The Linux Setup – Luke Jones, Student

Luke is a thoughtful Linux user so there’s a lot of great stuff here, from helpful GNOME extensions to useful software, like the always popular Zim Wiki. His reasons for using Linux are also great. And I love that gaming is in the mix. I was considering a gaming console, but I’m holding off until I get a new desktop machine. I’m wondering if Steam on good, modern Linux hardware will scratch my gaming itch.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

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  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I’m Luke Jones, a student in software engineering at Massey University in New Zealand. Although the degree I’m doing is more web dev/server/cloud engineering focused, I’ve managed to build a selection of papers that will enable me to achieve my goal of specializing in lower level/systems programming. And thanks to some very, very good professors who love what they do and do everything in their power to help their students work their best, I can do a final year special project using my favorite new language: Rust.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I’ll start with a quick brief on why I first started using Linux.

    I first started using Linux in…1999…I think. Not long after Unreal (the game) came out anyway. I’d seen a book about Linux in the local library, which also came with the CD. It piqued my curiosity because I hadn’t known that there were other operating systems available, and I didn’t like Windows much. This particular book was Slackware. I’ll always remember that as my first taste of Linux because at the age of 17 I had no idea what libraries were, and consequently reinstalled Slackware a gazillion times because I kept breaking dependencies (which didn’t exist in the packages of course). This didn’t put me off, as I was very curious about this new OS and was amazed that everything came with the source code.

    Now I use Linux for a number of reasons:

    • Stability: I’m still absolutely amazed at how bad Windows can be. My old workplace had a Windows server that crashed every month. Insane! Contrast this to Linux. I really can’t remember the last time I had a crash; maybe an app crash, but that never brought the foundations down with it.
    • Security: Yes, everything is only as secure as we can build it. But I’m talking about the ability to fully and easily manage every aspect of security. If I want to fully lock down my PC using fully encrypted disks, hard file permissions, disable services, etc, I can. Windows and OS X are only as secure as you’re allowed to make them.
    • Customizing: This is the biggy, but also the one which can put many people off. The sheer amount of choice is incredible, but unfortunately not all of it is good. This is why I’m glad we have several large distributions (and quite a few smaller ones) that enforce quality control, give us preset- and task-specific installs, and decide which apps are best suited to the task. Too often I hear newcomers wail, “But where do I start? What is best for this or that?”
    • Control: Basically as above, you can decide what the hardware that you own is allowed to do, and how you use it. Of course, if you’re not one of those people who prefer this (or the above), and just want to use your PC, there are distributions such as openSUSE which install and set up with sane defaults.
    • Gaming: Yes, gaming. I don’t have Windows installed, and will probably never use it again. Valve has worked absolute wonders for gaming on Linux. It’s amazing! Ten years ago, you could count the amount of commercial games on two hands and a foot. Now I think we’re over 2,000 games within three years. Granted, not all are good but that is true of any gaming platform; and we have some seriously good games available, both indie and AAA. The viability of Linux as a gaming platform is a dream come true, and with the way Microsoft is moving these days, it’s an incredibly important step in keeping what is a world-wide cultural phenomenon open and accessible. You don’t want Microsoft controlling how gaming is done on a PC. To this extent, take serious note of what Tim Sweeney has been saying, and pay attention to how Universal Windows Platform evolves. This I think, was Valve’s fear and the motivation behind SteamOS.
  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    I quite often bounce between distros. I think I’ve tried most of the top 40 on DistroWatch, including some oddball ones; mostly I do this to keep up-to-date with what everyone is doing.

    I ran Manjaro as my main distro for a couple of years. I usually recommend that to Nvidia-powered gamers, since it has the easiest open/proprietary driver installer around. Having access to the Arch User Repository is great too.

    Now I’m on OpenSUSE again (for both PCs); Tumbleweed to be specific. The YaST suite of tools is incredible, and although I know my way around a Linux install, I prefer to use YaST where I can. Unless a terminal is faster, it just takes most of the pain of configuration away.

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    Again, I’ve tried damn near all of them. There’s some very good desktops out there. Cinnamon is impressive, and I used that for a long while just because of the easy quarter tiling. More DEs need to implement that. I stopped using it because it didn’t feel quite complete at the time, plus all the panel extensions available seem to encourage “Panel Information Overload Syndrome™.” Xfce was really nice, small, and fast. The only reason I’m not using it now is because I find the GNOME workflow suits me better.

    I also tried Plasma 5 for a bit. It’s nice, but very chunky, with multiple apps doing the same thing (three-to-four different text editors?). I loved the customizability of it, and it can look very beautiful, but in the end it had many problems, crashed too often, and had the annoying system events bug where an event would reset the system sound to 100%. More than a few times that happened while I had headphones on, which was very unpleasant. I eventually had to use something else. To be honest, that has put me off Plasma almost permanently. I also had a brief fling with i3 and awesome (both are fantastic for coding). I decided I didn’t really need them, since I usually work with just a split screen. My configs for those are on GitHub.

    So I’m back on GNOME, 3.20. GNOME is…let’s just say it feels nice, cohesive and concise. All the parts match up and the user experience gives a quick workflow, once you’re used to it. There aren’t three applications to one task, and the applications available in the GNOME suite all share the same look, feel, and interface paradigm.

    There are only a few things I’ve done to customize my desktop. One is bind Alt+Left and Alt+Right to left/right window tiling, and Alt+Esc to Activities. I find it quicker to use the Activities overview and select the window with my mouse rather than cycling through with Alt+Tab. I also bound Alt+Shift+numbers to move windows to workspaces, and Alt+numbers to select the workspaces. Those shortcuts and Alt+F2 seem to be all I ever use.

    And no, I don’t use ‘Super’ for shortcuts; I physically removed it from my keyboard. That and “menu” have been the bane of my computing life ever since they appeared on keyboards.

    I also use these extensions:

    • Alternate Tab
    • Caffeine
    • Dash to Dock
    • Hide workspace thumbnails (mouse wheel scroll on Dash to Dock switches workspaces)
    • Places status indicator
    • Window Overlay Icons

    With those I think I get my perfect workflow. It’s unobtrusive, not overflowing with information, and it all integrates together nicely. Actually, I think I’ve copied the OS X style without realizing it.

  5. What one piece of Linux software do you depend upon? Why is it so
    important?

    Just one? Compilers don’t count since they’re a given for software engineering.

    I’ll say Zim Desktop Wiki. That’s quickly becoming my central organization repo since I started using it a few weeks ago. You can use it as a diary, enable plugins to write formulas, draw complex graphs and diagrams (using gnuplot, LaTeX, and other tools). You can create a hierarchy of your notes/documents, embed formatted code, and even do a website in it.

    For a bonus I’m throwing in Docear. I really could not have done my last research assignment as well as I did without Docear. Oh, and Unison, because that makes syncing my laptop and desktop files a piece of cake.

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    Intel i3 6100 Skylake, Nvidia GTX950, 8GB DDR4 whatever speed, ASUS z170i mini-ITX. All inside a Raven RVZ-01 case. I went for as-low-as-possible power usage while still being able to game. Idle use is about 40-50 watts, including my screen, and 160 watts max gaming. It plays Alien Isolation almost maxed out at between 40-60fps, so I’m happy. The only issue I had is that the WiFi is an Atheros branded one, which at the time I got it, needed extra firmware which wasn’t easily available. Annoying. Bring on the days when Linux gets first-class driver support from the majority of manufacturers.

    I also run an MSI GS70-2OD Stealth ultrabook. This has an i7 Haswell and GTX765 in it, and almost runs games as well as the desktop. The build quality is a bit rubbish though. The plastic mounting points glued to the inside of the alloy shell are separating…

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    Sure!

Luke Jones' desktop

Interview conducted April 3, 2016


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

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