A weekend with Kubuntu

I’ve been playing around with Kubuntu 11.10 for four or five days, in between taking our little cat Sammy to the emergency room for little cats and participating in other activities of daily living. Here are my first and second impressions….

Welcome to Kubuntu
I won’t go into much detail about the installation process. I have to assume that my readers have installed at least one *Buntu, and installation hasn’t changed all that much. So my observations will be random.

The new or returning Kubuntista is invited to watch a slideshow during installation. The friendliness and professionalism of these shows has become a hallmark of the Kubuntu experience. In this one, I learned that Gwenview can now export to Flicker, SmugMug, and PicasaWeb. (There was a girl named Gwen in my high school. Later on, I met a girl named Bronwyn, which is an even cooler name.) I don’t know what SmugMug is, though the name evokes that knowing smirk found on the faces of fatuous mediocrities, not that I have any issues or anything. The slideshow also suggests that for more advanced graphics projects, you can download digiKam, which has singleHump camel caps.

Rekonq’s logo—a superhero, or a giant bird, with wings circling the globe—is really cool, whatever it is.

Some of the other logos are purposefully old-fashioned. Kontact is represented by a letter and a paperclip, and LibreOffice by a Selectric. “Installing Additional Software” has a shrink-wrapped box with the K logo! I’m still a bit nostalgic for those days of going into a store and blowing $10 on some CD from Expert Software and getting a bunch of clip art I never ended up finding a use for but still kinda liked having around.

I chose to install the restricted drivers, but not to have Kubuntu download updates during the installation, as that can easily be done later. Nonetheless, it retrieved 23 files from the security repositories. That wasn’t quite what I asked for, but I assume the developers considered these to be important, so I’m cool with it. The fact that they had 23 of these things ready when Kubuntu hadn’t even been in the wild for 48 hours impresses me. I guess nobody went on vacation.

One event I’ve gotten used to in any *Buntu install is the Big Interruption. Here it happened at 64%, in between “Configuring hardware” and “Installing system”. It just stopped, and it doesn’t tell you why. It doesn’t tell you anything. (This is on my laptop, which has a mere 1 GB of memory.) There was another stall at 88%, when Kubuntu downloaded some more packages (without telling me what they were) and then reverted to 86%. Those percentages don’t seem to mean much—they only lull you into feeling a false sense of accomplishment—and I have found *Buntu installations to be relatively slow, if also relatively unhassleful.

Meet Muon
The Family Synaptic is available in the repos, but Kubuntu defaults to Muon, the new wave of KDE package management. Physically, Muon reminded me at first of KPackageKit, as has been seen in recent Kubuntus. There are differences, of course; Muon has a nice left panel with categories that remind me reassuringly of the classical Ubuntu package management style. And it goes easy on the italic typefaces.

But I can’t say that I’m in love with it. When I get around to putting up some screenshots, there will be an image of what happened when I searched for claws-mail. You will notice that the list isn’t exactly in any kind of order. And that’s what you get. In theory, it seems, alphabetical sorting is possible, but in practice, it doesn’t work with search results. This might not bother most people, but some of the applications I use (Emacs, Claws Mail) rely on add-ons and/or extensions, and it would be somewhat easier to find things if they were predictably ordered.

The Muon Software Center looked like the Ubuntu Software Center. I haven’t used it much, but I took a break from writing this essay (my head hurts from all the thinking, so I needed a break anyway) to look at it again. I went to “Internet”, then to “Mail”, then to “Claws Mail”, clicked, asked for “More Info”, and found that some extensions were listed. Not all of them, but several of the most useful ones. Pretty darn thoughtful! (The entry for Emacs didn’t suggest any ancillaries, not even perennial favorites like emacs-chess or planner-el. But the immense Emacs ecosystem may be too complex—or, if you prefer a term that puts the onus on Emacs, unwieldy—for the Muon Software Center concept. If they included erlang-mode but not haskell-mode, for instance, somebody might feel left out. And I’m certainly not in favor of anybody feeling left out, except for people who are cranky all the time.)

I had a little trouble accessing shares on the Fun Computer. I went into Dolphin and typed in the name of my main share: smb://funcomputer/today/. Nothing happened. I did the same thing, but this time I typed in the IP number of the Fun Computer, and it worked OK. Browsing the network via Dolphin absolutely didn’t work; it found the workgroup, but it didn’t find anything in the workgroup.

Then I remembered a trick I had learned on the Linux Mint forums, back when I struggled with getting Linux Mint Debian Edition Xfce to read my Samba shares. I looked up my notes on the trick, opened up a terminal emulator, and typed sudo emacs /etc/samba/smb.conf.

I found a line that read
; name resolve order = lmhosts host wins bcast

and replaced it with
name resolve order = bcast host lmhosts wins

Note that, besides changing the order, I deleted the ; at the beginning of the line. The semi-colon keeps the line from being read, and acted upon, when Samba starts up.

After all that, I ran another command:

sudo service samba restart

Within seconds, Samba shares were flying around like paintbrushes in a Three Stooges movie. Good-o!

In my Kubuntu—and in yours, dear reader, I suppose—ufw (the Uncomplicated Firewall) is installed but not enabled. gufw, the graphical front end to ufw, is not installed, but you can grab it from the repos.

The “blue light” told me that Kubuntu 11.10 found the laptop’s Broadcom B4311 wireless during installation. But when I rebooted, the blue light wasn’t there.

This was a known problem in Kubuntu 11.04. I never installed Ubuntu 11.04, but the concurrent Xubuntu lives on a laptop partition, and I had the same problem there. I tried a couple of the fixes that were offered on the boards, but they didn’t work, and eventually I went on with my life. I went into Kubuntu 11.04 to work on Uncle Jim’s Master’s thesis, but when I took road trips, I worked in Foresight or Mageia.

This time, I decided to work a little harder. One person got wireless working in Kubuntu 11.04 on a MacBook; I decided that anybody who could do that is a really smart person who should be listened to, so I tried installing firmware-b43-installer and reinstalling bcmwl-kernel-source. No joy.

Another suggestion was to run the command sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-installer. The rationale was that apparently sometime during the development cycle, the b43 drivers disappeared from the *Buntus, and the “restricted drivers” that are offered during your installation process actually give you another driver, called STA, which may or may not, and probably won’t, work. This was intelligent speculation on the part of the posters—a lot of things having to do with closed drivers are guesswork by necessity—but it helped some people. It didn’t work for me.

I really couldn’t find anything else, so I tried the series of commands that had gotten it done for me in Mageia, adapting them for Kubuntu, which, of course, uses sudo and apt-get, not su and urpmi.

sudo apt-get install b43-fwcutter
wget http://mirror2.openwrt.org/sources/broadcom-wl-
tar xf broadcom-wl-
cd broadcom-wl-
sudo b43-fwcutter -w /lib/firmware wl_apsta_mimo.o
modprobe b43

The Blue Light of Hope flickered. And it prevailed! Yay, modprobe! Yay, Linux!!

We don’t have wireless at our house, so I couldn’t test it there. Due to a confluence of events in my ordinarily placid life, I didn’t have any time at all to camp out at a library that day. So I had to sandwich in, if you will forgive the expression, a stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Warwick, Rhode Island. Of course, “a Dunkin’ Donuts in Warwick” is like saying “a bespoke suit at a shareholders’ meeting”; it could be anything. This one is kitty-corner from the Rhode Island Mall, which is so big I’m physically scared of it. Dunkin’ Donuts, for the benefit of non-Yankees, is the rocky shore upon which the Krispy Kreme juggernaut was dashed. They’re everywhere. Some Dunkin’s have WiFi, some don’t. This one did, and the women who were working there that night were cheerful, so I took a place on a stool next to a window that looked out onto a fence that separated the Dunkin’ from the next group of stores, and fired up the laptop.

No Blue Light of Hope. Only the Dim Bulb of Despair. No recognition in the KDE Network Manager that there was such a thing as wireless anywhere in the world.

On a hunch, I ran modprobe b43 again. Yay, blue light! Yay, KDE Network Manager! Yea, verily, WiFi networks far and wide, verily even unto the Subway around the corner!!

Now, I’m not like all you young ‘uns out there who don’t even know what a modem is. I’m old and primitive enough to think that WiFi is like magic, and it honestly doesn’t take much beyond connecting to please me. But even I know that having to run a modprobe every time I want to access WiFi isn’t quite right. (Warning: obsolete comment follows.) I don’t know if this is a factor of the 3.x kernel (this is my first experience with it) or of Kubuntu or I don’t know what; I’ll check in at the bug factory this weekend, I hope, but I don’t think anybody’s gonna know anything for sure for a while.(End obsolete comment.)

Later: Elder-Geek left a comment that explained it all. As it happens, the b43 module wasn’t loading, so I added three letters—b43—on their own line to a file called /etc/modules. That file now reads as thus:

# /etc/modules: kernel modules to load at boot time.
# This file contains the names of kernel modules that should be loaded
# at boot time, one per line. Lines beginning with “#” are ignored.


Works like a charm now!

Kubuntu in everyday life
So far, I have only installed Kubuntu on the laptop, which at 1.6 GHz processor speed and 1 GB of memory is no longer a hardware trailblazer. Actually, it wasn’t a powerhouse when I bought it, either. It cost $400 plus tax, and ran badly enough on the pre-installed operating system (not mentioning any names, but it was born near Seattle, Washington, and unleashed via your favorite retail channels in January 2007) that I was forced to prostrate myself in the Temple of the Mighty Penguin, which of course turned out great for me—and, I humbly submit, for you who are reading and enjoying this essay as well. It’s like a big fat HappyFest!

I perceived Kubuntu to be slower than Mageia, the other KDE distro that owns a laptop partition, but for the most part that just ain’t so. It takes a little less time to load: 43 or 45 seconds, as opposed to Mageia’s 52 to 56. (I don’t own a stopwatch, so I counted off the seconds in my head; they’re probably a little off, but not by a whole lot.) Opening a one-page letter in OpenOffice Writer takes about 10 seconds in Kubuntu and 16 in Mageia. Printing that same letter, though, took 8 seconds—that’s from [Ctrl-P] to the whirrrrr of the printer belching it out—in Kubuntu and either 1 or 2 seconds in Mageia, so I got those 6 seconds back. Big deal, huh?

I would like to blame KDE frivolities, but Mageia in fact arrives with fewer “desktop effects” enabled. Kubuntu has quite a few effects going on; if you like that sort of thing, you’ll almost certainly like Kubuntu. The development team has some terrific designers, and has for several releases now. Kubuntu also informs you during the slideshow that you can install a module called kubuntu-low-fat-settings module that will shut down some of the slowdown stuff.

One quibble: I installed gLabels, like I often do. Everything works except for Print Preview, which sometimes tosses up “Error launching preview: No application is registered as handling this file” and sometimes just fails silently. gLabels print files are .pdf’s, and Okular opens other .pdf’s just fine, so I don’t understand this. (It works like a gem in Mageia.)

Another quibble: Emacs unexpectedly minimizes itself from time to time. It may have something to do with the touchpad (and if KDE offers an easy way to completely disable the touchpad, I haven’t found it; instead, there are some sixteen actions I can disable, one by one). I haven’t noticed this misbehavior anywhere except in Emacs, but that’s where I do most of my typing, so that’s where it would show up. Logical, yes?

A third quibble: Dolphin has lost its menu bar. Half of it ended up squished up into a crescent wrench in the upper right corner. This follows a design trend found first in Web browsers; I don’t especially approve of it, but I don’t plan to lose much sleep over it. Drink to forget, maybe.

One opposite-of-quibble: that rockheaded bouncing cursor stays off, just like in Mageia. (What is the opposite of quibble, anyway?)

One warning: The cashew in the upper right corner has grown. It is now a cashew with a label that says “New Activity”. Clicking on it brings up a menu: “Add Panel”, “Add Widgets”, “Activities”, “Shortcut Settings”, “Folder View Settings”, and “Lock Widgets”. I was feeling brave, so I clicked on “Activities”, and I got this big panel that said, “New Activity”, “Search and Launch”, “Photos Activity”, “Desktop Items”. “Photos Activity” doesn’t seem very grammatical, and I had to read it twice. I thought it was, like, one of the moons of Mars, and it had crashed into Mars or something. Anyway, I really don’t get Activities and I don’t see how any of those menu entries are so important that they need a cashew. That aside, KDE 4.7 seems like a nice stable desktop environment, and it seems completely usable; paradigms such as Activities haven’t gotten in my way or overstressed the ol’ shoulder pumpkin. Not yet, anyway, though I fear that may be forthcoming. I haven’t found any ways in which Kubuntu 11.10’s KDE 4.7.1 is an improvement over Mageia’s KDE 4.6.5, but I haven’t found anything that’s broke, either. In the tidal wave that is Linux, the absence of regression may easily pass as progress.

The happy recap
Everything either works out of the box (or, since there is no box, right off the .iso) or can be made to work with a little research and a few minutes of keyboard-pounding. The Broadcom wireless situation can’t really be called satisfactory, but neither can it be laid solely at the feet of Kubuntu.

What you do get in Kubuntu is a vast selection of possible softwares, an active and dedicated development team and community, an exceptionally polished visual impression, and a lot of stuff that works just the way it’s supposed to. Unless you revile KDE and/or go around saying things like “Canonical is just like Micro$haft”, I propose that Kubuntu 11.10 is absolutely worth checking out.

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14 Responses to A weekend with Kubuntu

  1. Pingback: LXer: A weekend with Kubuntu | Coders & Admins

  2. Elder-Geek says:

    When you reboot and you have no blue light check to see if the b43 module is loading:
    lsmod | grep b43
    If it is not add “b43″ to /etc/modules . Sometimes it is necessary to blacklist “b43legacy” as well.

    I have always been a big user of virtual desktops. Since I normally run fluxbox with a lot of customizations I get about 90% of what Activities offer. What Activities give you are the following things.
    1. The ability to have different wallpapers for each activity
    2. The ability to have different plasmoids active on the desktop and (I belive) in the panel for each activity.
    3. Future plans to remember what apps are open in each activity, possibly what files were open in those apps, as well as their position, size and z-order.

    Activities do not become “cool” until you see them properly in action. We could have something like this.

    1. Perosnal Activity – Has an RSS feed on the desktop of news sites, a weather plasmoid, a few plasmoids showing your favorite comics and an email plasmoid for your personal email account. This is all the stuff you look at in the morning, at lunch and on breaks when you are at work.
    2. Documents Activity – Has folder views on the desktops of particular folders or of particular file types on those folders. I.E. One view is your /Documents filtered by .doc/.docx/.odt another /Documnents filtred by .pdf. Icons on the desktop to launch LibreOffice, Abiword, gnumeric, Ocular, etc. A calendar plasmoid to show what is going on today/this week at work.
    3. Project Activity (s)- Has folder views to folders and network shares with files for a particular project as well icons to launch programs you are interested in. Also a plasmoid to display a todo list related to this project.

    In this way you could have an activity for a long term project like designing training materials. Another Activity for work on organizational charts. Another activity for College classes you are taking.

    If you use firefox, you could create multiple firefox profiles, and the icon on each desktop could be customized for that activity. So the Morning activity could launch “firefox -P default –no-remote”. The one for normal work “firefox -P work –no-remote”. The Activity for doing college classes “firefox -P collage –no-remote”. That way the firefox on each desktop has bookmarks, history, etc, related to that Activity. The –no-remote allows a new copy of firefox to launch with its own profile.

    The truth is if you launch a bunch of stuff, have customized window titles and use WMCTRL or DEVILSPIE to figure out what each window is when it launches, it can send the window to the correct desktop, resize it and position it as well. So you can simulate activities minus the folder views and wallpapers for the most part in just about any linux desktop out there if you want to customize the startup of applications.

    • Eddie says:

      Thanks! Adding the b43 line to /etc/modules works perfectly. I edited the article to reflect that.

      Activities do, at least in theory, sound neat-o. I think part of my problem is that the old desktop paradigm that we inherited from Wi—I mean that other operating system—has actually worked well for me over the years. Maybe I should try setting up an activity for Emacs, though, as I use somewhat conflicting customizations for two of my ongoing projects. My next project, though, is to try Xubuntu 11.04 and see how confused I can get!

      • Brian Masinick says:

        Why not try Xubuntu 11.10 instead? It’s out and it is excellent.

        • Eddie says:

          Uh, that one, too. :) Thanks for the heads-up! I did install it but I’ve only used it enough to know that I think everything works; it’ll take a few days to put it through some paces. It should be fun, though.

  3. Brian Masinick says:

    Hi Eddie,

    Thank you for the helpful review. Thank you also, Elder-Geek, for your suggestions regarding the possible need to add b43 to /etc/modules and the additional possibility of having to blacklist the legacy equivalent. Most of the time, using firmware-b43-installer in either Debian or Ubuntu-based distributions gets the job done, but sometimes I have problems; now I know what diagnostic extras to check out: modprobe b43 to activate that firmware, and if that works (and did not work previously) simply add the module as you indicate. This is not always covered in tips and FAQs, so I greatly appreciate this addition!

    As far as speed and stuff like that, I agree. Mandrake, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and now Mageia – all from the original Mandrake family, generally install and work well, but just about any Debian-based distribution, especially one not choked with a lot of extra background daemon processes (and by default, most do NOT come that way), run circles around the *Drake derivatives, not because the others are bad or deficient in any way, but because they do tend to deploy a “kitchen sink” approach; when in doubt, include it and turn it on, and as a result, they tend to be less efficient in their operation than Debian-based systems, but a bit more likely to “just work” for the less astute installer and user. (Both are fine distribution bases, but this does show some of the philosophical differences between them).

    When I want to test out wireless interfaces “in the wild”, I find places like McDonald’s, Paneira Bread, Staples, (and until they closed, Borders) to be good places to “experiment”. A lot of coffee spots usually work; most malls have Wifi these days, and a LOT of places advertise on signs to use their store and Wifi access. With a lot of on-line store buying and comparison shopping, it is wise for stores to have on-line sites themselves, Wifi access, and ways to order stuff on-line as well as purchasing it while you are there. You will see even more of this in the coming year, ESPECIALLY with 4G networks also coming out. If your store can’t “do the Web”, the younger crowd, but even some of the older crowd, will go elsewhere!

    Good comments, nice review, nice observations!

  4. Wanderer says:

    “The Broadcom wireless situation can’t really be called satisfactory, but neither can it be laid solely at the feet of Kubuntu.” It certainly can and I will. Of the last 5 or 6 lap tops I’ve owned or repaired, all had a Broadcom wireless modem and what a pain in the a _ _. This is also why at install Buntu’s suggest you already be connected to the internet. It’s amazing to me that such things don’t work out of the box, (yeah, I know, proprietary)! Any way, that’s exactly why I install and recommend to everyone I know that they use a PCLinux, Mandriva, or a Mageia operating system.

  5. Giovanni says:

    Hope Sammy is fine now!

  6. darkduck says:

    Nice article. As usual, full of fun and interesting stuff.
    I have tried Kubuntu in Live and was disappointed by few issues (http://linuxblog.darkduck.com/2011/10/disappointments-of-kubuntu-1110.html)
    Although, I still want to try it installed. I will do this when I finish my Ubuntu Unity/GNOME3 games.

    I also think that Mageia is lighter and quicker. At least, it uses about 1.5 times less resources when freshly booted and idle.

  7. Bill says:

    Here’s an interesting note, one which I cannot answer regarding Broadcoms. For the cards by Broadcom that require the STA driver (wl module), most Ubuntu users do not know how easy it is to install and activate the driver and firmware right from the disk (no connection necessary). However, this, for some unknown reason, does NOT work in Xubuntu or Kubuntu…only Ubuntu. Anyway, to do so (and to keep you from ripping out hair after install) simply:

    1) Fire up a live session from a LiveCD/DVD/USB
    2) Navigate to Additional Drivers
    3) Click “activate” for the STA driver
    4) When it says to restart for the changes to take effect, do NOT restart. Just…
    5) Open a terminal and use the following code (no password needed since you are in a live session): sudo modprobe wl
    6) Wait about a minute, select your network, enter whatever password to your network may be necessary and enjoy.

    If you do this BEFORE installing the system, then perform the install, you will be rewarded with a fully configured wireless connection without ever having connected by wire to your network. I do this EVERY time I install Ubuntu and I only wish the devs would give the same care to K/Xubuntu so they could have the same advantage.

  8. Brian says:

    you rock.
    this worked perfect to fix my broadcom issues

  9. Lucien Maka says:

    Hiya. Basically needed to post and say that I liked this post. I’ll be bookmarking your website and browsing to find out if you post any unique ones. Thanks!

  10. Brad says:

    thanks for this article…. tried Ubuntu but i didnt care for the unity interface… kde is much better and now that i got my wireless working (thanks to you) i’ll promptly be bookmarking ur site!

  11. sam p says:

    many thanks for your review – and the wifi solution, saved me a bit of time :o )

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