I was recently reading a forum discussion about Ubuntu 10.04. As usual, there were the fan boys who think Ubuntu is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then you have the usual selection of Windows fan boys saying Ubuntu is not all that special after all. Generally I avoid such discussions, but in this instance there was one particular post which essentially denounced Linux all together. The poster prattled off a list of things he could not do because there was no such software available for Linux. I replied with a list of programs that would easily accomplish everything he listed. Cornered, he replied that Linux just sucks anyway. Oh well, to each his own I guess.
To be fair, one of the blessings of Linux is the availability of many great applications. Likewise, one of the curses of Linux is the lack of applications. There are also plenty of apps included in final release distros that do not work as advertised. While Linux has made huge strides since I began using it in the mid 1990's, there are still a number of gaping holes. Common complaints I hear and read about are "where are the games?", and "what about Photoshop?" Both are very valid complaints, although they are irrelevant to me. I would not mind seeing more games come to Linux, but as I get older and more decrepit, gaming becomes less of a priority. Besides, for what a good gaming PC costs, I can get a low end laptop which will run Linux like a champ, and still have money left over for a gaming console and a decent flat panel TV to play them on. Likewise, Photoshop is an excellent program, but I have never had a need for it.
Back on the blessings side, Linux has many applications that rival even the best available on any other platform. On the curses side, in addition to the two scenarios mentioned above, there is still a bit of disparity from distro to distro, and desktop GUI to desktop GUI. An example would be distro X may include all the latest and greatest versions of popular apps, while distro Y may be several versions behind. In some cases, a particular application may not even run on a particular distro. This is becoming rarer by the day, but it still happens. In a previous post, I detailed my issues with PCLinuxOS 2009 and trying to run the latest version of Firefox. I have had similar experiences in the past with other "brand name" distros. However, with my recent upgrade to PCLinuxOS 2010, I can happily report that I have been able to run the latest versions of all my favorite apps without issue.
So in defense of Linux, I figured I would mention a few of my favorite apps, and some alternatives available in the various categories. Just a reminder though, my perspective is from that of the home user/hobbyist. Those looking for hard hitting reviews of business level apps can let Google be their friend. I am sure there are plenty of sites that review such programs. So without further ado, on with the show!
Without a doubt, this has become the "killer app" regardless of platform. I can remember the first time I saw Netscape Navigator just after it came out. I was in awe of what it could do. Funny thing is, in spite of all the advances(some of them of dubious necessity), a web browser is still pretty much just a web browser. Yes we have gone from animated gif files, to flash animation and Java, to HTML 5 and all it will bring. But if you look at the most popular site on the net, Google.com, it still looks just like plain old HTML. Hence the dubious comment above. At any rate, with Linux, the choice of web browsers is practically limitless. With the exception of Apple's Safari browser, every other conceivable choice is available on Linux. Yes you can even run Microsoft's Internet Explorer via a Windows emulation program such as Wine, although I have never felt the need to do so. At last count there were at least 8 or 9 other choices I have seen in various Linux repositories.
The most popular of these, and one that is included in many distros is Firefox. This is, of course, available on every other desktop OS platform. It just seems to have really taken off with Linux. I think basically this is due to the fact that Firefox operates just the same, regardless of OS. There are some slight menu variations, but other than that, it is just plain old Firefox. Another reason for it's popularity are the various plugin apps available for it. Everything from ad blockers to automatic e-mail checkers to various download helpers. I mean the list is seemingly endless. I still use Firefox occasionally, but have recently switched to a relative new kid on the block as my main web browser.
The open source Chromium browser has become my weapon of choice. This browser is also the basis for Google's branded Chrome web browser and upcoming Chrome OS. The main reason for my switch? Speed. Surfing the web is just so much faster with Chromium on Linux than anything else I have tried. Supposedly the Opera browser is even faster, but I just have never liked the look or operation of that one. And in my testing, it was not appreciably faster for me. While Chromium does not yet have the large plugin library that Firefox enjoys, it is gaining ground rapidly. The interface does take a little getting used to, and I would prefer more ability to customize some buttons and such but overall, this program is a real winner. For those concerned about privacy with regards to Google, there is a Chromium variant called Iron that seems to address these issues.
For those nostalgic for the old Netscape browser, it still lives on as something called SeaMonkey. As a matter of fact I still use this, albeit not as a web browser. I use the Composer component to write this blog. It is still one of the best WYSIWYG HTML editors available. It even includes a spell checker. It is still adequate as a web browser, although not as fast as Chromium, or as plugin rich as Firefox. Still a good product that continues to improve with age. The original Netscape Navigator is even still available in some repositories. I know version 9 is available in the PCLOS repositories.
The rest of the list includes some old favorites a bit past their prime such as Galeon and Konqueror, which also serve as file managers in Gnome and KDE respectively. There are some more obscure variants such as Midori, Arora, Epiphany, Dillo, and Flock. I have tried these, but really find nothing special about them. They do work, but each has it's limitations. And for those really, really nostalgic, the old text based Lynx, Links, and eLinks browsers can still be run in a terminal! Unfortunately they are not very functional on most modern web sites.
At last count I had something like 58,000 images amassed over the years. Some of these were downloaded from the internet, and others were taken with both analog and digital cameras. I am sure many of these are duplicates as my backup practices historically have been a bit haphazard. Recently I began reviewing this collection to find the duplicates, and delete any others that are not worth keeping. Truth be told, I have not even viewed some of these since Al Gore invented the Internet. At any rate, I tried out various programs available for just such a task, and finally decided on Google's Picasa. It's main function is that of a photo collection manager, but it also contains some rudimentary editing tools. After importing all your photos(this can take a while), you can go into the menu straight away and look for duplicates. You can also do some editing or touch up work such as cropping, and red-eye reduction, sharpening, etc... Many of these tasks can also be done in batch format on groups of images at once. Overall, I would have to say it is a first rate program, and works just the same as it did when I used it on a Windows machine.
While Picasa is very good at most things, one thing I found a bit lacking was the "Show duplicate files" function under Tools->Experimental menu. While it does find duplicates, it misses more than it finds. While searching for a Linux tool for this function, I was amazed that I could not find anything useful. Those that claimed to perform this feature really did not, or did not do it very well either. Then I ran across something called Awesome Duplicate Photo Finder. This is actually a Windows program, but it runs perfectly in Wine. It is just a simple tool that does one thing very well. If anything, it has the opposite problem from the aforementioned programs in that it not only finds duplicates, but "near" duplicates. Highly recommended for those who have the need.
Other programs I tried, but found lacking in one way or another, were Gthumb, Album Shaper, DigiKam, Enki, Ephoto, flphoto, F-Spot, K Image Database, and more basic tools such as Gwenview. I even tried the various standard file manager programs such as Dolphin. The programs did all work as advertised, but just did not meet my particular needs. For those in need of a more serious video editing tool, there is really only one for Linux. It is called the gimp which is short for Gnu Image Manipulation Program. It is not as complete as Adobe's Photoshop, but it will probably do about 90% of what Photoshop can do. I will warn you that the learning curve is a bit steep, and the interface is a bit odd as well. One of the biggest hurdles is learning the photo jargon. This probably will not be an issue for serious photographers.
Unlike many other humans on the planet, I do not own an iPod, or any similar portable music player. I still have a CD collection, and various players to play them on including this laptop. I did "digitize" my collection many years ago, although I cannot recall which program I used. All the files have been converted to the ogg/Vorbis format, and have been backed up on DVD. When I do listen to music on the laptop though, I generally listen to the digitized version. I have tried many music player programs over the years, but I generally use some variant of MPlayer. I say variant as there are various GUI front ends for the MPlayer program which itself can be run from the command line. Of late, I have been using a GUI called SMPlayer. It seems to work very well. I like the way the play list displays, and the controls for it. In addition to various audio and video formats, it can handle DVD's, live streams, as well as TV and internet radio.
Other MPlayer front ends include KMPlayer, Gnome-MPlayer, the plain old MPlayer GUI, and a few others. I have also used the VLC media player with good success. Another popular music player is Amarok. I do not use it myself, but it does seem to work well. And for those who do own an iPod, the defacto program to handle those devices seems to be Floola. Once again, never used it, but I hear it works extremely well. For those with other brands of portable music players, Banshee seems to be a good choice.
A couple of years ago I had a project of turning old into new. I had a large collection of VHS tapes that I wanted to "digitize". Back then the choices were limited on Linux, but I did manage to get it done. I already had a cheap TV card in my PC which worked well with Linux and the TV program included in the distro. Once again, very rudimentary, but it did work. I was also able to do some minor editing with a product called Avidemux which I still use on occasion. Very fast and solid for what it does. These days I mainly use it for quick trimming and file conversions. Of course today, we have a lot more choices on Linux. For my money, the cream of the crop in video editing is OpenShot. It can best be described as the Linux answer to Microsoft's Movie Maker, or Apple's iMovie. It is not a replacement for the professional level tools from Adobe or Apple, but it should easily handle the needs of even the most demanding home user.
Other programs in this category are Pitivi, Open Movie Editor, Lives, Kino, Kdenlive, and Cinelerra. These did not suit my needs, but I encourage you to try them on for size. Another tool for simple file conversions is the VLC Player listed above. It is a bit slow, but gets the job done. There is yet another alternative which is available as an entire customized distro. It is called Ubuntu Studio. The difference here is that the entire distro comes prepackaged with various multimedia editing/authoring tools. I tested it briefly a couple of years ago but it was not what I was looking for. As I understand it, the included tools are more on a professional level than the "home user" products I described. Many of the tools are sort of starter versions of the Linux based products that Hollywood uses. The tools also run the gamut from video to audio to various graphics formats. It is all a bit over my head. Maybe someday, when I have a few spare months, I may delve into it. Of course, it may be very understandable to those seriously into such stuff.
I really do not deal with audio editing much any more, but the clear winner here is Audacity. Fairly simple, and yet also very powerful. Another sub category in this area that I still use would be CD/DVD burning. For me the gold standard here is K3B. It is simply the best app of its type, regardless of platform. I have used it since its inception. Others in this category are GnomeBaker, Grafburn, SimpleBurn, and one that is moving up the ranks to challenge K3B called Brasero. Brasero is good, but still needs a bit of polishing.
Here at the Home Office
I really do not have much need for "office" type applications these days. I cannot recall the last time I used a real word processor, although this SeaMonkey Composer is sort of a basic word processor. It just works in the HTML format as opposed to the DOC or ODT formats. At any rate, as noted in the previous post, I do use a spreadsheet occasionally. I prefer Gnumeric myself because it is light, fast and basic. If I were to choose a companion word processor, it would be Abiword. Also light, simple and fast. Of course, the defacto standard office suite in the Linux world is OpenOffice,org. It competes directly with the well known Microsoft Office suite which I used in a past life at a real job. Personally, if I had to use such a product for a living, I would choose OpenOffice, even if I were using Microsoft Windows. I just prefer the way it looks/works over MS Office. Another option in the Linux world would be Koffice. Truth be told, if I really, really had my choice, I would use the old DOS versions of Word Perfect and Lotus 123. These could be run in Linux using an emulator called DosBox, but I digress.
Another type of office suite that is gaining in popularity is the online or "Cloud" variety. These reside on the internet and are accessed through a web browser. Google docs is probably the most popular, but Microsoft and Apple are entering this arena as well. Other players in this area include Zoho, and thinkfree Online. Of these, I have only tried Google docs and Zoho, and both seem to work well.
Another category of home office software is financial. Many folks still use the Quicken program to manage their personal finances as I did years ago. However, when I made the switch to Linux, I discovered GnuCash and never looked back. It easily imported all my Quicken files and I was off and running. I also liked the interface better than Quicken. If there is a better home office financial program than the current version of GnuCash, I have yet to find it. Having said that, many folks prefer something called KMyMoney. It is equally full featured, but I just do not care for the interface. If anything, it is closer to Quicken, so the learning curve might be less for some folks. There are various other programs I dabbled with at one time or another, but they were just not my cup of tea. Still you might wish to check out: MyFinances, HomeBank, iFreeBudget, and Skrooge. Yet another package is Money Manager Ex. I mention it separately as it is actually more complex, and as such, has a steeper learning curve. I believe it is actually closer to a QuickBooks replacement than a home finance program. It has been a while since I have seen QuickBooks, so I could be wrong. At any rate, all are definitely worth checking out.
Earlier I stated that this has become less of a priority for me, but I still play the occasional time waster game. Go to your Linux distros' repository and you'll likely fine dozens of games available for download. Just type game into the search box. These range from simple Solitaire style card games(Backbone is my favorite), to graphics heavy first person shooters. The latter are actually "old" by today's standards, but still enjoyable nonetheless. Of course since you have a web browser, and it does not care what OS you are running, you have access to thousands on online games at thousands of web sites. Most of these are of the simple flash based variety, but there have been recent efforts to "up the ante". id software came out with an online version of Quake Wars a while back. I have not kept up with it, but it appears to be still going strong. There has also been talk of a few companies which purport to let you play even the most demanding games through a web browser. If this works, you could conceivably play something like Crysis on any machine, running any OS. It will be interesting to watch the progress. After all, talk is cheap.
One of the most important announcements regarding Linux gaming came fairly recently. It was announced that a native version of Steam would be coming to Linux. Of course, getting Steam to run has never been that much of a problem. I ran the Windows version in Wine for a couple of years. The problem was, and still is, the "very" limited selection of games that would run on Linux. I ran a few Linux native games like Quake 4 and Doom3. I even managed to run some older Windows first person shooters such as Far Cry and Prey. However, at some point, Linux is going to have to modernize to keep up. The greater gaming public is just not clamoring to play 4-5 year old games. Hopefully the Steam thing will finally get us going in the right direction. Some other similar efforts are programs such as Wine Doors, djl, and Play on Linux. I have not messed with these much, but they do seem to work.
In closing I would just like to say that this is by no means a definitive list. There are literally hundreds of other apps available. Just use whatever tool your distro employs for adding software and I think you will be amazed at what you find.