Why I do not like Apple computers and Mac OS X

Since a few months, I got an Apple Powerbook Pro from my employer. It’s not one of those new Intel based machines, but it still has a G4 1.5 Ghz PowerPC processor, and 1 GB of RAM and it runs Mac OX 10.4 Tiger. This is my first Mac. Before, I always worked with DOS, Windows and Linux.

Mac fans always say it’s the best and most intuitive OS on the market today. I do not agree with this opinion at all, as I found some things in Mac OS X very unintuitive compared to Windows, KDE and Gnome desktops.

Let’s take for example the dock. When you have several instances of the same application open (e.g. different terminal windows), you have to click for a second on the icon, to get the list of all open instances. I only discovered this by accident. I think the Windows, KDE and Gnome way, to automatically show the list of open instances when you click normally on the item in the taskbar, is much more natural. I have the impression that Exposé is actually only a “hack” to fix this unintuiveness: actually, in KDE and Gnome I never felt the need for somethiing like Exposé, and I do not miss it at all when I’m back in Linux from a Mac OS X session.

About Exposé itself: actually it was not intuitive to find. I had to search on the web to actually learn how I could activate it. If I had never read about it before on the Internet, maybe I would not even have discovered it. Same with the show desktop functonality, which was much harder to find that in KDE and Gnome, which have a visible button on the panel to activate it. Another functionality which I often use in KDE and Gnome is locking my session. Again, I had to search on the web how I could get a similar functionality in Mac OS X, as there is no such option in the menus.

When you close certain application windows, the window is closed, but the application stays active in memory, and are not remove from the dock. To close them completely, you have to close them by using the top level menu. I think this is strange too, as people could be surprised that over some time, their system becomes slower and slower, because applications they started once, are still eating up memory.

Typical Mac OS X browsers (Safari and Camino) have the habbit of saving all files (such as PDF files) on the desktop. It’s extremely annoying, because after an hour of web browsing, my desktop is cluttered with files which do not interest my anymore. And did you know that tabbed browsing in Safari, is actually a configurable option, which is disactivated by default?

Installing software is sometimes confusing too. Sometimes you get a real installer program like you have in Windows, where you choose the drive where you want to install, and several options. Other times, you get an image which contains the application which you just have to drag to the Applications folder. And sometimes it contains a complete directory, which has to be dragged to Applications. Especially the difference between these last two cases is not always clear. I already ended up just copying the application executable, while in fact I had to copy the whole directory to Applications. And in the beginning, I just had the downloaded image file on my desktop and started the application from the mounted image. I did not even know that I had to copy it to drag the executable file to Applications.

Actually I think Mac OS X also lacks a nice application menu. Most of the time, I end up starting applications by typing their name in Spotlight or Quicksilver (which of course means you have to know the application’s name first), but then again I prefer just browsing a standard, well structured application menu like in KDE and Gnome. I see the fact that things like Spotlight and QuickSilver are must haves to launch applications in Mac OS X, as a proof that things are not that well organised by default.

And what annoys me the most of all: the keyboard. Apple keyboards use a lay-out which is not completely the same as normal PC keyboards. Especially the Belgian keyboards are a disaster. A lot of special characters used in a console (for example: { } | @ ^ [ ] ~ ), have to be called with the Alt-Gr key on normal Belgian PC keyboards. Most of these characters, do not even appear at all on a Belgian Apple keyboard! To type a | on a Belgian Apple keyboard, you have to type Ctrl+Alt+l. {, [, } and ] can also be typed with some key combinations with Ctrl, Alt ( and ). And the ~? I don’t even know yet how to type this one. The keyboard on my Powerbook does not have a Delete key, it only has a Backspace key. And I learned that in my preferred shell (which is iTerm, as the default Apple Terminal does not seem to have tabs), it sometimes worked as a Delete key instead of a Backspace key. With some Googling, I could change this. Another problem in iTerm was that the Alt key was not working like I expected in irssi, so again I had to google how to change that. And now the best of all: since I fixed the behaviour of the Alt key for irssi, the special combinations like Ctrl-Alt-l to get the pipe symbol | does not work anymore in iTerm! *Sigh*… And knowing that on a normal PC (either Windows or Linux) all this works out of the box without any configuration…

So most of the time I use Linux on my Apple machine where I have configured my keyboard as a classic PC keyboard (also not a perfect solution, as I have to type all these special characters blind now). Unfortunately not a lot of distributions do support PowerPC anymore these days, such as my preferred distro Mandriva. I installed Ubuntu, but only shortly after my installation, Ubuntu also decided not to officially support PowerPC anymore. It will continue to live as long as the community maintains it. I guess Debian will be my best bet in the future…

smb4k, Amarok and Kontact

I was having fun with some upstream problems tonight.

First, I reported the two issues I had encountered earlier when testing smb4k: it still uses the deprecated smbfs instead of cifs by default, and it does not get the right character set from your locale settings.

Another problem which annoyed me already for some time: when I put new files in the directory defined in my Amarok collection, they did not show up. I asked about the problem on Amarok’s IRC channel, and eeanm helped finding me the real culprit. My files are on a seperate file system, mounted as /mnt/Music. Apparently, Amarok uses the directory’s modification time to detect changes, but when you change something in /mnt/Music, the modification time of the directory Music apparently does not change when it’s a mount point. When you put something in a subdirectory of the mount point, it should work. And I was using the noatime mount option on the XFS file system. I removed that, and then when putting a file in a subdirectory of /mnt/Music, Amarok detected the file automagically! Thanks eeanm!

And another disturbing problem: Kontact (well, actually KMail) is unstable on IMAP. It has always been like that. In the latest versions, it became more stable, but I still have it occasionally hanging when opening an IMAP folder (changing folders is enough to fix this), or an occasional crash. Unfortunately the backtraces are unusable, for example:

0x00002afc8171c2e1 in nanosleep () from /lib64/libc.so.6
#0  0x00002afc8171c2e1 in nanosleep () from /lib64/libc.so.6
#1  0x00002afc8171c0e9 in sleep () from /lib64/libc.so.6
#2  0x00002afc7ca649bc in KCrash::startDrKonqi ()
   from /usr/lib64/libkdecore.so.4
#3  0x00002afc7ca77c34 in KCrash::defaultCrashHandler ()
   from /usr/lib64/libkdecore.so.4
#4  0x00002afc816b6da0 in QWidget::setUpdatesEnabled () from /lib64/libc.so.6
#5  0x0000000000000000 in ?? ()

These kind of occasional, apparently random crashes, are the reason why we need something like apport.

Anyway, it’s a known problem that IMAP and KMail do not go well together. Some SuSE developers finally started taking a look at the various IMAP problems in KMail. Unfortunately, too late for Mandriva 2007.1 :-(

Instead Mandriva KDE maintainers decided to focus on KDE 4, but IMO this was much too early, and I would be surprised if KDE 4 will really be stable and feature complete enough to have it as default in 2008.0. Fortunately, several of my earlier reported KDE problems are fixed now, but other problems still seem to be ignored completely without any clear reason. Oh well, I’ve reported them, and I decided not to continue restating these issues again and again; I’m a bit tired of it. I’ll wait for final release now, and then start focussing on suggesting improvements for Mandriva 2008.

Mandriva 2007.1: KDE vs. Gnome

Mandriva 2007.1 RC3 is out since this weekend, so we are really near the final release now. If you have some spare time, and some bandwidth, please grab one of the ISO images or start a network install via FTP with the boot.iso and report your findings!

After all the Gnome testing I did for Mandriva 2007.1, I thought it was time to do some ultimate testing with KDE. Actually, I’m very deceived: where Mandriva 2007.1 is very polished, the default KDE install is terrible. Really, not just bad, but plain terrible. Here’s an overview.

  • Image viewers:: Finally, it seems kuickshow has been removed from the default KDE installation. There is still gwenview, kview and showfoto (digikam) though. KView is really superfluous. GWenview does all what KView does, and more. Why keep it?
  • VoIP applications: It seems the marketing team has decided that VoIP will be the killer application for 2007.1. Great, but why does KDE need 3 VoIP applications?! There is KPhone, OpenWengo and Ekiga. Ekiga is without doubt the best Gnome VoIP application, but it really does not belong in KDE. OpenWengo is there, probably because of some agreement between Mandriva and the Wengo company. It seems like the best free (as in free speech) KDE VoIP application for now, as it’s actively developed. KPhone is not a dead project, but still I have rarely heard of it, and I’m wondering if there are really enough people using it. I never saw somebody on the cooker mailing list reporting about it or opening a bug report, which gives me the impression that this application is not very well tested in Mandriva. Why not just go with Wengophone? Wengophone can connect to any SIP service, so that does not seem to be a valid reason.

    Update 02 april 2007: The default VoIP application choice has changed today: KPhone is no longer installed by default in KDE, neither is Ekiga (excellent!). Skype was added for powerpack installs. Although I think Skype + Wengophone is still too much for Powerpack, the current situation is a huge improvement.
  • IRC and other network applications: Mandriva now installs all of kdenetwork by default. This includes the unmaintained and feature-lacking IRC client ksirc, as the program ksig. ksig seems to be a manager of signatures for your e-mail client. But: it does not seem to work together with KMail, KDE’s own e-mail client, as KMail seems to do its own signature management. I do not know a lot of people who are using so many different signatures that they need a seperate management application, and if it does not work together with KDE’s own mail client, I do not see why this is interesting to have. On the other hand, Konversation is also installed by default (while it still has not been moved to Main repository, which is also a problem). Konversation, contrarely to ksirc, and Kopete (which is also installed by default) is a great IRC client. So now we have two (actually even three counting Kopete) applications which can do IRC: again too much duplication.

    Update 02 april 2007: Today, first Konversation was removed (strange decision), now it has been added back. We are back at square one here. Actually the real problem here is not rpmsrate, it is task-kde which is the culprit, because it requires the kdenetwork metapackage, which installs ksirc and ksig by default, although they do not have high enough priority in rpmsrate. And Konversation still has not been moved to main :-(
  • Office suites: Mandriva 2007.1 installs two complete office suites in KDE. There’s the obligatory OpenOffice.org, but in 2007.1 we also see the complete KOffice suite now. That means two word processors, two spreadsheet applications, two presentation packages, etc… And that while KOffice are not very good in importing MS Office documents, and generally have a less extensive feature set. In 2007.0 there was the much better choice to install OpenOffice.org by default, and only a few of the KOffice applications which do not overlap too much with OpenOffice.org, like Krita, Kivio and Kexi.

    Update 02 april 2007: All of KOffice will not be installed anymore from now on. This issue has been fixed.
  • New kicker lay-out: The new kicker lay-out is very unhandy. The height of the panel has been reduced, so that there’s only one line available for open windows in the task list. Unfortunately a lot of space is wasted with four virtual desktops in the kicker bar. Together with 4 application icons and 4 items active by default in the system tray, this leaves way too less space for open windows. Already starting from three open windows on a 1024×768 monitor, the task list becomes too crowded to be pleasant. When changing the height of the panel back to the normal size, the Mandriva button becomes too big, that it’s not very beautiful anymore. Already several people asked on the cooker list how they can change the icon back to the previous one: it’s clear that this question will come back only more the moment Mandriva 2007.1 is released. A graphical configuration option was not possible for this release, due to a lack of time. A huge mistake if you ask me.
  • Fax programs: Actually this is also a problem present in the default Gnome installation, but in Gnome, this problem is not really visible, as it seems there are not graphical Gnome fax programs installed. In KDE this is worse: kdeprintfax, kfaxviewer and kfaw clutter the Office menu. This is especially visible when you use Discovery menus. As not a lot of people are using their computer as a fax today (most people don’t even have the hardware, either because they don’t have a modem, either because most modems are softmodems which do not work in Linux), this should not be installed by default.

    Update 02 april 2007: KFax will not be installed anymore from now on. Still there is kdeprintfax in default installation, which is still to much in my opinion.
  • Default digicam application: When you plug in a digital camera, you get a window asking what you want to do. The first and by default selected action is “Open in a new window”. Unfortunately this option does not work: it only shows you an empty Konqueror window. You have to manually choose the second option to open it in Digikam. But if you’ve never started Digikam before, even this option does not work flawlessly: digikam is opened, and asks where you want to create your picture collection, but it does not start the import dialog, like it does correctly the second time.
  • KDE file chooser opens in .mdk-folders: By default all KDE applications open and save their documents in /home/username/.mdk-folders/Documents. This is highly confusing, as this directory is not visible in for example Konqueror. There is actually the /home/username/Documents link to that directory. This is the name which should be shown in the KDE file chooser to not confuse users. This problem has already been reported months ago, but has been ignored

    Update 02 april 2007: This issue is currently under investigation by the Mandriva developers. Let’s hope for a fix soon.
  • Default settings in smb4k: KDE includes smb4k, a network browser for the SMB protocol, which enables users to easily connect to Windows shares. This is a fantastic application but unfortunately its default settings are not ideal: first of all, it still mounts the shares with the smbfs file system, which is obsolete now. It should be configured to use the actively maintained CIFS instead. And then I had charset problems. Connecting from a Mandriva 2007.1 system to another Mandriva 2007.1 system, both using UTF-8 locales, all special characters were lost. I had to manually configure smb4k to also use the UTF-8 file system.
  • Too much Gnome applications: We talked about Ekiga being installed by default in KDE, but that’s not all. There is also Gnucash (KMyMoney apparently is a good alternative), gnome-media (just to have a simple sound recorder, but how many people really use that?) and all of Gnome’s accessibility applications like Orca and Dasher. I can understand that one or two Gnome applications could be useful in KDE too, here it seems Mandriva is really exaggerating. For example Gnome does not include any KDE application by default (and one QT application: Scribus).
  • Klamav: Mandriva still includes the Klamav on-demand anti-virus program in KDE. This is really useless. Not only does it integrate bad with the back-end clamav (as Klamav does not use the virus databases downloaded by Clamav’s Freshclam, futhermore such an application is not very useful in a Linux desktop. Clamav is great for virus scanning on your mail gateway, but an anti-virus application for Linux itself is not necessary for now.

    Update 02 april 2007: Klamav will not be installed by default anymore.

Personally I use both KDE and Gnome, and always encouraged people to test the two, and see what they like better (if they really have any preference). Both have their advantages and disadvantages. But for now, I’ll be recommending Gnome to new Mandriva users. Mandriva’s KDE install is currently too bad to be recommended to new users. Mandriva’s Gnome installation on the other hand, is not perfect, but already very polished.

Dell to offer pre-installed Linux computers soon

It seems that Dell is actively working now on a selection of computers pre-installed with Linux. They were already offering Linux on selected servers and workstations, but now some desktop and laptop models will become available too. They did not decide yet which distributions they will support, but they seem to be following the healthy principle that the distribution is not the most important thing, but rather hardware support by free software drivers included in the upstream kernel is what users want. That means that the hardware will work out of the box in any distribution. Let’s hope their efforts will be rewarded by the community, and that other manufacturers will follow soon. It will strengthen the pressure on all kind of computer parts manufacturers to make sure their boards are supported by Linux.

Seeing how much people in my environment are starting to talk about Linux, that there is always a delegation promoting Linux (Unfortunately Ubuntu centric) on most computer fairs in Belgium, that sometimes I see random people in the train using Linux, gives me the confidence that Linux is here to stay, and actually is already becoming mainstream!

Frugalware – Yet another new distribution

Bah, I just typed a small review of Frugalware, a new distribution based on Slackware, but I lost the text, probably because I hit the maximum session time of my blog system :-( That will learn me to save the text from time to time.

I won’t retype it completely. But to summarize: Frugalware could be an interesting alternative for Slackware fans, as it contains much more packages than Slackware, and is much more actively developed. But for users wanting a nice distribution without too much effort: forget about Frugalware. The installer is extremely cumbersome. It did not give any error message when the installation of the boot loader failed, and when it did, the kernel did not succeed in mounting the root partition in a VMWare system. So actually I never got to test the distribution itself. Oh, and the default software selection is unhandy, and too much things are installed by default (default install includes KDE + Gnome + XFCE + server tools +advanced console tools for experienced users and other things).

Trying out Epiphany

During the past week, I have tried out the Epiphany web browser as an alternative for Firefox. Long ago, I already tested it, but I did not like it, as it lacked too many features I wanted. But Epiphany has evolved a lot in the meantime, so it was worthwhile to evaluate it again. The version I tested was 2.18, as available in Mandriva Cooker and Ubuntu Feisty.

I’ll quickly note the most important points I remarked:

  • Nice Gnome interface: Epiphany’s interface is very beautiful in Gnome. It uses the same theme and toolbar settings from Gnome (I have set toolbars to show text next to the icon). Epihpany looks much nicer than Mandriva’s hacked Firefox theme.
  • Clean Preferences dialog: Epiphany’s Preferences dialog is very clean with only 4 tabs and not too much options per tab. Again a huge different with Firefox’ Preferences dialog, which has 7 categories, of which most of them have several tabs and/or buttons for other dialogs where you can configure things. In Epiphany, settings are taken from global Gnome configuration if possible (for example proxy settings).
  • Easy Adblock extension: Epiphany comes by default with some extensions, of which Adblock is one. Its configuration is very easy: you only have to enable it, and it will automatically use the Filterset.G Adblock rules. There’s no need to manually install and configure the extension as is the case in Firefox.
  • Tag based bookmarking: Instead of storing all bookmarks in a hierarchical list like Firefox does, Epiphany lets you define tags for bookmarks. This way, you can easily find bookmarks based on these tags. It’s much handier than the hierarchical list, as its easier to to find a particular bookmark if you have lots of bookmarks defined. Also a nice feature is that when you type a word in the URL bar, it will show you all bookmarks which have this word in its title.
  • No Flashblock extension: One of the extensions I really like a lot in Firefox, is the Flashblock extension. I don’t like Flash: it is often used for commercials or useless intro’s, often contain annoying sounds, and it simply does not work good in Linux. Try for example the webiste of the Belgian radio station Radio Donna. In Linux, the pop-up menus on the left, will always be shown under the Flash animations, which makes navigating this site impossible. For all this reasons, I use the Flashblock extension, so that I can decide myself whether I want to view the Flash animation or not. Unfortunately such a functionality is not integrated in Epiphany. I found a way to have the same functionality by modifying the user style sheet. Still, this functionality should be integrated in Epiphany, like Adblock, so user’s don’t have to fiddle with such advanced settings. Even Camino for Mac OS X has it integrated now.
  • Downloads and opens files by default: When you click on a download link, Epiphany will automatically download the file to your desktop, and open it in the default Gnome application for that file type. I did not like this functionality at all: after a few hours of browsing, I had my desktop cluttered with PDF and other files which I looked at briefly while browsing the web, but did not want to save. Fortunately, you can disable this behaviour, and then Epiphany will ask if you want to open or download a file and where you want to save it.
  • Problematic font configuration: I tried out Epiphany on different systems, and on all of them, I had problems with font handling. By default, the font settings are different than Firefox. On a lot of sites, by default the fonts were smaller than in Firefox. This problem can easily be seen by opening sites as LWN.net, vrtnieuws.net and the GMail home page in both Firefox and Epiphany. When changing the font settings in Edit – Preferences – Fonts & Style, I remarked some strange problems: for some reason, the minimum size in the global font settings, was not synchronized with the minimum size under the “Detailed font settings” dialog. The default font sizes are set to 12 points. When setting it to 13 points, I noticed that fonts became much bigger, and when going back to 12 points, actually, the fonts were still bigger than they were with the default settings! I also had the impression that when changing the font size, it was sometimes best to restart the web browser, as results seemed to be different than before restart of Epiphany. In the end on all of my systems, I had to spend a lot of time finding out the best font settings which looked reasonable on all sites. I remember I have changed the minimum font size in Firefox, but apart from that, fonts were perfectly OK by default in Firefox for me.
  • No download manager: When a file is downloaded, there is briefly some kind of download manager displayed where you can track progress, but after the download has finished, this dialog disappears automatically, and there does not seem to be a way to show it again. I find this very annoying, as this means I have to start Nautilus to navigate to the file to open it. And, like a lot of people, it sometimes happens to me that I do not pay a lot of attention to the location were I save the file. In Firefox I can look up the location in the Downloads dialog, but in Epiphany, I have to hunt down the file by hand. I suppose this functionality has got a lot less attention than in Firefox, because you are supposed to let Epiphany download all files automatically to your desktop…
  • Limited pop-up blocking: By default, Epiphany does not block pop-ups. I do not understand this choice as most competitors use this functionality by default now. The pop-up blocker is a lot more limited than the one you can find in Firefox or Internet Explorer. When a pop-up is blocked, only a small icon appears in the status bar, and I did not see a possibility to open a blocked pop-up, or put a web site on a white list. For example when clicking on the (Flash) link “Webcam” on the Studio Brussel website, I can open the pop-up by clicking on the button in the notification bar in Firefox. In Epiphany, the only way to view this pop-up, is by completely disabling the pop-up blocker in Epiphany’s preferences.
  • Annoying security warnings for broken certificates: When I try to visit the Mandriva Bugzilla by https, I get three different pop-ups warning for all sorts of problems: one that the certificate expired, a second one that the hostname is not correct, and a third one that some parts of the page are send over an insecure connection. When logging in, there is again a security warning that the information is send over an unencrypted connection. Of course these problems are actually caused on the server side, but still, Epiphany should try to collect all problems first, and show them in a single information dialog. The current pop-up flood is very annoying, and this does not encourage users to actually read and interpret all this information correctly. Maybe a supplementary notification bar with the message that some elements will be send over an insecure connection, seems an interesting addition to remind users of the problem, even when they clicked away the warning dialog.
  • No Greasemonkey script manager: One of the extensions I use in Firefox, is the slashdotter extension. It adds Coral Cache links to all links in Slashdot articles, which can be handy if a site is slashdotted. I suppose I can get similar functionality with this Greasemonkey script in Epiphany and tried to install it. After right clicking on the install button and choosing “Install user script”, I got a message that the script was installed correctly. Unfortunately, I did not see the links on the Slashdot website after that (could be a problem in the script itself too I suppose, I did not check this). I wanted to verify if the script was indeed installed, and remove it eventually, but I did not find any functionality in Epiphany to do this. Note: I have never used Greasemonkey in Firefox as I did not need it, so maybe I have wrong expectations.
  • No anti-phishing filter: As far as I can tell, Epiphany does not have an anti-phishing filter, like both Internet Explorer and Firefox have now. While I don’t care about this functionality for myself, I think it’s a useful addition for less experienced users
  • Does not use Gnome’s Keyring: Gnome now has a keyring manager, which stores all passwords in a centralized, eventually password protected, location. It seems not a lot of programs are using this functionality yet. I hope Epiphany will in the near future.

These are the most important points I noticed while using Epiphany. Last Saturday, I experienced four crashes in Epiphany, but after that Epiphany was stable during the whole week. Maybe a bug in the version of cairo (1.4.0) I had installed at that time or in nspluginwrapper on amd64 were involved in these crashes.

All in all, I have to say I liked Epiphany. Still, I think there are too much small features I miss, and this makes I’ll probably start using Firefox again for now. I’ll be following Epiphany’s development more closely though, and I hope that in the near future, I will be able to switch over completely. Having a perfectly integrated browser in Gnome, is really a must have feature.

Please also read this related blog article by developer Luis Villa where he explains why he prefers Epiphany to Firefox.

Bug hunting!

The last few days, I’ve been very busy with bug hunting. Mandriva 2007.1 is nearing it’s final release, so it’s now or never!

Some of the problems that I hope will still be fixed:

All in all, Mandriva 2007.1 is probably going to be the most stable Mandriva release ever.

Blog state

I only started blogging one week ago, but a lot has happened already in the meantime. I had already plans for setting up a blog for some time, and had installed Serendipity a few weeks ago. Why Serendipity and not the more popular WordPress? Well, it was not a very rational decision. I remember a few years ago I was watching statistics by the CIA bot. Serendipity was at that moment one of the most active projects over there. I did a quick install on some test machine, and it seemed nice. And a few weeks ago, because I remembered that, I started looking at Serendipity again. It seemed to have all features I wanted (for example multilingual posts), so I decided to use it. Unfortunately, I discovered already several bugs (especially in the multilingual plug-in), so some work is still needed to get it in a perfect state.

My first post with the review of Gnome audio CD burning applications was a big success actually. Several other sites linked to it, and my posts are now appearing on Planet Mandriva. And probably the most important news: Mandriva now uses Serpentine as its default Gnome audio CD writing application!

So what’s next? Well, I’m currently trying out the Epiphany web browser. I’ll surely write about my experience soon here!

The quest for a nice Gnome audio burning app

With a new version of Mandriva, 2007.1 Spring edition, coming out soon, I decided to take a look at the choice of default applications installed, and posted my comments about Mandriva’s default KDE and Gnome installations on the Cooker mailing list. Concerning KDE, I’m afraid my comments have not resulted in a lot of changes, but the Gnome maintainer Frédéric Crozat was very interested in my comments, and after some discussion, several adaptations were made. One of the things a lot of people agreed about, was that the program gcdmaster (a front-end for cdrdao), probably was not the best choice as an audio burning application. For data CD and DVD burning, there is nautilus-cd-burner, but what would be the best choice for music CDs? There were a lot of suggestions on the mailing list, but not a lot of people had any real experience with them, so I decided to extensively review five CD burning applications for Gnome, in order to find a good alternative for gcdmaster. The applications I tested were: gcdmaster itself, Brasero, Graveman, Gnomebaker and Serpentine.

Gnome CD Master

Gnome CD Master screenshot project chooser
Gnome CD Master (gcdmaster), a front-end to cdrdao, is what currently is installed by default in a Gnome desktop, so that’s where we start with.
When you launch Gnome CD Master, a window is shown where you can choose the kind of project you want to start. There are 3 options: creating an audio CD, copying a cd or creating an image file. I choose an audio CD project.

Gnome CD Master screenshot waveform viewThe window now shows an empty waveform view. There are buttons to play the sound, and a button to start recording, but no button to actually insert a music file. Neither do I find this option in the File menu, where I had expected this, but in fact it’s hidden in the Edit menu where I find “Append File”, “Append Track” and “Insert File”. I choose “Append Track”, and open an MP3 file in the file chooser. When clicking OK in the file chooser, the file chooser actually does not close, which is very confusing: the first time I thought I had not clicked correctly, and clicked three times. The result was that the file was inserted three times. The MP3 file is immediately decoded, which takes some time for large files and the waveform is shown in the window.

When you have inserted some music files, the interfaces enables you to split up the music in tracks, and add silence gaps. So Gcdmaster is especially interesting for burning gapless mixes in separate tracks.

I noticed an important problem when using gcdmaster: the decoded WAV-version of the file is saved in /tmp, and filled this partition without giving my any warning. Using /tmp by default is not smart, as a lot of people are using tmpfs for this file system, which means its size will by default be half of the available RAM. On a lot of machines, this will not suffice to store a 74 minute audio project. Instead, it should use the tmp subdirectory in the user’s home directory.

On the other hand, for simple audio CD burning, this application is much too complex, the interface can be confusing and is not intuitive enough for simple use.

Brasero

Brasero, formerly known as Bonfire, is developed since the last quarter of 2005, and is now at version 0.5.2.

Brasero screenshot project chooserJust like gcdmaster, when you start up Brasero, you get presented with the different kind of project you can create. Apart from creating audio CDs and copying CDs Brasero also supports the creation of data DVDs and CDs.

Adding files to the project is very easy: you select files in the right pane, and drag and drop them in the left pane. Or you select them and use the + button. Brasero is very intuitive, it is just a pitty that you cannot shown the windows horizontally, above each other, as the current lay-out takes a lot of space in the width. Another usability problem, is that Brasero by default still shows all files in the right pane when you create an audio CD project. By default, it should only show known music file formats.

By clicking on the Pause icon, you can easily add a two second gap between tracks, and it’s easy to change CD-TEXT information by right clicking on a track and choosing Edit Information.

In the View menu, you can enable the preview. When you select an audio track, you get a small music player in the right pane which permits you to listen to the selected file. This is a nice feature.

Brasero screenshot creating audio CDBeneath in the left pane, there’s a bar which clearly shows how much space/minutes you have left on your CD, and you can esily switch between other cd lengths by clicking on the CD icon. When everything is finished, you click on the Burn button, where you can choose a CD title, select the burner you want to use, and set some advanced if you want. The default should do fine in most cases though.

Then, if you have put a used CD-RW in the drive, Brasero will ask you if you want to erase it. After confirming this, the deception comes: the Mandriva Brasero packages still uses cdrecord, which is not available anymore and has been replaced by cdrkit. Brasero should really check the availability of these dependencies before letting you create a project. There is already a bug report open for this. The reporter made some symbolic links to cdrecord binaries, but even then there are issues that Brasero does not work correctly, except if started from a terminal window. These are really showstopper bugs unfortunately. Debian does have a patch for using cdrkit, but as it’s for an older version, I’m not sure if it still applies. I opened an upstream bug report to support cdrkit.

It seems that Fedora and Ubuntu have built Brasero with the libburn libraries. Although libburn is actively developped, I’m afraid it is still too early to use this back-end in production. Still, as it seems Brasero developers are investing a lot of time in this back-end, Mandriva should at least start including it too, even if not yet as Brasero’s default back-end (even if compiled with libburn, it won’t use it until configured to do so with gconf).

There are several important bugs open for Brasero in Gnome’s Bugzilla.
Since the release of Brasero 0.5.2 was published, two important bugs have been fixed in svn, for which the patches should be included in Mandriva’s packages: http://svn.gnome.org/viewcvs/brasero?view=rev&revision=151 and http://svn.gnome.org/viewcvs/brasero?view=rev&revision=152
Progress of Brasero’s development, can be followed with CIA bot.
All in all, Brasero seems to have great potential, but it’s too early right now to include this in the Mandriva 2007.1 default Gnome installation.

GravemanGraveman has a completely different user interface than Brasero. It does not use different windows, but shows all different project types and the settings in the same static window: the projects are shown as tabs on the left side of the window; on the right side you see the contents, and the settings again as tab pages. This seems a bit strange to me, as it permits you too easily to create for example an audio cd project, and then get lost in the data dvd screen.

Graveman screenshotI test again with an audio cd project. Adding files is intuitive: click on the “Add audio tarcks”, and then click on First problem: Graveman does not seem to support burning of MP3 or Ogg Vorbis-files! Only WAV files are supported. According to its website, Graveman should support this if sox supports it. Maybe Mandriva’s graveman or sox is missing some dependencies. Anyway, this is a major showstopper.

Just like Brasero, there seem to be problems with the migration to cdrkit too.
Another major problem is that Graveman’s development is not progressing a lot currently. The last release was published in June 2006, which was already more than one year after the previous version. So the future of this application is very uncertain.

Gnomebaker

Gnomebaker screenshotGnomebaker’s user interface is heavily inspired by k3b, KDE’s burning program, which is the most versatile graphical burning program available for Linux. The top half of the window shows the file system, while in the lower half, the cd or dvd project can be created. Just like most other burning applications, the user first has to choose the kind of project he wants to create. There are three options: data DVD, data CD and audio CD. In the tools menu, there are more options for blanking and copying media and for burning images.

When clicking on the Burn icon, a dialog with some options is presented. The user can choose the burn speed, and the writing mode such as dao, sao, tao etc. Normally dao is used to burn without the two-second gap, while sao includes it. This should be made more clear by a seperate option where the user chooses if he wants gaps or not, like most other programs do. Strangely enough, burnfree was not enabled by default.

When you click on the Start button, the music files are decoded. I did not found an option to burn “on-the-fly”. Unlike gcdmaster, Gnomebaker uses the home directory to store the converted files, so there were no problems with /tmp filling up completely. For some reason, it ejected the CD and reloaded it immediately. Then it ejected the CD again, and there was a message that the burning process failed. There was no clear explanation why, except in the debugging dialog where there was a message stating that I should blank the CD-RW before I can burn to it. It’s a pitty that Gnomebaker does not explain this problem more in detail, and that it does not propose the user to blank the CD for him. I had to blank the CD-RW by hand (“Fast blank” was not selected by default, which is really a shame as a full blank takes a lot of time!), and then I restarted the burning process, which means I had to go through the decoding step again.

The progress bar and the estimated time remaining often was incorrect (it tended to overestimate the remaining time), but In the end the burning process completed successfully, and the audio CD worked fine.

I tried to get an idea about bugs and development progress by registering on the forum on GnomeBaker’s website. Strangely enough, even after registration, I could not access the fora, because I was not member of the “moderators” group. Looking at the mailing list, it seems that development currently is also rather slow due to lack of developer’s time. There are plans for a new version called Gnomebaker NG which will be based on libburn, but there does not seem to be real code yet.

Serpentine

Serpentine screenshotSerpentine is a simple audio CD burning application written in Python. It has been the default audio CD burning application in Ubuntu for a long time. The latest version dates from june 2006. Unfortunately there does not seem to be much progress in development since.
Serpentine’s user interface is very simple and does not take a lot of space. Because it only support audio CDs, you don’t have to choose which kind of project you want to create.

There’s an Add button which opens a GTK+ file chooser which lets you select the tracks you want to burn. CD-Text information can be changed easily by clicking on the artist name and song title in the main window. The disc capacity can be changed easily, and the remaining space on the disc is clearly shown. When you click on Write to disc, it does not show a configuration window where you can select the speed, etc. If you need to change this, you have to go to the menu Edit – Preferences. In this dialog, the user can also select if he wants a two-second gap between the track.

When starting the write process, Serpentine proposed me to erase the CD-RW. Then it started to decode the audio files, which it did in /home, so no space problems here. When writing, there is a progress bar, but unfortunately there is no estimation about how much time actually remains.

Conclusion

Of the five applications tested here, only two of them really succeeded in writing my audio cd containing an MP3 file and an Ogg Vorbis file: Gnomebaker and Serpentine. Actually Serpentine was the only one which did it without any hick-up. Clearly a lot of development is needed before a lot of these applications are really mature.

Gcdmaster is a very complex audio application, useful for burning DJ sets and other gapless compilations. Its interface is too complex for simple audio CD burning though, and it failed in writing my audio CD because it filled up my /tmp partition without any warning.

Brasero probably has the nicest interface of all applications presented here. It is at the same time very versatile but very easy to use. Unfortunately it does not support cdrkit (yet), but prefers the rather experimental libburn. Mandriva’s Brasero package has not been built with libburn support, and the libburn package in Mandriva seems outdated too. Both libburn and Brasero are actively developed, so this application is certainly one to watch out for in the future!

The user interface of Graveman, is less attractive than Brasero’s. Graveman’s development seems to be frozen for some time already, and Mandriva’s package did not succeed in burning MP3 and Ogg Vorbis files.
Gnomebaker is heavily inspired on k3b, and succeeded in writing my audio CD, but only after I blanked the CD-RW first by hand. Its development seems rather slow at the moment.

The winner of this test is clearly Serpentine: it did what it had to do without any problems or complaints, and its interface is very easy to use and really follows the Gnome philosophy. If you need to burn an audio CD with a Gnome application, Serpentine is your best option for now.