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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Tue, 31 Dec 2013

When life hands you lemons, go back to Debian

Update on Jan. 16, 2014: Since I originally wrote this post, I succeeded in installing Catalyst with AMD's script in Fedora and buying myself a whole lot of time with that distribution. I also tried Debian Wheezy with live media containing nonfree firmware, and that is looking even better than Jessie if I don't want/need an EFI-friendly installer. My original plan was to stick with Fedora until the Debian Jessie freeze and then make the move (sometime late this year). But if Wheezy works out, I'd want to go to it sooner rather than later and avoid Jessie for as long as possible (or until suspend/resume somehow returns to my neglected AMD APU chip.

Update on Feb. 4, 2014: I have suspend/resume working in Fedora 20 with the fglrx/Catalyst driver, and I'm very confident that the same technique I used to get it working there will also work in Debian Jessie, so that means if I do want to run Debian in the near future, I can get working fglrx video, working suspend/resume and EFI booting with Testing/Jessie and don't need to use Wheezy unless I absolutely want to. The only thing that makes me nervous about installing Jessie now is the uncertainty over which init system Debian will end up with -- both in the Jessie and Jessie+1 cycles. But since I have everything but printing to my crappy HP USB printer working in Fedora, it's likely that I'll stick with it for the near (and maybe farther) future.

To keep a short story short, the maintainer of the proprietary AMD Catalyst (aka fglrx) driver for the Fedora-focused RPM Fusion repository doesn't want to do it anymore.

And he made this decision not before the release of Fedora 20 with lots of notice -- and not after with lots of notice BUT PRETTY MUCH DURING THE RELEASE with no notice.

That means my Fedora 19-to-20 upgrade left me without Catalyst. And that means much poorer video performance, higher heat and more fan noise for my newish AMD APU chip -- the Trinity series A4-4300M model with AMD Radeon HD 7420g graphics.

And while the open-source Radeon driver has gotten a whole lot better in the 3.12 Linux kernel, the Catalyst driver is much, much better for this hardware.

I already mentioned the slow video. I can barely run GNOME 3 with the open driver, and THIS LAPTOP ISN'T EVEN A YEAR OLD.

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Windows 8: Not my cup of pain

In the course of my day job, I use Windows 7 all day. I have really nice Lenovo desktop hardware with a nice AMD processor and lots of RAM. Windows 7 is fairly solid. It's not Linux, but when compared to Windows XP, it's a world and a half better.

So is Windows 8 better than Windows 7? I still dual-boot Windows 8 on my laptop, a newish HP Pavilion g6 with an AMD CPU and enough RAM to be comfortable.

The Metro interface is distracting, looks terrible and doesn't add to productivity. In a keyboard-mouse environment, it's hard to know what to do to make Metro (or whatever it's called now) do what I want. It's not intuitive.

The desktop portion of Windows 8 seems much like Windows 7. That is good.

I'm not saying I'm a Luddite. And I'm not saying I'm not. But there's nothing in Windows 8 that makes me say, "this is better."

There are so many things wrong with the Windows model from the perspective of a user who prefers Linux (currently Fedora, though I'm thisclose to moving to Debian or Xubuntu), but when it comes to basic functionality, I can get along fairly well in Windows 7. Windows 8? I can't believe it's gone on this long.

Fri, 27 Dec 2013

Fix for PulseAudio trouble with Skype in Fedora 20 and other Linux distributions past and present

I'm on the fence on this Skype fix for Linux distributions that use PulseAudio:

If you are packaging Skype for your distribution, you need to change the Exec line in your Skype .desktop file as follows:

Exec=env PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60 skype %U

If you are a user, and your distribution doesn’t already carry this fix (as of about a week ago, Ubuntu does, and as of ~1 hour from now, Gentoo will), you need to launch Skype from the command line as follows:

$ PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60 skype

Using rootly privileges, I made this change in my /usr/share/applications/skype.desktop file. It worked some but not all of the time. I'm more troubled by PulseAudio's use of CPU when I'm running Skype in the background but not actively using it.

I eventually reverted this fix in my /usr/share/applications/skype.desktop file and am doing OK with the regular Exec=skype %U line that is the default in my Skype installation.

Thu, 26 Dec 2013

Read the excellent year-end proprietary AMD Catalyst and free Radeon driver roundup from Phoronix and find out why I'm recommending against buying AMD hardware for Linux

I got a lot out of reading Michael Larabel's AMD Catalyst 2013 Linux Graphics Driver Year-In-Review on his Phoronix site.

He's been following all of the Linux video drivers for years, and his perspective is very valuable, especially in his assessment that it's been a horrible year for the proprietary Catalyst driver and a great one for the open Radeon driver.

I can confirm that I finally have 3D acceleration in the open Radeon driver on the 3.12.x Linux kernel but that the performance isn't what it is with the Catalyst driver. That Fedora users might no longer have a choice between the two when it comes to a pre-packaged driver is troubling.

But thanks, Michael, for a thorough look at AMD graphics and Linux.

Of course things are going better for Nvidia, Michael reports.

That's cold comfort for me with my AMD hardware, and while desktop users can generally chose to shove an AMD or Nvidia card into the box, there aren't all that many laptops with Nvidia chips on them. No, AMD is a whole lot more common, especially if you're trying to save a few dollars over an Intel-based laptop.

So overall, it's pretty much AMD vs. Intel when it comes to laptop graphics, and AMD's extremely lackluster performance in 2013 is leading to me recommend against buying AMD hardware. While the open Radeon driver project is going from strength to strength, sometimes you need (and/or want) the proprietary driver.

And in 2013, there appears to be no contest when it comes to graphics for Linux. Intel and Nvidia are doing a lot. AMD is doing a whole lot less.

If you want to delve further into the rabbit hole that is Linux graphics, start at this part of Phoronix. Good luck. I really appreciate Michael Larabel's testing and writing, but I'd rather things just worked (and wish I had opted for an Intel-based laptop when I needed one on short notice in March of this year).

Tue, 24 Dec 2013

Will there really be no AMD Catalyst driver packaged by RPM Fusion for Fedora 20?

So I finally did my FedUp upgrade from Fedora 19 to 20, and one of the things hanging me up was the AMD Catalyst driver, the packages for which come from RPM Fusion.

I should have looked into this more BEFORE I did the upgrade, because there are no kmod-catalyst packages for F20.

This has happened before. Catalyst is always behind Nvidia when it comes to RPM Fusion packages.

But according to these two threads, the maintainer of kmod-catalyst is orphaning the package, and unless someone else picks it up, there will be no new Catalyst drivers packaged as RPMs for any existing Fedora releases, including F19 and F20.

The good news for me anyway is that Fedora 20 with the 3.12.5-302.fc20.x86_64 kernel marks the first time that the AMD Radeon HD 7420G graphics chip in my HP Pavilion g6-2210us laptop has had working 3D acceleration without the proprietary Catalyst driver.

But it's not as good of video as I get with AMD Catalyst (aka fglrx if you're running a Debian-based distro).

Without Catalyst/fglrx, animations in GNOME 3 aren't as smooth, games that use 3D don't perform as well, and full-screen video in VLC stutters a bit. Again, that's better than GNOME 3 not running at all (which is what has been happening with the open Radeon driver in recent months), but I'd rather have the choice between the open Radeon and proprietary Catalyst drivers.

Oh, and my suspend/resume situation is the same. Suspend appears to work fine, but without resume (which doesn't work at all), why bother?

The laptop does run cooler with the proprietary driver, too.

Back to the point: I'm not willing to download and run AMD Catalyst directly from AMD. That's always been a prescription for endless fiddling and bricked video. I have heard good things about the open Radeon driver in the 3.13.x kernel, and I will wait for that to roll into my system before I decide whether or not to abandon Fedora for a distribution that isn't orphaning the Catalyst/fglrx driver. Among those: Debian, Ubuntu and everything derived from them.

I've always said I'd prefer to run the open driver, and there has been substantial progress in making my particular AMD video chip work better in Linux. But there needs to be just a little bit more performance. The stuttering video NEEDS TO GO.

And before this release, GNOME 3 did not work at all. It works now but is struggling. For me, that means more time running Xfce.

I'd love to see a dramatic improvement when the 3.13.x kernels come into Fedora. If that happens, all is forgiven. But if not, more than likely I'll be moving from Fedora.

Update: Full-screen video in Mplayer is much better than in VLC and GNOME's stock player. That's a workaround but not a full-blown solution.

Twitter: A bad day for Fedora users

Sat, 21 Dec 2013

Proposal: How about a way to bring Twitter into Ode?

There's something about Twitter. It's so easy to tweet out links, to retweet, to have 140-character discussions ...

But it's a bit harder to bring those conversations into your own blog in a more permanent fashion.

What I'm thinking about doing doesn't seem all that hard. It could be a browser-based program -- maybe a Firefox add-in -- that takes a tweet and plows that text (with links to the original tweet) into an Ode post, so anything I write, retweet, or just want to offer up can appear in my own blog without a whole lot of trouble.

It could also be a Perl script (or Javascript, or Python, or Bash) that outputs HTML to paste into a file.

I'll be thinking about this ...

Once you start blogging by writing plain text files, you can't go back

One of the biggest things that keeps me using a system like Ode for blogging is the freedom to write entries on my local machine using any text editor I wish. Those text files turn into blog entries, and I never have to write in a web interface unless I want to (and for that we have the excellent EditEdit add-in).

I've written local files and pushed them via FTP, opened up my web-server space via sftp in my local Linux file manager (either Thunar with Xfce or Nautilus with GNOME) and now synced a local directory with my server via Unison.

I also love using Markdown. It eliminates much of the HTML-coding drudgery that's even part of mainstream blogging applications like WordPress.

But more than anything, when you can create a text file, write it in the editor of your choice, which for me is Gedit, and then have that file somehow make its way to the server and become part of a blog, it makes the process that much more enjoyable.

Fri, 20 Dec 2013

Twitter: The open web

Thu, 19 Dec 2013

New Fedup is here -- proceed with your Fedora 20 upgrades

My Fedup upgrade to 0.8 as seen in Yum Extender

(Click the image above for a larger version)

After news that fedup 0.7 stood a good chance of not successfully upgrading you from Fedora 19 to 20, the project's developers swiftly pushed out fedup 0.8 to solve this and a great many other problems.

As you can see above, the change has come through to my system, and I have updated the package. No, I haven't actually run the fedup upgrade to F20, though I did use the program to bring this system from F18 to F19.