The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Linux - T + 180 days

Let me take this opportunity to remind all that the prize drawing for some pretty cool computers is still running. This drawing gives us the funding to run The HeliOS Project. Come see us here to see what we are offering.

It's been something we've been needing to do for a while now.

Time, or the lack thereof has prevented it.

So here it goes.

We looked back 6 months and chose 10 of our Linux computer recipients and spoke with them individually. More to the point , we presented them with a series of questions.

See, none of the kids or parents that received HeliOS Project computers had ever heard of or used Linux. One of the screening questions we asked was: "did you use or do you now use windows outside of your home?"

In order to qualify the people, the answer had to be yes...although they did not know it.

Our goal was simple. Gather empirical data to indicate whether a Linux user of 6 months was comfortable with the system and how they saw it in relation to Microsoft Windows

This was no where near scientific of course. And as stated, the data collected is empirical at best but it gives us an idea of what we are working with and how we personally might be able to make it better.

So here is what we found.

The people queried ranged in age from 15 to 31. Of the ten people agreeing to talk to us, there were six female and four males. Not that it should make any real difference, I simply note it as a statistical fact.

Seven of these people either worked with Windows at school or at their place of employment. So is Linux vs. Windows equal to mixing oil and water?

Not even close.

What we found most surprising is the way our Linux Users adapted and researched in order to make things work between their machines. They actively sought answers to their problems. Spreadsheets via Excel transferred to Linux machines caused some problems in formatting but not enough to cause any real issues.

Reportedly, documents originating from Calc which contained inserted graphs, diagrams and graphics did not hold their formatting perfectly when saved as an Excel document and opened on the Windows end. But to be fair, neither did the same graphs, diagrams and graphics when sent from a 2003 Microsoft Office Excel document to a Microsoft Office 2007 user. In fact, some of the inserted graphics were completely absent between the two MS offerings. A bit of fiddling with the Calc-created spreadsheet rendered the document completely usable.

DocX continues to be a problem for many.

Three of the Linux Users found themselves in a position to install Windows Vista either at work or at school. In speaking to these users, it was a bit amusing to listen to their complaints about the install process. Six of the ten had installed Linux for friends and family, so they were somewhat versed in the installation of a Linux distribution.

In all three cases, none of the folks had driver CD's or internet access after installing Windows. They found themselves having to identify the specific hardware on the computer, find another computer with Internet access and slog through the Google process of finding the needed drivers. One of the biggest complaints in finding the needed drivers were the PITA redirects to sites for Driver Doctor and Driver Robot which puts a ton of spyware on your computer in the name of helping you automatically update your drivers.

What stuck us as most surprising is that every person who used Windows at work has inquired to their employer as to whether they would be allowed to use Linux at work. All but one were told no. The young Intern at an insurance company was given permission to dual boot her computer with Linux. An install she did without any tech support or help.

This brings us to the conversations where eight of our people commented that when they got home, they experienced relief or happiness that they could use a computer that "just worked". They noted that there were no 30 minute update procedures to tolerate, no warnings of virus threats and no having to reboot because their mouse wouldn't move correctly or that the current page showing was locked up.

While the comments and answers were largely positive, we also asked how Linux could be better in their opinion. Here is a list of comments or suggestions from some of the participants. Note some of them may seem like "old issues" to many of us, but also keep in mind that these are relatively new Linux Users. Keep in mind as well, these users have either Linux Mint or SuperOS installed on their computers...both derivatives of Ubuntu.

"The only decent program I've found for my ipod is Songbird but it crashes constantly. Can't the people making other Music apps like Banshee make ipod support easier?" Traci - undergrad UT

I do not own an ipod or any type of device like it so I could not comment on the question. Maybe someone here can address this.

"I have a USB storage device plugged in where I keep my music and movie collection. At any given time, a box pops up saying that a device has been detected that has pictures on it and wants to open F-spot for them. It happens a dozen times a day and is really annoying. How can I make this stop?" Mike - high school senior

This is a problem I have encountered often myself. It seems that 2 usb storage devices are constantly being "discovered" and announced. Annoying indeed, but personally not bothersome enough for me to investigate. Any ideas here?

"I want to install a couple KDE applications on my computer, one of them is Kstars but I am worried that mixing KDE stuff with Gnome is going to screw things up. It's happened before and I had to start all over. Is this ever going to be addressed?" Lisa - ACC student

Agreed, it is a crapshoot when you do this. I personally found that SuperOS comes with many of the KDE libraries already loaded so when you install a KDE app into this Gnome environment, all the knots are already worked out. YMMV however and I've found that mixing environmentally-specific apps can cause trouble down the line a bit. Long enough away so that you can't remember what you installed that is now causing the problems.

"When I have desktop effects enabled, there are times when I click something and the screen darkens for up to a minute before anything happens and after that my computer runs slow. When I turn off the effects it fixes itself. I have a one year old computer running two gigs of ram. This should not happen." Juanita - restaurant server

Noted this myself and not quite sure why this happens. I only run effects on my demonstration laptop...only so long I can tolerate wobbly windows and pretty sparkles before they get annoying or in the way of my work.

"I like the way you install applications in Linux. It is so much easier than in Windows but sometimes I cannot find specific programs that I need. I usually end up going onto the internet and searching for something that comes with a deb installer but they crash because something isn't in the deb that is needed. Is there ever going to be a time when all packages work on all Linux machines?" Amanda - freshman TSU

No, probably not and I feel your pain. We either have to learn how to compile our own or go to the forums and ask someone in the packaging threads to do it for us. Slashdot had a piece on someone working on universal binaries but I don't think the politics will allow it to happen.

The thing that stood out most in these meetings was the overall happiness with the stability of their systems. What made a big difference in the majority of the users was the fact that they did not have to do the reboot dance after an installation or regular machine update. Of further interest was the non-issue of virus protection. Every person spoken with that used Windows at work or school voiced annoyance over having to deal with it on the Windows machines.

When asked about the "learning curve" when they first started using Linux, all but one just shrugged and said it wasn't a big deal. Of course, we sat down with each of them when we installed the computers and spent an hour showing them the system. However, no one stated any real problems in acclimating to the new system.

No this is not all-inclusive by any stretch but this gives us some idea of what the new Linux User thinks and how they adapt to Linux. I am sure there are many that took the dive into Linux and ran back to the safety of Windows. We plan to speak with 10 more users as they mature to 6 months use in May.

Let's see how they differ from the above observations.

Those who insist on reiterating the same tired line that Linux isn't ready for the desktop may have axes to grind instead of opening their minds. When we have Professionals of many walks using Linux on a daily basis and as their only OS, then you have to question the motive or experience of those making such statements. Besides, we have 12 year olds using it on a daily basis.

Maybe these folks would appreciate one of our kids stopping by and giving them a hand.

All-Righty Then


Anonymous said...

I am concerned that inexperienced users of Linux could easily create a very non-secure system, do some on-line banking, trading, etc. and end up with identity theft as a result. Do you really think Linux is better than Windows in this respect? I do not.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting piece, especially when compared to "24 hours with Ubuntu" that's currently on the BBC News Technology page.

FYI, I managed to get a mention in for Helios in the comments of that rather poor BBC article. I think it's around the comment #180 mark.

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous

You have got to be kidding me. First off, you gotta be pretty dense to get pwned in Linux. Second, have you read all the warnings about doing online banking with Windows?

Sheesh...If you are gonna troll, might wanna do a few practice runs first.

Steven Rosenberg said...

IMHO, iPod support is a huge deal.

Banshee is pretty good with iPods, I've heard, and Rhythmbox supports them to some extent. I'm not sure about Amarok.

But my problem is deeper: My iPod was "intialized" by a Mac, so it has the HFS+ filesystem, which doesn't play nicely with iTunes on Windows or with Linux.

My understanding is that many Linux distros can read HFS+, but my experience in Ubuntu is that I can't seem to manage/write to it.

I know that "re-initializing" the iPod with iTunes in Windows would "fix" this, but I'd rather use both the Mac and Linux

Anonymous said...

Only recently the Washington Post security expert advised using a Linux livecd for online banking.

Windows is a malware magnet...

Nick said...

I recently installed Ubuntu on my mothers computer, who is not that computer savy in the first place. When she came up she had like 15 different viruses. Its been 7 weeks yesterday and the only complaint I hear is about the iPod. Other than that she loves it and so does my sister. If anyone has a suggestion on what she can use for her shuffle let me know.

Seth said...

@ Anonymous 1

There are always going to be vulnerabilities, but the fact is that the risks in Linux are greatly reduced. There are always going to be people who fall victim to phishing/scams.

If you have a little common sense though, you should be fine in Linux.

Elwin said...

@Traci's question: I've found gtkPod is stable and works well with iPods, though it's just a utility for moving files around, not a music player with lots of features. Not sure if this is what she means by a decent program though.

@Mike's question: If it's often plugged in, you could try adding it to /etc/fstab. (Set the last field to 0 so the system will still boot if it's not plugged in.)

Hope that helps.

piquant00 said...

Re: the issue of running KDE apps on Gnome, or vice versa, I've had no problems doing this for a couple years now on Ubuntu. Would it be possible to know just which programs are causing dependency problems?

--Ann K.

tracyanne said...

@second anonymous, that was a practice run, don't despair, the troll will improve with time.

I'm more concerned that someone will buy a Windows computer and do some on line banking and end up having their money stolen while they are logged in.... what, oh that's already happened.

@Ken, what you write pretty much reflects my experience, with people I've set up with Linux.

The most annoying thing about talking about that experience, is having waste one's time debunking comments like those made by the troll that opened these comments.

techpain said...

@ Steven Rosenberg

I use Rhythmbox for my ipod and haven't had a problem. What kinds of issues are people having? What does it NOT do that I'm missing?

Michelle Minkin said...

@ Tracyanne

When the first post on a Linux Blog is a troll, then the author has hit a nerve. His comment is obviously transparent and meant to do damage, however the point remains.

Ken struck an obvious nerve. If these 10 people are this happy with Linux and that unhappy with Windows, imagine the attitudes on a global scale.


Unknown said...

@ Tyler

I spoke with the young lady about this and she is saying that RB is only seeing the device on occasion. It is not showing up in Places, on the desktop or in Nautilus. I am having her send me a copy of her fstab to see what the problem might be. I am suspecting it is an initialization problem like Steve mentioned.


Unknown said...

to make gnome not "autoplay" stuff, open up the nautilus preferences and go to the Media tab. You can fine-tune what it does for various media-types there. I normally just turn it off :)

neonblue2 said...

@Steven Rosenberg

An iPod initialised on Windows can still be used with a Mac. You might notice a decrease in transfer speeds moving to FAT32 but you get the advantage of being able to use it cross-platform.

mammlouk said...

I also use Rythmbox for my ipod although I will definitely admit that it is not the best solution for a couple of reasons. Please let me know if there are solutions for my issues.
1. Podcast downloading is horribly slow. It never downloads more than two items at once and even then it is dreadfully slow on my cable connection.

2. Collection Syncing. Drag and drop works fine, but what if I just want any music that is not already on my ipod to be added? I personally have not seen a way to do this and have ended up with duplicate tracks by attempting to drag the whole library over and hope it will check against what's on the ipod.

By far my biggest complaint with linux ipod software is the lack of unity. In the past I've used gtkpod, rythmbox, yamipod, floola, etc. The biggest pain was learning that if you switch between different programs you WILL end up with problems. More than likely you will end up having to "repair" you ipod and start over. That is why now I stick with just Rythmbox.

Dr Santam Chakraborty said...

Been reading your blog for a pretty long time and kudos for the work you are doing.. unfortunately i live on the other side of the world at India to be of any use. Well migrated to linux over 2 years ago and never looked back. Issues like these do keep coming up.. like my latest motorola A1600 doesnot get recognised in data transfer mode (but bluetooth works so i am ok). Have learnt to buy software that works with the OS however due to this and pay a lot more attention to reviews and hardware support forums. However all that pales into insignificance when it comes to the hassle free computer that Linux brings (and I can attest to this being the "official" windoze support guy of the department).

Anonymous said...

My two cents

My experience is that running KDE apps in GNOME is tricky. BUT, running GNOME apps in KDE is not (providing of course you don't install the whole environment).

Again with the special effects; KWin plays much nicer then Compiz, at least on my hardware.

DocX files are difficult, especially Macro-enabled ones. Someone came up with a converter here;

Songbird has some basic (and highly beta) support for iPods, Amarok is happy with them (the only issue is that sometimes the widget goes belly up and moves oddly sometimes), Banshee I've found to be the best experience, but you've got to tell all of them to recatalog your files on the iPod, otherwise syncing refuses to function properly.

As for the usb-discovery bug, that does not affect KDE.

Recommendation; switch to KDE. Sorry I can't help further.

I'd also like to point out that it's quite possible to make a Linux system unsafe to work with confidental data, you just need to REALLY break through the upteen-zillion barriers in place.

/two cents

mdwstmusik said...

RE: iPod management

I run Amarok (KDE app) under Unbuntu and IMHO, it is the best iPod/Music library manager on any platform. Also, my iPod was formatted HFS. I found directions on the Internet on setting up read/write access. However, re-formatting it using Fat32 made for a more reliable device on non-Mac platforms and it still works just fine on my Mac as well.

Unknown said...

"When I have desktop effects enabled, there are times when I click something and the screen darkens for up to a minute before anything happens and after that my computer runs slow. When I turn off the effects it fixes itself. I have a one year old computer running two gigs of ram. This should not happen." Juanita - restaurant server

This sounds like the OS isn't using the graphics card for 3D acceleration. Software 3D support is very demanding on a computer's CPU, which would account for the slowdown in the system.

That could mean a couple of things. First, it's possible your 3D hardware isn't very good. Even recent machines can ship with graphics cards that aren't good with 3D. But, more likely, your graphics card's 3D isn't supported by Linux out of the box. I believe that both nVidia and ATI cards still require a proprietary driver from the vendor in order to use 3D acceleration. This used to be a major PITA, but most distros, including Ubuntu, now package the needed drivers. Completely proprietary packages on Ubuntu live in a special part of the repository. Scroll down in Synaptic. Toward the bottom you should see this section.

If you have some exotic video card however, the PITA factor could still bite. But I'm guessing you have one or the other of an ATI or nVidia based card, in which case you should be golden.

Boosters of desktop Linux: why doesn't this work out of the box? Distros that have decided to ship proprietary drivers have already sinned against Free Software orthodoxy. Why go half way? New users can really get derailed by something like this.

Anonymous said...


I doubt that my post will be found down here but anyway:

Great Job!

The overriding point is, most people are not technical. We do need to listen to them. It is not our knowledge; but out patience that is being tested.

Mainly, we do need to develop toward what they are mostly using now (minus the negatives of course). We need to do this UNLIKE WE WOULD DO FOR OURSELVES.

It is said that open development can not handle this! It is inferred, that open development can only be a selfish endeavor. Sharing is never a selfish endeavor. Ironically, true giving benefits us in ways that are NOT selfish. At least, if that can be defined as selfish, that's the brand of "selfish" that I want to be. It's time we proved them wrong. It's way past time for us to attract most of the Windows users. We need EACH OTHER!

Unknown said...

To those with HFS+ filesystem on their ipod, I've heard that disabling journaling on the device greatly helps usability in Ubuntu. This must be done from your mac.

I don't know if that helps, my ipod was initiated in Windows, and I've never had a real problem using it in Ubuntu.

Purple library guy said...

It had never occurred to me that there could be a problem using KDE apps while running Gnome or vice versa. I suppose if you want to do that, best is to run a distro that normally has both installed in the first place and so is set up to have them play well together--in my case, Mandriva.

All in all, it's heartening that the glitches found by these people are both relatively minor and known, acknowledged problems that effort is being devoted to overcoming.
By contrast, the hassles they experience with Windows tend to trace straight back to fundamental design problems which are unlikely to be overcome any time soon, and which will keep throwing up new symptoms any time old ones are papered over.

Gavin said...

@ Mike's question:

udev is responsible for controlling hot-swappable buses on modern Linux distro's; adding an entry to /etc/fstab is not usually necessary. Although if the device is plugged in on boot/restart, problems can be found in the dmesg log, or in the normal /var/log log files when the device seems to disappear and reappear during normal operation. However...

I suspect erratic issues such as this are due to hardware problems. If USB ports other than the actual mobo ones are used (ie, the ones on the front of a case) try a "real" mobo USB port as they tend to be more stable for permanent USB devices. In addition, many SiS and VIA value-based chipsets (as well as other cheap mobo's) simply have flaky USB ports, meaning the issue is not bound to any OS but rather the hardware itself. I have actually used live Linux CD's to track down such USB port problems on Windows machines - the root cause of the issue is surprisingly likely to be hardware. Adding a USB expansion card is a good test for erratic USB devices, and much more time-effective than installing a different OS.

@ Juanita's question:

Again, the root cause of this issue is most likely hardware (assuming the use of an integrated GPU). Even the latest & greatest integrated GPU's have problems with special effects in any GUI. This is because integrated GPU's are woefully underpowered and deviate greatly from 3D API specifications, requiring them to off-load or just plain not support certain rendering fuctions (most often SM 2.0+).

I recently had the opportunity to test an AGP GeForce MX4000 64MB graphics card against an Intel GMA X3100 integrated GPU (different systems, of course) in Ubuntu 9.04 with Compiz. I also tested the Intel GPU system in Vista as a baseline. In both Ubuntu and Vista, the Intel GPU used up an entire CPU core to do basic tasks like draw a highlight box across a 1280 x 1024 screen. Vista obviously uses Aero for its 3D GUI, and Compiz on Linux does much the same (especially if you turn on cube gears). The lowly MX4000 dedicated GPU, however, was able to handle all Compiz effects at 1280 x 1024 with only minimal slowdown during truly intensive tasks - quite a feat for the AGP-based system with a much older single-core CPU and half the RAM! Not to mention the Intel GPU is (supposedly) SM 3.0 capable while the MX4000 pre-dates pixel shaders! The MX4000 is a value-based 6.5-generation old dedicated GPU that off-loads shaders to the CPU, yet it easily trounced a 2-generation old SM 3.0 integrated GPU on a superior dual-core system.

This is not news to me, but it may be for some. Onboard video = 3D death, no matter the OS. Linux without Compiz (or any other special GUI effects) is the same as WinXP in Classic mode, which can be handled by most integrated GPU's just fine. However, if you turn on even one single effect, you essentially turn a low-overhead 2D GUI into a full-featured 3D GUI, which hammers on your GPU just as hard as a 3D game from 2001. This is a fact. Vista/W7 does this, Linux with Compiz does this, even Mac OS X does this (by default!). Do not think you can escape by "going back to Windows"! (Unless you wish to "upgrade" to an 8-year-old OS from Redmond that will soon lose support, and then further "upgrade" to a 9-year-old GUI. But then, why not just turn off Compiz?)

The "solution" to this problem is to either turn off Compiz and all special effects, or install a graphics card. Any graphics card. It does not matter.

- Gavin

Jeremy Johnson said...


I am also not allowed to install Linux at work, but I do carry a portable, bootable, persistent copy of Linux Mint on a thumb drive. Just in case, of course.

I posted instructions for doing this on my blog at Maybe some of your clients might find it useful!

Reece Dunn said...

Re: Traci's question

Do you have any details on when/how Songbird is crashing, which version and any other information.

There is a known crash in Songbird on startup for 1.1.2 and later with Ubuntu 8.10/9.04 (

Also, has she tried asking the Songbird community for help (

Anonymous said...

"Besides, we have 12 year olds using it on a daily basis."

Yeah, my older brother exactly 12 years old uses Linux all the time. I mean all the time when he is not on his pogo stick, you see he loves that damned things even more than Linux. I am looking up to him, in a few years I will graduate from my Leap Frog computer hopefully to a Lactating Llama version of Ubuntu. I am sure I will adore it, see I love dairy...