For those unaware, there is a simple way to encourage developers to produce gaming content for the GNU/Linux platform. The Kickstarter website is currently being used by producers seeking financial assistance to develop everything from music to games. Since the money is coming from regular people such as yourself and I, the developers have no choice but to listen and agree to some of the terms of those providing the money. If a significant enough amount of money comes from people using GNU/Linux, it will be impossible for developers to make their games exclusive to Windows or the Mac. Similarly, if GNU/Linux-friendly projects are already available on the web site, it would make sense to favour those instead of those which are readily being promoted for Windows alone. Money talks and if producers realize that ignoring the free community will prevent them from receiving the funds they so strongly desire, they will find a way to either make a GNU/Linux version or make that version a priority.
Earlier this year, Valve released the final version of Steam for GNU/Linux and by that gave users of the free operating system access to a wide variety of games native to the platform. Finally, GNU/Linux would get what it has long been asking for: games.
While Valve’s offering is definitely the best attempt at introducing games to the operating system, it does come with a few problems that prevent it from succeeding as we all hope it would.
To begin, Steam is downloadable in .deb format on its web site. While that may be excellent for anyone using the recommended Ubuntu distribution, Debian or Linux Mint, it ignores anyone who chooses Fedora, openSUSE or my personal favourite Sabayon. Essentially, users of those distributions will have to wait for Steam to appear in their repositories albeit without the official support of Valve itself.
Secondly, if your installed distribution happens to be 64-bit, Steam does not automatically install the necessary 32-bit libraries which would allow the majority of games to work. If your experience is anything like mine, you will be left wondering why the game you purchased refuses to load unless you venture onto support forums and patiently scour through the threads to find out which libraries you’re missing. In my opinion, Steam should make an attempt to install those libraries for you.
Third, Steam makes little or no attempt to warn you that you might be best served to use a proprietary or closed-source driver for your video card. While certain games definitely don’t need to tap into the full potential of your GPU, a game like Killing Floor might look a lot better if you used the officially-supported Catalyst or NVIDIA drivers rather than their free counterparts. While some of the more educated GNU/Linux users already know that proprietary drivers are necessary, beginners will be shocked by the lack of initial performance and distributions like Ubuntu no longer (at least from 12.10) make it easy to install the refined drivers. Anyone who already knows how well a game might run under Windows will be disgusted by the GNU/Linux experience on the same computer and run back to Microsoft’s offering.
Finally, the games available for Steam are not yet anything special. While there are a few winners such as Crusader Kings 2 and Counterstrike: Source, most of the games are very small, independent games which don’t push the power of anyone’s computer and look more at home on an iPhone. Nobody expects the library to be perfect on day one, but there is no excuse for Valve not to make some of its bigger titles such as Half-Life 2 and Portal available to GNU/Linux users. All of Steam’s users are aware that convincing Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Blizzard to come on-board will be difficult, but Valve itself should make it a priority to have all of its games available to the platform they are pushing.
Either way, GNU/Linux is closer than it has ever been to being a complete experience for the end-user and that is thanks in no small part to Valve’s contribution. There is some work to be done but I am certain that we will all be impressed with Steam for GNU/Linux’s evolution two years from today.
A while back I posted about how I was convinced that Linux (or GNU/Linux as it should be called) stands no chance of being adopted on a grand scale by the population. Though my opinion hasn’t changed, I am convinced that the smarter elements of the population should make it a priority to adopt as much free software as it can on its desktops and laptops. The reason for this is fairly simple to understand: if the population can weaken the control corporations and governments have on them by using software and drivers which are transparent in their function, not only is the population removing the potential that some of their favourite programs may have malware of any kind, but they are also letting the evildoers know that an invasion of their privacy will not be tolerated.
However, privacy is not the only issue at hand. I use an entirely free GNU/Linux distribution on the beloved laptop which I am typing this from. The reason I have removed and replaced the Windows 7 installation it came with in favour of GNU/Linux is because despite offering certain features I generally enjoy (access to the largest library of software in existence in addition to Blu-Ray playback), the manufacturer of the laptop did not allow me to install the official NVIDIA driver for its GPU. Instead, I was forced to use the version they were supplying, outdated and buggy as it was, because the manufacturer refused to have the chip be recognized as what it truly was: a GeForce 310M with no special quality of any kind. The mere fact that I could not update the driver unless I made an attempt to hack the binary NVIDIA provides for its customers was a harsh reminder of the fact that corporations believe we don’t own the products we bought even after they have been legally paid for. GNU/Linux makes no such attempt to control its users, allowing them to install whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want and with the assurance that their privacy will be respected and that their choice will remain confidential in every sense of the word.
Free software offers you that liberty. With each passing day, the alternatives remove more of that liberty from us.
Despite the fact that our household can easily afford even the ultimate cable package that Videotron offers, my wife and I recently decided to cut it entirely and to rely on a traditional antenna. The cut saves us 65$ a month and only cost us approximately 100$ for the antenna, the cables and the amplified splitters.
Why did we cut the cable? Simple. Most of the programs we watched happened to be on American networks and those networks are available for free, in high-definition, over the air. CBS, NBC and FOX broadcast strong signals which can easily be picked up by even the crappiest attic antenna. ABC too, in our region, emits a signal though picking it up is a little bit harder since their broadcast tower sends out a weak signal which happens to be on the VHF-HI wave when absolutely everything else is on UHF. It doesn’t matter though: Modern Family isn’t that funny and I can live without seeing the idiots fighting over a single woman on the Bachelor. If those three networks aren’t enough, PBS offers us 7 different channels with excellent programming on top of CTV, Global, Télé-Québec, TVA, V Télé, Metro 14, CBC and Radio-Canada. With cable, not only do I not get PBS’ 7 channels but I would be charged 2$ a month for the one channel they do offer, the same goes for ABC, NBC, FOX and CBS.
The argument here would be: won’t you miss watching so many sports? Sure. Absolutely. In a year where there is no hockey season, I’ll definitely miss paying for the channel. I’ll especially miss paying for the service, then paying 2$ a month for each of the sports channels, an extra 3$ for the second terminal in our house, 3$ again for the high-definition feed and yet another 3$ to be able to get TSN and RDS in HD (because the original HD fee somehow doesn’t cover it). Considering I only have time to watch a hockey game on Saturday anyway, I can live with watching the Canadiens (when they return to action) on CBC’s free channel with their excellent OBJECTIVE coverage. They happen to have Don Cherry on there too and he’s a lot more interesting than commentators like Mario Tremblay who deserves absolutely no speaking time whatsoever for being solely responsible for alienating Patrick Roy from the team. If ever I do actually want to know what’s going on during a weeknight game, I can simply turn on the radio, stream the radio broadcast over the Internet or find some illegal visual stream of the game within minutes of surfing the web.
Will I miss being able to get quality shows like Game of Thrones or Spartacus on The Movie Netwrok and HBO? Absolutely. That’s why I use iTunes and purchase the seasons from there at a considerably lower price than if I kept premium cable. If I don’t feel like following the legal route, I can simply download the episodes from a torrent site like the Pirate Bay and get the same content. Of course, I try to keep things legal since I feel that quality deserves compensation but options are available to both moral and immoral individuals.
Cable, on the other hand, is an archaic technology which strips options away from the individual. Seriously, when I was cancelling Videotron, the representative was trying to convince me that not only would I get no more than two channels, those I would get would be low in quality and constantly distorted. This despite the fact that all channels are all digital and available in uncompressed 1080i or 720p. He also tried to get me to believe that weather storms would knock out the programming, despite the fact that it happens extremely rarely and frankly less often than Videotron itself failing. In a last ditch effort to keep my business, they offered me an 8$ monthly subscription (for only a year mind you) which would give me their basic programming. This basic programming, which turns out to usually be 25$, only gives me channels which I would get over an antenna anyway minus ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and PBS. No thanks.
If you’re like me and don’t like to spend your entire day in front of a television, consider investing in the inexpensive technology which will allow you to continue occasionally watching television. If you love television though, consider whether you can get the programming you love elsewhere, at a better price, in a more convenient way. Don’t let cable fool you into believing that its expensive solution is the only way.
I’ll especially miss Videotron’s yearly letter which thanks me for being such a loyal customer and then charges me an extra few dollars a month.
One of the things that’s bothered me over the years is the quality of my music. From the early days when I downloaded 128 kbps MP3 files over Napster to the current era in which I purchased files of supposed high quality from 7digital at 320 kbps, I could never understand why the expensive speakers and custom radio in my car would always include unwanted crackling and what I can only describe as an absolute mess of sounds when more than two instruments played simultaneously. Since then, I’ve managed to educate myself and figured that I would share the results.
Before I begin, let’s get one thing straight: there are two types of digital music files. The first kind is the one you most likely have a high volume of on your hard drive. It is a lossy music file. The second kind is one which only people who actually care about sound quality use: the lossless music file. The difference between the two is fairly significant. Lossless files basically guarantee that there will be absolutely no difference in sound quality between them and a CD an individual might put into a radio. They are called lossless because they don’t sacrifice anything in being converted and then compressed into a digital form. However, the files are usually quite large with single songs often taking up as much as 50 megabytes on your hard drive. People with thousands upon thousands of songs but limited storage on their media players will likely not find it convenient to convert their files into the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) or the lossless version of Windows Media Audio knowing that their library suddenly takes up 100 gigabytes from the previous 20.
The second type of digital music file is the lossy one. Unlike the lossless format, lossy requires that there be a sacrifice between the original file and the end result if the user intends for it to remain below 10 megabytes in size. Whether the file is converted to 128 kbps or the highest that MP3 allows at 320 kbps, something will be lost along the way. In my experience, the quality difference is most noticeable when more than one instrument is playing at a time. In rock songs especially, when two guitars are playing at the same time as the drummer hits a series of notes, the consequent mess is quite audible. In other parts, it seems to sound identical to a lossless file which often gives people the impression that MP3 is quite good enough for their listening needs. The truth is that it isn’t, regardless of which encoder you use, unless your standards are quite low.
However, there are other formats available which all seem to have different results. Competing with MP3 are the Windows Media Audio and Vorbis formats. One is provided to the world by Microsoft, comes in different flavours (lossless, professional, variable bitrate and regular) while the other is completely open-source and provided to the world by the Xiph.org Foundation. Like MP3, WMA plays on most or all music players other than those manufactured by Apple whereas Vorbis (which uses the file suffix OGG) generally lacks the support MP3 or even WMA. As a result, using Vorbis is generally not favourable for that reason alone. Nevertheless, those looking for sound quality alone would be well-served with Vorbis as the format sounds a lot better than MP3 does at the same bitrate, produces smaller files and allows them to support the open-source movement. For its part, WMA also sounds a lot better than MP3 at the same bitrate, especially if you encode in the professional WMA format. The sound is cleaner and – if the encoding is done through Windows Media Player – includes all of the song information a consumer would want as well as its album art. No music playback program in Windows or Linux seems to do that for OGG files. Strangely enough, even when compared with the same song encoded at a higher bitrate like 320 kbps, the professional WMA file sounds a lot cleaner for me both when played through my portable music device and especially through the car speakers. Therefore, encoding at the maximum bitrate WMA Pro seems to support which is 192 kbps, I get smaller files of better quality which also happen to carry more song information than a 320 kbps MP3 and play on the same or at least a comparable number of media devices.
Of course, while WMA Pro happens to sound pretty good, it doesn’t compare as favourably when compared to a lossless format. Most people probably won’t hear a difference, but those with excellent hearing or using excellent audio equipment might be disappointed with the results they get encoding into that format. Still, it is my choice format.
Over the last few weeks, a curious thing happened. Despite having migrated from commercial platforms to an entirely free desktop due to concerns with privacy, I made the conscious choice to return to Windows 7 and then pay for an upgrade to Windows 8.
Do I regret the decision? No, absolutely not. Though it may have received less than stellar reviews from some critics, Windows 8 on the whole is a fairly innovative operating system with changes which render the system a lot more secure than its competitors. As well, it has support for the technology that I use daily (Silverlight for Netflix, Flash for Youtube, Blu-Ray for purchased discs) and for the hardware I have purchased.
That, in essence, is what has driven me away from Linux in the first place: the support. While the open-source operating environment has a great base of developers ensuring that the system remains as respectful of the end-user him or herself and working on drivers for everything from GPU’s to wireless cards, neither of these is enough to guarantee that the user will have an enjoyable and complete experience on the desktop. On the whole, Linux is an excellent system if your expectation of what the system can provide is low. However, if multimedia is a concern for you, many obstacles stand in the way of your getting everything that you deserve and have paid for in your hardware’s purchase.
To begin, there is a matter of hardware support. While the programmers responsible for Linux’s development have done an excellent job of making sure that your hardware is supported post-install, there is no way for them to guarantee that the support is complete. For example, the default driver for NVIDIA GPU’s, Nouveau, was reverse-engineered and developed to support a wide range of older and current NVIDIA architectures. However, it consistently gets slaughtered in benchmark tests when pitted against the closed-source driver. Of course, that’s only if the driver actually works for your GPU in the first place. AMD fares a little better in that the open-source driver did not have to be reverse-engineered and is rather provided to the public by the corporation itself. Nevertheless, even IT fares poorly against its closed-source counterpart. Of the companies selling GPU’s in general, only Intel provides a proper open-source driver for the Linux environment and abides by the rules of the community. Intel, still, is not what gamers choose when they look for a GPU.
Obviously, people don’t have to use the open-source driver. You are free to use the closed-source driver if you so desire. Doing that, unfortunately, means that you have tainted the kernel and that issues may arise. If they do, the very fact that the kernel is tainted prevents the community from helping you out. In other words, you’re damned by poor performance if you keep the default driver but feel good in knowing that you’re using software developed by the community which can further be developed by yourself. On the other hand, you receive excellent performance by using the closed-source driver but corrupt the core of your system and open the door to issues which will remain unresolved because the code behind that software is unavailable and unknown to anyone willing to assist you.
Evidently, using the open-source driver is a better idea. However, doing that could result in issues with vsync, random crashing and not just poor performance but absolutely embarrassing performance from hardware which you KNOW is capable of a lot more than what you are getting. That’s in addition to the fact that the aforementioned free drivers often lack support for features which you figured were available by default.
Another area where Linux is suffering is in its support for wireless cards. While some companies, such as Atheros, have been good about opening up their hardware and making it fairly easy for open-source drivers to be developed which operate properly, others such as Broadcom have taken the NVIDIA approach and kept their hardware closed. As a result, users have to rely on proprietary drivers to connect to their wireless network at home or at work. This is a problem for two reasons: 1) it taints the kernel as was mentioned earlier which means that if an issue arises, you’re on your own, 2) it requires the user to be completely dependent on the company. You can’t fix the problem on your own because the driver operating that piece of hardware is closed and you can only hope that the company is aware of the issue and even bothers to release an update or a fix.
However, a Linux user and advocate would cite that the problems I’ve mentioned all have to do with the fact that the corporations behind the hardware refuse to provide proper documentation for the hardware or simply refuse to open the driver in general. That might be true, whether these complaints will lead to a change in how the corporation supports its hardware nevertheless remains to be seen. In Windows, everything is generally closed and hardware manufacturers release new drivers and fixes because they are forced to: if they stop supporting the hardware, people stop buying it and those people refusing to buy from that company again represent 90% of all computer users in general. If a Linux user refuses to buy a certain piece of hardware due to a lack of support, they are part of a minority and corporations tend not to care if at most 1% of their market is boycotting them. As a result, Windows users benefit not because their operating system is better but because it’s more popular.
Discarding any kind of hardware issues, there are other reasons why Linux might have trouble succeeding as a desktop operating system. For one, it’s impossible for any kind of user to know which way the wind is blowing. Should they be using KDE with its absolutely abhorrent design which is somehow considered unbelievably pretty by many members of the community all the while featuring some of the worst native applications imaginable? Should they be using GNOME which stood the test of time but suddenly decided to become the easiest GUI in the world and alienated most of its developers while still featuring the best native applications in the world? Should they be using XFCE which is insanely fast and low on resource requirements but also unable to take full advantage of the hardware one might be running? Finally, should they be running Unity which seeks to make the Linux experience as hassle-free as possible but also as unreasonably slow with its seldom optimized code? While choice is always a good thing, these choices all have their advantages and their drawbacks. It’s similar to the situation car buyers had in Quebec in the 70′s and 80′s: they could buy any car that they wanted as long as it was a butt-ugly American gas guzzler which would fall apart before the financing was over. Secondly, some users who prefer Linux might not actually be against the corporate user of digital rights management (DRM) in what it sells. Netflix, for instance, provides users with the opportunity to watch as many movies as they would want in a month for less than 10$. Those users, nevertheless, need to agree to using Silverlight. That technology, while available in Linux, does not support DRM which allows Netflix to protect its content as well as the rights of the content’s producers. Similarly, Blu-Ray discs allow users to watch movies in the highest resolution movies are produced in. Nevertheless, protecting the disc’s content requires all playback software to use a set of keys. This goes against what the Linux community stands for and commercial Blu-Ray decrypting is therefore unavailable to end-users. In fact, even decrypting a regular DVD goes against what the community stands for: users are warned that installing the software Videolan provides with its VLC software for DVD playback might be illegal. Essentially, embracing Linux means that the user is also forced to adopt an absolute distaste of commercial technology regardless of what benefits it might provide.
In the end, users should know that whichever operating system they are using, there are going to be inconveniences. Using Windows will ensure that all of the world’s malware may affect you in one way or another and that you will never, ever see the code behind any of the software you are using but using Linux will ensure that many of the decisions a user might want to make will be made for them especially in terms of hardware and multimedia support. With all of the missteps that Microsoft has made over the years, Linux should be in a prime position to take over as the default operating system for PC installs. However, with spotty hardware support and a strong lack in multimedia, it might frighten more users than it attracts.