Linux Lite: Cobind and the Simpler Life

Recently, I got my hands on version 0.2 of Cobind, a Linux lite desktop, based on Red Hat/Fedora Core 1, from a software company in Pittsburgh. Not yet in general release, Cobind is a one disc wonder.

I tested Cobind 0.2 on what I can only describe as a leftover machine: a Gateway PII, 128 megs RAM, 10 gig hard drive, 3.5 1.44 mg floppy, Ethernet 10 Base TX, and an EV700 Gateway Monitor. It also has a CS4235 sound card, although I never did get it to work. That problem notwithstanding, it was this underpowered machine that convinced me Cobind has a future; it not only worked on this machine, it worked very well.


Every distribution has an intended audience. At present, most Linux distributions are targeted at the geeknoscenti. Cobind is different.


The target user of Cobind is the Linux newcomer, particularly one moving away from Windows. This is a computer user of some sophistication, but not looking to make a career of using a new operating system.


He or she owns, at home, a Windows-based machine that no longer has enough horsepower to run the latest applications. He or she is very, very tired of Microsoft viruses.


Because this target user audience is hoping to get one more cycle of use from an older computer, we can assume that no one wants to spend any more money than necessary. Cobind goes for just $10 (plus shipping).


In addition to home use, Cobind 0.2 is also appropriate for lighter business use. I’ll get to just what’s in the package below.


Cobind has another wrinkle. Dave Watson, CEO of the company, explained in a previous interview that the design concept of Cobind Desktop is based on the excellent “Paradox of Choice,” by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz.


Schwartz writes of a trip to the grocery store, “In the pharmaceutical aisles, I found 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, and 80 different pain relievers β€” aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen; 350 milligrams or 500 milligrams; caplets, capsules, and tablets; coated or uncoated. There were 40 options for toothpaste, 150 lipsticks, 75 eyeliners, and 90 colors of nail polish from one brand alone.”


“Unlike supermarket products, those in the electronics store don’t get used up so fast. If we make a mistake, we either have to live with it or return it and go through the difficult choice process all over again. Also, we really can’t rely on habit to simplify our decision, because we don’t buy stereo systems every couple of weeks and because technology changes so rapidly that chances are our last model won’t exist when we go out to replace it. At these prices, choices begin to have serious consequences.”


Cobind is based on the notion that Linux — a reflected in most of today’s distributions — just doesn’t have to be so ridiculously wasteful of your brain’s CPU cycles.


What I like


There are many things I like about Cobind.


First among them is the window manager. XFce 4 has a crispness and elegance that reminds me of the Macintosh’s OS X. XFce’s most visible element is the panel, which does resemble the OS X dock. It isn’t identical, however. For instance, adding and removing things isn’t just a matter of dragging an icon on and off. You have to right-click, then interpret the options. Generally, that’s not too hard. The panel can be hidden, or dragged around the screen.


XFce is clearly snappier than Gnome or KDE. It uses fewer system resources. More to the point, XFce is what you get — there are no other choices.


Whether you are a Windows, a Mac, or a Linux user accustomed to Gnome or KDE, you’ll find that XFce is perfectly obvious.


It took about 40 minutes to run through the installation process on my older machine. (A new HP got it up and running in 10.) The installation program in 0.1 and 0.2 is a non-graphical version of anaconda. (I believe this will be changed in the final version.) I counted the installation steps.There are about 13 prompts, depending upon some branching choices. The questions revolve around the typical Fedora/Red Hat choices for language, keyboard layout, partitioning, time zone, and network connection. Frankly, this could be whittled further. But it’s perhaps more important to note what Cobind doesn’t ask:


* It doesn’t ask you to switch CDs. There’s only one.
* It doesn’t ask you what packages you want. You get what you get.

And that is? The XFce panel includes three tools for using the Internet:
*web browser – Firefox 0.8.
*email – Thunderbird 0.6
*instant messaging – GAIM .78-1.FC


It presents three tools for office work:
* word processing – Abiword 2.0.1
* spreadsheet – Gnumeric 1.2.1
* managing your money – GnuCash 1.8.8


It offers three tools for multimedia:
* Video player – Mplayer 0.9
* Music Player – xmms 1.2.10
* CD Burner – K3b 0.11.9


It offers three system tools:
* Window settings – XFce settings manager
* Software Manager – Cobind’s own “yumi,” a graphical front-end to yum, Fedora Core 1’s tool for installing and removing software, as well as handling dependencies.
* A manual — a disk version of XFce’s web page manual.


In addition, there’s an icon for gnome terminal, for file management (Nautilus), for the Gedit text editor, for locking the screen, for logging out, and for a system clock.


In general, all of these load and run very quickly. Nor is there much overlap between tools.


At first, it seemed to me that a couple of more monolithic packages– the Mozilla and OpenOffice suites, for instance — would have been simpler yet. But after using the built-in choices for awhile, I’ve changed my mind. Abiword, Firefox, and the others are a good match for the clean interface and speed of XFce. Moreover, they do most of what you really need to do.


That means you might miss some feature important to you. On the other hand, I’ve come to prefer Firefox to Mozilla, and Thunderbird to Mozilla Mail, because of what they add, not what they take away.


It happens that I came to the Linux world via Red Hat, beginning with Red Hat 8.0, and working up to Fedora Core 1 before branching out to other distributions. As Cobind is based on Fedora Core 1, there are many touches that make Cobind familiar. Even though XFce is the window manager, it uses Nautilus and the GTK+ tool kit. There are familiar icons for “home” and “start here” and “trash.” The redhat-config tools are all at hand, too.


Trouble


A few things are a little troublesome in the release.


I haven’t tried to compile anything from source. While loading up the machine with a bunch of other applications is both possible and relatively easy, it also seems against the point. But Fedora’s yum is there, and I tested it on sndconfig, JPilot, and even Openoffice.org. Yum is now very comparable to Debian’s apt. It took just two commands: “yum update” and “yum install openoffice.org”, to pack that complex package onto my computer. I messed with yumi, but found it a little buggy. It was far slower than yum, and crashed twice.


My attempt to launch the manual gave me an error message: “Unable to execute mozilla. Online help is not available.” However, the XFce manuals are easily Googled.


There are legal difficulties around the use of various browser and multimedia plugins. And that’s a problem for the new Linux user. The good news is that what operates out of the box with Linux is always improving. Most things — both new hardware and bundled applications — “just work.” The bad news is, when something doesn’t work, it is a royal pain to fix.


Cobind bundles in Mplayer. Installing plugins for Shockwave, RealPlayer, and Java remains a sudden plunge into complexity — a real issue for Cobind’s intended users.


Neither Red Hat’s sound card detection nor sndconfig (a utility for older cards) could coax a peep out of my equipment. But frankly, on this machine, that’s not an issue for me. For some, it might be.


Games: There aren’t any. This makes it an excellent choice for the young student.


Conclusions


The surprising thing has been just how much of a pleasure Cobind is to use. Most things snap to the screen. The software feels modern and smoothly integrated. I haven’t had this much fun with a new distribution in a long time. For just a second version (with first only a month or two old), Cobind is remarkably stable and polished.


In sum, Cobind has breathed new life into an old machine, turning it into an excellent bedroom computer — ideal for quick browsing, email, or a letter.


Thoreau once wrote, “We become the tools of our tools.” Cobind just might be a step toward a simpler, and happier, life.


About the author:
James LaRue is the director of the Douglas Public Library District, headquartered in Castle Rock, Colorado. He has been using Linux since August of 2002, and is the process of moving his library system to Open Source.

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