My Choices of Applications Lately

I frequently find it useful to read about the applications other people use for various functions because it inevitably prompts my natural curiosity. I almost always end up thinking, well, I haven’t tried that program… I should install it and see how it is. It’s good to expand one’s horizons.

Because of that, it’s something I like to write about from time to time here. Most people have good reasons why they use the apps they use, so here are a few of mine. I have included links to things wherever appropriate, and they are set to open in a new tab, for the convenience of the reader.

Desktop environment

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been playing around with Xfce again lately, and I’ve been enjoying the experience, so I’ll probably stick with it for the foreseeable future.

I’ve always desktop hopped, but for the past few years, I’ve largely stuck with Cinnamon, LXDE, and Fluxbox. Xfce is a new one for me, in terms of actually using it for longer than a day or two, so we’ll take this as it goes. So far I’ve been using it for about three weeks, and so far so good!

As for reasoning, I’ll cite flexibility, speed, and stability for my recent enjoyment of Xfce. No dealbreakers to speak of. I’ve been able to customize it to behave the way I like, and it stays out of my way when I’m using it. Can’t complain about that one bit.

Browsers

I’ve done a number of posts here on the subject of browsers over the years, and not much has really changed.

I use Google Chrome Beta as my primary browser these days on my machines, including my 2015 Chromebook Pixel, which I have in the Beta Channel for updates.

As a secondary, I alternate between Vivaldi and Palemoon.

My reasons for Chrome are pretty straightforward:

  • It’s very extensible. Most annoyances out of the box can easily be fixed by extensions, which, because of its wide user base, are diverse and readily available.
  • It stays out of my way. Other browsers have a tendency to try to make the web experience all about the browser. Chrome generally stays out of my face and lets me use the web, not the browser.
  • The vast majority of sites now work best on it. Gone are the days when websites would proudly display the godawful “This site is designed to only work with Internet Explorer” messages. Okay, so some really backward companies still do this, and some government sites too, but hey, at least those are easily identified as technological idiots so you know what you’re dealing with when you interact with those entities.
  • It’s relatively fast, stable, and static when it comes to UX. Unlike some browsers, which can’t seem to figure out what they want to be, Chrome is still mostly focused on doing its job. Version 53.* of Chrome looks almost exactly like version 43.* of it, which looks almost exactly like version 33.*, etc. Very recently Google updated the look of its browser slightly, by making the tabs a little less rounded, and replacing the menu icon on the right with 3 vertical dots. The thing is, this is pretty subtle stuff compared to the user experience trainwreck Mozilla has foisted upon its users over and over again through the years.

I really only use Vivaldi and Palemoon when something either isn’t working right in Chrome (which isn’t very often), or if I want to make sure something I’m doing/writing/making renders correctly in browsers other than the primary one I’m using.

Once in a while I use something like Vivaldi as my primary browser for a week or two, just to see how much it has changed over time (since I think it’s still under fairly heavy development), but it inevitably either lacks something or has some sort of behavior that turns out to be a dealbreaker to me, so I end up back on Chrome again before too long.

Palemoon is a great alternative to Firefox. It’s not completely open, but it’s a decent browser for folks who liked the user experience of older versions of Firefox (before Mozilla developers sustained severe head injuries or started doing drugs or whatever it was that caused them to go off the deep end and self-destruct their marketshare). Give it a try, if you haven’t already.

As a side note, I go through periods of time in which I use the Chromium browser as my primary as well. Chromium is tantalizingly close to usable, but I eventually end up back on Chrome because of a ton of little things that don’t work quite right on it that add up to a lot of annoyance for me.

CD/DVD burning

I don’t do a ton of burning anymore, but when I need to burn a bunch of data, or an ISO or whatever to a CD or DVD, I discovered a couple of years ago that I’d finally had enough with the counterintuitive behavior and sometimes outright refusal to function of the default application for this kind of thing in Linux Mint.

After doing a little research and some trial-and-error, I finally ran across Xfburn, which is what I’ve stuck with for the last two years or so. Unlike Brasero, I’ve never had Xfburn just randomly try to tell me that I had invalid media, or that it couldn’t read the source files, or that the files were too big for the media when they weren’t (that one drove me nuts about Brasero). Xfburn just works. That was enough for me.

CD ripping

I still like to have physical copies of my purchased music, but I enjoy them normally streamed from my media server (more on that below). Whenever I get a new CD, I always rip it using Asunder. For me, the important features for a CD ripper are:

  • Control over bitrate and encoding options.
  • Control over how id3 tags and metadata are handled.
  • Control over file naming is handled.

Asunder does all of this exactly the way I like it, and it hasn’t failed me yet when it comes to ripping good tracks off of even a scratched/damaged CD.

Music metadata tagging

As an avid fan with a large, diverse musical collection, I’m picky about how my id3 tags are managed. Most music players give you some level of tag editing functionality, but in my experience, they can really screw them up, and bad.

To that end, I still prefer to rely on a standalone application for managing this function, and I discovered that EasyTAG suits my needs best. It can do mass updates of specific tag fields, it can guess at things if you let it (I don’t, but it does have that option), and I have yet to have it screw anything up that wasn’t my own fault. It’s worth a look if you’re as picky about this sort of thing as I am.

Media server

I’ve played around with a variety of these over the years, both open source and proprietary, and the one I keep coming back to is Subsonic. It’s super easy to install and set up, easy to upgrade when new releases come out, and it has been very reliable. It doesn’t have as many features as some other platforms, but it has what I need, and it’s open source.

There are some decent Android apps for it as well, which I use constantly.

It would take quite a bit at this point to convince me to move to a different media server platform. Granted, my primary use of this is for music, not movies/video. Your mileage may vary.

Chat

This one depends on what protocol I’m using.

For Google based chat (used to be Google Chat, and now it’s just Google Hangouts), if I’m on my Linux machines or my Windows 7 work-issued laptop, I use Pidgin. Even though Google did away with their old version of chat, Hangouts still supports XMPP, so chat clients like Pidgin can still work with it (though not for group chats). Pidgin also works well for IRC, which, while I don’t use much anymore, is still a nice option if I find myself using it again at some point.

I’m also in a couple of Slack teams that I chat with regularly. For that, it depends on what platform I’m on. On Linux, I tend to just use the downloadable client, which works really well. I dislike that there isn’t a darker theme available for it (the white text area can get kind of stark after a while), but it otherwise doesn’t give me any trouble.

Oddly enough, Slack lists the Linux client as “beta”, but when I tried the Windows version of it, the thing was buggy, unstable, and did weird stuff with processes (like having 20+ separate tasks showing up in the Processes tab in the Windows Task Manager) that caused me to ditch the client for Windows.

Instead, when on Windows (or on my Chromebook) I just use standalone browser windows open to the team channels I’m in and that works almost as well as the native client.

The Android app for Slack is really good. Zero problems, good design, quality implementation. No complaints.

I should mention as a bit of an afterthought that I have also played around with the command line Google Hangouts application, Hangups. I pondered giving Hangups a writeup here at some point, but I used it so little I didn’t feel it really merited its own post. Suffice to say, if I were living in a terminal only world (like poor old Bryan Lunduke tried recently) it would be a great option, but as it stands for me right now it’s far more of a novelty or a curiosity than it is a “better solution” than Pidgin or even the Hangouts extension.

Office documents/spreadsheets/etc.

This is another one of those “depends on what I’m doing, depends on the platform” kinds of things.

On Linux, the vast majority of the time I’m using LibreOffice for my day to day needs. In my opinion, it is still the best office suite out there, especially when it comes to LibreOffice Writer (Excel still has some advantages over Calc for spreadsheets, but that one’s getting closer).

I also use Google Docs extensively for writing, mostly on my Chromebook, but really just about anywhere (my phone, my Linux machines, my Windows work laptop). My wife and I do our monthly bills in a shared spreadsheet in Google Sheets, which, being a basic spreadsheet, works great.

The thing with Google Apps is the notion that for most non-power-user functions, it’s “good enough”. That seems like a weird approach to productivity applications, but if you think about it, 80%+ of users out there use probably only 10% of the functionality of things like Microsoft Office — so for the vast majority of what I do in docs and spreadsheets, Google’s offering is not only good enough, it is easier and cheaper.

Cloud data

I used to replicate my data locally across my personal machines. I had kind of a convoluted process for doing this involving cron jobs and scripting and it still necessitated my manually copying crap back and forth from one machine to another on a regular basis. This resulted in my losing/overwriting data on a number of occasions that led to my searching for a better solution.

So, after about a year of being a free plan user, I’ve been a Dropbox Pro subscriber for the last 4 or 5 years or so.

It’s well worth the money. It’s a lot of space for the price (1 TB), so I’m not constantly worried about bumping into that limit. The local client works perfectly on Linux (I’m looking at you, Google), so my data synchronizes effortlessly and real-time across all the devices on which I have it installed. The Android app automatically uploads any photos I take, so even if I snap a picture and then drop my phone in the lake, there’s still a chance that the photo I just snapped is safe in my Dropbox folder (assuming there was enough time for it to upload it, but seriously… it doesn’t take long at all).

So not only has Dropbox done well for me in the “replicate data across my machines” sense, but there have been occasions when it has really come to the rescue when I accidentally deleted something, or lost a file, or needed to get something back. Dropbox keeps a history which, albeit limited, is a lifesaver for those “oh crap, did I just delete that folder?” moments.

Local file management

I really like the power and flexibility of Nemo from the Cinnamon environment, but I find myself using the lightweight and very functional PCManFM more often.

PCManFM has what I like in a file manager:

  • There is an address bar that lets me type locations by default (this is something for which you have to dig to enable in Nemo, and isn’t even an option in some file managers).
  • It has a tabbed interface.
  • It lets you set a detailed list view with your choice of columns in the main pane.
  • It has both a tree view and a bookmarks/favorites view as options for the left pane.
  • It’s very stable and still lightweight enough to be fast and responsive.

It also handles external media well. If I have a CD in my optical drive, it shows the volume label and lets me browse it or eject it. If I have my thumb drive or e-reader plugged in via USB, it does the same thing. No fuss.

Torrent

I find it amusing that popular Linux distros still have direct download links listed on all kinds of mirrors worldwide. It makes me wonder, do people still download their Linux in this way????

I’ve never seen direct Linux distro ISO download speeds that could compare to the throughput I get via a well-seeded torrent.

And for that, I’ve discovered the torrent client I like the best is Deluge. It has a ton of great options to fine tune exactly how you want it to behave, and it’s reliable and easy to use. Good enough for me.

Image/photo editing

Heavy sigh here. For full-featured image and photo editing, my only real option in Linux is still GIMP. Not because it’s the best option available, it’s just the least worst option available.

I’ve been using GIMP for over a decade. And it’s still one of the most confoundingly counterintuitive, frustrating, and infuriating applications I’ve ever used. As much as I hate Adobe, if they came out with a paid version of Photoshop that worked natively on Linux, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

The alternative is to continue to wait for the people who make GIMP to stop going out of their way to be contrary and start making their application easier to use for people who use Photoshop.

I want to like GIMP. I really do. But even after all this time, I struggle to do what should be simple things with it that are literally just a click away in Photoshop.

Miscellany

Here are some of the other preferred applications for me which don’t need as much discussion. Like everything else in this post, I’ve included links to the projects or at least to the Wikipedia pages for these items for convenience.

What about your favorite applications?

I mentioned up top that I like reading about the preferred applications other folks have, because it always leads to me trying new things, and sometimes finding better solutions that I just didn’t know about before.

So share yours in comments! I’d love to read about them!

As always, thanks for reading!

– Trent

4 thoughts on “My Choices of Applications Lately

  1. Some differences from your list:

    1) Desktop Environment: I prefer MATE to XFCE. I’m surprised you didn’t even give it a mention. While XFCE is perfectly functional, I have always found it a little bit unsightly. I liked Gnome 2, scratched my head at Gnome 3, hate Unity. KDE is pretty but too resource-heavy and buggy (though I do use some native KDE apps, see below). If the MATE project imploded tomorrow I’d probably use Cinnamon and grit my teeth at the taskbar font rendering.

    2) CD/DVD burning: If it’s an iso, I just do it from commandline: growisofs -Z /dev/dvd=file.iso. If I’m authoring, I use K3B.

    3) CD ripping: Audex all the way, with Lame at the “extreme” preset.

    4) Tag editing: Kid3 has been my choice for many years. I’m used to it, it works well.

    5) Torrent: I don’t do enough torrenting to be picky about it. Whatever comes with the distro is most likely fine. These days that’s usually Transmission.

    6) Terminal: MATE Terminal.

    • I was a heavy KDE user back in the KDE 3 days. They completely lost me with KDE 4 and I never looked back. That said, I didn’t like Gnome 2 that much either; at the time it was too inflexible compared to what I was used to, so back then once KDE went off the deep end, I mostly used Fluxbox.

      Once Gnome 3 came out I still wasn’t exactly won over. Then Mint came out with Cinnamon and I liked that one, so I used it extensively. MATE doesn’t do anything for me, because it’s basically Gnome 2, which never wowed me any.

      Unity is a usability nightmare.

      I should probably mention, even though I use Asunder as my CD ripping tool, that’s just the front end. The back end uses CDPARANOIA to rip and LAME to encode.🙂

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