Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why no virtual desktops?

Let me take a few moments to talk about my personal history with Linux. When I entered university, my primary (personal) platform was MS-DOS, but I often did a lot of my class work in the computer labs. That introduced me to the UNIX systems. While I wasn't a computer science student, I often used the UNIX system to help with data analysis for my physics classes.

In 1993, I'd heard about this "Linux" thing, and how it was basically a free version of UNIX. I found the SLS 1.03 distribution, which had a friendly installer - very much like MS-DOS. While the install files were spread across more than 100 floppies, I was able to easily install Linux on my '386 PC.

Moving to Linux certainly made my data analysis easier, since I could now do it all from my dorm room with no trips to the labs. I could run X Windows (using TWM) same as the labs.

Sure, TWM wasn't much to look at, but it was easy to use and very powerful:

(click to view full-size)

That summer, I got a student internship at a small company, writing simple reports against their database. While there, one of the developers showed me his Sun workstation, and I really liked the OpenLook GUI for X Windows. It certainly looked a lot better than the rather plain TWM. Looking around, I found a window manager for Linux that looked just like the Sun workstation: the OpenLook Virtual Window Manager (OLVWM).

OLVWM was an important step forward for me, because it introduced the concept of a virtual desktop. In short, this meant that my desktop could expand beyond the borders of my plain 800x600 monitor. OLVWM had a little manager that divided your desktop into different virtual desktops. Each virtual desktop became a separate workspace. I could write my term papers in one virtual desktop, do lab analysis in another virtual desktop, and run commands in a third virtual desktop:

(click to view full-size)

In 1994, I switched to the "F" Virtual Window Manager (FVWM) which allowed more customization. Again, the "V" stood for "Virtual", as FVWM supported virtual desktops:

(click to view full-size)

When Microsoft released Windows95 in August 1995, the open source community quickly followed with an update to FVWM, called FVWM95. This mimicked the look and feel of Windows95, but also supported virtual desktops:

(click to view full-size)

I used FVWM95 as my default desktop for several years after that, eventually switching to GNOME. And yes, GNOME also supported virtual desktops (and still does, today.)

Virtual desktops can help reduce desktop clutter, where you have too many windows open to keep track of them all. When I ran Linux at work, I used to open my email client on one virtual desktop, my web browser in another, and my OpenOffice documents in a third desktop. This was especially useful when writing a document that required referring to other Word or Excel files. I could open all the files at once, and keep them open on the same virtual desktop, making it much easier to switch between them.

Even Mac OS X supports virtual desktops, although I don't consider Spaces to be as integrated as the Linux virtual desktop managers. But that's probably just me. Still, the functionality is there.

So why is it that Windows still does not have a virtual desktop manager? I'm currently running Windows Vista, and this very useful feature is missing. I've been using virtual desktops under Linux since 1993/1994, and Apple has supported them since Mac OS 10.5. But Microsoft hasn't gotten there yet, I guess. It's 2009, but still no virtual desktops in Windows?

Thanks to Stan Reichardt and the St. Louis GNU/Linux Users Group for permission to re-use their screenshots.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Installing Vista

I mentioned in my other post that our central desktop support team wants to move the organization to Vista. I volunteered to be a "tester" for the new Vista image. So on Wednesday, April 15, our desktop support folks "upgraded" my laptop from Windows XP Professional to Windows Vista Enterprise.

This was supposed to be a fairly painless install experience, and I suppose it was (all things considering.) The support guy started loading the image at about 3:15PM. The install process completed at about 5:45PM. I didn't stick around the whole time (it was an automated install) but I was there for about the last hour or so.

In that final hour, I watched Windows reboot itself no less than 5 times. Watching the progress meter, I could see that each reboot occurred after a major software component had been installed (Office, etc.) I'd almost forgotten that Windows needs to reboot for system changes or software installations to take effect.

After the installation was finished, I still wasn't done. Vista doesn't encrypt the contents of the hard drive until after the system is installed. This took about 6 hours. So for most of the work day on Thursday, I suffered very poor performance.

Let's compare to Linux:

Whenever I've installed Linux, I have always backed up my data, and re-installed from scratch, not an "upgrade" in place. I prefer to install pretty much everything: OpenOffice, GIMP, etc, including Firefox and Email. Fedora 9 and Fedora 10 installed in about an hour, including performing whole-disk encryption. (In Fedora 8 and previous distributions, whole-disk encryption wasn't possible, so I would reserve most of the disk for the /home filesystem, and encrypt only that partition. These manual steps added maybe 15-20 minutes.)

So that's about 1 hour to install a complete Linux system, including encryption.

And about 2.5 hours to install Windows Vista, including applications, plus another 6 hours to encrypt the data. That's a rough total of about 8.5 hours for a complete Vista system, including encryption.

Granted, the Vista system was "usable" after those first 2.5 hours - but only barely.

I'd say the Linux install process wins here, hands down. People sometimes complain that reviewers focus too much on installing Linux and don't spend enough time with the applications. But I'd like to point out the installation process on Windows definitely bites in comparison to anything on Linux. And that's with the latest version of Windows and the latest version of (Fedora) Linux, so I'm making an apples-to-apples comparison here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Moving to Vista

The desktop support group here would like to move the organization to Vista. Apparently, a lot of the compatibility programs are fixed (although, I understand not all of them.) But I have fairly simple needs: as long as I can run Office and Firefox, and access the LAN, I'm pretty much ready to do work.

So I've volunteered to be a "guinea pig" in the Vista test-rollout. They should be stopping by my office later today to upgrade me.

I'm being upgraded in place, which isn't typical here. Usually, the support folks just replace a desktop or laptop with another of the same "tier". But maybe the replacements aren't available right now? Anyway, they'll completely blow away my Windows XP system and re-install a fresh Windows Vista image. No upgrades.

I'll be curious to see if this fixes any of the problems I've seen in Windows since my move: printer setup, moving desktop icons, Windows Explorer not sorting icons, confusing dialogs, broken ctrl-backspace, to list a few. We'll see.

I'll post more later. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Frustrated by Windows printing

I'm at home, trying to print out some materials - but I can't, because Windows won't recognize my Epson Stylus Photo 925 printer.

Seriously, it took me almost 30 minutes to get Windows to recognize the printer. When I plugged in the printer, Windows automatically loaded support for "SP 925 Storage" - but I have no idea what that means. It wasn't a printer driver though, because Windows then prompted me to run the printer setup wizard.

I'll save you the details, but the wizard failed to find a driver for my printer. I had to download the driver manually from Epson's web site. ("This self-extracting file contains the Epson Stylus Photo 925 Printer Driver v5.3eA for Windows 2000 and XP.") That still didn't do it, though. After I ran the self-extracting file, the printer setup wizard still didn't find the driver. I tried saving the driver files to a USB fob, and to a directory in "My Documents". No matter what I tried, the wizard just wouldn't recognize Epson's driver.

Some "wizard".

Ultimately, I had to run the Setup program that came with Epson's driver. That did it. But if that is how you add printers, why did Windows want me to run the wizard?

Maybe I shouldn't knock Microsoft too hard on this one. This might be a problem with a third-party driver. But isn't Microsoft supposed to have total control over "big name" business partners like Epson, at least with drivers?

When they installed Windows on my laptop, I immediately got connected to our network printers in the office, no problem. But if connecting to a network printer was so easy, why was adding a USB printer so hard?

Under Linux, connecting a USB printer is easy. In fact, connecting this same Epson Stylus Photo 925 printer under Linux was a breeze: I plugged in the USB cable, turned on the printer, and Linux instantly recognized that a printer had been connected. After less than a minute, Linux popped up a message box to tell me that my printer was now available. It was so fast and easy, and something I guess I took for granted.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What happened to my desktop?

In a comment about my last post about Windows Explorer, reader NoobixCube mentioned that his desktop icons seem to re-order themselves:
I find it amazing I put up with it so long, when I was using Windows. It seemed every time I went into my pictures folders, I'd have to change the view from slideshow to thumbnail. The desktop never stays ordered any sane way - I could rearrange it manually, and the icons would seem to randomly switch places whenever I restart, or I could auto-arrange, and they'd be in different places again when I restart. I hope someone from Redmond is reading your blog.
I see the same thing on my system, but I thought it was just me. Specifically, it seems that choosing an order for my desktop icons when I'm docked (and have a larger monitor) doesn't apply to the icons when I'm undocked (and have the smaller laptop display.)

When they installed Windows on my laptop, I had a few default icons on my desktop. I immediately repositioned my most-commonly accessed icons so I could spot them more easily:

Interestingly, this only seems to work when I'm working at my desk, using my external monitor (1280x1024). If I boot the laptop using the internal display (like, when I'm at a meeting) my desktop icons move back to the left-hand side of the screen (1280x800). Worse than that, the icons completely change their order:

I never had these kinds of problems under Linux. With a Linux (GNOME) desktop, my desktop remains the same no matter what display I'm using. Sure, Linux may display your desktop differently if you use a different resolution monitor. But at least it all made sense! I understood that putting a desktop icon on the very right-hand side of my screen in 1024x768 mode meant the icon wouldn't really be on the extreme right edge when I booted in 1280x1024.

But with Windows, it appears you get a different desktop altogether when booting at different resolutions (for example, using an external monitor, or the laptop display.) My wallpaper preferences remain the same, but my icons move. This makes no sense. I am continually amazed at some of the weird stuff I find in Windows.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Windows Explorer is broken

I like to sort my files according to name, with directories grouped before the files. This seems the default behavior of most file managers these days, and certainly this what I was accustomed to in my years using Linux at work.

In Windows Explorer, the built-in file manager, I have my "View" set to "Icons" and "Arrange Icons by - Name" (I also use "Auto-Arrange", which the Help suggests will sort my icons automatically.) So you'd think that whenever I open up Windows Explorer, I'd have all my files displayed alphabetically.

Not the case.

I regularly have the problem where I cannot find a file in a particular directory, because all the files are listed out of order. If I save several documents from Word in a folder, Windows Explorer seems to display the files in the rough order that the documents were first saved. So a file named Strategy.doc appears in the list before Process.doc.

If I go into the "View" menu and select "Arrange Icons by - Name" the folder displays my files according to name.

Why doesn't Windows keep this setting for me automatically? Windows Explorer seems very broken to me, if I always have to re-select my view. This is lame.

Under Linux, you also can set the file manager to sort your files in different ways. I did this all the time. Except in Linux, my preferences actually worked, and the file manager would remember to display my files that same way the next time I used the file manager.