Breathing Life Into Older Laptops. Part 2.
This marks the second and longest part of my struggles with laptops. In fact the struggle has mostly been the need to adapt to change, both in my circumstances and technology. It has been enjoyable. This part gets more specific at greater length about choices and technicalities, loosely documenting my experience putting the technology together, the nitty gritty so to speak. I have a general objective: create a flexible and comprehensive photography support system, to my taste!
Linux and Laptops, My History.
The network I grew in Part 1 of this discussion did not happen by a magic trick. It has been a considerable adventure. The process has not been onerous but has had some challenges.
I am by nature a rather lazy guy and tend to take the path of least resistance. Knowing all this, some of my sceptical friends have suggested that moving away from Windows was not a good move. “Stupid”, “insane” and “masochistice” are some of the milder epithets cast my way. More understanding has come to them recently, the adjectives have declined with the invective. A recent discussion produced a “couragious” designation, so I have decided that I can believe in what I am doing, it is a success for me.
As specified I am lover of Linux, specifically Slackware, until recently using that as my laptop OS of choice. I came by that choice for laptops because it was so controllable and simple to understand. I have used Slackware for about 20 years as my server OS of choice for terminal based applications, often with terminal based user systems actually running Windows with an emulator, with the application system based in the Linux server.
This Windows/Linux hybrid approach has served me well with insurance systems, garment systems and some other clients. My use of Slackware as a user system – a fully servicable KDE desktop with very good local power - was a logical step.
Slackware has been a very complete distribution, a very good operating system for learner and tyro alike. Included is a full slate of useable applications. It networks reliably and easily. It includes all of the application aspects of the KDE and Gnome desktops. It allows the installer to choos KDE or Gnome, besides other desktops, as a working choice. It includes most of what I need in my daily computer use. However, the stated intent of the distribution has been to allow the user complete choice in almost everything, making some applications packages quite difficult to install. This can be particularly time consuming with packages of a specialised nature, in my case digiKam and related applications. Ideally I would like to have the very latest, to match with the excellent manuals now available and, not the least, to keep up with advances in photo gear I am involved with.
To my disappointment, I have been unable to achieve photo software nirvana. Not with the high work level requred for Slackware to maintain packages. Not with any of the alternatives I have tried. I have settled on a distribution having continuous available update as a feature. I still love Slackware for its stability and ability to adjust as I needed. However, as a retired computer techie it simply is too much for my age bracket and time available.
The addons that I need arise from my interest in two areas: I am a photographer, I have a strong interest in on-line security. The albatross is too heavy for this “ancient mariner”!
Loading and using digiKam, which I believe to be just about the most adaptable and powerful workflow system available for photographers, became extremely complex with Slackware. Finding the supporting libraries and related loads was almost a career in itself. In fact, I was unable to get digiKam 5.0 to load and run after a week of fiddling. Total frustration arising from the need for supporting software libraries. This should be easier than it is.
So I abandoned my wish to run a fully up-tp-date version with Slackware. I was prepared to compile what I wanted but could not succeed at that more lofty approach. I appreciate that the problem is me! It is no discredit to the application or Slackware. Other users have told me I am not alone, some very nice software is going unused for exactly these reasons. Locating the supporting libraries is definitely an issue, even when one knows in detail what is required. Often these libraries are part of a package of related library software. The problem can be resolved but takes a lot of time and research. The developers of digiKam do provide a list but it has not solved the problem for me.
Network security is another personal interest and an entirely different problem. Again add on libraries can cause a problem during some package installation. This is much more easily solved as the distribution called Kali Linux has all the answers (maybe that is over stated) at least as it appears to me. So I have Kali, with a laptop system to run it, ready to install. That will happen as soon as I have my laptop network settled down from the latest upheaval. Kali is a different next big project.
So finding a new system to replace my almost complete dependence on Slackware has become the latest sub project occupying my time
Working With Slackware: The Last Few Years.
Even considering the time I have spent with the net finding libraries, Slackware has been really easy for me and exceptionally reliable. I have been using it on my laptops since I disposed of Windows Vista for good in 2008. After using it for several years as a server OS. Bluntly – I love Slackware and became very comfortable with the KDE destop, choosing KDE rather than other desktops offered with this distributiion.
Originally, prior to 2008. I had been a user of Microsoft Outlook, Word and Excel. They were my most used software. After that I had also added “PaperPort”, Adobe Photoshop and followed the path most users did for software. Buying what I needed at often ridiculous prices. If I add the cost of software my Windows XP laptop actually rose from a price of about $3,000 to well over $7,000 (all Canadian), over its life of about eleven years. I had decided that the tool was much too expensive, well before I embarked on my “laptop network” and downsize project.
To provide an experience base I decided not to throw good money after what was already spent. I upgraded the Windows laptop to a larger hard drive and started loading whatever “free and open source” software I could find. I used free software wherever possible. Occasionally I ran into strange incompatibilities. A typical example: in 2009 one Power Point presentation loaded into Open Office gave a file error when copied from an origin MS Office presentation. It turned out that the problem was on the MS Office side when a file was improperly closed. But that was a small problem disposed of when using Open Office to develop the PP-style presentation. Yes, my attempt to move into free software did have some strange incompatibility “glitches”. However they were few. Since I had both software products not often a problem.
I have had no problems since 2011. All problems I encountered before that date generally involved exchanging files with other users
All this experimentation raised my confidence in and appreciation of the “free and open” product range. This did not extend to a Photoshop replacement immediately, that is a different journey.
I lived with a total replacement for the Windows laptop as I did more and more work solely on my Slackware conversion of the HP Pavilion 17” originally acquired with Windows (gasp) Vista. Only occasionally did I revert to the Windows XP system, by 2011 it was all on the Slackware loaded laptop except for some more pernickety photo work.
I added to the Slackware system gradually. First by upgrading with all the releases from Slackware: passing from 11.0, through the 12 series to 13. I encountered my first major change moving fron KDE 3 to KDE 4. The applications I used had improved in ease of use and competetive features throughout the period, I could edit photos, edit/show videos, work with any document format, any spread sheet format, play music and completely replace what I had been doing under Windows XP.
At some point, I cannot remember the exact timing, I switched from Open Office to Libre Office to get an improvement in some features. I found I liked Libre Office better and have stuck with it, an entirely personal preference. The differences are actually minor I think.
The Desktop Is Choice.
I had been using KDE 3 as my desktop until I switched to KDE 4 in 2013. What I now had was a desktop system which bettered anything I had seen before. The change was quite startling when compared with the Windows range. I particularly liked the features and customization abilities of KDE 4 its early releases provided. I benefited from a degree of control and reliability, with few glitches of any kind. My workflow developed to a level where almost everything came readily and intuitively. I loved it. I upgraded no further, preferring to wait for a major change.
I personally prefer the layout and appearance of KDE interface features. So I will still be with KDE 5 for the forseeable future. I have tried other desktops and still have this preference. In 2017 some changes I dislike in KDE have forced me to think of moving to a different desktop. However, although I have tried several distros using different UI appearance, looked at others, I am still using KDE. Others may like any or all of these desktops, I think they all have their own advantages. If you are or were a rabid Windows fan there is something there for you too!
The next major change for me was not Slackware. I began to work with more advanced cameras in 2013. This raised the need for a workflow systems change. So, while I had installed and used digiKam up to 4.0 I had been editing photos on my old XP system gradually moving to my remaining Windows system which had Windows 7, it had taken over and the XP system was decommissioned in 2012.
The display on my XP system was failing and Microsoft was starting to say farewell to XP. The time for change had come. I got more serious about open source photographic software and started to look for other products settling on digiKam. I have made a complete move and now rarely use Windows as a Photo Workflow tool. Further incentive came from the “beast” (which showed signs of fading display) when color consistency became a problem. I had already acquired a replacement which was running as my Windows machine, with a newer 17” Pavilion running 7 Pro. By 2015 I no longer wanted to use it as a Windows system and acquired an inexpensive HP Elitebook refurbished, with lots of features. The newer 17” HP Pavilion was due for Linux, replacing the “beast” now in its old age.
In 2016 Slackware released a new version. This loaded and set up easily but proved to have some problems with KDE apps, particularly Kmail. Also it had proved impossible to keep up with new releases of digiKam. None of the blame here belong to the Slackware distribution. I have some misgivings about what is hapening to KDE. I still like it but changes are hurting me. Perhaps a subject for another time.
At that point my main photo workflow and editing tool had become digiKam. To save the day with Kmail (Kontact) I took my slightly newer Acer laptop and loaded Kubuntu, then transferred all Kontact work to that system as the Kmail problems were less. I will not go into details but I have seriously questioned the use of Kontact (with Kmail). Again, that is another story! After about six months with Kubuntu I moved to Mint on my photo support laptop (the Acer). All this upset due to changes in KDE from 4 to 5 and (in my opinion) a less than well publicised process. I suspect its my own fault as I often do not read the KDE information in sufficient detail (there is too much of it).
With Kubuntu, I completed my move to a more current version of digiKam. I still am not running the latest version and have decided that is wishful thinking for now. With KDE undergoing a change with onset of KDE 5 and Plasma, In general I like the results but occasionally curse KDE. I use a series of 10 named virtual desktops, the ability to name them freely has changed and is no longer as useful as it was – an irritation but not an insurmountable obstacle.
Searching for a New Linux Distro.
Changing the Linux distribution you are used to is a hard decision. I started playing with Linux in 1995, finally settling on Slackware in late 1997. I needed a server for a Unix based applications I had developed for insurance companies and for other similar terminal based syatems I was working with. These systems, dumb terminals originally, were gradually moving to PC networks using Windows with terminal emulators. Now, after 16 years it was becoming more of an integrated Windows or Linux Workstation based world with servers using Unix/Linux showing exceptional reliability and lower cost for data and network management.
Perhaps Slackware was no longer the best choice. I started defining the distro I needed based on how I acrually used my network. A number of issues occur to somebody is this position but trying to think a current decision into the future is not a wise idea. In other words do not bet the farm on what you think is coming!
I started by listing the software I needed and deciding which distros met those needs. That was a very small list. I then backed up a bit and redefined the list to include distros which included KDE as the desktop along with other criteria which included auto and rolling update and a comprehensive supporting repository. I looked at all the frustrations with Slackware and decided that a replacement must load any needed supporting libraries. Providing semi or fully automatic updates was a desirable feature, many distros do provide the “semi” feature.
After a lot of trial and play, some with my interest in solid state hard drives, I settled on Linux Mint. Changes in KDE have made this a less definite move and I find this irritating, but I am assured that the basic KDE system will perform better when the changes are done. I like KDE 5 plasma version, except for the apparently incomplete customization changes. By the way: using Mint has nothing to do with the fact that I am 5/8 of Irish descent!
Other distros which appeal for the future are Manjaro and Antergos. However, I found their KDE apps not really usable. I look forward to future versions. They look really promising.
More change is coming, so there will be another part to this saga. To summarize to this point, I still have a “hybrid Linux/Windows” network. The Windows divorce is not yet final and the blame (from my viewpoint) lies with computer peripheral and other device manufacturers. They make often obscure driver requirements (competetive reasons?) and inflict them on the world. Perhaps there is a better way to drive all this gear, inventors needed.
What I Have Finally(?) Settled On.
So ... after what must seem like a rather messy process, I finally have my portable network the way I like it. How I actually use what I have is one subject in Part 3 of this rather long article. To be fair I have enjoyed messing with the gear and the entire process has fed my techie roots.
In summary I actually have a working four computer network with occasional sit-ins. The four are all fairly large laptops and the sit-ins are netbooks (including a Chromebook to satisfy curiosity), tablets and a Kobo reader. I will lay out my gear in Part 3. Everything is wirelessly connected using (basically) 802.11 g as the connection. Very little of the equipment is new, most at least 5 years old. All hung together with a good quality router (almost four years old now). There is good security but I am not telling – obscurity improves the odds against interlopers, I hope.
The final part (3) of this article (saga) is coming soon, writers block and snack breaks permitting. Stay tuned!