The Linux Netbook Experiment – Part 3

Perhaps my idea of taking a SUSE Linux Enterprise netbook and seeing how effective it can be as an open-source creative workstation wasn’t such a good one. But, to be honest, it’s going fairly well.

When I first got my HP Mini 1503, I was appalled by the tiny text, choppy internet video playback, lack of any available software, and general uselessness.

That was three days ago. Since then, I’ve learned a lot.

1) To avoid the feeling of going blind when I used the default display settings on the 10.1″ screen, I changed two things: the font size (under Control Center – Appearance – Fonts – set all to 13 point), and the display brightness (Screensaver – Power Management – On Battery Power – Reduce Backlight Brightness – uncheck the check box). Websites still have to be manually magnified with ctrl++, and I’m sure the brighter display setting drains the battery faster, but at least the OS interface is comfortable now.

2) The seeming lack of available applications stemmed from the fact that, during initial setup, the computer had prompted me to sync with Novell Customer Center. Since the wireless internet hadn’t been set up yet, this process failed. Once I did this step manually, I gained access to a bunch of useful apps.

In Linux, programs aren’t installed the way they are under Mac or Windows: first, you find a “repository” that contains the software you want, and install that, and then you can go into the repository (which acts sort of like a catalog or index), and select the applications you want to actually install on your system. Linux SUSE Enterprise is a close cousin of OpenSUSE (another flavor of Linux), so the repositories for OpenSUSE work fairly well with it. Unfortunately, as I learned about this process, I wound up installing so much garbage that my system started crashing, and I had to do a system recovery. About five times.

3) The biggest obstacle I encountered was dealing with “restricted formats.” Linux is open-source, and in order to stay free, it can’t contain any copyrighted intellectual property: such as the code required to play common video files. In theory, installing a media player and associated codec libraries would be easy. It isn’t.

After spending about two days following directions from various forums, and struggling to install the interdependent bits of code that would allow me to do something as simple as play an MP4 file, I stumbled across the work of Mr. Petersen, who has thoughtfully compiled a repository specifically for SLED machines. He has spent a lot of time on this, and (quite reasonably) requests a $20 donation to access the fruits of his labors. It is absolutely worth it!

Within 5 minutes of the Paypal transaction, I successfully installed the full version of ffmpeg (the software that most media players use to code and decode video, which I had previously only been able to get to play the audio portion of MP4 video), and a hassle-free VLC media player, along with the Cinelerra video editor that I had been looking for, the Scribus page layout app, and Blender 3D, all of which worked perfectly. Finally, I was able to work with conventional video files!

While I was vainly trying to get multimedia working, I did have some fun working with one of the most distinctive features of Linux: the command line interface. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about this, but the power and granular control of a good old-fashioned terminal interface appeals to me greatly.

My next challenge will be getting GIMP – the open-source equivalent to Photoshop – to work. I’ve tried to install it twice, and both times it’s loaded but fails to open. I’ll also be test-driving some HTML editors and an FTP program or two. My goal is to be able to do as much work as possible on this little computer, using exclusively open-source software. So far, so good!

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3 thoughts on “The Linux Netbook Experiment – Part 3

  1. Would you suggest that the total number of hours you have spent working on this so far would have, had you been doing paid work, earned you less than the price of Windows 7?

    • Your comment made me chuckle. When any Windows or Mac computer can effortlessly deal with multimedia files, install image and video editing software, etc., it can seem (and feel) ass-backwards to spend a bunch of time trying to wrestle an underpowered, undersized Linux netbook into jumping through the same hoops. But, that’s why I’m calling this an experiment. Lots of people have spent lots of (unpaid) time developing these open-source software platforms and applications. I want to know if they’re ready for primetime, and whether it’s feasible to do pro-level work with them on a system that practically fits in a jacket pocket.

      The creative industries in general tend to be tool-obsessed. Always looking for the bigger, better, faster gadget/app with more features is the norm. I’m still obsessing over tools, but I’m taking the opposite approach: how much can I do with the absolute minimum? Or, to take a sociological approach, how low have the barriers to entry fallen? Would it be possible for some kid, in the middle of nowhere, who can’t afford a “real” camera, a “real” computer, or “real” software – but who has talent – to do amazing work?

      Right now, I can tell you that Scribus and Inkscape SVG are flat-out as good as InDesign and Illustrator. Some minor features are missing (for example, vertical alignment within text boxes), but if you want to do design or illustration work, it’s a done deal. Blender 3D has already been used for animated films that rival the output of Pixar and Dreamworks. I still can’t get GIMP to work, but the consensus seems to be that it’s a plausible substitute for Photoshop. I haven’t gotten into Cinellera yet, but I’m very curious to see how it compares to established video editors. I’m also hoping that the newly-open-source Lightworks package will eventually be made available for Linux.

      This has been a very long-winded answer, but the bottom line is that, for me, it’s not about whether this is the most efficient use of my time; it’s about assessing the state of the art, and getting an early look at what the next generation of creatives are likely to be using and developing.

  2. In that case, it’s a good thing you’re doing. I’ll continue to follow with interest to see whether you manage to create a system that does everything you need. I suppose I forgot to include, along with Windows 7, the high cost of software like CS5.

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