Saturday, 28 November 2009

Linux Distro Review 2009!

I have spent the last week trying out ten of the most popular Linux distros both as live CD's and as installed systems on both desktop and laptop computers. Here is a brief summary of my findings so far:

The distribution with the best accessibility out of the box was without doubt Adriane Knoppix 6.2 which is a special edition of Knoppix aimed at visually impaired users. It provides a simple menu driven console session by default using the espeak voices with the SBL console screenreader. This provides a choice of popular activities such as internet browsing, sending e-mails and file-management etc. If the user wants to use standard GUI tools then they can start an LXDE desktop session using Orca. You are then able to navigate the menus and use most of the GTK based applications and Compiz can be used as a screen magnifier if your video card supports 3D. However, if you know what you are doing Fedora, Open Solaris, OpenSuse and Ubuntu all offer Orca, Magnification and Braille support as long as you are able to enable and configure it yourself.

The best looking distribution was a close call between Fedora, Mandriva and Open Solaris, which all had very eye-catching, modern looking desktop and window colour schemes. I felt that Fedora 12 just pipped the others as everything just seemed to work together really well: the icons, window borders and the wallpaper etc. This is of course the most subjective judgement and isn't really of much interest to visually impaired users.

The best distribution for beginners is still Ubuntu 9.10, although Fedora, Mandriva and OpenSuse are all catching up very quickly. The killer feature is Ubuntu's hardware detection and compatibility which just seems to be able to handle any hardware I can throw at it. It also offers to download multimedia codecs for you if you try to play an unsupported format, which seems to be one of the hardest things for beginners to get their head around.

Puppy Linux 4.31 came top in three different categories: best live distribution, best performance on old computers and best distribution for netbooks. Puppy is a very small distro (about 100MB) that runs entirely in the ram. It provides a wide range of desktop tools and works on a wide range of hardware. As a live distribution it is much faster than any other distro, and it allows you to remove the CD once booted, which allows you to burn CD's or play DVD's etc. Puppy supports all popular multimedia formats out of the box and even plays commercial DVD's. Because it runs in the ram it is also excellent on old computers and netbooks where system resources are minimal. It supports most popular netbook models out of the box and is the only distro I would ever consider using on a netbook. If it was accessible it would also have been the best overall distribution and my favourite distribution.

The distribution which wins the title of worst all-round distribution is GnuSense 2.3 , although this is primarily because it only includes open-source software that is free in the strictest sense of the word. This means that you get very few hardware drivers and no restricted multimedia codecs either installed or provided in the repositories. While this may be the purest distribution around it means in practise there will be many things you cannot do without a lot of fiddling.

OpenSuse 11.2 takes the title for best distribution for power-users and best all-round distribution. Without doubt this distribution has the best selection of tools installed by default, very good accessibility support once installed and configured and its most impressive feature is it compatibility with Microsoft networks which would make it the only choice for someone wanting to integrate fully with a Windows network. OpenSuse has come on a long way since last time I tried it and it would have also been my personal favourite but for one feature it doesn't currently offer.

So my personal favourite (as a sighted user) is Ubuntu 9.10! It provides a very easy to use system, a good selection of desktop packages out of the box and of course excellent hardware detection and support. However it does not provide the number of tool and packages that OpenSuse provides by default and the single feature that makes it my favourite over OpenSuse is that you can easily remaster Ubuntu using the Ubuntu Customisation Kit or Remastersys, while OpenSuse only offers an online distribution build service which you are not allowed to distribute without removing all the logos etc. For me, being able to remaster a distribution, either for your own use or for public distribution is absolutely essential. This is because I don't want to have to install a system on multiple computers and have to configure them each manually, and it is the easiest and most efficient way to create a new distro. If you don't want to do this i would strongly suggest you consider using OpenSuse 11.2!

I haven't compared these distribution to Vinux or Debian, because I don't want to be accused of bias, but if anyone would like compare what Vinux and/or Debian have to offer then please post your reviews to the mailing list.

Last minute addition!

I have just had a look at the latest Linux Mint 8.0 which is based on Ubuntu 9.10 - obviously it uses pulseaudio and has the same kind of problems as Ubuntu 9.10 as regards accessibility - although I am planning to do an experiment and see if remastering from the live CD with pulseaudio disabled allows me to make a remaster which uses alsa by default. I will let everyone know if this works - or whether this causes other problems - the only problem I have noticed so far is the master volume control doesn't work - but alsamixer does anyway. Apart from that Linux Mint has two distinct advantages over Ubuntu - firstly it comes with all of the restricted codecs installed by default so mp3, flash and wma files etc should just play (I don't think it will play encrypted DVD's) and secondly its cool minty theme of black and green just looks so good it makes a mac look plain! So if you want to recommend Linux to any sighted friends or relatives I would recommend Linux Mint 8.0 as a real showcase for linux - the hardware just works, you can play all your existing multimedia files and it looks amazing! I have just installed it on a machine at work with a dual monitor setup and everything just worked out of the box and it just looks so cool.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

To be or not to be?

On the 28th November Vinux will be one year old! We have made it through the most difficult period as many projects fail within the first 3 to 6 months. I think we have made reasonable progress in this time although there is still a long way to go before we have a stable, easy to use product. However, as always I like to evaluate everything I do and try to identify strengths and weaknesses, in order to improve things. The first few releases of Vinux (Vibuntu) were very easy to install and configure, but the speech was unstable and unresponsive. When we moved to Debian the stablility and responsiveness of the speech improved but at the cost of less hardware compatibility and a more complex installation process. More recently the release of a CLI editon brought even more stability and responsiveness in the form of speakup, although this was aimed more at intermediate and advanced users. I am hoping that the switch to Debian live-helper from remastersys will bring us improvements to the installation process and the performance of the live CD in the near future. So for me this is a time to step back from the development process and try to get an overview of what we have achieved and where we are going.

The first question has to be is there really a need for Vinux, and if so how well does Vinux meet those needs in comparison with other solutions? So do we really need a distribution aimed at visually impaired users, or should we be encouraging the big developers to make their distributions accessible to all? I personally think that it would be better for everyone if the big distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSuse did take the accessibility issues more seriously, but the reality is that like their commercial counterparts their main market is the sighted mainsteam user. So at least in the short term it seems a Vinux type distribution is required especially for new users. I suspect when and if Linux gets into the education system, then they will be forced to cater for students with a variety of disabilities and the support contracts will make it worth their while to meet these needs. Of course the strongest argument for an open source solution is the extortionate price of accessibility software for a group who are generally economically disadvantaged, even more so in the third world.

So assuming that a specialist open source distribution is needed at least in the short term, then how does Vinux compare with other solutions. Well there aren't really many distributions that are targeted at VI users, the only active project that springs to mind is Adrianne Knoppix, the Oralux project was abandoned although there are one or two localised distributions for example 'Blindbuntu' which is a Czech language distribution. However Adrianne Knoppix takes a very different approach to Vinux. The last time I checked it provided a menu driven console interface, a little bit like INX and GRML. This provides a series of choices for sending e-mails, editing text or surfing the internet. In fact I think the LinuxSpeaks project takes a similar approach. I have tried to avoid this approach with the CLI edition because although I want it to be as easy as possible to use, I want users to learn to use the console by typing commands and navigating ncurses interfaces etc, Similarly in the GUI edition I want everything to work out of the box, but I want the user to learn how to use Linux in the process. Once they are confident with how Vinux works, ideally they should be able to move onto any Gnome based distribution and configure it to their tastes. So I expect Vinux users to be tourists who will use Vinux to get their feet wet, and open the doors to the wider Linux world.

So now comes the difficult question: Just how many people have tried Vinux and how many people are actually using it? It seems that quite a lot of people have tried Vinux if the web statistics are to be believed. There have been approaching 4000 downloads of Vinux through the Softpedia portal and several thousand through the officail website. However many of these downloads will be the same people downloading the new versions as they are released. So for the sake of argument let's say that at least 1000 people have tried Vinux. Of those many, say 50% will find it too difficult to use and go back to Windows. Lets say another 25% manage to get it working but wouldn't consider installing it to their hard drive, but maybe use it as a live CD or USB recovery stick etc occasionally. Of the remaining 25% I imagine half of them (12.5%) tried to install it but ran into problems of some sort - either difficultly partitioning the drive(s) or hardware incompatibility e.g. unsupported wifi chipset.

This leaves us with 12.5% who might have been able to install it to their computers without any difficultly or hardware problems. Of which I imagine at least half would only see it as a backup system or novelty learning tool, not a primary working system. So there may be 6.25% who do consider Vinux to be a serious working as an alternate or additional tool, of which maybe a fifth may actually ditch Windows and use Vinux and/or Linux as their primary operating system, in other words about 1.25% of the original estimated 1000 users: Twelve and a half people in the world actually using Vinux as their main OS. (This only makes sense of course if we assume one of these users is either a midget or extremely fat). Ironically I am both short and fat, so perhaps that accounts for the mathematical anomaly. Which only leaves eleven.

So based on those purely theoretical and fairly conservative estimates is it worth while me putting in all of the energy and time it takes to make Vinux? Sometimes I feel like I am doing this for an imaginary audience, and no one is really interested in Vinux or Linux for that matter. In the UK and the USA it seems that Microsoft rules supreme and no-one outside of a Star Trek convention has ever heard of Linux let alone tried it. I also get frustrated at my own lack of knowledge and skills: I am self-taught, as you can probably tell and make progress by just trying things and seeing if they work. More often that not it doesn't but when it does I get a great sense of achievement. However, because of my lack of knowledge I can't solve the really big problems like the stability of speech-dispatcher or the inaccessibility of some applications etc. So sometimes I get very frustrated when I just can't seem to make any progress. It is at times like this that I sometimes question why I am doing this. My life would be a lot simpler and more relaxing if I didn't make Vinux. I could just use whichever distro I fancied, or make my own customised distro for myself, or even a mainstream distribution for sighted users - that would be so easy to do, because putting together a distribution without having to take account of accessibility would be a walk in the park! On the other hand then it would just be another distribution amongst many and there is no reason why mine would be any more attractive than anyone elses. Of course I could get really lazy and just use a distro out of the box, install what ever applications I wanted and configure it and leave it at that, but I do like to twiddle, and it was frustration at having to reconfigure a system everytime you upgraded or tried a new distribution that got me into making remasters in the first place. The first remaster ever made was a bumper edition of Ubuntu using the Ubuntu Customisation Kit, and the first one I released to the public was DingoPlus, a version of Puppy Linux 4.0 modified for use on the Asus Eeepc 701 - which I am still using today!

So it is over to you - how many people are actually using Vinux as a serious operating system? Am I wasting my time? Do we really need Vinux? What is the best alternative currently? How does Vinux compare to Windows and Mac? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life and was there a third shooter on the grassy knoll? I am planning to have a break from Vinux development this weekend and have a play with lots of different distributions and then write a review of their pros and cons from both a sighted and VI perspective. A penny for your thoughts!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Debian Live Helper v Remastersys!

I have spent this weekend trying out the Debian live-helper package this weekend. It is the official package for creating Debian live CD's and is used to produce all of the different versions: Gnome, KDE, Xfce, Lxde and several CLI versions. It can provide a standard Debian installer or a Live CD installer which copies the live system to the hard drive. This tool provides a lot of options not available with remastersys such as a choice of syslinux or grub (on the CD), several pre-defined package lists for a Gnome desktop or KDE desktop etc. It allows you to pretty much change any aspect of the Live CD. The one thing is does not allow you to do easily is to change the user settings, to provide accessibility out of the box. In order to do this you have to boot the iso, make the changes manually and then copy the user area to /etc/skel, which is what I already have to do with remastersys. So in this sense there is no advantage over remastersys, as the changes either have to be done manually or by a script anyway. So on the one hand the Debian Live helper offers a lot more options than remastersys, but still requires a manual configuration. So the easy option would be to stick with remastersys because the script is already well developed and relatively simple to use. However in the long run, once the config files are created for Debian Live Helper it would become a lot easier to use and offer many improvements in functionality etc. This is a tough one! On the one hand I really want to go with the simplest option, but if I could get the Debian Live Helper configuration sorted out this would give a more powerful and sustainable solution. Maybe I will persevere with Live Helper for a few more days and see if I can get the user settings sorted out...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Vinux 2.1 Leviathan Edition!

I am happy to announce the release of Vinux 2.1 Leviathan! This is a monstrous hybrid of the Vinux CLI max edition, the standard GUI edition and a wide range of additional applications including Open Office 3.0, the Evolution mail client, the Inkscape vector graphics package, the Scribus desktop publishing tools, the Bluefish webpage editor, the Gambas 2 IDE as well as much more. Obviously not all of these extra tools are accessible to speech/braille users, but partially sighted users can access them with the screen magnifier. This is a very large iso (1.7GB) so you will need a reasonably fast broadband connection to download it. The URL's are:

I didn't originally intend to release this for public use, it started out as an attempt to create a personalised version of Vinux for my own use. Then as it came together I began to think that other people may want to use it as well! I created it using a hastily modified version of the CLI build script which starts with the standard 2.0 GUI version, adds all of the CLI tools and utilities included in the CLI 'max' version and well as a large number of useful GUI applications that I use on a regular basis. I then had to do a little manual configuration before remastering it to DVD. It turned out to be an interesting little project that I managed to complete in one weekend. Now the hard bit - merging the CLI and GUI build scripts so that it is possible to make either version or even a hybrid GUI/CLI edition using the same script...