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Testdrive 64-bit Kubuntu 9.10

By Gerry Patterson

Late last year, I tried what at the time was the most recent version of Kubuntu, 9.10 (Karmic Koala). Usually I am not an early adopter. However I have begun to trust the Ubuntu and Kubuntu upgrades. To date, there has only been one disaster. And that one disaster occurred because of a hardware failure. And it was a consequence of that hardware failure that I decided to install Kubuntu 9.10 as a clean install rather than an upgrade.

Note: If you are not a "tech-head" (Tony Abbott - Beware!), you probably shouldn't try Kubuntu 64-bit. I'd recommend that you use Ubuntu 32-bit Desktop edition, which is so easy to install, you could give it to your grandma and ask her to do it for you!

64 Bit Kubuntu

As a result of a hardware failure, I purchased a new AMD Gigabyte MA770-US3 motherboard with an Athlon II quad core 630 to replace the faulty Intel board. I also purchased an ATI Gigabyte Radeon 4350 video card to go with the new motherboard.

I installed a clean version of Kubuntu 9.10 on a new hard disk (/dev/sda1). The original disk was in the case as /dev/sdb1. I then copied that I needed from /dev/sdb1

Kubuntu 9.10 followed on with the new look we saw in Kubuntu 9.04 (and to a certain extent pioneered in 8.10) It utilised KDE technology with slick, modern looking, semi-transparent menus and boxes.

Making It Sing!

As I often do, when checking out Kubuntu, I started with the audio applications. And as usual, straight out of the box, MP3 support seemed to be a problem. Also there wasn't any support for Windows media files. The reasons for those omissions have all been clearly explained elsewhere.

I set to work on converting some wma files with the utility dir2ogg, which is a python script that converts many different file formats to .ogg. Actually, it does this by calling other Linux audio commands. If a decode cannot be found dir2ogg will print an error like the following:

Error: wma was enabled, but no decoder has been found

Since it is a python script, you can find where it failed by reading the script. Or you could RTFM. The man pages for dir2ogg are quite well written. In the example above, I discovered (from the script) that it failed because "mplayer" was not installed.

I tried installing all the commands that dir2ogg uses, with the following:

sudo apt-get install cdda2wav
sudo apt-get install cdparanoia
sudo apt-get install faad
sudo apt-get install flac
sudo apt-get install icedax
sudo apt-get install lame
sudo apt-get install mpg123
sudo apt-get install mpg321
sudo apt-get install mplayer

Many of these were already installed. And whether or not you need them, it won't hurt to install them all if you have the disk space. Generally I find OGG to be a better format. It is more compact and it works great with all Linux MP3 players. And lately there seems to be an increasing number of third party devices that support OGG. I am pleasantly surprised that Apple seem to be supporting it also.

Version 0.11.7 of dir2ogg seems to have been written to use ogg123, which is no longer available in Kubuntu. I suspect that music123 would be the replacement.

And it seems that Totem had some sort of similar problem with MP3 support. When I tried to play MP3 I would see the following:

The playback of this movie requires a MPEG-1 Layer 3 (MP3) decoder plugin which is not installed.

Eventually, having tried everything else, I resorted to:

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras

And the problem was solved ... I seem to go through this every time I upgrade! I should make a note to myself ... Just add mediubuntu to my list of sources and spend less time fooling around with audio packages!

Getting RealPlayer To Work.

  1. Choose download the DEB package
  2. install it with:
        sudo dpkg --install RealPlayer11GOLD.deb
    Note: You may have to fix any problems with dependencies. The dpkg command should prompt you with the necessary changes.
  3. Install the Helix player:
        sudo apt-get install mozilla-helix-player

Even after all this, I was still having problems with Firefox real-player support for the ABC RN Site.

Strange Error Messages From Gvim And Weird User Management Software.

Gvim reported spurious errors when it was started from the shell:

** (gvim:2946): CRITICAL **: gtk_form_set_static_gravity: assertion `static_gravity_supported' failed

This message repeated five times. Despite the alarming nature of these messages, Gvim worked flawlessly.

The User Management Selection in the Advanced User Settings menu offers the ability to specify the numeric uid when adding users. However it doesn't work. It accepts the number you type in and then ignores it. That's ok, you can go out to the shell and manually fix it. But it is annoying. I like to keep uids consistent across the entire local network. In fact I use a shell script to create users on each new machine.

*** Include sample script here ***

Graphics Accelerator.

With a new graphics card, I thought of installing Google Earth.
sudo mkdir /dwn/googleearth
sudo chown gerry /dwn/googleearth
cd /dwn/googleearth
sudo apt-get install googleearth-package

However considering that the graphics card I had purchased was much more powerful than the integrated video system I was replacing, I was disappointed with the quality of the display. The specifications for the AMD HD 4350 seemed impressive. That is to say, they did to someone like me, who was used to using the VGA connector from an integrated video system on the motherboard. But the display looked rather flat and ordinary. Google Earth complained about the fact that I was using Open GL emulation and nagged me to use native drivers for better performance. I googled the official AMD support page at This offered a download package. Which was in fact a script,, that was meant to be run as root. There was a binary embedded in the script.

The install script provided by AMD looked raw and grungy. It included code which I thought might hack parts of the kernel. So before running it, you should read the release notes (catalyst_910_linux.pdf) and installation instructions (linux_cat910-inst.pdf) and check that pre-requisite packages are installed.

I downloaded the script and used "sudo -i" to chdir to the location where I had stored it and ran it as root from Konsole. The install gave me two choices:

  1. Install Driver 8.661 on X.Org 7.4 and later releases.
  2. Generate Distibution specific Driver Package.

Being presented with this choice for a "kernel hack" was a bit like asking "do you want the frying pan or the fire?". I decided to try option number one and after "agreeing" to the terms on the license, was asked if the install was to be either the "recommended" or the "expert" variety. Having never considered myself an expert about Xorg, I chose "recommended".

The results were very pleasing to the eyeballs. The display was sharper and rendering was quicker. This was especially true for Google Earth, which looked just gorgeous. I plugged the HDMI cable to the screen (A Flattron Wide LCD) and played around with the "Advanced" options in the Desktop menu in System Settings, and marvelled at the spectacular eye-candy that the new card provided. As I said Google Earth was just magnificent. I could almost run out of superlatives describing how beautiful it looked. The quality and speed was every bit as good as a (vastly more expensive) Mac Pro.

The switch screen shortcut (Alt-Tab) now worked as it was supposed to. I played around with the options some more, still marvelling at screens flipping sideways, which enabling me to flip through them like a a deck of cards over the desktop background (similar eye-candy in OS X and Vista). And if one of the screens contained a moving image (running on Youtube etc), it would keep playing as it was turned sideways in the deck of screens! Wow! Real Mac-like eye-candy! The preview panels showed much more detail. Hovering over selections on task bars and menus would initiate little semi-transperent preview panels that popped up, slid smoothly along the screen and/or dissolved. I can't help comparing it to the OS X Snow Leopard and the rather clumsy and clunky Windows Seven demos I have seen so far.

After installing the new driver, I did notice something curious in the menu Applications->System->Hardware Drivers. This tool discovered the "ATI/AMD proprietary FGLRX graphics driver" along with the following description:

3D-accelerated proprietary graphics driver for ATI cards.

This driver is required to fully utilise the 3D potential of some ATI graphics cards, as well as provide 2D acceleration on newer cards.

According to this tool, the driver was not activated. Clearly it was activated. ... More about this later.

For the next few hours I explored all the possibilities of sprucing up the desktop.

Installing Extra (System Wide Truetype) Fonts

Create a folder in /usr/share/fonts/truetype and copy the extra fonts to the new folder. E.g.

sudo mkdir /usr/share/fonts/truetype/extra
sudo cp -ip /foo/bar/*ttf /usr/share/fonts/truetype/extra/

In System Settings->Font Installer, choose System Fonts. Enter the location, and using the shift keys and mouse, select all the fonts in the menu. And installed them.

The New Amarok.

From the list of things I found, it is pretty obvious that Kubuntu still ships with a few "undocumented features". However all of the little inconveniences and "features" I have described were just minor annoyances compared to the elephant in the room. Which was Amarok. Or more precisely Amarok 2.2.

The first problem I had to overcome with the new improved Amarok was no sound!. Yes, that's right, straight out of the box, Amarok 2.2 did not work at all!. The little progress bar at the top reported that a song was playing but nothing came out of the speakers. I was sure that it was an Amarok problem, since just about every other audio software package worked.

I eventually managed to fix this. Mostly by sheer luck. Since I was restoring the files from the previous system (which had different hardware), I had setup my own account as an administrator account and was copying data into my HOME folder as I required it from /dev/sdb1. For the other members of my family, I was less discriminating. I just moved the entire contents of their home folder to the current /home/ location and then checked that the accounts were working. And Amarok worked for them! A little message flashed up first complaining about the fact that audio was streaming to a non-existent device ... And it listed the VIA audio devices that had been on the old Intel motherboard. Fair enough, I had copied the entire home folder with the old settings. After choosing "delete" the old devices, another little message flashed briefly (too quick to read) about finding support for new HDA ATI audio devices on the AMD motherboard and then Amarok worked! I tried doing the same with my own account ... Just copying the entire contents of my old home folder over the top of evrything else and sure enough that solved the problem.

Although I managed to recover from this disasterous start, it is disturbing that the clean install didn't work. When I googled for this problem, I discovered that other people had encountered weird behaviour with the "new" Amarok. I would speculate that the problem has something to do with devices. (I am not sure where Amarok stores information regarding devices).

Also, in all my testing on Kubuntu 9.10 64-bit, I was not able to persuade Amarok to play the ABC DIG radio MP3 stream -- Which was a shame because it was my favourite online broadcast. The DIG online player is very ordinary (due to insufficient buffering). On my previous version of Kubuntu, I used to listen to DIG with Amarok. But this version of Amarok seemed to have a problem with it. It may be due to the ABC, which does seem to be fussy about the type of players connecting to their server (possibly worried about robots ripping their broadcast).

In my opinion Amarok 2 is one giant leap backwards for this great audio software package. Since 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope), Amarok was upgraded to version 2, which was radically different from it's predecessor (1.4). The user interface was totally different, there was a new default data base structure, many new "features" and a bundle of "undocumented features" (bugs).

The new interface for Amarok is clumsy, buggy and not nearly as powerful as the previous version. Some of the things that I noticed immediately was the missing EQ, lack of tabs on on the left hand side panel (with many missing options) and the loss of many of the powerful keyboard shortcuts. In 1.4, it was possible to move through the items in a selection, using only the keyboard, and to use keyboard shortcuts to guess tags and fill in information almost completely without the use of a mouse. The new interface is mouse driven, and has many problems.

After such a masterpiece (Amarok version 1.4), it's difficult to understand how the development team could have got it so wrong. Linux has only a small percentage of the desktop market, and KDE is only a fraction of the total Linux market. Amarok 1.4 was a distinctive product clearly designed for KDE. The layout of the tabs was a little quirky but it was easy to understand. Users who appreciated a powerful sound management groked it and the more articulate and knowledgeable of them have advocated the benefits of such software. Now at the risk of losing that dedicated fan base, the Amarok team have tried to engineer the interface to appeal to the iPod demographic.

I am not the only one unhappy with the new Amarok. Some bloggers have posted details of how to remove Amarok version 2 from 9,04 and 9.10 and re-install 1.4. However (IMHO) that would be a difficult and isolated path to follow because your Amarok version would be out of sync with the recommended 9.10 libraries. If you are fan of Amarok version 1.4, I suggest that you don't upgrade your operating system for the time being.

I also couldn't help noticing the many times I saw the words "jack" and "pulseaudio" in the Linux documentation. When it is completed, the jack pulseaudio system will offer a central hub for the audio chaos that currently afflicts Linux. A lot of this is due to the plethora of audio hardware inherited from the Wintel platform.

Ultimately "jack pulseaudio" could become a central route for all audio. The place where you put your EQ, your effects, central mixer etc. Although in my usual suspicious manner, I can't help wondering that it might become a central point of failure. For the time being I found that the audio software works better without using pulseaudio, even though I have libjack0 installed, (possibly as a result of all the APT commands I ran looking for audio packages).

There Are Other Media Players (Well Actually -- Lots Of them!).

The problems with Amarok did prompt me to look for alternatives. For example the simple no-frills audio player, Audacious. It doesn't contain the fancy integrated data management tools and web interfaces that Amarok (used to?) offer, but it does work ... And it keeps on working! It was able to read the DIG url. Although it does seem to have a bit of difficulty playing a playlist in the given order.

And word of warning about Audacious. The default skin (in 9.10) was very ugly. If you find this to be the case, the first thing you should do is set the skin to "classic".

The totem movie player, on the other hand, will play just about everything (provided you load the extra plugins). It will load M3U playlists (as does audacious). I was also able to play the ABC DIG stream. I did notice that the new version of totem started playing a stream almost immediately. I'm not sure whether this was because it was smart enough to realise I had a broad-band connection or just hoped that I did. Because for folks with a narrow band connection it would be better if the player took a little time to build up a decent sized buffer, as do Amarok and Audacious. One godd thing about playing sound files with Totem is that you get to watch some pretty patterns while you listen.

Mplayer seems ok also. However, it was also missing some of the codecs.

I was surprised to discover that VLC also makes a pretty good media player. I had always used it for playing movies. VLC also has a graphic equaliser, although it doesn't seem possible to save different EQ profiles. It also seems to be always off by default.

Overall, I liked the look and feel of Kubuntu 9.10. It is the most beautiful Linux distribution I have ever tried. However I was very disappointed with Amarok version 2, Let's hope that the Amarok development team come to their senses and give us back all those great features and functionality (and maybe give us back the classic interface?). I have to admit that Amarok was the main reason I originally installed Kubuntu. It was, in my not so humble opinion, a solid gold one-stop music centre. I found it particularly powerful for editing tags on a large number of sound files. There is more about this later (where I really cut loose and vent my spleen).

Apart from feeling rather disgruntled about Amarok version 2, I was fairly happy with Kubuntu 9.10. Then on Thursday 2009-11-12, there was a large number of updates. After I applied them, Firefox was broken. If I clicked on the Firefox icon it would blink, bounce up and down (in a very Mac-lik manner) for a while and then die without leaving any log messages. I tried starting it from the command line, using the command /usr/bin/firefox. When I did this it displayed the following message

Bus error

I tried editing the script /usr/bin/firefox (which is basically just logical links to a shell script in the firefox 3.5.5 lib folder) and switching on debugging. When I re-ran it on the comand line gdb reported:

Program received signal SIGBUS, Bus error.
0x00de0486 in ?? () from /lib/

Which was one ugly message ... And rather scary! However I may have discovered what the problem was. For more details ... read on.

I Should Have Read The Fine, Fantastic, Fabulous Manuals!

I tried googling for "Kubuntu Firefox 3.5.5 Bus Error". After a day or so, I began to find reports of other folks who had encountered similar problems with Kubuntu using the fglrx driver for the ATI Radeon 4350 (This was a "clue" -- I missed it at the time).

So I had to use Konqueror for Internet access! Over the years, Konqueror has improved steadily and the latest version integrates well with KDE and Dolphin. There are a lot more sites that now work in Konqueror. I can only hope that web programmers continue to design applications that work with any browser. Certainly now that Microsoft has run up the white flag in the browser wars, things seem to be improving. The important thing for the future of browsers will be plugins. Since Konqueror is a member of the Mozilla family it might be possible to keep it up to date by borrowing developments from it's famous cousin, Firefox.

Nevertheless there still are a few applications that won't work well with Konqueror. And although I have always have had a soft spot in my heart for Konqueror, other members of my family (especially the younger ones) do not share that fondness for obscure browsers, and are far less tolerent of computer systems that do not have a working copy of the world's greatest browser (Firefox).

Given the extent of the problems I had encountered with 9.10, I decided to go back to 8.10. I chose 8.10 because it seems to be a very stable version of Kubuntu and it is the most recent distribution that contains that old solid gold classic, Amarok 1.4.

However, since I was using an Athlon II, I thought I would try the 64 bit version of 8.10. I cut an ISO disk of Kubuntu 8.10 for AMD64. I had stored the "home" folders on a separate file system, so I could just install the system to it's own partition.

The fglrx driver offered by AMD also worked with the 64 bit version of Kubuntu 8.10. And the resulting desktop looked very impressive. However I did not notice a marked difference in performance. Possibly with more memory I may have. It turned out to be difficult to get all the drivers for the 64 bit version. There was no 64 bit version of Google Earth. I was able to run it in 32 bit mode by installing many of the 32 bit libraries with this command:

sudo apt-get install ia32-libs lib32asound2 util-linux

However, Google Earth was extremely slow and unattractive in 32 bit mode. In an attempt to get that slick Google Earth I had found in (32 bit) 9.10, I went back to the menu Applications->System->Hardware Drivers (as outlined above). and clicked the enable button ... And something rather strange happened. A quick message clicked up about something donwloading ... too quick for me to catch it. And then the screen lost it's beautiful slick polish and Google Earth was very sick indeed. This was another clue about my problems, but I missed it at the time.

A more serious issue was the fact the lack of a 64 bit citrix client. I still have the citrix client on other on other workstations, but it is convenient to have it on all workstations. Although on reflection the problems may have been due to the clue I missed (in the previous paragraph.

In any case, I installed the 32 bit version of Kubuntu 8.10. Everthing looked great. Amarok 1.4 was back. And the only gripe I had was that I was not able to install Google Earth on a "system wide" basis. It had to be installed for each individual user.

After I had been using the system for a day or so, a number of cached updates became available. Since 8.10 is a mature system, the number of updates was very large. There was more than 300 of them.

I ran the huge chunk of updates.

And the system was broken ... Severely broken. When I tried to login there were no menus. All I got were (multiple) messages saying that "Kwin had crashed". The message kept repeating until the system froze solid (eek!).

This was deeply distressing. However, as I thought about the problem, I reflected on the strange things that happened with the fgrlx driver. It was then that I realised the significance of the important clues I had over-looked! I had a hunch that the problem was due to kernel hack which the AMD script had performed. The updates had brought down new kernel headers (over-writing the hacks) and this had broken Kwin.

I started a "root" shell (from the "recovery" option on the grub startup menu), and re-ran the AMD fglrx kernel hack in console mode. And this fixed the broken Kwin. Things still looked a bit ugly ... I had to delete the bottom panel. But after that, I got my desktop back and all my programs. And Google Earth looked fabulous once again.

This would mean that (if I stuck with 64-bit) I would have to review future updates before I apply them. If an update appears to be related to the display or the kernel headers, I would reboot after applying them and run the AMD "run fgrlx" script before logging into X.

Or maybe I might give up on my trial of 64-bit Kubuntu on AMD/RADEON ?


Kubuntu shows glimpses of being a dazzling KDE distribution with excellent presentation. The AMD 64 bit release promises to be a superb product. However in it's current state it will not be adopted by the general public. If some enterprising manufacturer decided to install a stable version of Kubuntu on a prescibed range of their hardware, they would have a price advantage over their more-expensive propietary competitors. Such a manufacturer would also be able to offer a huge range of applications to go with their system. However, the initial KDE distribution would have to be pre-installed and various packages fully tested in-house, before release. General computing has been so severely dumbed down that the average "Joe Six-pack" wants nothing more technical than clicking the left button of a mouse.

On the other hand, if you are an enthusiast, a student of computing sciences, a gifted amateur or a keen professional who doesn't mind tinkering, Kubuntu is a great operating system. It is still my personal favourite. And I certainly hope that it continues to be part of computing ecosystem for a long time. For you less adventurous folk who want staid, predictable, reliable, click and go operating systems, Ubuntu (not Kubuntu) is probably the operating system you should be considering.

It would be good if the Kubuntu project could work out an arrangement to install Google Earth and AMD proprietary drivers, so that they could be managed with aptitude (and the Kubuntu GUI package manager). The current AMD driver can be obtained with this command:

apt-get install xorg-driver-fglrx

However, at the the time of writing (October 2009), you should not do that!. The package appeared to be broken. The screens looked ugly and the driver was sluggish. The proprietary driver from the AMD site positively sparkles by comparison. It should be possible to work out a way to incorporate these with other non-GNU software.

On reflection, I suspect that many of the problems I experienced with 9.10 could have been solved if I had simply re-run the script to install the AMD fglrx driver. However, I am not going to go through the pain of another upgrade to find out if this is the case. Especially since I prefer Amarok 1.4, and I am quite happy to stick with 8.10 for the time being.

Appendix -- October 2010.

When I first wrote this review, almost a year ago, I was very critical of Amarok 2, which seems to have been dumbed down to be little more than a poor man's iTunes. Since then, I have mellowed a little. I still don't like the new look Amarok, but there are lots of other reasons to move on, and upgrade to version 10. There are strange little incompatibilities with VLC and the increasing threat that I may be "orphaned" ... That is left stranded on 8.10, with no upgrade path (except a manual upgrade). And the upgrade paths in Ubuntu and Kubuntu are first rate. There are many expensive proprietary "enterprise" systems that don't come anywhere near the quality and reliability of the Ubuntu upgrades.

So I took the path of least resistance and upgraded to 10.04 ... Currently all desktops are running either Kubuntu or Ubuntu 10.04.

I am gradually getting used to Amarok 2.3.0 ... In fact I am listening to it as I type this ... Although I don't think I will ever come to love 2.3.0 as I did the old classic, 1.4

After this experience with 64 bit Kubuntu, I decided to stick with the 32 bit version. For the time being I will use the 64 bit version of Ubuntu on servers only.

Since going back to the 32-bit version of Kubuntu, everything has run quite smoothly for the last year. I may try the 64 bit version again when I have time.

I have also started to use Google Chrome on Linux desktops. This browser has even won a few converts among the younger members of our household (Who up till now have been fans of Firefox on Linux and Safari on Mac).

If you are not an enthusiast, and you are looking for a reliable open source OS, I'd recommend Ubuntu 32-bit for your desktop. This is a very robust distribution and very simple to install. It will install seamlessly on most hardware. (Warning use the Netbook edition for laptops and netbooks).

However there is one other problem which I have encountered with the current 32 bit version of Kubuntu (10.04), that is rather annoying. At present I am working full-time as a (mostly perl) programmer for a print warehouse, and I use Citrix to access the network where I work. It looks as though Citrix is broken every time I upgrade! This problem is not confined to Kubuntu ... It seems that all versions of Ubuntu have this problem with Firefox/Citrix when you apply a major version upgrade. I am looking for a work-around for this problem. If I find one, I'll publish details in my blog.

Update: The problem with upgrades clobbering the Citrix client seems to have been fixed in version 10.10 of Ubuntu and Kubuntu. The Kubuntu Kmix still seems to behave strangely however. I first described this strange behaviour when I tried Kubuntu 8.04.