September 3, 2008

GNOME Debian Package Finder: Rough and ready package search for the desktop

Author: Bruce Byfield

If you do your Debian package management from the command line, you are probably aware of utilities that search the cache of available programs, such as apt-cache, apt-file, and dpkg. Possibly, too, you have cursed the limited search information available in graphical interfaces like Synaptic, which does not extend much beyond searching for the description, name, versions, and dependencies. Now, the GNOME Debian Package Finder (gpfind) is in the process of bring much of the command-line search capacity to the desktop -- although, at version 0.1.6, it is still too rough to replace its command-line equivalents for most users.

The roughness begins with installation. Although packages are available for Debian and Ubuntu, the major distributions that use the Debian package system, they do not have automatic dependency resolution. Instead, you need to install libconfig-file-perl, libapt-pkg-perl, liblist-moreutils-perl, and perl-base before using dpkg -i to install gpfind. After installing gpfind, you also need to run the command apt-file update before a search for files inside packages will return anything except a blank screen.

With these problems resolved, you can start gpfind by clicking Accessories -> GNOME Package Find in the main menu. Since gpfind is a reporting tool, meant to be used before you turn to apt-get or dpkg and giving summaries of your system rather than making any changes, you do not have to log in as root to use it.

The interface -- to be polite -- can best be described as "under development." At the top of the gpfind window is a general search field. By default it is set to give only exact matches for the search values you enter. However, you also have the options to search among installed packages only, package names, or files within packages, or any of these in combination, with or without exact matches. You cannot yet search directly for maintainers, versions, or dependencies, as you can with Synaptic.

Results are displayed in the field below the general search field. The utility's installed HTML help states that abbreviations, such as "ii" (selected for installation and installed) or "rc" (removed along with its configuration file) appear on the left of results, but, on my Debian system, they do not.

If you click a result in the second field, details of the result appears below it. The usefulness of these descriptions varies widely with the maintainer, but you can also use the right-click menu to display dependencies or the files that comprise a package.

All these searches are useful, but you cannot yet search, as you can with apt-cache, for reverse dependencies (packages that depend on the selected package) or different version numbers, or read information about the package cache itself.

To make matters worse, the gpfind window is awkwardly structured. If you have enlarged the default font size on your GNOME desktop, gpfind obscures much of the text in the window outside the results table -- and, since this text includes some help, you probably want to see it.

More seriously, the results and information fields display only three lines at a time, and cannot be enlarged. Consequently, you have to be prepared to do a lot of scrolling with unresponsive scroll bars, or else be prepared to learn gpfind's hot keys.

Presumably the developers will get around to focusing on interface improvements after they have finished with functionality, but, for now, the inconvenience of the interface is a major obstacle to using gpfind.

For now, the best that can be said is that gpfind has potential. Those who use the command line for package management are unlikely to change their habits because of gpfind, while those who install software from the desktop are likely to continue using pages like those on Debian's package pages when they want package information.


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