A Proper Linux Workstation

mainframe

Today Joshua writes:

Can you give a walk-through of your current setup? The last I heard from LAS is that you were on Ubuntu MATE – is that still the case?

Thanks!

Joshua

 


Boy, I don’t know how exciting this is (or isn’t). So in addition to my hardware and desktop environment, I’ll also touch on some of the software I run everyday as well.

My PC

Whenever possible, I prefer working in my office with the door closed, typing away on my desktop PC. Don’t get me wrong, notebooks are great…but I need two monitors to keep my brain focused on what I need to get done in a day.

mainframe
Artist rendering of Matt’s desktop….sort of

While my secondary computers all run Ubuntu MATE (most 14.04), my main rig has been running Ubuntu GNOME 16.04. Overall, I’m fairly happy with it. Ignoring the fact that the extension system for GNOME is buggy, the extensions with GNOME Tweak provide most of the functionality I want.

As for hardware, my PC runs a reasonably modern i7-2600 CPU, GeForce GTX 750, 32GB of Crucial Ballistix Sport RAM (I do a lot of work with virtual machines), 1TB HDD and a 500GB SSD drive for my OS installation. Needless to say, it’s fast enough for my needs.

GNOME or MATE

Despite me running Ubuntu GNOME right now, I haven’t actually switched away from Ubuntu MATE. Most of my computers actually run it…especially those machines I don’t feel like monkeying with. Running GNOME has been an experiment that I simply haven’t moved on from yet. My goal was to spend a few months using it and here soon, I’ll likely spend some time in KDE.

The idea behind this was to immerse myself deeply into the desktop. That way, I can report accurately what I like and what I didn’t. And since I’ve already done this extensively with MATE and XFCE, GNOME was the next on my list.

Now you might be wondering – do I like it as much as I did MATE? The short answer is yes. However the long answer is I think while attractive, GNOME’s extension system is a mess. To be more accurate, the way GNOME handles extensions when the desktop updates is a mess. See, the problem a new update for GNOME is released, folks had better cross their fingers that their extensions work correctly. Most do…sort of…with some crashing or other odd behavior. Others simply stop working altogether.

All of that negative put aside, the rest of GNOME’s user experience is very good. I’ve even grown to appreciate GNOME’s Activities menu. Not a fan of browsing software with it, however its search feature is very responsive.

Theme

desktop

One of the first things I wanted was to have rotating wallpaper. I opted to use the GNOME extension known as “Random walls.” What’s nice about this is that it incorporates pretty smoothly with the GNOME desktop. An icon that looks like a Camera appears next to my network/sound/power controls. This provides me with super-easy access to Random walls. The rest of my theme is Numix with the “Global Dark” option turned on, thanks to GNOME Tweak.

Remote access

My ability to work on multiple PCs in my office without getting up is made possible with Synergy and SSH for remote updates. To access PCs not located at my home office, I rely on X2Go with a Dynamic DNS setup at the router level. This gives me remote control over the Internet, without burdening myself  with third party services.

Software

The software I rely on daily includes LibreOffice Writer, Thunderbird, Audacity, SimpleScreenRecorder and Kdenlive. Accessibility applications I rely on include redshift-gtk and Workrave.

Well Joshua, hopefully this gives you a better idea of what I have running under the hood and how I use it on a day to day basis.

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!

Linux Mint Mate 18 or Ubuntu Mate 16.04

Today Bob writes:

I am trying to decide between Ubuntu Mate 16.04 and Linux Mint Mate 18.0. I am moving from Windows 7 to Linux. My computer is a 6 year old HP DV6 Pavilion laptop with 4 GB RAM, 320 GB HD. I have watched video reviews of both and both seem to have or had problems Are they ready for prime time? Which of these distributions would you recommend for a Linux newbie? Thank you.


Hi Bob,

First off, huge props to you for asking before jumping into this with both feet. I was also impressed to hear that you also did your homework and discovered some of the issues these distros have.

So here’s the meat and potatoes of the situation – the problems you describe are most likely centered around an issue coming directly from Ubuntu. Still, the distros do indeed have distinct differences. In the included video, I’ll touch of some of these differences and provide you with a side-by-side comparison of core features and functionality.

Linux Mint 18

For newer users, this is perhaps one of the most important features. After all, it helps keep your system up to date! Linux Mint 18 takes an interesting approach in that they’re making what I believe to be conflicting recommendations. I explain the issue at length in the above video but suffice it to say that any setting that isn’t installing security patches is a bad idea.

mint-update

One positive with Linux Mint’s update tool is that their Software Sources dialog box is pretty slick. It’s laid out cleanly, it’s easy to understand and it also provides great maintenance tools. So while I’m reluctant to suggest utilizing its ability to run Ubuntu PPAs, it’s a feature Linux Mint makes pretty easy.

Next up, we have the Linux Mint Software Manager. I won’t go so far as to suggest that it’s amazing-looking. However, I’ll be first to admit that it’s presented in a logical way that will appeal to Linux newbies. Just click on the software categories and choose the application that appeals to you! Can’t get much easier than that.

mint-software-manager

The final consideration is the Linux Mint Welcome menu. Overall, it’s not bad. The Welcome menu offers immediate access to stuff like documentation, the Software Manager, restricted driver management and community assistance.

mint-welcome

Ubuntu MATE 16.04

Full disclosure: I have been involved in the project as a “user experience” consultant. That said, I do my best to be completely honest in my observations with any review or recommendation.

ubuntu-updater

Just like Linux Mint, I believe the most important feature provided by Ubuntu MATE is the Software Updater. Where the two distributions differ greatly is how updates are presented to the user. Instead of making stability suggestions, Ubuntu MATE takes the security first position. To be fair, this doesn’t mean that you won’t ever see problems with updates causing regressions but it will ensure you’re not ignoring potentially important security patches for your system. Food for thought, if nothing else.

ubuntu-welcome

Offering all of the same functionality found with Mint’s Welcome menu, Ubuntu MATE goes a step further in that it dials in extra features for folks. One example is using Ubuntu PPAs for the latest software located in the Software Boutique (part of the Welcome interface). Another difference is that the Ubuntu MATE Welcome tool even provides a hand-holding GUI that goes beyond what’s found in traditional documentation. I cover this in-depth in the above video.

Ubuntu MATE Welcome also provides you easy access to the distro’s restricted driver management. Should any of the restricted drivers give you problems, Ubuntu MATE Welcome has a “What’s inside my computer” tool that empowers newbies with details about their PC specs.

There is no right answer

Surprisingly, I don’t have one single answer for you. For my friends and family, I recommend Ubuntu MATE. It’s familiar to me, plus I am willing to support it because I known the distribution backwards and forwards.

On the other side of the coin, Linux Mint is also a great distro. I don’t care for their update manager preferences, but that aside it’s perfectly usable. And conversely, by keeping folks to Ubuntu LTS base code, you are indeed preventing any unneeded surprises.

In short, I’d try out both for a period of time and see which one suits your needs best. You’ve been given a tour of the features in the video. Now the best answer is to try each and see which feature set best meets with your expectations.

UPDATE: According to Ubuntu MATE’s Martin Wimpress: “Just a couple of observations, if you subscribe Ubuntu MATE Welcome updates, you’ll get search capability. And, the reason official Ubuntu flavours don’t pre-install VirtualBox guest additions is because is violates the license agreement “

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!

Ubuntu on Macbook Black Screen

Today Fael writes:

Matt, I’m tired. I am trying to install Ubuntu 16.04 on my macbook pro early 2011 with El Capitan, but, no matter how I try to boot it from USB Pen Drive, it always stucks at the first screen getting totally black as I choose to install or test Ubuntu. No article or tutorial could help me, the same errors just happen over and over. I’ve been trying for the last 2 days, all day long, and nothing. Please: give me some light here!

(Second email I received after I asked for additional details)

Answers:

1) Older OSX yes. Since Leopard. Ubuntu: never.
2) Attached image.

If you need more info, just tell me.

Thank you in advance, dude, for your attention!


Hi Fael,

I’m going to level with you – Linux support on Macs is a dark art. Some will claim that most of the time stuff works out of the box. In reality, it simply depends on the Mac in question. I can tell you that historically Linux support on iMac(s) is far better than with Macbook Pro(s). When it comes to Macs, it’s perfectly possible to have a successful installation on one model and a complete failure with another one, both of the same form-factor. My reason for sharing this is that I have not personally installed Ubuntu onto your specific model of Macbook Pro nor have I tried it with the latest OS X.

According to your second email, you are running a Macbook Pro 8,2. This means you’re running likely running a Radeon HD 6750M graphics card. Based on this information, I’d first make sure you setup your partition on the Mac itself and formatted your USB drive correctly or it won’t be detected correctly. When working with the partitions, make sure to pay special attention to this part.

Setup your USB flash drive so that it’s using a GUID partition table.

My iMac guide will walk you through the rest of the installation process. This includes installing a boot manager for OS X like rEFIND. Unlike holding down the Option key, which doesn’t always work, rEFIND has a far greater success rate of displaying your USB flash drive loaded with Ubuntu.

Now, if you’ve followed my linked guide, installed rEFIND in OS X and still are seeing a black screen after choosing the USB flash drive option, there is one more thing you can try.

Assuming you can get to the GRUB menu during the boot before it goes black, click F6 and choose nomodeset. If that’s not available, then you may need to add the following manually.

nomodeset quiet splash

This should get you booted to a graphical environment.

Should this be successful, you could even add this function to your grub menu after Ubuntu is installed. If this doesn’t work, you could try blacklisting the AMD/ATI card when it boots to the USB drive.

modprobe.blacklist=radeon

This will blacklist the radeon driver and thus, prevent the AMD/ATI card from being activated. If all goes well, your Intel graphics should be the only thing running at that time. You are then free to install, reboot to a shell and add

blacklist radeon

to your

/etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf

to make the blacklisting permanent.

Understand that these are quick/dirty hacks to get you to a live installation. This assumes that you’re able to get to grub, that you’re using rEFIND and you’ve setup your USB flash drive as described above. You may find it still doesn’t work. But my gut tells me either the nomodeset or the modprobe.blacklist=radeon should get you in so long as you can get to Grub.

My experiences with a Macbook Pro differ in that my tests were done with a model 6,2 and it came with the NVIDIA/Intel combination. Needless to say, it was far easier to get working. Also once  you get it installed, I have a MBP guide for the 6,2 that works with NVIDIA/Intel. There are some tidbits that might be useful in that article as well. Best of luck!

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!

Linux With Amazon Music

AmazonMusic

Today Carey writes:

Hi Matt,

I’ve been a Linux convert since April 2015 and have tried several OS’s beginning with Chalet, then Peppermint, Zorin, Q4OS, Lite, Ms-15, Manjaro and now Ubuntu Mate 16.04. I even bought a laptop, dumped WIN 10 and loaded all of the above listed Os’s and now finally just Mate 16.04. I still have WIN 7 Pro on my desktop and will build a new Cube box this Summer and I want to only have Linux but I will not be able to purchase my music from Amazon as I’ve been doing for years. With that being so, I’m probably going to have to dual-boot Mate 16.04 and WIN 7 Pro UNLESS you can direct me to some method to solely use Linux and be able to still use Amazon’s Music downloads? Can you help or provide guidance on this issue?

Thanks.


Hi Carey,

I completely get where you’re coming from. Like you, I still buy from Amazon Music even though many folks have suggested using Google Play Music instead. Don’t get me wrong, I use the Streaming service for music from Google. But since I find myself being gifted with Amazon gift cards with each holiday, my musical purchases remain with Amazon.

So here’s the good news – it’s still perfectly doable to purchase music from Amazon. What isn’t working any longer is the once-famed Amazon Music downloader application. This application was discontinued.

As you can see from the images below, I walk you through the purchase of a song using Firefox without Flash installed. I then decided to download said song from the Amazon Music Cloud Player rather than from my Orders page. Either approach works just fine.

Buy-Music

Buy-Music2

Taking things a step further, I also included an image of me downloading a group of songs at once. If you plan on using Linux to manage your music, odds are fair you’ll want to use a locally installed media player like Banshee.

Now, here’s the downside of doing bulk music downloads from Amazon Music Cloud Player – it will download more than one song into a zipped directory. But as you can see from the image below, I could simply choose to extract said music into my music directory. From there, the extracted song would be instantly available to listen to from your favorite Linux music player.

Download-17-songs

Let’s summarize – anyone telling you that buying music and downloading it isn’t possible with desktop Linux is seriously mistaken. I proved this to be possible in the included images. The only real change is that you won’t have the Amazon Music Downloader application available. I say good. It was a mess anyway.

Okay, last consideration. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re someone who wants an Amazon-branded music player. I honestly would rather download the music myself to play it in something better, but that’s okay – here’s a way to have the Amazon Music Cloud Player feel like a locally installed application.

A desktop application launcher for Amazon Music Cloud Player

1) Install Google Chrome (I suggest thing because it keeps Flash in a tight little box, as you’ll need it for Amazon Music Cloud Player)

2) Login to Amazon Music, browse to the page you’d like to start off at…such as https://music.amazon.com/songs.

3) Go to Chrome settings, More Tools, Add to desktop, Leave Open as Window checked, click the Add button.

4) Now a new icon launcher for Amazon Music Cloud Player appears on your desktop. Simply double click it.

5) You will see the address bar one time – login and it will disappear once you login. Now you have an Amazon Music Cloud Player in what feels like self-contained application.

To be ultimately clear, this is NOT something I recommend for most folks. Personally, I recommend using a decent music manager like amaroK, Clementine, or Banshee. Heck, Banshee has the Amazon store available from within the software! So that’d be my first recommendation if you want to buy music from within a music app. Hopefully, this gives you a variety of options.

Banshee


Google Music is arguably better than Amazon Music

As someone will eventually mention it – Google Play Music. Not only does it allow you to utilize a true Music downloader/uploader like Amazon used to offer, you can also run an unofficial Google Music application that in my humble opinion, is outstanding. I use the unofficial Google Music app to run my streaming subscription – it also supports any uploaded music as well.

Google-Music-Download

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!


Affiliate links for products mentioned above

Digital Music Store – http://amzn.to/1U0yDTo

 

Locked into Outlook on Linux

Outlook

Today L writes,

I use LinuxMint MATE on a 2nd pc dual booting with Ubuntu Unity 14.04 (soon to be MATE 16.04) but my main pc runs Windows 8.1 (pardon the expression…)
The only thing keeping me from ditching Windows is that i use Outlook 2010 and have many .PST files with email, calendar, and contacts which I need to keep.
I have googled replacements for Outlook such as Thunderbird and Evolution both of which would work going forward but have not found any app that can read and convert the proprietary MS .PST files. There was one app that escapes me that was able to convert the email in the .PST to a format that Evolution could read but it did NOT retain my subfolder structure which is how i keep things straight. It put ALL the individual subfolder contents into 1 huge Inbox. So that doesn’t help me.

One alternative would be to run Win7 in a Virtual Machine but i really don’t want to do that. So do you know how I can convert .PST files keeping the folder/subfolder structure and bring my Outlook Calendar over?
Thanks and sorry for long-winded…


Many years ago, I was in a similar situation. I was dual-booting between Windows XP and one of the popular distros of that time. In my case, it was worth it to me to simply walk away from Outlook and start over. I did this by using one of those programs for Windows you mentioned, that convert PST files into mbox. The mbox file type is compatible with just about any email client, so I was able to get everything moved into Thunderbird without much trouble.

Your situation differs, unfortunately, as your have extensive subfolders and whatnot within Outlook. And I honestly don’t have an answer that will maintain the directory structure as you export everything to mbox format.

My advice is this: From Windows, use one of those PST to mbox exporter apps. Next, boot back to Linux and install Outlook in WINE. This will give you access to the directory structure you need, but allow you to still use Linux full time.

Outlook

Option 2

A second and untested idea would be to subscribe to an Exchange provider. Many of them offer Exchange access for under $10 per month if you shop around. See if it’s possible to import your PST file into the Exchange account. If this works and maintains your directory structure, awesome!

The next step would be to get Thunderbird open and to install the paid version of ExQuilla. This addon will work with most Exchange servers and would maintain the Exchange directory structure…inside Linux. I use ExQuilla for one of my gigs that requires Exchange and it works really well.

Lastly, as an Option 2a, you might investigate and see if one could export your data to Outlook 365. No idea if this would work, but considering the bind you’re in, it seems reasonable to try it.

Any any rate, hopefully one of these options provides you with some relief!

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!

Linux Audio Podcast Software

podcasting

Today Ole writes,

Hi Matt, I have checked out the list of software on Datamation, but I did not find much more than audacity for recording podcasts, can you please help me? I need good recording software and a program for making the podcast feed, thanks.


Hi Ole,

The good news is that you asked the right guy. Years ago, I actually co-founded and co-produced an audio Podcast called “Weezy and the Swish“. It was an interview program hosted by two (actual) comedians. We used to joke the show was about comedy-casting, but I digress.

The ladies had the benefit of a genuine audio engineer at their disposal. He would handle the recording itself and then send me the FLAC files upon completion. We used this file type, as it was uncompressed and allowed me to compress it down to mp3 format for distribution. With the mp3s ready to go, I only needed to get the audio added to the RSS feed that would then signal iTunes and other podcasting destinations.

podcasting

Now here are a few things to note. First off, back then, I was dual-booting XP and Simply Mepis. I used XP to access iTunes, however the actual mp3 creation from FLAC was done in Linux using Audacity. The second thing to note is that from there, I used an audio hosting provider that also automated my RSS feeds with enclosures for me. See, RSS uses enclosures to enclose the mp3 file and make sure it’s distributable to podcast collectors.

Now let’s flash forward to 2016. These days, there are a hundred different ways to do this. You could host your audio files with Archive.org for free, then use WordPress syndicate your podcast. There are plugins that literally automate the entire thing. If you prefer to automate the RSS enclosures and hosting, you could turn to a service like Libsyn. Personally though, I feel that using a hosted website from WordPress.com is both free and frankly, easier.

Now let’s talk about recording software for your podcast. I personally prefer Audacity as I’ve used it for years. If you want something similar as a fall back, Ocenaudio works really well. Setting these suggestions aside for a moment, if you want something more robust (and complicated), then keep reading.

If you fancy yourself an audio professional and are willing to learn a complex program, then perhaps Ardour is a good match for your needs. Unlike other simpler audio recording applications, Ardour is a full digital audio workstation designed for Linux. It’s extremely powerful but you will need to study up before using it for the first time. Another point to consider is with a digital audio workstation, you’re going to be working with JACK audio. While it’s possible for JACK to run along with the PulseAudio server, JACK is the audio server best suited for advanced audio work.

So what is my advice? SimpleWordPress.com for syndicating your podcast, Archive.org for hosting the audio files and Audacity for recording directly into it. If you’re going to be using more than one microphone, perhaps a mixer as well – use the JACK audio server. The single biggest takeaway is to produce decent sounding audio. Starting with a decent microphone helps, but to be honest, you can get away with a decent USB headset too.

Bonus tip!

Allow me to leave you with this tip. You can take “meh” sounding audio and do great things with it in Audacity. Just watch the video closely, pause as needed and discover how I take a typical USB headset and breathe a bit of life into it’s recordings in post-production. It’s about 6 minutes long, but I also provide a side by side comparison. Bear in mind, this video was not designed for this article. I just figured it would help you produce better sounding podcasts on a budget.

Do you have Linux questions you’d like Matt to help with? Hit the link here and perhaps you too, can Just Ask Matt!


Affiliate links for products mentioned above

A decent microphone – http://amzn.to/1O6VDQh