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User Journal

Journal Journal: The Toddler Test: part 2

This is a followup to part one of The Toddler Test, where I discussed the setup, configuration, and games I had installed on an old PC running Ubuntu for my 3 and 4 year old kids to use. It has now been roughly a month since the computer was handed over to my kids, and the results have been so far been very positive.

As I expected, my son latched on to Tux Paint and GCompris right away, since he was already familiar to them. I found out where Tux Paint keeps their stamps, and was able to make face-stamps of him and his sister, which has provided a ridiculous amount of entertainment for him. Tux Paint even lets him mirror, flip, and scale the stamp images, something he found out about all by himself. He has also taken a liking to some of the games in Childsplay, particularly a spelling came similar to Pac-man. He enjoys playing the windows-based Blues Clues game, which runs on wine without any problems, and it has become one of his favorites. I also found Ri-Li, another open-source game from Ubuntu's repositories, where you have to navigate a wooden train (like the Thomas set he has in his room) around it's tracks picking up train cars. To my surprise, he even found a game in Tux Math that he understands and likes to play. Lesson #1: never underestimate a 4 year old, or open-source games.

My daughter is still a little young to understand how to play most of the games, and her 3 year old's attention span naturally limits how much she plays even with the ones she can. She likes her My Little Pony's coloring game, and will sometimes play with Tux Paint. I've found that the mouse-skill games in GCompris were a big help for teaching her how the mouse works without causing frustration. She especially likes the connect-the-dots game.

Since their computer time is monitored and restricted (they have a back yard, they should play in it!), I found that their new game station spends more time than not sitting around unused. After about a week, I decided to do something about that. So I plugged in our USB storage drive and loaded it up with our collection of MP3s (all legally purchased, of course), and started up RhythmBox. But not so fast, I had forgotten that Ubuntu doesn't ship with the patented MP3 codecs. Annoying yes, but I do understand the reasons. Nonetheless, I had to once again disconnect the computer and move it over to my network switch (I will eventually run a connection out to the living room for it). Again connecting to it over VNC, I took the easy route and just launched RhythmBox again, since it will automatically download and install the necessary codecs. And it was a good thing too, because it turns out we had some non-MP3 files that needed their own codecs (whatever iTunes uses probably), which were again automatically downloaded and installed. After getting it back into the living room, I configured RhythmBox into full screen mode with visualizations, and my music jukebox was complete (well almost, it could use a remote control, but that's a project for another day). Now I'm thinking about putting a spare DVD drive in this so I can load movies onto it for the kids to watch, and maybe even a game pad so I can play some of the many Linux games I read about in recent 42 free games for Linux articles on Slashdot. Lesson #2: never underestimate the utility of a Linux box in your living room.

Now my neighbor, who has a 4 year old boy and 7 year old girl, has asked me to salvage an old PC someone gave them, and turn it into something their kids can play games on. I plan on writing a sequel to The Toddler Test when that happens.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Is Linux Ready? The Toddler Test

This is the first in what I hope becomes a series of stories about people I know switching to Linux. This one comes from a recent adventure of setting up a game-station for my kids (3 and 4 years old). Now granted they will not be playing hardware-intensive games, or even cutting-edge games, I think it's as good a real-world test as any for our favorite OS.

The Setup:
Frankenstein-ed Dell Dimension, circa 2004, with a 2Ghz processor and 512MB Ram, 40GB hard drive, nVidia GeForce 2 graphics and SoundBlaster audio cards. Given that I use Ubuntu, and I already have an 8.04 LiveCD on hand, that was my choice to install. Installation was easy and straight-forward, I won't go into detail about it other than to say it was uneventful. After installing, the first thing I wanted to do was to pull updates over the internet, but the system was not setup anywhere near a network jack. To get around this, I configured Ubuntu to allow remote-access to the user's desktop. I also configured GDM to automatically log into the one user account setup. After relocating the PC tower to within patch cable distance of my switch and starting it up, I commandeered my wife's laptop and connected to it via VNC, and was able to download and install all available updates.

Since my kids won't be needing a full Gnome desktop, I decided to strip away the two default panels, and instead use just over-sized launcher panel at the bottom of the screen. Originally the panel included Gnome Menu button and application launchers, I soon realized that a window-switcher has become a necessity for me, and I really didn't like offering the Gnome Menu to toddlers. So instead I created a smaller top-panel to contain the menu, task switcher, and clock applets, and set the panel to auto-hide. Since my son is learning to read, I wanted to make on-screen text easy for him to see and read, which was easily accomplished by changing the font DPI. My next order of business was to make the mouse cursor easier for them to find, which involved switching away from the default cursor to a scalable one, and maxing it's size. Setting the background image to a photo of our trip to Disney World completed the desktop's transformation into a "Kid Computer".

The Open-source Games:
Since this was supposed to be a play computer for toddlers, I installed gCompris and Tux Paint, which my son has played with before on my workstation so I already knew he liked them. I also installed Child's play, which seemed similar to gCompris. I installed Tux Type and Tux Math because, even though my kids are probably not old enough to play them yet, they do have older friends who come over from time to time that might. Again the installation was easy and uneventful, thanks to Synaptic.

The Off-the-Shelf Games:
Some time ago my wife had picked up a "Reader Rabbit" game pack, which included several educational games including familiar characters (Blue's Clues, Dr. Suess, etc). These games were windows-only, but a quick browsing of Wine's application database said that they should work. After installing wine from the Ubuntu repositories, I ran the Blue's Clues setup.exe files on the install CD, and every ran without a problem. Adding a link to the desktop launcher proved problematic because the game's file names included an apostrophe (in Blue's), which the panel launcher applet didn't like. Instead of figuring out an acceptable escape character (\' didn't work), I just re-named the game files. This was the time I ran into a problem during this setup.

Next came a "My Little Pony" game recently purchased for my daughter's birthday. Again this was a Windows only game, and actually required OpenGL and DirectX 9 support (it said it would install it if you didn't have it). Installing through wine was no problem, I wasn't prompted to install DX9, but the game play itself was quite sluggish, way too sluggish for an impatient 3 year old. I was going to write this off as a lost-cause, either because of Wine or my older GeForce2, until I decided to check the driver I was using and discovered that it was the open-source nv driver. Since the GeForce2 isn't on the Compiz white-list (even though I have run Beryl on it), it seems that the Ubuntu installer opted for the open-source driver instead of the OpenGL capable binary-blob. Installing the latter got the game running smoothly. Adding the launcher to the panel caused some errors because the game wanted to be running from the install directory. To get around this I created a shell script to change directories and launch the game, problem solved.

Once everything was ready, I showed the kids how to turn the computer on, showed them the game icons in the bottom panel, then stood back and let them explore it for themselves. I'll post the results in my next entry.


Journal Journal: Switcher's view of Windows XP

After reading article after article about someone migrating from Windows to Linux (some positive, some not), I've decided to write up about my experience migrating from Linux to Windows. Now I'm no new comer to Windows, and I'm certainly more tech savvy that your grandmother, but I have been mostly removed from the Windows environment for several years, using Linux exclusively at home and at work. Now that I am at a new job that requires that I use Windows, I'm finding the road back just as rocky. Below are some of the things that have cause me trouble, confusion, or just mere annoyance.

1. Hardware Support: Not related to my new job, but I recently purchased a new laptop for my wife, and we decided to donate her old one to a family member. Her old laptop originally came with Windows XP, but was downgraded to Windows2000 long ago. Not wanting to give the family member an unsupported OS, I decided to re-install Windows XP from an OEM cd. While the install had no problems, it did not have drivers for the video (stuck me at 640x480), the sound card, the network card, the wireless card, or the modem. All of these had to be located and installed from the manufacturers website (good luck doing that without a working network card, wireless card, or modem). Again I want to emphasize that this laptop was made for Windows XP, and still a vanilla install didn't support half of the hardware. I dare any Windows user out there to try installing their same version of Windows from a vanilla CD, and see how much of your "hardware support" doesn't come with Windows by default.

2. Luna: Now we've all had our laughs about Ubuntu's default brown theme, but Luna isn't much to look at either. And while Ubuntu only ships with a half dozen or so themes, Windows XP ships with Luna and "Classic", and nothing else. Luna itself has 3 different colos schemes, yes, but Clearlooks lets you change the colors to anything you want from a simple color selector. Not only that, but Ubuntu's Artwork Manager lets you pull god only knows how many alternative themes from the internet, without a browser. You can even make your own themes just by editing a gtkrc file in a text editor. Sure a GUI designer would be awesome, but I don't even know how to make a WindowsXP theme, and the Luna.msstyles file certainly can't be edited in notepad. And if a theme isn't signed by Microsoft, you have to use a hacked uxthemes.dll file to even use it!

3. The Taskbar: The Windows taskbar hasn't changed much since Windows 95. You can move it to a different screen edge, or make it multiple rows, but why are you still limited to having only one? And why can't you change the placement of the start button, or system tray? Why can't I include menus in the task bar, since any more than a handful of Quick Launch icons and they start to get hidden? And if it's ok to hide a system tray icon, why put it there in the first place?

4. The Start Menu: I realize that it is *technically* possible to put your start menu programs into functional categories but nobody in the Windows world does this, not users, not software developers, and not even Microsoft themselves. Trying to fix this by *hiding* rarely used entries only serves to make those entries harder to find, and leads to annoyances when an item is in the *customized* list one day but gone the next. And don't even ask me how Windows sorts these entries, it makes no sense to me, individual shortcuts intermixed between submenus, it's a complete mess.

5. The Window Manager: This is another component that has barely changed since Windows 95. Still only certain programs will let you set them to be always on top, it's not even an option in the window manager. I can live without a shade option, but why are there still no virtual desktops? There are plenty of add-ons that provide everything form a poor implementation to an abysmal implementation. Seriously, I don't know how developers on Windows get along without this.

6. Software Install/Update: Installing software on Ubuntu is brain-dead simple, I don't know how I ever got along without Apt. Not only is almost everything you'll ever need easily available and easy to install, but the OS keeps them up to date, automatically, all of them! I have exactly 2 applications on my Ubuntu desktop that were not installed via Apt. One was a .Deb install, so it used Apt to download and install its dependencies (Sun Java 5) all from the user-friendly GDebi GUI, no command line needed. The only thing I've ever had to compile myself was a modified VPNC, because only a development branch from their subversion repository would work with my company's jacked-up Nortel VPN. Compare that with what I went through to get the same VPN connection working in Windows2000: downloading an MSI, being told that my Microsoft Installer had to be 3.0 or later to install it, finding MSI3.0 on Microsoft's website, downloading, installing, having the install croak and leave me without any Microsoft Installer service (why is it an always-running system service anyway?), having to back out to 2.0, find an update to the 3.0 installer and try again, all just to get the .Net 2.0 framework which I also had to locate, download and install, to get the VPN working. Compared to that, an `svn co` and `make` were easy.

7. Integration: For the most part Microsoft apps try to integrate with other Microsoft apps, but once you leave that realm it's pretty much every app for itself. Even among Microsoft apps there are opportunities for integration that aren't taken. On Linux, Evolution and the date/time applet integrate, Evolution and Pidgin integrate, Beagle and Firefox, Tomboy and Evolution, F-spot and the screensaver, Deskbar and, well, everything. That doesn't even count the obscure things like AWN and Rythmbox, BeagleFS, or any of the obscene number of command line utilities that can be strung together to perform tasks that are nearly impossible in Windows. Now look again at that list, because for the most part all of these applications are developed by different groups, their integration is usually the result of a one-sided effort not collaboration, but it is still possible because all of these programs are designed to allow for integration with other apps.

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