November 16, 2007

Gosh, gOS is good

Author: Susan Linton

Many people still question whether Linux will ever make it fully into mainstream computer acceptance. A $199 computer now available on a major superstore's shelves just in time for Christmas might change all that. Anyone who wants a computer to just to send email and instant messages and watch YouTube videos should like the Everex gPC, which is powered by a nifty Linux distribution called gOS.

I downloaded a copy of gOS rather than purchase it with a new system. It comes as an installable live CD. On the desktop is an icon that opens the installer, which walks you through the install configuration. First you choose from dozens of languages and keyboard layouts, then you prepare your partition. gOS offers to import your settings from other systems, such as wallpapers, My Documents, and Firefox settings, but I'm not sure that part is working just yet. Next, you set up a user account and bootloader. There is no package selection; the entire system is installed. Afterwards you can reboot or continue using the live CD.

The boot process is unmistakably Ubuntu with a color and graphics change. However, the desktop is a customized version of Enlightenment DR17, one of the most underrated and underexposed desktop environments available. goS puts many of its advanced options and features to good use.

The desktop and applications

The gOS desktop has areas containing panels or docks for applets called "shelves" and launchers called "gadgets." Shelves can be arranged anywhere around the desktop. Some gadgets include a clock, networking applet, battery monitor, and temperature gauge. Start, iBox, and iBar are also considered gagdets. Start is the menu start button, iBoxes contain minimized application, and iBars contain scrollable application launchers enhanced with some visual effects, such as throbbing on mouse-over and exploding when clicked.

The gOS iBar is located at the bottom of the screen and features quick launchers for many popular Web sites and services, including Meebo, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogger, and Google tools such as Gmail, Docs, Maps, News, and Calendar. Some other icons open applications such as Firefox, Skype, Rhythmbox, and Xine. Their behavior is completely customizable through the My Settings -> Applications -> IBar Applications configuration. I changed my settings to remove Facebook, Meebo, and Blogger and add OpenOffice.org Writer, the GIMP, and UXterm.

The second shelf to be preconfigured is located on the right side of the screen and by default contains Exalt and Clock. Exalt is Enlightenment's answer to KDE's KNetworkManager. It lists all your network devices and allows you to configure them, then lists available connections and allows you to connect to them. Then at boot, it will connect to the last chosen connection automatically.

The simpliest way to add gadgets to your shelf is to right-click on the shelf and navigate the menu to shelf 8 -> Configure shelf contents. I added Battery and Cpufreq to monitor battery life and the speed of my CPU. Some other available gadgets include Start, system Temperature, and a Pager to navigate to other desktops.

At the top of the screen are icons and the Google Search Widget, which performs a Google search and outputs the results in Webrunner, a scaled-down browser without an address bar, icons, or navigational buttons -- which diminishes the usefulness of this applet quite a bit. Very few times have I searched for a topic and not needed the back button. It would be much more useful if the widget opened the full Firefox browser.

In addition to Internet apps, gOS comes with several nice everyday desktop applications as well. I've already mentioned OpenOffice.org, GIMP, and UXterm. There are lots of 2-D games, such as Solitare, Chess, Mahjongg, Mines, Same GNOME, Gnometris, Sudoku, and Tetravex. Mozilla Thunderbird is included for email and Pidgin for instant messaging. GnomeBaker is in the menu for burning CDs and DVDs.

I also mentioned Xine and Rhythmbox as being launchable from the iBar. Rhythmbox is a sound application for playing audio of just about any format. I was able to play audio CDs as well as local MP3s. I liked Rhythmbox because it came with some Internet radio stations preconfigured as well. All can be enjoyed with colorful visualizations.

Xine is a video movie player. I was able to play AVI and MPEG movie files. DVD decryption is not included due to digital rights management restrictions in some countries. Decryption downloads are available outside of the US and are not difficult to install.

If you want other applications, the Synaptic Package Manager is included, with Ubuntu and gOS repositories set up and ready for use. I used it to install ndiswrapper-common, ndiswrapper-utils, and restricted-manager. I used the Restricted Manager to install the Nvidia proprietary graphic drivers for my video chip and the Ndiswrapper tools to enable my wireless Ethernet chip.

Hardware support

I wasn't sure what hardware support to expect when I booted gOS. Would it have been scaled down to work solely on the Everex gPC? I was happy to find most of my HP Pavilion dv6105 hardware supported out of the box, as with any Linux distribution.

My sound worked upon boot, as did my touchpad, extra USB mouse, and wired Ethernet. My graphics adapter worked, but it was using a resolution of 1024x768. gOS provides a screen configuration tool, but it too only went up to 1024x768. To get more screen real estate, I edited my /etc/X11/xorg.conf file as I commonly do to achieve the settings I wish. This worked well, until the next boot, when the xorg.conf file was overwritten and the setting went back to the 1024x768 default. After some trial and error, I decided the best (or easiest) solution to this was to edit the /usr/sbin/xdebconfigurator file, which is a human-readable Perl script. Now, at each boot, a new xorg.conf file is still written, but it is written with my desired settings. This is the one area I predict will give new users a problem.

My wireless Ethernet setup was easy. After installing the Ndiswrapper packages, I was able to extract, load the drivers, and see my card was detected. Using Exalt, I set up the WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) type and password. It connected to my router, and, after boot, from then on.

Under gOS Enlightenment, when you insert a removable device or disk, such as a USB flash drive, an icon appears on the desktop, and you can click the icon to open the contents in Fileman, Enlightenment's file manager. I could make a directory, drag and drop my files on it, and delete others as one would expect. When I finished, I closed the window and right-clicked the icon, looking for the Safely Remove or Unmount option. They and nothing similar was there. When I started up a terminal session to manually unmount the device, I saw it was no longer mounted. It turns out that removable devices are automatically umounted upon closing the window. That's handy for new users, but there are drawbacks too. The mounted devices are give strange dynamic alphanumerical directory names, and the Fileman window must be open if you want to use a device's contents in other applications.

Another wonderful surprise found was the advanced powersaving features enabled and working out of the box. CPU scaling (reduced CPU speed to save battery life), suspend to RAM, and hibernate worked with no tweaking required.

Other system and settings tools

gOS provides several handy system tools in the Administration menu. Some of these include Language Support (many languages are supported), Login Window, Network Tools, Parititon Editor, Printing, Screens and Graphics, System Monitor,and Update Manager.

The Printing setup tool is an easy and functional graphical Python application that walks users through configuring their printers. I used it to set up a Samba networked printer. Using the scan option, it quickly detected and listed the available printers. I chose the working device, picked out the driver, and printed a test page.

The Update Manager and Notifier are the same ones found in Ubuntu. The Update Notifier informs users of system or application updates, while the Update Manager completes the upgrades. There were a few updates available during my testing period, and the Update Manager performed the Ubuntu upgrades with no problem, but the gOS repository mirrors were always down.

The distribution exposes many desktop-specific settings in Configuration -> My Settings -- a container for the modules that customize the look and functionality of Enlightenment. From there you can change wallpapers, themes, icons, fonts, and cursors. You can set up which applications are available from the iBar or started upon login. Under the Screen subheading you can set the number of virtual desktops, the screen resolution, and power management preferences. My Settings also allows changes in the menus, File Manager behavior, window functions, and more.

In the iBar is a Q&A icon that leads to a gOS Web site that's a cross between a user help forum and a wiki. It allows gOS users to ask questions and receive answers from other users. Right now there are only a few questions and even fewer answers.

Conclusion

I really liked gOS. It's a cute little system with lots of functionality and great looks. It works well and is fast and stable on my laptop. It should work on any computer that any other Linux supports. Enlightenment is an impressive desktop environment, and the iBar is a low-overhead way to blend cool effects with needed functionality. I think users will like it.

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  • gOS