Monday, 28 December 2015

The Force Awakens: First Reactions!

Star Wars man! I freaking love Star Wars! As a die hard Star Wars fan prior to the prequels, I've previously written about how much I really didn't want The Force Awakens to suck. Finally saw the movie on Christmas Eve. Did it suck? No. Well kinda. A little. Sort of.

Stay tuned for my - ‘haven’t yet looked at anyone elses reactions’ - first impressions. (And, yea, this is 100% spoilers).

First off, The Force Awakens is hands down a better film than The Phantom Menace. I didn't come out of the theater with that feeling of disappointment. It was an enjoyable film. No part was boring. The effects were very enjoyable and didn’t have the now trademark Lucas style of cluttering the screen with as much shit as it can handle. The combat scenes were great, action packed and occurred at good intervals. And the use of CGI was, for the most part, unobtrusive. And seeing the original cast back in action was great. Harrison Ford in particular is excellent in this film.

And most importantly the characters were all likable and (mostly) fleshed out. There is no Jar Jar, no lifeless Qui Gon Jinn. Finn, Rey, Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron are cool as. The movie does a really good job of introducing them and giving them life. Enough that I went out today and got myself a Finn action figure.

I would perhaps go as far to say that this was the best of the post original trilogy films thus far. I had a very good time watching it.

If this was a stand alone action sci-fi film then I would have walked away happy. And for the most part I did. But the only thing is for a Star Wars film I kind of expected more… I have this little bit of regret. That they could have taken it further. It was good. I enjoyed it, and would go see it again. But it wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting. This seems to be the reaction I get from just about everyone I talk to.

But… It was was derivative

While fun, the film was incredibly derivative. I think this is to be expected with Abrams films, it’s kind of his thing. There is a trend here. 2009 Trek had no real story or character development to speak of. It completely dropped the nuance of Kirk in the original films, and completely missed the point of the Kobayashi Maru and facing the no win scenario - which in the original films was an allegory for the inevitability of death. Instead, the depth of the original films was cast aside to make way for explosions and lens flares. And Into Darkness was a straight up remake of Wrath of Kahn. In that film Abrams simply reinterpreted the major themes and events of Star Trek II to make it more action, didn’t really add anything new, certainly didn’t take Trek in any fresh new directions, and worse still removed the nuance and character development that made Star Trek II so great. Not to mention a huge reliance on deus ex machina.

While Abrams creates great action set pieces, he isn't one for pushing new boundaries in storytelling. He would rather play it safe and direct films that reinterpret an existing story rather than taking a risk by adding something new. Pushing a story in a new direction isn’t his thing. He likes to work inside an established box with established themes. And complexity, subtlety and nuance take a back seat to action and explosions.

And this film had Abrams style all over it. The Force Awakens is so similar to A New Hope it could be considered a straight up remake;

  • In both films princess Leia is trying to contact an elderly jedi who had gone into hiding after the jedi order they were part of was wiped out by an apprentice that turned evil. This jedi is their only hope.

  • For both films the first act takes place almost entirely in a desert. The final act is an attack on a death star.

  • Both films begin with a star destroyer flying overhead.

  • Stormtroopers attack with the intention of intercepting technical data necessary for their victory.

  • The attack catches a high ranking rebel / resistance official off guard who was in possession of the data.

  • In a moment of desperation the official intrusts the data to a droid.

  • After the combat is complete a dark jedi enters and begins interrogating the survivors and the high ranking official.

  • The official goes on to be tortured, but gives no information.

  • The droid entrusted with the data then travels the desert until it is captured by local scavengers, and then comes into the possession of a young person who was orphaned on the planet as a child. That person is dressed entirely in white.

  • The orphan is a natural pilot and a skilled mechanic, is force sensitive, and inherits the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker.

  • Han Solo is attacked by bounty hunter(s) to recover a large sum of money he borrowed from a gangster or crime syndicate.

  • The orphan is tasked with delivering the data to the rebel alliance / resistance. They are reluctant to do so at first, but are convinced to help though the guidance and offers of an elderly hero who fought in a previous war.

  • Both movies have a cantina scene. In both cases an agent friendly to the enemy is present at the cantina, recognises the protagonists, and alerts the enemy as to what is going on.

  • It is discovered that the Empire / First Order have constructed a death star. The power of this weapon is demonstrated by destroying a planet / planets. These planets were unprepared for the attack and the attack was unprovoked.

  • The male protagonists must infiltrate the death star in order to rescue to female protagonist.

  • The elderly hero confronts the dark jedi. The elderly hero and the dark jedi share a father / son or master / apprentice style relationship. The elderly hero is killed by the dark jedi while the orphan protagonist watches. This has a profound impact on their character development.

  • The rebel alliance / resistance are a rag-tag bunch of pilots and ships. They are undermanned, outgunned and in a hard up situation.

  • The death star must be attacked by a wave of single man fighters. Capital ships are not used. Reinforcements are not available.

  • The death star can only be destroyed by hitting a very specific well guarded target. Heavy losses are taken. The shot that finally destroys the death star is fired by a single x-wing pilot during a daring maneuver.

  • Both movies have a death star trench run.

  • The death star must be destroyed within a very short time frame before it is able to fire upon the the rebel / resistance base. This will destroy the rebels / resistance. The death star is destroyed with only moments to spare.

  • The final shot of the death star battle is the Millennium Falcon and the surviving star fighters running from the explosion.

The Force Awakens felt like it was treading old ground. Like you had seen it before. I'm sure Abrams wanted to get away from all the aspects that made the prequels suck, and wanted to get back to the roots of the franchise. But in doing so produced a film that takes so little risk and deviates so little from the franchise roots that it is essentially the same film. A New Hope remade with a massive budget. It’s felt about as paint-by-numbers as you could get for a Star Wars film.

To a certain extent Return of the Jedi was similar. Second death star anyone?  But not to this extent. Did Star Wars actually need a reboot? Did we actually need another Star Wars story set on a desert world? Another death star? Personally I would have liked a new story investigating the struggles of the New Republic. Something fresh… Something different...

What the hell is this movie about?

But really that on it's own that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in typical Abrams style all the nuance and background storytelling is also stripped from the film.

The story telling in A New Hope is fairly thin, but the script, the sets, the pacing, and little added details all come together so by the end of the film you have a very good understanding of the universe in which the film takes place. You understand that the galaxy has come out of a period of war, that the empire came to power and now rules through terror, that the previous government was a golden age that had lasted for a thousand generations, that several worlds had rebelled against the empire and had formed an alliance to fight against them, that the empire had developed a super weapon capable of destroying or subduing the rebel worlds, and that prior to being wiped out the Jedi had been the protectors of peace in the galaxy and their return would secure victory for the rebellion.

In A New Hope you understand exactly the motivations of everyone involved, why they are fighting and what is at stake. The universe is fleshed out.

The Force Awakens is a fun spectacle, sure. Everything is larger. Instead of being attacked by one bounty hunter, Han is attacked by a dozen. The original death star was the size of a small moon, this one is the size of a planet. Everything is bigger, shinier, louder, faster. But the story is isn’t there. It’s just never expanded upon. The motivations of the two factions are not made clear. Nothing is explained. What the hell is going on?

Some questions I ask of the film are this;

What is the First Order? Is it a remnant army from the empire that is kicking around the border of the New Republic stirring up trouble? But then how would they get the resources to build a death star? Is it an independant state that formed from worlds loyal to the empire that exists alongside New Republic space? Are they just evil for the sake of it? Is Snoke the rightful heir to the imperial throne? Is their only concern killing Luke Skywalker? What is their motivation?

What is it that the resistance is... resisting? After the defeat of the empire would the New Republic not now have it’s own military? Why are they relying on a rag-tag bunch of rebels to fight the First Order? What are they fighting for?

To be honest the resistance felt underdeveloped, and kind of contrived just just fit The Force Awakens into the same plot as A New Hope.

What’s the New Republic’s role in this? Why do they not face the New Order head on? Did the New Republic fail to reunite the worlds, and is actually a very small player in a galaxy filled with new independant states?

In short, what the hell has happened since Return of the Jedi? What is the state of the galaxy? What are everyone's motivations? What are they fighting for? Where are the capital ships? Why were Y-Wings not sent to fight the starkiller when bomber craft would have been ideal? What the hell is going on?

Personally I like a good story. It would have been better if the universe could have been fleshed out more. There is a reason why Empire Strikes Back is considered one of the best films of all time.

While this is Abrams style, I can't help but feel that merchandising also had a hand in this. Star Wars is all about merchandise, and The Force Awakens is easily the worst film yet for whoring out the franchise. Take C3P0’s red arm for example. It's never discussed, brought up again, or important to the story. ‘I thought you may not recognise me with my red arm’, and that's it. So why does his red arm exist?

  1. To sell toys - everyone now has to go buy the red arm C3P0. 
  2. Because then they can sell you the comic book or video game that explains it. 

I think to a certain extent this happened to the story too. ‘Want to know what the resistance is about? Buy this comic book!’.

Poor writing…

The writing and editing was kind of poor. Not Anakin Padme romance poor, but still kind of poor. The pacing seems a little bit off. Because the first part of the movie focused almost entirely on Finn and Rey the last part of the movie felt really rushed.

For example, because the starkiller is introduced about halfway through the movie I found that it’s destruction at the end of the film felt really abrupt. It wasn't something that was built up to as the menace that has to be destroyed. Instead it's like ‘oh no they have a starkiller!’, ‘nah it's ok, we got it’. The destruction of the starkiller lacked tension.

The same was true of the Han Solo Kylo Ran reveal. About 2 thirds of the way though the movie it is revealed that Kylo Ran must kill his father (Han Solo) as part of his movement over to the dark side. Then he does. That's it. The fact that Kylo Ran is Ben Solo is very seldom mentioned after the reveal. A sad glance, Leia asks Han to try and redeem him, and Solo is dead.

If Solo trying to redeem Kylo had been a plot point from the being of the film, if we could have followed his torment and desperation, and if it had appeared as if Kylo was redeemable then Han Solo’s death would have had a much more emotional impact. As it was it felt rushed and and lacked impact. It happened and I was like, ‘oh yep’.

And, too be really honest, Han Solo’s death was very predictable. As soon as Leia told Han it was up to him to redeem Kylo you knew he wasn't coming back. For starters Harrison Ford has been wanting to kill the character off since the beginning. Of all the original cast to kill off Harrison Ford's character is the obvious one. Secondly, this is the first of a trilogy. Kylo is in it for the long haul. Thirdly, we were bloody told he had to die so that Kylo could sever his tires to the light side! The death scene itself was well done, but man it lacked tension!

And this is yet another movie in which Abrams relies on deus ex machina to save the day. R2D2 out of the blue wakes up and provides the remaining 95% of the map to find Luke Skywalker. Finn, having worked in sanitation aboard the starkiller has detailed knowledge of the engineering of the station - just in time to save the day too! No Bothans were going to die this day. And captain Phasma happens to be in the right place at the right time to be captured, and is willing to just shut down the shield with little coercion. You know, like every high ranking marine with anti torture training would do…. There are no plans. No clever ways to get out of the situations. In typical Abrams style things just appear when they are needed.

Finally, callbacks… so many call backs. I get making references to the previous films for nostalgia, but these end up feeling corny, and I think we'll be a detriment during future viewings.

Final Thoughts

So there we go. I think at this stage I'm going to need to see the film again to try and tease out the story, and really decide how much I like it. Chances are there is story info that I missed on my first viewing. It really does need multiple viewings before I’m ready to make a judgement.

At the moment I'm thinking it's better than the prequels, worse than the original trilogy. Enjoyable but not a classic. But no one was laughing at the end, there were no midichlorians, no extended periods of sitting with shot-reverse shot conversations about nothing, no awkward love scenes, and no prolonged senate debates. And I’m not avoiding the toys and action figures like I did the prequels.

So all in all it’s a net positive for the franchise. At the very least it’s an enjoyable sci-fi action adventure. And it’s nice to actually be discussing a Star Wars film with my friends and family again, rather than just bashing it for being stupid.

But I really do hope they do something more ambitious with the next film...

Friday, 5 June 2015

First Impressions of Linux: Preliminary Comments

(This is part 4 of a multi part thread. For part one click here).

I’m going to freely admit that with my attempt to install Ubuntu to my media PC I gave the OS next to no time, and I’m not in any position to make any statements about how good or bad Linux is compared to Windows. I’m also aware that many of the problems I have discussed in this post are due, at least in part, to the nature of community driven open source development rather than problems with Linux itself. And that I could have solved all these issues had I given the OS more time. I’m also going to admit that a media PC / DVR was perhaps not the ideal learning environment.

That said I've got a couple of observations that I think are relevant to any newbies going into Linux from Windows;

Going into Linux as a Newbie

- Do your research first. Knowing the benefits and limitations of the system before going in will save a lot of troubles.

- Look into the distros. Linux comes in a variety of flavours, each with different setups. If you need a system with proprietary drivers, WINE or a DVR it may be easier to install a distro that has those things pre-installed and configured. Finding the distro that best suits your needs first may mean you spend less time and frustration trying to setup the system in the long run.

- Understand hardware limitations. If all you want is a basic word processing and internet machine then any hardware will probably be fine. But if you want something a bit more specialised, perhaps a gaming rig or DVR, repurposing an old Windows PC may not be the best idea. Make sure your hardware is fully supported before you start. In some cases it may be better to build a new system that is better supported by Linux to get the best performance.

- Understand that Linux is largely developed and supported by hobbyists and enthusiasts. Things are not always as streamlined or polished as they are on Windows, and oftentimes instructions are written with the assumption that the reader already has a level of Linux experience. There is not always a ‘correct way’ of doing things, and advice can often be fragmentary. Be prepared to get your hands dirty to solve problems.

Going Forward

So, have I finished with Linux now? No, not at all. I’m still very interested in trying out Linux properly. I’ve got a couple of options. Installing onto my laptop might be the best for an actual sit-down-and-use-it setup. Otherwise I could install Linux onto my gaming PC. This would probably be best for trying out Linux as a gaming OS. The question then is do I split my current SSD into a Windows partition and a Linux partition and run games from a conventional HDD - or do I pick up a second SSD to run Linux?

I also still have my Raspberry Pi B+ that I’m pretty keen to set up as a basic media PC / Kodi machine for the bedroom.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Linux First Impressions - 3 Weeks In: Back to Windows 7

 (This post is part 3 of an ongoing series of posts on Linux. For my first post click here)

So after three weeks of using Ubuntu on my media PC I’ve scrapped it and gone back to Windows 7. The reason? Simply put, it got too difficult. Compared to Windows a Linux media PC setup is a bit of a headache.

At least for New Zealand it is...

Some extra background is probably necessary. Back in December we bought our first home (the reason why this blog has been so slow this year). In New Zealand the analogue TV broadcast was switched off on 1st December 2013, making live TV available only through digital DVB-T and DVB-S sources. The house we purchased didn’t have a satellite dish or DVB-T aerial, meaning we effectively didn’t have access to the live TV broadcast. Which was absolutely fine. Like everywhere, live TV in New Zealand sucks - and we were happy with streaming everything we want to watch. When I initially installed Ubuntu I was happy to make the TV capture card and live TV recording secondary priorities.

But it has been our intention of installing a DVB-T aerial eventually. There are some shows that are just easier to watch live, the News for example (New Zealand’s local streaming services really suck). And with Abby growing up it would be good to have an easier way for her to access cartoons and kids shows than searching for them through Kodi.

So last week a contractor put up an advertisement on a local social media page with cheap DVB-T aerial installations. We jumped on the chance, and once again we had access to live TV. Being able to record television suddenly became available.

And Ubuntu became a problem…

Weird Installation Foibles of Linux

I’ve found that in some situations it can be very difficult to install software within Linux if you aren’t totally competent with what you are doing.

Linux is developed and maintained by the community, which gives the OS many benefits over Windows. But one of the big downsides is that there are many situations that simply don't have straightforward solutions. Everyone has their own opinions of how things should be done. Their own 'correct way'. As a result I've found that Linux tends to been very fractured when it comes to advice on how to install software packages. Advice tends to be anecdotal, and often times instructions from different sources can be contradictory or outdated.

Installing MythTV

For example, I chose MythTV as my DVR software, mostly because it seemed to be most popular solution. But I never actually got to the point of installing MythTV because figuring it all out proved to be a real headache.

With MythTV some bloggers and forum commenters recommended simply installing it onto an Ubuntu system from the repositories with sudo apt-get update, sudo apt-get install MythTV. But then the MythTV official wiki lists a page of dependencies that must be installed to the OS for MythTV to work. Are these installed by default with sudo apt-get install MythTV? How do I know if I have them, that they are functioning, and if they need to be configured? Still others warned that by installing MythTV with sudo apt-get install MythTV you can mess up the configuration and flummox up the installation, and instead recommended downloading a purpose built distro like Mythbuntu that already has everything set up and ready to go. Still others argued that they had never had a stable installation using Mythbuntu. The official Ubuntu documentation wiki has its own instructions for installing MythTV. But these instructions were posted in 2008. Are they still relevant?

None of this is actually Ubuntu's problem. Canonical is not responsible for the work of other dev teams or forum users. Well, with the exception of outdated entries on the official Ubuntu wiki that is. But it is a dauntingly steep learning curve for someone coming in as a complete newbie. I found myself knee deep in research, trying to cobble together answers from blog and forum posts and trawling through the wiki's and forums.

Sapphire Radeon HD5750. 

Choosing a Graphics Driver

And even if I did get the MythTV installation figured out, in the end the MythTV front end may not even play nice with my AMD card. Many forum comments noted choppy playback and poor performance with AMD hardware that required a fairly large amount of troubleshooting to fix. Partly because the AMD Linux driver support isn't great, and partly because MythTV development seems to favour Nvidia hardware (perhaps because of the relatively poor AMD support). There were also debates about what graphics drivers were best (open source or proprietary), and the best configuration for MythTV to get it running stable with AMD hardware.

Again I would have to crawl through the internet for answers.

Installation: Windows vs Linux

I understand that Windows has great driver and software support because of it’s gigantic market share rather than being a superior OS. But I think credit where credit is due - Windows typically does a very good job of configuring itself during software installs. Typically dependencies are checked for and installed automatically, and once software is installed it usually requires little or no extra effort to get it working. For example, if I install a game that requires Direct 3D then the installer will automatically check that Directx is on my system - and prompt with an installer if I need it. No further configuration is necessary. When I installed Media Centre on my parents Windows 8 Pro machine it downloaded, installed and configured everything it needed automatically and the DVR ran straight away with no problems. Drivers are always available, and more often than not Windows can simply grab what it needs automatically from Windows update rather than needing them to be manually installed.

I feel that with Windows I can be very confident that everything will work with no fuss, while Ubuntu can require a bit more work under-the-hood to achieve the same results.

That's not to say Ubunutu is a really bad system for installing software. Quite the opposite actually. Most of the time software installs are quick and easy. In fact many times they are easier than Windows installs. Two terminal commands and you're away. No CD's, no installers to hunt out on the net, no product keys and no DRM waiting to mess it all up for you the moment you step out of line.

But on Linux when you hit a snag during a software install then it suddenly becomes extremely difficult, requiring days of research or a high level of Linux experience to complete. The learning curve is very steep.

MythTV versus New Zealand EPG Data

The electronic program guide is ultimately what killed my enthusiasm for Linux on my media PC. In New Zealand EPG data is broadcast in two formats, EIT and MHEG-5. EIT only contains EPG data for programs currently playing, while the MHEG-5 broadcast contains the EPG data for an entire week. MythTV, like Windows Media Centre, can only natively use EIT data meaning the week long EPG is out of reach.

Typically MythTV uses an XMLTV grabber to populate the EPG. Grabbers work by downloading the EPG data from a variety of online sources and converting that data to a XML file that can be used by MythTV to populate the EPG. Unfortunately according to the MythTV official wiki the grabber for New Zealand was taken down after SkyTV (the local pay TV service) threatened legal action. SkyTV also went around shutting down all but one of the websites that provided New Zealand EPG XML files directly. (SkyTV are, in fact, a bunch of dicks).

EPG Collector
On Windows I use an excellent open source program called EPG Collector to grab the MHEG-5 data and import it directly into Windows Media Centre. The MythTV wiki actually recommends EPG Collector as well, stating that you can use it to receive the transmitted MHEG-5 data. Unfortunately looking online this isn’t actually the case. While EPG Collector's core files were written with Mono, it appears that the program doesn’t actually work for collecting MHEG-5 data under Linux. Or at least this was the case in 2011 according to the SourceForge forum. I couldn’t work out if Linux compatibility had been updated since then - there was talk on the GeekZone forums of a Linux version in development a few years ago, but the software description on SouceForge still labels it as a Windows application, while the readme states that it needs .net framework 4 or later.

There are other solutions for getting the New Zealand EPG working on MythTV. But most forum posts concerning the Linux EPG solutions date to c.2011. I’m not sure what solution people in NZ use, or if any of them work particularly well, and to be really honest at this stage I was completely tired of doing research into getting a Linux DVR setup.

Back to Windows 7

All things considered, the problems with setting up Ubuntu as a DVR were mounting. As well as setting up MythTV, the graphics driver, the TV capture card and finding an EPG solution I still had all the other Linux problems I outlined previously. Ultimately all I wanted to do was watch the news and some kids cartoons. And with a wife and daughter eager to watch some TV I had a very real deadline :-P.

I was faced with a question; do I continue with Ubuntu and maybe have the DVR working within a week or two given my limited spare time, or do I just go back to windows - a system that I know will work perfectly right now with no fuss, and will having me watching live TV within a couple of hours?

I went back to Windows 7.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Linux First Impressions - 2 Weeks In

(This post originally part of my initial Linux post and subsequently moved into its own post - hence the mismatched publication dates).

Two weeks into using Ubuntu I'm finding it a bit of a mixed bag. It's not necessarily any worse of an operating system than Windows - but coming from a strict Windows background the learning curve is high. Very high. read on!

The Positives

Unity Desktop: First up, I like the Unity desktop. The way I use the Windows desktop is to place my most used apps on the taskbar and then access other software by tapping the windows key and typing in what I want; earth, note, cmd etc… GNOME with the Unity shell has that same functionality making it at least as useful as the Windows desktop.

Windows 7 (image:
That said, one of the things that I appreciate about the Windows 7 start menu is that it is discrete. Let’s say I’m working in Illustrator and need to open the calculator. I hit the Windows Key, the start menu pops up occupying a small corner of the screen. I quickly type ‘calc’ and I’m away. It’s not overly distracting, I can keep focused on my work while doing it, most of the time I keep working without even noticing it. That was the main problem I had with Windows 8 - hitting the Windows key changed the entire desktop to the Metro start screen. The transition is jarring, distracting, and ultimately destroys my train of thought. When a UI is well designed you shouldn't notice it at all.

Unity's dash is no where near as distracting as the Windows 8 start screen, but I feel it is perhaps a little large for my liking - occupying between one quarter to one third of the screen space whenever the windows key is tapped. That said, where Metro succeeded, particularly with Window's 8.1, was tidying up the start menu - getting away from the mess of nested folders that the traditional start menu often devolves into, and making it easy to find what you were looking for quickly. The dash also does a great job of presenting a tidy interface, presenting the icons you need while filtering out the crap. The dash may be the best compromise between the discrete but cluttered traditional start menu and the jarring but well organised Metro start screen. I would need to spend more time with the dash to really get a feel for it.

Ultimately criticisms of this nature against Linux are a moot point as both the graphical shell and desktop environment can be swapped for other alternatives. Don't like the UI? Just try another one. And really this level of customisation is a massive advantage of Linux over Windows. How much better would Window's 8 have done had users had the ability to simply swap out Metro for something else? And for a media PC it's a non issue anyway.

Windows 8.1 start screen

Start-up and Shutdown: Something else really like about Ubuntu is the blazingly fast start-up and shutdown speeds. Shutdown in particular in simply astounding, especially against Windows 7 which feels very sluggish by comparison. I will totally acknowledge though that Microsoft has made huge advances in this area with Windows 8 and Windows 10, but still nowhere near as fast a Ubuntu.

The Big Negative - Initial Setup

So far for me the big area where Ubuntu completely falls over compared to Windows is the initial setup. The installation itself is very straight forward. The installer offers a fair amount of customisation, and does a fair job of explaining what each option means. But after the OS is installed the learning curve to actually set it up skyrockets.

The beautiful thing about Windows in 2015 is that it just works. After the initial installation the OS needs the minimum of fuss to get it on it's feet. Back in October I installed the Windows 10 preview on my old 2012 Samsung NP350V5C Laptop. Windows automatically recognised and installed all the hardware with the exception of the SD card reader and the graphics card (hybrid Intel 4000 / AMD HD 7670M). After installing those two driver packages and the settings app (needed for the volume and screen brightness keys to work) the computer was ready to go. Everything works.

Ubuntu is in no way that simple.

Windows 7 device manager
No Device Manager? For example, simply checking that all connected devices are working. Typically Windows does not recognise the media PCs TV capture card automatically and I have to manually install the driver. I wanted to make sure that the TV capture card was functioning under Ubuntu. So I went into System Settings expecting to see something like Windows device manager. No dice - nothing like that is installed in Ubuntu by default...

So I headed online where people were suggesting the terminal command sudo lshw - which has the effect of vomiting several pages of data about all connected devices onto the terminal, making finding information about a single, perhaps non functional, component very cumbersome... People have also suggested searching through the repository and downloading a device manager app, which I am yet to look into. Who knew something so simple would be so hard to accomplish.

At first I thought that the lack of a device manager app was due to Ubuntu wanting to be as lightweight as possible - perhaps to avoid the software bloat that affects Windows, or to give users full options for customisation (an 'install what you want to use rather than what we tell you to use' mentality). But then Ubuntu ships with a full installation of Libre Office, Firefox, a screenshot app and other software so obviously software bloat isn't a major concern to Ubuntu. A simple device manager would have a far lesser footprint in terms of software bloat than a full office suite. Why Ubuntu doesn't ship with a basic graphical tool to easily identify and diagnose hardware faults is beyond me.

Playing Video: Next thing. It appears that by default Ubuntu treats video playback as the system being left idle. As a result Ubuntu would turn the screen off and then go to the lock screen every 10 minutes when watching video. It didn't matter what I was using to watch video (Chrome, Kodi, VLC) - a seriously annoying fault for a media PC. To be honest I find this absolutely baffling - in a world where streaming is overtaking live TV why would an operating system's default setting be to turn the screen off during video playback?

Again I hit the net. Suggested solutions included going into every individual app to check if they can be set to disable screen locking, using a combination of System Settings and the terminal to disable the system lock and screensaver entirely (not ideal), and using a script to simulate mouse movements to trick the system into thinking you have interacted with it.

I ended up installing an app called Caffeine which disables Ubuntu's lock when an app is in full screen mode. Something of a headache in itself. Caffeine isn't available through the repositories, so installing it required a crash course in using the terminal and installing PPA packages.

A huge amount of effort for something so simple, and that Windows does by default.

Still More Problems: Those are the more annoying examples, but the system has a variety of other bugs that I still need to tackle;

1)  - Ubuntu doesn't appear to have an equivalent app to AMD Catalyst for easily adjusting colour. I'm using the default community developed open source Radeon driver. Under Colour in System Settings it tells me that my TV doesn't have a profile suitable for whole-screen colour correction. Hit the net. People are saying you need other (expensive) hardware and correct profiles to calibrate monitors. Others are saying you can input colour adjustments through the terminal assuming you know the colour you want, which seems like a lot of trial and error to me... I just want to knock the saturation form a little...

2) - The computer won't go to sleep / hibernation. This was a problem before I installed Caffeine.

3) - The mouse responsiveness is kind of sketchy. On the desktop the mouse behaves a little twitchy, but in Kodi it barely functions at all with the cursor either moving very slowly or not responding to clicks (sometimes both).

So that's my first impression. I certainly like Ubuntu, and I can see that it's a very capable operating system. I also understand that I've only scratched the surface. Still, anyone going into Linux as an absolute newbie best be prepared for an uphill start.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

First Impressions of Linux from a Windows User

I recently decided to try out Linux for the first time as a primary operating system for my media PC. And I'm finding it a bit of a mixed bag... Not bad. But somewhat frustrating. Certainly not the Linux computing utopia that some claim.

I have been a Windows user most of my life - starting when my parents picked up a second hand PC with Windows 95 way back when I was 12. I’m very comfortable and competent working with Windows, and I genuinely like Windows as an OS.

But recently I’ve been thinking about moving some of my PC’s onto other systems. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in Linux (dabbling here and there with live CD's), and certainly feel that Microsoft could use a bit more competition in the marketplace. I also haven’t been very impressed with Microsoft’s moves to make Windows a closed ecosystem. Finally, I had been using Windows 7 on the Media PC, but as Windows Media Centre no longer comes free with Windows if I want to be able to record live TV on future media PC builds (or upgrade to a more recent Windows version) then I’m going to have to find another solution anyway. Or pay Microsoft’s MCE tax on top of the price of Windows. So why not try Linux?

So two weeks ago I installed the latest Ubuntu (15.04) on my media PC. As a long time Windows user, and complete Linux newbie, I wanted to post my first impressions of using Linux as a everyday OS.

Linux Media PC Specs

My media PC is a repurposed desktop PC connected by HDMI to a 1080p Samsung smart TV. The PC has the following specs (with everything running at stock);

CPU: Core i5 2400
RAM: 8GB G.Skill Hyper X DDR3 1600mhz
GRAPHICS: Saphire Radeon HD 5750
STORAGE: OCZ Agility 2 Series SSD (SATA-300)
TV CAPTURE: Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2200
INPUT: Logitech G700 wireless gaming mouse, generic Microsoft wireless keyboard

I chose vanilla Ubuntu using the stock Unity shell over a straight up media centre distro like Mythbuntu or Kodi because I ultimately still want the option to use the media PC as a full desktop PC with little fuss. The computer will also still be used for occasional gaming (thank you Steam in-home streaming). As a complete Linux newbie I don’t understand the limitations of the purpose built distros, and people often cite Ubuntu as the best distro for starting out, offering the minimum of complications and the best environment for learning.


As is very apparent at this point, I am coming into Ubuntu as a complete novice. With the exception of some very shallow use of a Raspberry Pi, I know nothing about it.

That said, I’m certainly not a computer newbie. I’ve been repairing and maintaining systems since that first Windows 95 desktop back in 96, and upgrading/building my own systems 2004. As a gamer I’m very familiar with tweaking systems (both hardware and software) to get the best performance. I always sort my own computer problems and never take my systems to a shop. But I’m not a power user or coder, and certainly don’t know what actually goes into building an OS.

I also feel that I need to say that I’m not necessarily worried about open source versus closed source. If the software works then I’m happy. I’m also not worried about paying for software - if people want to make money from their efforts then who am I to complain?

First Impressions of Linux

(Here I’m going to outline my first impressions of Ubuntu after using the OS for two weeks. I will update this post with future impressions as I get more acquainted with Linux).

- First Two Weeks (21.05.2015): Headaches with first time setup, and an appreciation for the GNOME desktop.

- First Three Weeks  (03.06.2015): Attempts are made to setup a MythTV DVR, which ends in frustration. Ubuntu is abandoned on the media PC in favour of Windows 7.