Ubuntu 9.10

I had a quick look at the new (9.10) release of Ubuntu Linux. Basically, I’d say it’s roughly comparable to Windows XP only with an even worse GUI. Seriously, why do they need a menu bar at the top of the screen when there’s already a menu bar within each application? It’s so irritating and wasteful of space. Also, there are far fewer applications available than on Windows XP.

I thought the new Ubuntu One cloud service might make it more attractive, but when I tried to access that from the File Browser I got an error saying it wasn’t compatible. That’s absolutely hopeless. Do they actually test any of this stuff before releasing it?

Linux on the desktop continues to be a huge disappointment. I know it’s free, but in this case you really do get what you pay for. I like the fact that the Ubuntu guys are trying to push desktop Linux, but surely someone can do better than this?

Good stuff on TV

BBC4 has been cranking out some great programmes recently. First there was Micro Men, a superb comedy drama about the personalities involved in the UK microcomputer industry in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s still got two days left on iPlayer so make sure you watch it now if you haven’t already.

Then there was Synth Britannia last Friday and Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany coming up this Friday; great BBC documentaries describing movements in which modern music explored the boundaries of pop, rock and sonic experimentation. If you’re interested in getting beyond the endless parade of mundane guitar rock and processed pop junk that most music seems to be nowadays in order to learn about how exciting and original music can really be, then watch these now. And if you like those then you can also watch the follow-up programmes showing live performances from some of the bands featured: Synth Britannia at the BBC and Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum.

And on another televisual note relating to the 80s, I’ve been watching Miami Vice. This isn’t the shallow nonsense that many seem to think; it’s actually groundbreaking television which focuses on the characters and combines intense drama and cool humour to make a TV programme that’s utterly compelling viewing. The scripts brilliantly highlight the ambiguity of all the characters involved, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the acting and directing are superb. With its loud guns, fast cars, crazy 80s fashions, a lovely textural synth soundtrack from Jan Hammer, well-chosen and well-deployed pop songs from the time, and Miami’s beautiful Art Deco architecture, Miami Vice is a heady and sumptuous journey into a thrilling world of crime. If you see the first season going cheap on DVD, buy it. It’s well worth checking out.

Edit: Oh, I meant to briefly mention a couple of current comedies too. The new season of Peep Show is as wonderful as ever, but I wasn’t so impressed with the first in the new season from Armstrong & Miller. I’m not sure whether it’s me that’s become less tolerant of comedy that’s a bit obvious, or whether their writing has declined in quality.

Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X

My lovely new netbook came with Windows 7 installed on it, so I took the opportunity to have a go on Windows 7 and see whether I’d want to keep it on there. It is initially quite compellingly sumptuous with all its transparency, blurring, and animation effects. After a while, though, I started to get a bit weary of these effects and felt they imparted an undesirable ‘toylike’ quality to things.

I’m surprised at how fiddly and annoying Windows 7 is to use, because I felt like I was being blocked whenever I tried to do things. When I tried to install Safari I had to keep clicking ‘yes’ buttons literally about half a dozen times – it’s no wonder people using Windows get so desensitized to these requesters (which can be dangerous, as that’s the kind of complacency that trojan writers can take good advantage of). I hate the constant intrusions of ‘are you sure you want to do that?’ messages when you’re just trying to navigate folders in Windows Explorer or change settings in the Control Panel. Then there are distracting popups which keep appearing all over the place; it seems you have to be careful where you put your mouse pointer otherwise your application windows get obscured by tooltips, things unexpectedly emerging out of the Taskbar, etc.

There’s so little UI consistency, too. It used to be simple when things had menus, so why nowadays have menus disappeared in some applications and been replaced by baffling banks of buttons and drop-downs? I don’t understand how that can be considered progress. I genuinely think that Windows 95 was, in many ways, a far better GUI than Windows 7 because it was so much simpler and more consistent.

As I pointed out last time I had a look at the Windows 7 beta, it’s also quite amusing to see Microsoft copying yet more ideas from Apple, now going so far as to turn the Taskbar into a slightly rubbish version of the Dock from Mac OS X.

Ultimately, then, it was a bit of a relief to remove Windows 7 from my netbook and introduce it to the superior elegance and simplicity of OS X instead.

My new Mac netbook

‘What’s that? A Mac netbook? But Apple don’t make netbooks!’ If that is what just went through your head then you’re right… so that’s why I bought a Dell netbook and hacked it to run OS X.

I bought a Dell Mini 9 with 2 GB RAM and a 16 GB SSD drive for this purpose. Dell don’t make these any more because they’re following the trend to make netbooks bigger, more powerful, and more expensive (thus totally negating the whole point of these types of computers). The nearest equivalent is a Dell Mini 10v which, despite being larger, actually has a smaller screen resolution, so I didn’t want that. The Mini 9 is very tiny and light and has a decent 1024×600 display, which is just what I wanted, so I bought one off eBay. (To my surprise, the process of buying it off eBay went very smoothly. Perhaps you only get problems with people selling synthesizers on eBay, not with people selling computers.)

The Mini 9 is a particularly good machine for running OS X on because, by some lucky fluke, all the hardware in it is supported by OS X. It’s still complicated to get OS X on it, though, because OS X won’t install on anything other than an Apple Mac with Apple firmware rather than a PC BIOS. Therefore you have to fool OS X into thinking it’s running on a machine with Apple firmware, and there are several ways of doing this. I followed these excellent instructions for installing OS X Leopard. This guide is on the MyDellMini site, which is an excellent resource for running OS X on Mini 9s and Mini 10v’s. I didn’t install Snow Leopard as there still seem to be some issues getting that working perfectly on a Mini 9, so I’ll upgrade to that when there’s more support for installing it on netbooks.

The instructions were close to perfect. I had a moment of panic when rebooting after the upgrade to 10.5.8 in which the machine said it couldn’t find the kernel and refused to boot. However, this thread on the MyDellMini forum explained that there’s a bug in the patching process which puts a typo in the boot preferences, so that was easily fixed once I knew that. Then I was able to boot into OS X and start using it.

Since that point I’ve only encountered a couple of problems. The first was that OS X doesn’t expect to find itself running on a display as shallow as 600 pixels high, so occasionally you come across a program which displays something that disappears off the bottom of the screen. I’ve only had this problem with one of the panes in System Preferences, but it was annoying. Thankfully there’s an easy solution, because OS X has the ability to scale applications up and down in size by setting a system preference, so by typing the following into the Terminal I was able to tell System Preferences to scale down to 90 percent of its normal size, and this fixed the problem nicely:

defaults write com.apple.SystemPreferences AppleDisplayScaleFactor 0.9

The second problem was that certain things misbehaved after putting the computer to sleep and waking it up again, and also it was hanging when I tried to reboot it. The most serious sleep misbehaviour was that sound stopped working after sleep and wouldn’t come back until the machine was rebooted. I fixed this by booting into Safe Mode, running the NetbookInstaller application again, and fiddling about with the settings. I ticked ‘Install old mirror friendly GMA kext’ and unticked ‘Enable Remote CD’ and ‘Disable hibernation and remove sleep file’ and rebooted. After rebooting the screen resolution was wrong, so I rebooted again and it’s been fine since then, and the sleep and reboot problems have gone away.

Another issue I’ve had is lack of storage, but I deleted some unnecessary applications and printer drivers, which helped. I’ve also discovered an excellent application called Monolingual which strips out unnecessary languages and other bits and pieces from your whole system, which frees up a lot of space. Storage is always going to be a concern when you’ve only got 16 GB available, but I seem to be largely on top of it now.

Software aside, one problem some people have with the Mini 9 is the size of its keyboard, as it’s a lot smaller than a regular keyboard. I can see it being a possible problem if you have large hands, but I think it’s more just a case of getting used to it, really. I’m getting the hang of mine after two days of use. So now I’ve got a lovely little Mac netbook and I’m very pleased with it. OS X certainly runs very well on it, and everything is nice and snappy. System Profiler shows the model as being an ‘Inspiron’.

So how much of a Mac is it? I’d say it’s about 75 percent Mac, as it has all the benefits of OS X and Mac applications, but obviously it’s lacking the niceness of Apple hardware, and the hacking process certainly detracts significantly from the ‘it just works’ factor! Hopefully Apple will impress the world with some sort of netbook-class machine at some point, but until then I’m very happy with my Dell Mini Mac.