Looking Back at “Desktop Madness”

Looking back at one of the longest running features here at StarKeith.net: Desktop Madness.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the registration of the StarKeith.net domain today, so I’m doing a little bit of looking back over the history of the site.

One of the longest running themes here has been my Desktop Madness series, where I post interesting wallpapers that I usually find around the Internet. This “series” didn’t start right away – in fact, the first post only dates back to November 30th, 2004 – but it’s still the longest running recurring “themes” on my site.

Desktop Madness started as just an amusing title for a post with a picture of my computer’s desktop – icons and all.

My, how times have changed.

Not long after that, I stopped posting pictures of my desktop, and instead just posted the actual background picture itself instead.

The Desktop Madness section of my site has consistently been one of the most-visited sections of my site, in terms of raw views – after all, lots of people search Google (or whatever) looking for desktop backgrounds/wallpapers.

I have a neat utility – John’s Background Switcher (I highly recommend it) – which randomly switches my background wallpaper every 15 minutes from my very large library of pictures, and I’m always finding more pictures online. At the time of this post, there are 1,303 individual pictures in my collection, which I could theoretically cycle through in just over 13 days. (Amazingly, this only takes up a measly 709 MB of space on my hard drive – most of my pictures are highly compressed PNG files.)

Of course, one downside to a popular wallpaper series like this is that people tend to download the files quite a bit. I have a great hosting provider, but I only have so much bandwidth to spare, which is why I don’t necessarily post updates as frequently as I used to. While I’d love to be able to share all these files, it’s just not economically feasible for me to host every single one of them online for anyone to download (and thus, suck up all my bandwidth).

Still, I love finding new and interesting wallpapers, and I will continue to do so – maybe not as often as I used to, but I don’t think I’m going to stop any time soon.

The Evolution of StarKeith.net

Looking back at the history of StarKeith.net.

It’s been 10 years since the domain StarKeith.net was registered, so let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at how the site (or the home page of the site, at least) has evolved over the years.

Way back in November of 2001, not long after my domain was registered and my hosting set up, StarKeith.net was little more than a “coming soon” page.

You can see the logo I had created for the site – both the text (in a futuristic/computer-y style font) and the round StarKeith logo I had invented as a kid. Back then, I had envisioned using the domain to build upon the fictional world I had invented for some stories I wrote as a kid. In a way, this was sort of a variation on the modern websites that spring up around popular science fiction shows – for example, Memory Alpha, a wiki for Star Trek. My original idea of StarKeith.net was similar to what Memory Alpha became years later.

By 2003, the site had begun to take shape:

You can see the design influences that Star Trek had on me back then. I deliberately patterned the site’s layout and style on the LCARS style from Star Trek: The Next Generation (of which I was – and still am – a huge fan).

By 2005 however, the main landing page of StarKeith.net had changed to be more of a “portal” for the various web projects I had hosted here. By this time, I had my own blog, my old personal site back from when I was in college, as well as a short-lived attempt at forums!

Eventually, I decided to move away from the fictional part of the site – I had not updated it in quite a while, and my enthusiasm for it was fading. At the same time, my own blog – as well as the blog for my pet rabbits – were becoming quite popular (well, sort of) and I wanted to bring attention to them. Also, I was tired of the black background, so I went with something much simpler and lighter, which leads us to the way the site appears today:

The current site works a bit better as a landing page, as well as a general place to point people who are interested in me. Online identity has become much more important these days, and I wanted the main page of StarKeith.net to reflect me, rather than the fictional worlds I had created as a kid.

And there we have it – a brief look back at the evolution of the main page of StarKeith.net over the last 10 years. It’ll be interesting to see where we go in the next 10 years!

Ten Years Ago

This September 12 is the 10-year anniversary of StarKeith.net!

It’s been 10 years – but it’s not what you might think it is.

In a bit of a cosmic coincidence, the domain registry entry for my site (starkeith.net) was entered into the domain registry exactly 10 years ago, on September 12, 2001.

There’s not really any significance to this – I ordered the domain much earlier than this; it just happened to get entered into the database on this day.

Regardless of the proximity to another historic date, it’s still been 10 years since I finally got my own domain (I’d had other web pages of my own since almost 1997) – and after the rather somber mood of yesterday’s 10th anniversary, I think I’m going to try to have some fun with this one.

With that in mind, here’s some links to help celebrate the 10th “birthday” of StarKeith.net!

 

Bringing back the classic “netbook remix” interface in Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”

How to bring back the classic netbook interface of the old “Ubuntu Netbook Remix” (UNR) in the latest version of Ubuntu.

The other day I saw the news that the latest version of Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal” had been released. So, like any self-respecting geek, I updated my netbook (which runs Ubuntu).

The upgrade was smooth and easy, but one thing I noticed right away after rebooting was that nothing looked the same.

The thing is, Ubuntu has committed to using the new “Unity” interface for Ubuntu, and they have also folded the netbook remix stuff into the main “Ubuntu” release. What this means is that, starting with 11.04:

  • Ubuntu uses “Unity” by default, even on netbooks
  • There is no longer a separate “netbook remix” for Ubuntu

Now, don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the “Unity” interface, and I like the idea and the execution of it is pretty great… but I disagree with the idea that this is the perfect interface for netbooks.

First off, the “Unity” interface is rather graphically intensive – it has some neat 3-D effects as you mouse over the bar – and this just really kind of bogs down a netbook. Now, maybe newer netbooks have more powerful graphics cards, but I always think of Linux as being great for older computers too, and the “Unity” interface just doesn’t cut it on older hardware.

Now, you can always switch back to the Ubuntu Classic UI (by using the Logon Screen app, or by just choosing at the login screen itself), but even that is a bit of a compromise, especially for netbooks. The netbook UI was optimized for small screens, where every inch of screen space was valuable.

ubuntu classic desktop
The "Classic" desktop isn't that great for small netbook screens

So, I set about trying to find how to bring back that classic “netbook” look that previous versions of Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) had. After some experimentation with a virtual machine (and, in the extreme, trying out some other Linux distros to see if they were more netbook-friendly) I found the way to do it.

Before we begin, I suggest that you switch to the classic UI before beginning – that way you won’t need to worry about fiddling with the “Unity” launcher bar thing.

There are 4 packages you need to have before you begin, so fire up the Synaptic package manager (or a terminal if that’s your thing) and make sure these packages are installed:

These 4 packages are what basically make up the older “Netbook Remix” edition of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu package manager - showing "netbook-launcher-efl" package
Selecting the "netbook-launcher-efl" package for installation

The first thing to do is to go to your startup applications in Ubuntu and add netbook-launcher-efl and maximus to your startup applications.

Ubuntu preferences menu - startup applications
Selecting the "Starup Applications" app from the "Preferences" menu
ubuntu startup program - add netbook-launcher-efl
Adding the Netbook Launcher to startup
ubuntu startup program - add maximus
Adding Maximus to startup
Ubuntu Startup Applications Preferences
Startup Applications

Next, add the window-picker-applet and go-home-applet to the top panel in Ubuntu. You may also want to remove some of the other panel items that are up there currently, and then re-size and re-position the panels so they look like the old netbook remix. If you have a panel at the bottom of the screen, remove that as well.

ubuntu - add to panel
Adding an applet to the panel
ubuntu - delete this panel
Deleting the lower panel

Finally, reboot the system and voilà! The look of the old Ubuntu Netbook Remix is back!

ubuntu - netbook look and feel
Ubuntu Netbook Look and Feel Restored!
ubuntu - netbook look - with windows open
Maximus and the window picker app keep things organized on small screens

I really like the netbook interface – I think it’s the best fit for netbooks, especially not-very-powerful ones like mine. The maximus package keeps windows from having a title bar (it gets merged into the panel at the top, where the window-picker-applet takes care of showing you the app’s name and giving you a close button) and of course keeps windows maximized all the time (which is the only way you’d ever want them to be on a netbook’s small screen). Plus, the netbook launcher is just great for launching the few programs you use on a netbook. The icons are huge and easy to click when using a little touchpad, and the graphics are smooth but not overdone.

Screenshot of Ubuntu on a Netbook
Ubuntu with these netbook changes on my little netbook

It’s worth mentioning that during my experimentation, I tried out a few other options, including some different distributions that claimed to be good for netbooks. One distribution I found called “EasyPeasy” was based on Ubuntu and was basically the classic “Netbook Remix” that I remember. However, it seems to lag behind Ubuntu in terms of releases – it was still using Firefox 3 for example. Still, if you’re just getting a new netbook, you might want to try EasyPeasy from the start, as it comes “out of the box” with the netbook look & feel.

However, if you want to stick with the Ubuntu you know and love, these steps will bring back that classic Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface, just the way you remember it.

(Update: if you’re using Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot, I’ve got some extra steps for you here that should do the trick.)

Some Completely Pointless Benchmarks

Just for fun, I timed how long it takes to start up my desktop computer and my netbook. Guess which one won?

Just for fun, I decided to time how long it takes to boot my computers – both my main desktop computer and my little netbook (which can boot to either Windows 7 or Ubuntu).

This was done totally unscientifically of course – I just used a stopwatch and started as soon as the BIOS POST test was over. I recorded 2 different times – the time for the desktop to appear and the time for the computer to actually be usable (that is, all startup programs have opened and no hourglass cursor).

Want to know how things turned out? I thought you might, so here’s a handy chart summarizing the results:

Desktop Computer (Windows 7) Netbook (Windows 7) Netbook (Ubuntu)
Desktop Appears: 1:03 0:54 0:36
Computer usable: 2:30 1:30 0:47

It’s probably also worth mentioning that my desktop computer loads a fair number of programs on startup – wallpaper changers, my online backup program, dropbox, etc., which accounts for it’s poor time to “computer usable.”

It’s also probably worth mentioning the specs of the two computers – the desktop is an Intel Core 2 Quad @ 2.66 GHz with 7200 RPM hard drives and 6 GB of RAM, while the netbook is an Intel Atom (single core) @ 1.6 GHz with a 5200 RPM hard drive and 1 GB of RAM.

When comparing Windows 7 startup times, the netbook edges out the desktop by just a few seconds, probably because it has fewer device drivers to initialize (the desktop has literally a dozen USB devices hanging off it, plus dual monitors, plus whatever services are configured to run at startup), but the times are otherwise pretty close.

As I said before, the time to “computer usable” for the desktop is pretty horrific due to all the stuff I load on startup (but then again, I rarely reboot the desktop).

It’s also nice to see such great times for Ubuntu – which is what I use by default on my netbook.

Part of the reason I ran these tests is I’ve been mulling over whether to add an SSD or hybrid drive to these computers.

Certainly, the desktop could use the performance boost of an SSD… but my primary boot drive is 500 GB, and I can’t afford an SSD at that capacity (if one even exists!), and I don’t feel like splitting my boot drive so it can fit on a smaller drive.

I’ve heard some decent things about so-called “hybrid” drives, which are affordable for 500 GB, and which would give me a performance boost, especially for boot-up. But at the same time, I have to consider that I don’t reboot often, and is saving, say, 30 seconds of a 2 minute 30 second boot time really worth the cost and effort? Probably not – at least, not yet, not until SSD or hybrid drive prices come down a bit further.

As for my netbook, it boots pretty darn fast as-is, but an SSD would really make a huge difference. I figure an SSD would let me boot into Ubuntu and be ready to go in probably, oh, 10-15 seconds. That would put my netbook nearly as fast for “ready to use” as a tablet computer (e.g., iPad) for a lot less cost, which would be nice. But again, the netbook has a 160 GB hard drive, and although SSD prices have come down a lot, a 160 GB SSD is still a bit too pricey for me at the moment.

Still, these numbers are interesting to have, and I think it’s clear that as SSD prices continue to fall, my netbook will probably get the first upgrade, followed by a hybrid drive for my desktop later on (or possibly an SSD, if prices fall far enough).