Laptop Renovation Part II – The Community Feeds Back

Upon reading responses to my previous post, I decided to put some of the community’s suggestions to the test and examine some of the other options out there. Of the suggestions given, I primarily focused my attention on Debian (Lenny), Damn Small Linux and the wattOS beta.  All the distros had relative advantages and disadvantages, and this provided me with an opportunity to look at some distros I otherwise might not have.

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The Laptop Renovation Project

At my office, we have a pair of old laptops purchased back in 2003 or 2004, which are terribly slow, woefully underpowered and horribly outdated, but which we still use periodically.  In other words, they made a perfect target for an OS makeover.

Anyone who has run Windows XP on a P4 with 256MB of RAM should be able to appreciate just how sluggish these machines are.  So with my boss’s blessing, I gathered the two machines and tried to breathe some new life into them.

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Fluxconf: configuring Fluxbox the graphical way

Fluxbox is a window manager about which I have written a lot. The reason for that is because I use it every day, and I like it a lot. There’s a lot to like. It’s lightning fast, stable, and tweakable to a degree that will satisfy nearly every tinkerer when it comes to window managers.

But one of the biggest barriers to adopting Fluxbox for the “less tinkery” users out there is its configuration learning curve. Yes, Fluxbox is pretty simple when you get over the fact that you have to edit several configuration files by hand to set up your menu, your keys file, and other aspects. But for many users this is a big deal.

For some of those users, the answer to that dilemma is Fluxconf, a package of three applications that can be used to configure Fluxbox graphically.

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My thoughts on Ubuntu

This isn’t so much a review, just a rambling discussion on what comes to mind for me about Ubuntu after using it on my laptop for three months or so. I decided against writing a conventional “review” of Ubuntu… seems like there are enough of those, so I don’t see the value of it.

But I do see some value in a rambling discussion on the subject, so here goes.

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Moving from Kontact to Thunderbird

In my post expressing my disappointment in the direction Slackware is heading I had mentioned that I would be seeking replacements for a number of KDE based applications to which I have become attached over the years, and would have to learn to live without.

One of those applications is Kontact, which is a combination mail client, contact manager, calendar, scheduler, task tracking application (called a “Personal Information Manager” these days, I suppose). Kontact isn’t a perfect application, but I like it, and I’m unhappy with the version in KDE 4, so I started looking for a replacement some weeks ago.

The closest thing to it in the non-KDE universe is Evolution, which for those of you who have never used it, is a very full-featured Microsoft Outlook clone. I used Evolution on my Ubuntu laptop for a couple of weeks and had quite enough of it. It was constantly failing to connect to my POP servers, constantly locking up, constantly crashing, and was just all around unreliable.

There aren’t many other Personal Information Management applications out there that can do as much as Kontact or Evolution. So I figured a good spot to try and “make do” is Thunderbird. I had a pretty bad experience with Thunderbird the last time I tried it, but that was a couple of years ago now, so I thought it was high time I gave it another chance.

I was pleasantly surprised!

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Synergy: A software KVM switch (without the “V”)

A good friend of mine and fellow technology wizard has on several occasions brought up Synergy as a great solution for doing work spanning a couple of local workstations.

I know I have several times added it to my “Mental List Of Apps To Try”, but somewhere along the way I forgot about it. Last weekend Jered was over at my house for dinner and he brought it up again, and this time I installed it.

To make a long story short: I should have been playing with Synergy a long time ago!

For those who like to read a little bit more than that, continue, because I have a writeup.

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Openbox: A fun and lightweight window manager

I am always on the lookout for a new way of doing things when it comes to personal computing, and one of the best ways to do so is to experiment with different window managers for Linux.

Since I have my laptop set up as an Ubuntu test platform, and since APT makes it easy to download and install applications and not find myself in dependency hell, my laptop seemed to be a great way to play around with a window manager about which I’ve been reading for some time: Openbox.

Those of you who are familiar with LXDE will have some experience, albeit limited, with Openbox, as LXDE is based on it (with a bunch of other cohesive applications and a consistent look and feel integrated to complete the transition from “window manager” to “desktop environment”), but Openbox will seem much more familiar to users of Blackbox and Fluxbox, predominately in the sense that Openbox is built very light and minimal, with a desktop bare of icons, and a user-defined right-click menu that is used for launching applications. Like Blackbox and Fluxbox, Openbox is also dockapp friendly, and as a window manager it runs very fast on limited hardware.

I’m a big fan of Fluxbox, so I thought it worthwhile to give Openbox a try, if nothing else to give me material for a Linux Critic writeup, and instead I found that I just liked using Openbox, so this turned out to be more than just a review.

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