Ubuntu 10.10, Netbook Edition

Unity Interface, Ubuntu 10 Netbook Edition

I heard about Ubuntu 10.10 and the new Unity interface for netbooks on the NY Times Tech Talk podcast. It had been awhile since I last put Ubuntu on my netbook so I decided to reintroduce my Dell 10v Mini to the world of Linux.

One of the things I like about Ubuntu Linux is the way the packagers have always tried to make Linux as easy to install and use as possible, making it a good Linux for beginners. It’s also an educational Linux, with plenty of help pages and how-to’s. The website gives clear instructions for putting the Netbook Edition installer on a USB drive and using that to either try out Linux or to install Linux.

My Dell 10v is a reliable netbook that has served me as a “sandbox” for trying out various releases of Ubuntu and a Hackintosh installation. It was currently running Windows XP, an OS that is beginning to show its age, so I had no problem blowing it away to make room for Ubuntu.

As usual, the installation was smooth and easy. This particular model of Dell is on the “A” list of compatible netbooks and Linux is able to figure out most of the hardware and install drivers that work. With one exception. The unit has a Broadcom wireless component inside that doesn’t work with standard Linux drivers, so the distribution downloads a proprietary Broadcom driver from the Internet.

Normally that’s not a problem and when the driver is in place, I have Wi-Fi connectivity. I’ve done so on two previous versions of Ubuntu Netbook Remix. This time around, however, the installation of the driver failed with a library error message, meaning, as near as I can guess, that the install script made a call that’s missing from the library, or a call to the wrong library for this release.

As a consequence I don’t yet have wireless, which is one of the main features on a netbook. I know it’s not a driver issue due to previous successes with the same driver. It’s a script issue. I’ve not yet researched the bug to find out if there’s a manual workaround.

In the meantime I’m using the Dell Mini as a Net disabled machine. I hadn’t realized how Net dependent I’ve become. I feel like I’m handcuffed when I use it off the grid. For writing, which is my main use of the machine, I’ll have to use USB drives to move files until the wireless driver issue gets fixed.

I’ve had a brief time to study the Unity interface and it’s a slick refinement of the previous evolutionary steps to create a simplified netbook interface that is designed for the netbook’s smaller-than-standard screen, so that things like dialog boxes don’t scroll off the page at the bottom.

Without studying any Help files, I attempted to reorganize Unity. I was able to delete icons from programs I don’t use, like Instant Messaging, but adding new icons to the panel from programs I use frequently, like Gedit and OO Word Processor still eludes me. The procedure is not an intuitive drag and drop so I’ll have to read up on it before I can customize the environment.

As soon as I get wireless working I’ll start furnishing the Linux apartment with some of my favourite furniture, like LyX and LaTeX. I could do this by hooking the machine into my network with a 10Base-T connector, but it’s awkward getting to my router right now. Cleaning my office is an ongoing goal that hasn’t yet been reached.

So far I like what I see. The wireless glitch is annoying, but I expect it will be fixed soon. I’ll study how to customize the interface to my needs.

Everything seems new and fresh. It feels right for a new start with Linux.

Postscript: Searching the forums resulted in a simple one-line command that installed the wireless driver:

sudo apt-get --reinstall install bcmwl-kernel-source

I now have wireless.

Transitioning to Micro Four Thirds

New 20mm f/1.7 "pancake" lens

For the past two years I’ve been photographing with two families of DSLR: Nikon and Panasonic. The Nikons have been great cameras but I found myself leaving them at home quite often in favor of my Panasonic Lumix G1. The main reason was the G1 was smaller, lighter and, to be honest, more fun because of all the classic lenses I could adapt to it, including Nikkors.

The only thing the G1 lacked was a movie mode so a few months ago I upgraded the G1 to a G2 which, other than a few refinements, can be seen as a G1 with a movie mode added.

Technically speaking the Lumix G1 and G2 aren’t DSLRs because they lack the R: Reflex. There’s no pentaprism and you’re not looking through the lens. Instead the viewfinder contains a small LiveView LCD that you look at, and it sees through the lens. This is called an EVF, or electronic viewfinder. The ones in the G1 and G2 are state of the art: bright and as easy to shoot with as a D90 DSLR.

So, what to call the cameras if not DSLR? DSL has been used, as has EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens). One publication I write for calls them Compact System Cameras. This is all a little awkward so when I’m not writing for publication, I use poetic license and simply refer to the G1 and G2 as compact DSLRs. They’re certainly DSLR-style.

They are, however, a different class of camera in one important sense: they use a Four Thirds sensor, or “4/3.” The 4/3 sensor is somewhat smaller than the APS-C size in my Nikons, allowing the manufacturers who use it — Panasonic and Olympus — to create small bodied cameras with smaller lenses.

The Panasonic G series, like the Olympus Pen series, use the Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) lens mount, which means that any lens made for m4/3 is interchangeable with any m4/3 body from any manufacturer.

I’ve come to love this format. It’s close enough in size to APS-C to give me as much image quality as I need for my hobbyist photography, and the size and weight is just right in my hands.

So, I decided to simplify: to sell my Nikon gear and invest solely into m4/3. I recently sold my Nikon D90 and I traded in a batch of Nikkors of various generations toward the spiffy Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 prime. Coming soon will be an Olympus 9-18mm wide angle zoom.

For the first time in years I’m down to owning only two digital cameras: Lumix G2 and a much-enjoyed Canon S90 point & shoot that is as small as many cell phones. It simplifies my choices as I walk out the door. If I’m going shopping or to lunch with a friend, I strap on the S90. When I go out deliberately in quest of images, I take the G2.

So far the transition has been satisfying. A bit like having your cake and eating it too. By simplifying, it’s made photography more fun. I concentrate more on shooting than fretting over which DSLR to use. Thoreau was right: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”