Free Agent: Picture Perfect and in Tune

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Last month, I sang the praises of Ubuntu Linux, and Free Agent readers responded like never before. I received literally dozens of messages from folks who had already given Ubuntu a try, or who took the plunge after reading my report.

The e-mails were overwhelmingly positive, usually reporting successful installations and a love of Ubuntu's simple, clean interface. One reader took me to task for not mentioning the KDE-based Ubuntu derivative, Kubuntu. (I've since given Kubuntu a spin; if you like the KDE desktop and its strong similarity to Windows, Kubuntu is definitely worth a look.) I also received a negative report from one reader who couldn't get Ubuntu to work properly on his laptop, and another from the founder and president of a company that sells a commercial Linux that I've found to be less than impressive. I suppose that when you're trying to convince people to pay good money for a user-friendly Linux, the last thing you want to read is that some outfit shipping free copies of its distribution is doing a fine job.

I've taken the last month off from fiddling with new distros, and have instead just spent time enjoying the Ubuntu experience. It's amazing what you find time for when you're not fiddling with the command line to troubleshoot some obscure problem with your latest Linux testbed. One thing I've gotten around to is exploring the collection of Free Software available via the Ubuntu package repositories. I've fallen in love with two apps in particular: Muine is my new music player of choice, and F-Spot is without a doubt the neatest digital photo organizer I've ever used.

Both Muine and F-Spot are available in Ubuntu's Universe repository, which houses packages that aren't officially part of the distribution. If you've got Universe enabled, then installing these apps is a snap: If you like to point and click, use Synaptic (in the System menu, under Administration) to select them for installation. If you don't mind dropping to the command line for a moment, use this incantation: sudo apt-get install muine f-spot. Ubuntu will download all the necessary dependencies and set things up right.

Muine: A Different Approach to Your Music

The Gnome desktop's default music-playing application is Rhythmbox, which is heavily patterned after Apple's ITunes, right down to the IPod integration. I've always found Rhythmbox a clumsy way to let the music play: Something about the interface just rubs me the wrong way. (Perhaps it's my sense that it shouldn't take such a large window to show me my tunes.) I've also had intractable problems with Rhythmbox not noticing when I add new music to my collection--although to be fair, I have not been able to replicate that problem since installing Ubuntu. At any rate, I'm not a Rhythmbox fan, so when I discovered a player that takes a completely different approach, I was intrigued.

Muine in action: I've just clicked "Play Album" in the main window (left), and entered "thie" to filter my options in the resulting dialog box.
Muine in action: I've just clicked "Play Album" in the main window (left), and entered "thie" to filter my options in the resulting dialog box.
While Rhythmbox's main window reveals your entire music collection as well as the active playlist, Muine displays only the current playlist and a few buttons, including "Play Song" and "Play Album." Click either of those, and a dialog box listing your entire music collection appears. A text-entry box at the top acts as a simple but effective filter. So, for instance, if I click "Play Album" and enter "thie" as my filter, the list will shrink to Radiohead's Hail to the Thief as well as all the albums I've got by Thievery Corporation. I've found this approach to be much simpler than Rhythmbox's for my ever-growing collection of MP3 and OGG (the Free digital audio format) music files.

Muine looks like a million bucks, in part because it automatically downloads and displays album art. My only complaint with this feature is that the art seems to be stored in such a way that no other app can make use of it. The Slimserver software that drives my Squeezebox audio player can display album art, but it wants that art appropriately spread throughout my music folders. Muine doesn't work that way: It stores the art it has grabbed in a single database file that only Muine knows how to read. Oh well.

And for the Shutterbugs...

What Muine has done for my music collection, F-Spot has done for my pictures. After I bought my first digital camera, I spent a couple of years diligently organizing my snaps in various folders. Then I realized I could never find what I was looking for, so I simply started dumping all my images into one busting-at-the-seams folder. Quite silly.

Or perhaps not: After installing F-Spot, I pointed it at my images folder and it took that whole mess, along with the smaller set of images somewhat-organized into subfolders, and displayed them all, thumbnail-style, along with a bar-graph/timeline sort of widget that is so darned useful, I can't understand why I haven't seen a similar treatment in other apps. (Perhaps I just haven't looked hard enough, but keep in mind that I swore off most commercial software years ago.)

It doesn't matter how badly you organize your image files, F-Spot helps you make sense of it all.
It doesn't matter how badly you organize your image files, F-Spot helps you make sense of it all.
With one glance, I can see that I took more pictures in June 2004 than any other month since I started shooting digital. With a click on the timeline, I can zoom to the pictures I took that month. I can scroll backward and forward in time with ease. If I need a shot I took of my grandmother around Christmas in 2003, I know exactly how to get to it. All the guesswork is gone.

The timeline isn't the only way to find your precious pictures. F-Spot lets you define tags that you can apply to your images, and you can filter your thumbnail view based on those tags. For instance, I have a "Beach" tag that I apply to any images I take at the ocean's edge. You can apply as many tags to an image as you like (think "holidays," "relatives," "finger-pulling," and so forth). If you're a fan of the Flickr photo-sharing site, you'll love F-Spot's "Upload to Flickr" function, which of course makes use of the tags you've applied locally.

Versioning is one more F-Spot feature that rocks my world. I like to hang on to the original image that came out of the camera, no matter how much brightening and retouching needs to be done to get it ready for prime time. In F-Spot, you can select an image, choose File, Create New Version, give the new version a name (like "brightness corrected"), and edit that version without touching the original. Back in your F-Spot gallery, only one version of the image will appear, but the interface will show that multiple versions are available. You don't have to worry about their file names; you don't have to worry about where they live; F-Spot takes care of all the ins and outs and just lets you work solely with pictures, which is the way it ought to be.

Windows Boxes Get Viruses, Linux Boxes Get Mono

I mentioned how easy it is to install Muine and F-Spot on an Ubuntu system. Your mileage may vary with other Linux distributions. Here's why: Both apps depend on the Mono libraries to work their magic. Mono is the Open Source community's implementation of the nonproprietary parts of Microsoft's .NET technology. In practice, .NET means a lot of things to a lot of people; but at one level, it can be thought of simply as a new programming language (C#, pronounced "c-sharp") and the libraries that support it. There are plenty of Free Software hackers out there who think that C# and related technologies provide a really nifty way to craft new applications. Miguel de Icaza, the founder of the Gnome project, is one of them, and this is why he also started the Mono project, now spearheaded by Novell (which bought Miguel's startup, Ximian, a while back, and now employs him).

Mono remains a cutting-edge technology, and not all distros stay on the cutting edge. Yours may not have a Mono package available yet, or it might even be wary of providing one for legal reasons too arcane to go into here. There is a push from some quarters of the Gnome community to include Mono as a standard Gnome component someday, so that anyone running Gnome would have Mono as well; other camps are resisting this idea.

If this sounds like chaos, well, it is. It's the very sort of semi-organized chaos that makes the cutting edge of Free Software so interesting. Brilliant coders out there are crafting not only new applications, but also new ways to create new applications. There is an observable nexus of activity (many of them, actually) where you can watch the future of computing taking shape.

The part of the "system" (we can call it that, though it really is no such thing) that actually brings these new technologies onto our desktops is, of course, the distribution. Linux distributors have a universe of software available to offer their users, and each distro makes a different set of choices about what and what not to bundle. Hence the variance from Linux to Linux. Hence the competition between distributions. And hence my continued adoration of Ubuntu, the first distro I've ever used that provides all the cutting-edge stuff you could want with almost none of the usual cutting-edge bugs and troubleshooting.

Two New Books: One for Newbies, One for Pros

I always get excited when O'Reilly (the best damn tech publisher around) sends me a new book to look at. This past month I hit a double jackpot with Test Driving Linux and Linux Desktop Hacks.

Test Driving Linux

I've mentioned a few times before the various "live CD" versions of Linux that are self-contained on a single CD-ROM. Test Driving Linux by David Brickner comes with one of those--a version of the Mandrake Move live CD--and, over the course of its 300-plus pages, introduces you to every nook and cranny of the system, including the command line. So if you want to get your feet wet without touching your existing setup in any way, here's a fine chance. My only gripe with Test Driving Linux is that it introduces the KDE desktop only, leaving those who'd like to give Gnome a test drive out in the cold.

Linux Desktop Hacks

If you've already been running Linux for a while and you're one of those power users who likes to get under the hood, Linux Desktop Hacks by Nicholas Petreley and Jono Bacon is right up your alley. This volume is filled to the brim with tips for tweaking your interface, speeding things up, and moving beyond your distro's package management system to get extremely cutting-edge. Along the way, you'll learn a lot about Linux and its Unix underpinnings. (Cron jobs, anybody?) Like all the rest of the O'Reilly Hacks series, this book is very well-organized. It's sure to present a surprise or two to even the most seasoned Linux user.

Have you found a Free Software app that you now can't live without? Which Linux is your favorite? Still scared to give up Windows? PC World's Free Agent wants to hear from you. Speak Freely!
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