discovery Channel, Science Channel, and National Geographic.

Miro is an open source project sponsored by the Participatory Culture Foundation. Their goal is to create a truly open platform for Internet television, allowing anyone to publish and view on-line content. This is an important front in the battle for freedom as I, for one, do not look forward to a future where Internet broadcasting is dominated by the handful of media giants that control most content today.

To use Miro, you need a fast computer. As the program is mostly written in python and uses various components from the Firefox web browser, it consumes a lot of CPU cycles particularly during its download process but if you have sufficient hardware, Miro provides a rich addition to your Linux system. Miro is multi-platform (Linux, Windows, MacOS) and is available here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Today's Site Updates

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Today's Site Updates

  • Updated Who, What, Where, Why. Karen has a new day job.
  • Corrected lts0070. "su" is short for "substitute user", not "superuser".
  • Corrected wss030. Adding a dash to the here script redirection operator only supresses leading tab characters, not all leading whitespace. Many thanks to reader Paul Dunne for pointing this out.