Touchpad problems … SOLVED! :)

I am thrilled! I am excited! I am happy! For the past few days I had been suffering a real bad case of “touchpad problems.” Let me explain.

So, a couple of days ago I switched on an old laptop and updated it to the latest Xubuntu 13.10. Till then I had been using a much smaller laptop with a very tiny, 11.6 inch screen. But, about a few weeks back I realized that I was done with those tiny-screens and really needed to get back to a larger screen on which to work. You see those tiny 10, 11 and 12 inch screen laptops have puny little bodies to go with those tiny little screens. So, the keyboards and the touchpads are smaller on those tiny laptops. And since my 11.6 incher was a Thinkpad, I had disabled the touchpad as I was only using the nipple.

Things were working ok for the first few days after switching to the 14″ behemoth. Or maybe I wasn’t noticing that things weren’t working out ok because I was too enamored with the larger screen. But, when you suddenly move to a 14″ behemoth, after years of using those tiny 11.6″ laptops everything changes. Let me explain some more …

You see on these large 14″ laptops the keyboard keys are well spaced out but you also have to move your hands a lot. But, an even bigger problem is that the touchpads are large on these larger laptops. And the biggest problem with those large touchpads is that they are placed right where your, err … my left palm would rest. Would that be a problem? It was a HUGE problem … at least for me. Because say I am in the middle of typing some code and suddenly the cursor would jump to a completely different location. Why? Because my left palm would “unknowingly” rest upon, i.e. touch, the large touchpad on the behemoth laptop.

This whole cursor jumping problem was getting so frustrating that:

  • I figured I would just throw this older, larger notebook after banging it on the wall a few times. (Yes, I do find computers, tablets and phones VERY frustrating and often contemplate whether I should just go about banging all of my computers, tablets and phones on walls. That was meant as a joke, all though I am sure my future employer will use that against me sometime.)
  • I figured I would go back to those tiny screen laptops/netbooks. But, no matter how much I zoom, i find it hard to work with those tiny screens and their smaller real estate. I mean, you zoom and you suddenly have only 50% of your code visible on the screen.
  • I figured I would get myself a trackball since that is what I was using till about a year ago. But, then, I looked around and realized that because of India’s crazily depreciating rupee and high taxes, trackballs cost a fortune in India! I mean, a China-made trackball sold by an Indian company … obviously without any warranty … costs close to about USD 60!!! That’s freaking crazy, but that’s what it is.

So, as I was about to give up on this older, larger computer and get back to my tiny, puny laptop it suddenly hit me! All I had to do was:

  • disable touchpad taps
  • switch from two finger touchpad scrolling to single finger edge scrolling.

So, I jumped into Mouse and Touchpad settings in Xubuntu System Settings and changed those two things! And voila! (I really need to find the meaning of that word voila, but, I am going to use it right now because I am really excited!) Now, the touchpad on my older, larger laptop behaves just as I want it to behave: no cursor jumping around and no typing in unknown locations. I am THRILLED! I am EXCITED! I am HAPPY!

Here’s how my mouse/touchpad settings were before I made the change … and I am going to assume those are the default settings for Xubuntu, after install:

Touchpad settings "before" I made the change. Notice that "tap touchpad to click" and "two finger scrolling" are enabled ... I guess during Xubuntu installation.

The default settings for touchpad on Xubuntu 13.10. Notice that “tap touchpad to click” and “two finger scrolling” are enabled here … and these setting were causing all the problems for me.

Here’s how my mouse/touchpad settings look after those two changes:

Touchpad settings "after" I made the change. Notice that "tap touchpad to click" is now disabled. Also, I have switched to "edge scrolling".

The new settings for touchpad on my Xubuntu 13.10 laptop. Notice that “tap touchpad to click” is now disabled. Also, I have switched to “edge scrolling”.

So, if your laptop mouse/touchpad is troubling you by making the cursor jump all over the place, change those two settings and you will be Happy, thrilled and excited like me. (I know that’s getting cheesy, but, you would realize my excitement if your cursor suddenly stopped jumping around and let you type your code in a sane environment.)

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Xubuntu 13.10 … after the install

I meant to write this post a long time back, but, I had to attend to some important matters at home, so … here is the post now.

This post is more for my future reference, but, if some or most of the content helps you … that would be all the better.

So, immediately after installing Xubuntu, here are the thing I typical do:

Setup the desktop environment:

Using the settings manager, I set up the desktop environment to my liking. Some of the things I get done in the settings manager include:

  • Delete the bottom panel that Xubuntu has by default. This panel, I believe is designed to give you a fake-Mac like feeling, but, I don’t like it, so it gets deleted immediately after install.
  • I setup my fonts. I like big fonts. E.g. on one of my Xubuntu machines I am using 12pt Droid Sans, which is large enough that I don’t have to squint to read the contents on my desktop.
  • I clean up my main menu and uncheck/hide most of the programs that I don’t use and don’t need.
  • I use keyboard settings to setup application shortcuts. As an example, here are my current application shortcuts …
My Xubuntu keyboard settings.

My Xubuntu keyboard settings.

Setting up screen brightness:

All of my current laptops love to start up into highest brightness. That hurts my eyes. So, I like to set my screen brightness across boots by adding this line into my /etc/rc.local file, before the last exit line in that file:

echo 7 > /sys/class/backlight/acpi_video0/brightness

And with that line added, it is important to make sure that rc.local is actually executable. So:

$ sudo chmod +x /etc/rc.local

Enabling autologin:

I find it painful to select my user-id and then enter the password on my laptops. So, I end up enabling auto login. What that does is simple: the system directly boots into my account, bringing up my desktop directly. You could choose to do this at install time, but, I always forget that. So, I do it manually by editing the /etc/lightdm/lightdm.conf file to add this line:

autologin-user=myUserID

Set up CapsLock as Control key:

This is fairly important for me because I have a bunch of systems that have CapsLock and Fn keys misplaced. (Yes, I am talking about you old IBM and new Lenovo Thinkpads!) Even more importantly, in my last 25 odd years of using PC-s, I have NEVER used the caps lock key for anything worth while. So, I like to reconfigure my caps lock to make it an additional control key.

First I edit the file /etc/default/keyboard and change XKBOPTIONS like so:

XKBOPTIONS="ctrl:nocaps"

… and then I run this command to make sure the keyboard configuration changes forever:

$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure keyboard-configuration

Setup APT so it does not delete old .deb files:

At home I have a bunch of old systems running Xubuntu 13.10. And I live in India where we pay very high fees for very low speed, flaky Internet access. Also, the bandwidth caps are severe. E.g. I pay almost US $20 (equivalent) for a DSL plan that has the following caps: 1Mbps upto 6GB and about 400kbps after that. Clearly, preserving bandwidth is something I care about. And so, I don’t like to download the same deb packages again and again.

So, what I typically end up doing is that I update one of my Xubuntu systems, then tar up the /var/cache/apt directory and copy that tar onto the other systems. The /var/cache/apt directory has the deb files for latest packages somewhere under it. What this does, is that when I run “sudo apt-get update and sudo apt-get upgrade” on my other systems, they don’t need to download any packages! That’s a huge savings in data download.

(NOTE 1: till a couple of months ago, I had a script which linked my /var/cache/apt/archives directory to a directory on an external drive. The script would then update/upgrade/dist-upgrade the system. What all that would do is to put the updated deb files onto the external drive. Whenever I wanted to update a system, I would connect the external drive to it and run the script. This would avoid the whole tar-gz-scp-gunzip-untar business that I am doing right now to update my systems. I am currently not using that script because I am waiting for my new external HDD. I will publish that script sometime soon with the hope that it helps others.)

(NOTE 2: I need to learn about apt-offline and figure out if it would be easier/better for my case.)

So, the important thing here is to make sure that none of my systems delete old deb files. By default Xubuntu is setup to delete old deb files that are older than the pre-specified number of days, like 30 days or something. What I do is, I tell apt to not delete any of my old deb files … EVER! That is easy to achieve. I just edit /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/20archive file and change all numeric values to 0.

Reduce swappiness:

Ubuntu and its derivatives, like Xubuntu, are configured with a default swappiness value of 60. The swappiness value can range between 0 to 100. A swappiness value of 0 tells the kernel to avoid swapping processes out of memory as much as possible. On the other hand, a swappiness value of 100 tells the kernel to aggressively swap processes out of memory.

I have decent amounts of RAM in most of my current systems, spare one, which only has 2GB of RAM in it. So, I like to set the swappiness on my systems to 5, implying don’t swap too much as much as possible!

To achieve that I edit /etc/sysctl.conf file and add the following line to it:

vm.swappiness=5

Remove unwanted packages:

This is the penultimate step. In this step I get rid of the following packages:

  • Risteretto, the XFCE image viewer
  • Mines (package name gnomine and gnome-mines), because who’s got time to play games, eh?
  • Mousepad editor (package name mousepad)
  • Notes (package name xfce4-notes and xfce4-notes-plugin) because I keep my notes in Google Keep.
  • Catfish file search (package name catfish) because if I ever need to hunt down files, I open a terminal and play with find.
  • Orage calendar manager (package name orage) because I don’t think the Xubuntu guys-n-gals were serious when they included that package in the distro.
  • Thunderbird email client (package name thunderbird) because I just read my mail in my browser
  • Pidgin messenger (package name pidgin) because I have never, ever used it and really don’t see the need for it
  • GMusic browser (package name gmusicbrowser) because I don’t even know what this is for!
  • Abiword word processor (package name abiword, abiword-plugin-grammar and abiword-plugin-mathview) because … I never really use a word processor, but … (see next section)
  • GNumeric spreadsheet (package name gnumeric) because I find it hard to use!

Install useful packages:

This is the final step in my post-install modifications. In this step I install a few packages that I find useful.

  • Open SSH server (package name openssh-server) because I really like to ssh and scp into my systems.
  • GEdit, the GNOME text editor (package name gedit) because I feel comfortable using this nice piece of software for most of my normal text editing needs. Although, in reality I find myself launching vi from a terminal more often than using any fancy text editor.
  • Restricted extras which contains all sorts of codecs and other things I don’t really understand but i know I need for my system to be a useful music and video player (package name xubuntu-restricted-extras).
  • Libreoffice which contains a fairly full fledged office suite that satisfies most of my word processing, spreadsheet data analysis. creating presentations, and other office suite needs.
  • A bunch of tiny utilities like xchm (to read CHM files), fbreader (to view EPUB and Mobi files through a really ugly interface).
  • VLC Player if you want to.

And finally … after all those changes are done, I run:

$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get upgrade
$ sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
$ sudo reboot

… and I reboot into a sane system.

Xubuntu 13.10 … first impressions

So, I downloaded Xubuntu 13.10 within a few hours, if not minutes actually, of the release going live. Xubuntu 13.10 was released on Oct 17, 2013.

I decided to install it on my brand new Fujitsu Lifebook AH-532. This is a 15″ notebook with Core i3, 8G (upgraded from factory installed 4G) RAM and 500G hdd. The notebook seemed fairly priced for its configuration, especially when compared to other notebooks from popular brands like HP and Dell. Just a side NOTE: I am typing this blog post on an “almost” similar notebook that came with Windows 8 installed. 🙂

Anyway, the reason to talk so much about the hardware is that the Lifebook comes with Fastboot “disabled”, CSM “disabled” and SecureBoot “disabled” in its BIOS, but, … and that’s a big but … Xubuntu 13.10 consistently wanted me to install in EFI mode. That wouldn’t have been a problem if the installer didn’t fail every time I tried it. What essentially happened was this: I would let the Xubuntu installer go ahead with its default partition scheme and then, it would happily say partitions created … copying files … installing … and then BOOM! The installer would say something along these lines “grub2 failed to install grub-efi to /target/ … blah, blah, blah”. After the first installation failure, I tried playing around with the BIOS settings. I enabled CSM in one try, enabled and then immediately disabled Secureboot on another try and so forth. But, the Xubuntu 13.10 installer wasn’t happy with all of my goofing around. I figured while I was at it, I would also try out my usual partitioning scheme with 8G of swap and the rest of the HDD put into an ext4 partition mounted at /, but, that partitioning scheme was a complete no-no. The installer didn’t like that partitioning scheme and it repeatedly warned me that an EFI partitioning scheme was necessary on this notebook.

So, I was almost ready to give up … when I cursed the Gods … and then I decided to try one last thing. So, I went through the following steps:

  • I reset the BIOS through “Load Setup Defaults”
  • I made sure Fastboot and SecureBoot were disabled
  • I enabled CSM in the BIOS. The Compatibility Support Module (CSM) provides backward compatibility for OS that need it
  • I saved the BIOS and boot from my USB pen drive that had the Xubuntu 13.10 installer
  • I configured and enabled my home wireless network on the notebook so it was connected to the global net
  • During the installation, I chose to create 3 partitions: (1) EFI partition of 100MB instead of the ~500MB partition the installer was creating by default (2) Swap of ~10G (3) rest of the HDD formatted as ext4 and mounted at /

With those changes the installer ran like a happy puppy and completed its work! No complaints this time through!!! Since it was connected to the Internet, the installer (probably) downloaded a few updates during installation, but, I am not sure of that.

(UPDATE 2014/03/28 – Today I did the following with the Fujitsu laptop that came with Windows 8.1:

  • I removed the Windows 8.1 hard drive from the notebook.
  • I installed a new 500GB hard drive into the notebook.
  • I did NOT change any of the UEFI BIOS settings. This was important, because if and when I decide to or need to go back to Windows 8.1, I do NOT wish to worry about what the BIOS settings were. I just want to pop-in the Windows 8.1 hdd and reboot the laptop.
  • I started installation of Xubuntu 13.10 on the new 500GB hdd.
  • On first attempt the installation failed with the same grub installation failure notice.
  • On the second attempt I connected the laptop to my home Wifi network and chose to update the system.

With update enabled, the installation succeeded! So, at this point in time I am fairly certain that at least for the original Xubuntu 13.10 install image, you MUST enable “update the system” at installation time to ensure that Xubuntu 13.10 installs on your UEFI BIOS based system. No BIOS changes should be necessary.

Old post continues …)

So, after about 3 hours and multiple attempts I finally got Xubuntu 13.10 installed and running on my new laptop. A quick look around Xubuntu 13.10 tells me that there are no major changes. Sure there’s Gimp installed by default, but, I like Gimp, so that doesn’t bother me. There’s also Abiword and Gnumeric installed, but, again, I don’t care.

At this point in time the major question I have in my mind is if I really want to upgrade the rest of my notebooks from Xubuntu 12.10 to Xubuntu 13.10. And I don’t have a firm answer for that. Sure, Xubuntu 13.10 comes with a newer kernel and with an updated Xfce. There’s a newer version of Thunar, the Xfce file manager, that supports multiple tabs. But, frankly most of those are minor improvements from my perspective. A lot of the complaints I had in 12.10 are still unresolved in 13.10. But, even more importantly, I have made so many modifications to /etc files on my 12.10 systems that it’s not going to be easy to start all over again. And this is the fundamental reason I really hope, wish and pray that Ubuntu and all of its derivatives like Xubuntu would move to a rolling release model. The 6-months release cycle and having to start all over again every few months is just plain painful. But, all that is only applicable to people like me who already have a few machines running older versions of Xubuntu and are happy with that installation.

So, if you are coming from a different world and now need to use Linux in some form, should you try Xubuntu? My short answer: ABSOLUTELY. Among all the Ubuntu variations out there, I feel that Xubuntu is probably the best. Let me qualify that statement.

I was introduced to Ubuntu sometime back in 2005. Since then all the way through Q3-2012 I always had some or other machine, and more typically all of my machines, running Ubuntu. But, I always hated the Ubuntu experience. The problem, for me, was very simple: Ubuntu was installing way too many packages that I really didn’t want and/or care about. Also, it was trying to be a hipster OS by adding all those “cute social features” in which you could add your Facebook and Twitter and other accounts and get instant updates notifications, etc. I mean seriously dude, if you need those features go get yourself a Mac Book or some Windows notebook. Now, all those packages and all those “cute” features wouldn’t have been a problem if Ubuntu’s package dependency tree wasn’t so messed up. Although it has been some time, if I remember it correctly, trying to uninstall something as useless and as trivial as Tomboy mandated that I uninstall the entire Ubuntu. Or a significantly worse package: GNOME Evolution, the mail reader. Jesus! That’s one messed up piece of code with messed up dependencies and messed up naming. And having lost my entire mail through Evolution, I never ever wanted it ever on any of my systems. But, Ubuntu, in trying to be cute and all that, wouldn’t let me uninstall Evolution completely. Also, Ubuntu’s kernels and drivers were always behind the curve so there was some or the other device in my laptops that would not be supported. Finally, there was Unity. With Unity it became obvious that Ubuntu was trying to compete with Mac OSX and unfortunately, Ubuntu was miserably failing at that attempt.

Please realize that none of this is to say that Ubuntu is a bad distro. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee you that if you have never used Linux before, then Ubuntu is one of the better Linux distros out there. It is fairly easy to install on most standard Wintel hardware, and if you can live with the cruft that it installs and updates regularly, you would never have to worry about paying a single dollar, euro or baht for any piece of useful software. And best of all, Ubuntu has a HUGE community of people always willing to help out others.

So, anyways … with all the frustrations I had with Ubuntu … starting in early 2012, I decided to try other distros. I decided to go back the Redhat way by downloading and installing Fedora. That let me try the new GNOME 3.x and although I liked GNOME 3.x, I have never been a fan of Fedora because it comes with SELinux enabled.

So, after trying a few other popular Linux distros and not being happy with any of them, I figured it was time for me to give up on computers altogether! (Not kidding.) But, then I decided to give one more distro a try … and that was Xubuntu. The rest is history! Within moments of installation I realized that Xubuntu 12.10 was the distro I had been looking for all my life. (Please don’t mess it up Xubuntu guys and gals.) There was no GNOME, there was no Evolution, there was no Tomboy and there were no fancy social notifications. The misery that is Open/Libre-Office suite was pleasantly absent from the default installation. Xubuntu felt like a plain simple Linux kernel with a basic, but functional UI slapped on top of it … just the way I wanted it. Within hours after the first install, Xubuntu 12.10 found its way onto all of my other computers, except one. And I have been happily using it as my primary OS for the past year or so. Sure, I had to make a few modifications and almost all of those modifications had to be done through the command line, but, I can assure you that most average users don’t need those modifications.

So, with that background, I don’t see a significant change in Xubuntu 13.10. And to me, that’s a good thing. The only thing that would really make Xubuntu better would be to transform it into a rolling release, but, that is probably asking for too much from a derivative distro.

So, in some ways I am happy with the new Xubuntu 13.10, but, I am just not convinced, yet, that I want to switch all of my other machines running Xubuntu 12.10 to the new release just yet. But, I guess its gotta happen … sooner than later.

I like Xubuntu 13.10. It continues to be the clean, good, simple and functional OS that most of us really want and desire. Try it, you will like it.