Monday, February 27, 2006

CosmoPOD - Free Remote KDE Desktop

NoMachine is an extremely cool piece of technology. It's like VNC on steroids, but it's much much more. The software allows you to connect to a remote machine (which is running an NX server), login with your normal user account, and be presented with a brand new remote desktop. Top this with very good speed/latency, remote audio playback, remote printing/file sharing, and you've got a winner. How do you get in on this geeky goodness? If you want to run a NoMachine server on your PC at home, you've got two options: Buy a license for the NoMachine Linux server, or try the GPLed FreeNX server.

Now, say you don't have a Linux machine of your own, or you simply don't want to go through the hassle of setting up your own NX server. Enter CosmoPOD.

CosmoPOD is a free service that gives you access to a remote KDE desktop, which you can use for pretty much anything you want.
I decided to give CosmoPOD a try, and while I personally don't find the service overly useful, I'm sure there are others that will.

Before I had even logged onto my CosmoPOD desktop for the first time, here were some of my initial thoughts:

  • Your account password can only be lowercase letters and numbers - Odd...
  • There's a nice .deb package of nxclient :)
  • The nxclient package strangely creates a subfolder in your "Internet" folder in GNOME's applications menu.
  • After you install the NX client, the ".nxs" files (saved connection settings) that you're supposed to double-click on to connect to a server aren't associated with the NX client. (Double clicking on them in GNOME does nothing...) It's an oversight on No Machine's fault as well as CosmoPOD's for not mentioning it.
  • To connect to CosmoPOD, I ended up putting their provided "cosmopod.nxs" file in my ~/.nx folder.
Minor quibbles aside (which may not have appeared if I was using KDE instead of GNOME on my own PC), I connected to CosmoPOD through NX for the first time.

I was greeted with a customized KDE desktop, which had launchers to everything they'd let you use in the kicker (the KDE bar at the bottom of the screen).
Here are some of the apps they provide:
  • Firefox (the homepage is set to some shopping page... CosmoPOD is advertising supported after all)
  • OpenOffice 2.0
  • Kopete 0.11.1
  • KDE 3.5.1
  • ... and a bunch of others (read: tons of KDE apps)
With your CosmoPOD account, you also get a free email account and 1 GB of storage.

CosmoPOD seems like a neat, free service, though if you have your own Linux box, you might find it more useful to just set up your own private NX server. (It's not that tricky to do...)
Regardless, I'm sure people will come up with creative things to do with CosmoPOD. Feel free to leave a comment if you can think of some!

Useful links:

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Mac Apps on Linux?

The WINE project is an "Open Source implementation of the Windows API on top of X and UNIX". In layman's terms, it means it lets you run Windows programs on Linux. In my personal opinion, I would say this project is a wild success, especially with the advancements made to it in the last year.

With the release of Apple's OS X for Intel x86-based processors, OS X applications are being released in a different "format" to run on these new processors. After reading about this many times, a thought occurred to me: x86 executables (programs) instead of PowerPC (the old processor type) executables means that if one wanted to hypothetically try to run OS X applications on Linux, it would no longer require an emulator. Then it occurred to me.

I might be wrong, but I believe it should now be possible to implement an OS X API on top of UNIX, exactly like what WINE did to the Windows API.

Sure, OS X applications are in a different non-ELF (non-Linux) binary format, but neither are Windows apps. Can anyone think of any real reasons why this shouldn't be possible now? (Again, I might be wrong, but some of the GNUStep APIs might be re-usable in a project like this...)
Granted, it would definitely need an enormous effort, but it would be absolutely incredible if Linux could run both Windows and OS X apps.

(And for those who are confused, this is approach is totally different from that of Mac-on-Linux or VMWare, which are both emulators*. This approach would have top-notch speed and wouldn't need a copy of OS X to work.)

Thoughts anyone?
(Please leave a comment...) :)

*I stand corrected (see the comments), both are virtualizers.

Dapper Flight 4 is out...

So Ubuntu Dapper Drake Flight 4 (the 4th Alpha release) is out.

Check out that link for a bunch of screenshots of new features.
It looks like the update notifications finally look how they should (with every new Flight release they were looking sketchier and sketchier). Also, Espresso (graphical LiveCD setup) and the example content look like awesome steps in the right direction.
Lastly, it's good to see GNOME Power Manager made it in (and is integrated this time around). It's been in development for a while, and I'm hoping it'll help with stuff like suspend/hibernate.

Good job Ubuntu team.

(And if you're wondering why I left out mentioning XGL, I'm saving those for another day.) :)

Rhythmbox vs. Banshee

Update Sept 18/07: I realize a lot of people are still reading this article, and I'd live to give a big fat WARNING to everyone that this comparison is totally out-of-date now. Both Banshee and Rhythmbox have seen several releases since I wrote this article, and they've both improved tremendously. At the moment, my favourite player is Rhythmbox (0.11.2 on Ubuntu 7.10), as it's got a bunch new killer features that I can't live without (play queue, Magnatune+Jamendo integration, Last.FM). It's still worth checking out both apps though.

When it comes to music playback and management software on Linux, there's a million pieces of software to look at. But when it comes to good music playback and management software, then your choices get narrowed down quite a bit. Amarok is the killer music playback/management software for KDE. It's got incredibly creative and well thought out next-gen features that you won't find in any other music software. What's next-generation, you say? Wikipedia artist lookup, awesome dynamic playlist support, the cool sidebar that presents you with intelligently arranged music relating to what you're listening to, excellent MusicBrainz support, and the list goes on. I haven't used Amarok since 1.3 (and we're on 1.4 now), but it was so feature-packed back when I used it that it was hard to move away from it. (Here's a screenshot of Amarok 1.4.)

Why did I move away from it then?
The user interface wasn't spectacular. If you look at the left-most side of the screenshot in the link above, you'll notice there's sideways tabs. Honestly, they just make a cluttered UI even more cluttered. I found myself drawn to much simpler user interfaces, like those presented in Rhythmbox or Banshee. I wanted an easier to use application that packed the same essential features under the hood.

Anyways, the two big contenders I found were Rhythmbox and Banshee. Rhythmbox is the official music playback software of the GNOME desktop, and you'll find it included in any modern distro like Ubuntu or Fedora Core. In my personal experience, Rhythmbox has a history of being unstable, slow, and relatively under-featured. However, in the past year, Rhythmbox has gotten it's act together. It's now the music player that it should be. It's stable, quick, and much more rounded out now. It has support for streaming internet radio, DAAP shares, CD playback, and has fairly good playlist management.

However, Banshee also caught my eye a while ago. One of the main reasons I wanted to upgrade to Ubuntu 5.10 was to be able to run Banshee. Why was I so excited?
You tell me:

The interface was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted an easy and quick way to access my entire collection in a single list, easy playlist creation, and cool features that didn't look like they were tacked on. Banshee is smart too. If you select all the songs from an album in the "Music Library", then right click and go to "Add to Playlist", then "New Playlist", it'll automatically create a playlist with the name of the album.
Banshee also has a well designed plugin system, awesome iPod support, and CD burning capabilities. All of this is wrapped up to make one of the most solid and promising next-generation apps of the Linux desktop.

In the newest version of Rhythmbox, the interface was also redesigned:

Here's a quick comparison of the two pieces of software:

  • Audioscrobbler/Last.FM support
  • Streaming internet radio support
  • CD Burning
  • Playlist importing
  • Automatic playlists
  • Multimedia keys support
  • DAAP support
  • Play queue
  • Podcast support
  • Filesystem monitoring/Library watching (fam/gamin)
  • Audioscrobbler/Last.FM support
  • Album Art
  • Intelligent playlist management
  • iPod support (with transcoding)
  • CD Burning and Ripping
  • Metadata fecthing
  • Filesystem monitoring/Library watching (inotify?)
  • Multimedia keys support
  • DAAP support

As you can see from this comparison, both players have their advantages and disadvantages. However, I feel I should point out that Banshee is quite a young project, while Rhythmbox has been around for many years. The pace of development and level of polish with Banshee is partly due to it's use of Mono. On top of this, many of the next-gen features in Rhythmbox such as DAAP support, podcast support, Audioscrobbler integration, and the redesigned interface have only been added very recently - and I think that's partly due to pressure from friendly competition with Banshee. (That's a good thing, by the way.)

So, should you use Rhythmbox or Banshee?
Your best bet is to wait until Dapper comes out in April (or the next version of your distro of choice) and to try them both out. By then, both pieces of software might have added many new features. Exciting stuff.

Additional reading and downloads:
Edit: Some readers at the Ubuntu forums have mentioned some good additional points. Because Banshee uses Mono, it can be a bit sluggish at times, and might not be suitable for slower PCs. Also, the ID3/ogg/other tag editing capabilities of both programs isn't great (which is odd for music management software.) One more additional point of my own is that both players should experience a bit of a speed increase if you're using them built for GStreamer 0.10 (as they should be in Dapper)...

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ekiga is Cool

Ekiga Softphone is mighty cool. On the surface it looks like just another update to GnomeMeeting, but it doesn't take long to realize it's oh so much more.

Here are some feature highlights (ripped from the site):

  • Audio AND Video (SIP and H.323)
  • STUN support (SIP and H.323)
  • Echo Cancellation
That's right, she's now a fully loaded SIP audio and video client. It's also got nifty STUN support (and NAT traversal stuff) so it can "just work" while you're behind a router and/or firewall, just like the other guys. (Although, don't get me wrong - Skype's crappy QT interface doesn't stand a chance against Ekiga's) :)

I've tested it in Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger) and it worked fairly well*. If you're going to download it and try it, be sure to follow the build instructions listed on the site (under "How can I build?").
Lastly, I've heard through the grapevine that Ekiga works quite nicely with Diamondcard to let you call out to landlines...

*One minor quibble with the SIP stuff: I can't seem to get my microphone to capture input properly... When I do the recording and playback test, it plays back my mic input as choppy blips (even when doing the SIP echo test.) I haven't hunted around on the mailing lists, but I'm sure someone has a fix or something...