Category Archives: Operating Systems

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Three Easy Ways to Try Ubuntu Without Breaking Anything

Broken Windows So, you’ve heard about this Linux thing and want to learn more about it? Perhaps you have heard about its inherent security and near-impermeability to malware. Perhaps you’re still on 2000 or XP and don’t want to shell out the cash for a newer Windows OS. Hey, the economy is tough, I know. Or perhaps you’re just attracted to the idea of open source and want to worship at the feet of Richard Stallman. Just kidding about that last part, I think.

No matter the reason, if you’ve never tried Linux, but have considered it before, consider this your invitation to start treading the Linux waters. No, you won’t drown.

But, but, I’m worried about breaking Windows!

Calm down. Your Windows installation will be fine.

But, but, I don’t know which Linux to choose. There are so many!

Yes, that’s true, but there are similarities between all of them. In fact, many of the available Linux distros are just slight alterations of one another. Think of it as one person with many different sets of clothes.

While any of the major distros will work just fine, I recommend Ubuntu to people trying Linux for the first time.

But, but, what if I don’t understand any of the programs?!

Relax, I bet you will. Perhaps you already use several popular open-source programs on your Windows computer, such as Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, VLC, or The GIMP? Plus, many common closed-source programs are also available on Linux, including most of the Google programs and Nero Linux. I bet you’ll be just fine.

I generally find that newcomers to Linux are most hesitant about disk partitioning and the potential risk of losing data. Ubuntu can handle disk resizing and partitioning with aplomb, but for the ultra-risk-averse, here are three ways to give Ubuntu a shot on your computer without breaking Windows or losing any data.

Method 1 – Live CD

The first thing to do is download a copy of Ubuntu. Have a slow connection (or just don’t feel like downloading)? No problem. Ubuntu can ship a disc to you for free, although you may have to wait ten weeks for delivery. Oh well, I guess that’s better than waiting 11 weeks for download over dial-up Internet.

Not sure which edition to download? If in doubt, just go for the Desktop edition (32-bit).

Next, burn the ISO that you downloaded to a blank CD as a disk image. You should be able to do this easily in any CD-burning software. For instance, in InfraRecorder (free), look for the Write Image option.

InfraRecorder Main

Once your new Ubuntu disc is burned, just leave it in your CD drive and reboot. There’s a pretty good chance your computer will boot straight to the disc. If it does not, reboot again and go into the bios at boot, usually by pressing DEL or F2, depending on the computer manufacturer. Look around for a BOOT section and set your CD drive as the first boot option. Don’t be scared. If you have trouble with this part, ask your neighborhood geek.

When your computer successfully boots from the CD, follow the prompts to Try Ubuntu. Within a few minutes, you should be staring at your brownish Ubuntu desktop, running straight from the CD. Congrats! Feel free to play around as much as you like, and when you reboot, your Windows will be there waiting for you.

Note: running from a CD is MUCH slower than running from your hard disk.

Method 2 – Wubi

Wubi windows If you want a more permanent solution than a Live CD, you owe it to yourself to check out Wubi.

Without a doubt, Wubi is the easiest way to get a full Ubuntu installation without fear of damaging Windows. With a few clicks, Wubi will install Ubuntu within Windows, just like any other Windows application. No CDs to burn. No disk partitioning. Only good times.

To install Wubi, you can either download the installer directly, or run it straight from the Ubuntu Live CD.

Ubuntu CD Menu

When you first pop the Ubuntu CD into the drive, you will have the option to Install inside Windows. Clicking that option brings up the Wubi installer, allowing you to specify a few setup options.

Ubuntu - Wubi Setup

Choose a username and password, and off you go! Wubi will install like a typical Windows application. Go get a cup of coffee because installation will take a few minutes. When it’s done, reboot, and you will have your choice of Windows or Ubuntu to run.

At any point, if you decide to get rid of Ubuntu, just uninstall it in the Windows Control Panel (Add/Remove Programs), just like any other app.

Method 3 – Virtual Machine

The third option requires a little more nerd factor than the previous two, though not by too much. Most newcomers to Linux should stick with the first two options, but if you are a more experienced Windows user, go ahead and give method three a try – running Linux in a virtual machine.

A virtual machine allows you to run multiple operating systems simultaneously, all without conflicting or damaging one another. The only limitations are in how much RAM and disk space your host computer has.

All you need to run Linux in a virtual machine is:

  1. An ISO of a Linux distro (see Method 1 above)
  2. Free Virtual Machine server software

The titans of free virtual server software are VMware, VirtualPC, and VirtualBox. Of those three, I prefer VirtualBox.

With VirtualBox, you can easily try Ubuntu without doing any damage to Windows, and if your computer was built within the last four years or so, the Ubuntu virtual machine should perform much faster than the Live CD as well.

Here’s a screenshot of my Macbook running Ubuntu in a virtual machine:

One cool aspect of VirtualBox is the ability to take snapshots of the current system. Scared your tinkering is about to break the virtual Ubuntu? Just take a snapshot first, then tweak to your heart’s content. You can always restore the previous snapshot with a click or two.

Want more information on setting up VirtualBox? See my previous walkthrough.

There you go – three easy ways to try Ubuntu without breaking Windows. I can’t promise it will become your favorite operating system, but now you have no excuse not to learn more about it! Enjoy.

Set Windows as the Permanent Default OS when Dual-Booting with Ubuntu

Ubuntu Linux is a great operating system, but one potential annoyance is how it automatically sets itself as the default OS when installed as a dual-boot with Windows. Fortunately, it’s easy to switch it back by editing GRUB (GRand Unified Boot Loader).

To modify GRUB, first boot into Ubuntu, then launch a Terminal (Applications → Accessories → Terminal). Type the following command:

sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst

(Tip: if you don’t want to launch a full text editor, just substitute nano instead of gedit.)

Scan the file until you find this section:

## default num
# Set the default entry to the entry number NUM. Numbering starts from 0, and
# the entry number 0 is the default if the command is not used.
# You can specify ‘saved’ instead of a number. In this case, the default entry
# is the entry saved with the command ‘savedefault’.
# WARNING: If you are using dmraid do not use ‘savedefault’ or your
# array will desync and will not let you boot your system.
default 0

The number that follows the word default at the bottom is the critical part. Conventional wisdom suggests that we just have to change the zero to a higher number (usually between 4 and 6). Sure, you can do it that way if you want. Just find the section in your GRUB file at begins with: ### END DEBIAN AUTOMAGIC KERNEL LIST.

Starting with 0, count the entry blocks below that marker to find what the appropriate number is for Windows.

Be warned: the above method is only temporary. The next time a new kernel is passed down through the Update system, GRUB will likely add a new entry for it, breaking your default OS. You may find your computer furiously trying to boot the GRUB divider!

The Permanent Method

To fix that annoying little problem permanently, just type saved instead of a number, so that your GRUB file looks like this (emphasis is mine):

## default num
# Set the default entry to the entry number NUM. Numbering starts from 0, and
# the entry number 0 is the default if the command is not used.
# You can specify ‘saved’ instead of a number. In this case, the default entry
# is the entry saved with the command ‘savedefault’.
# WARNING: If you are using dmraid do not use ‘savedefault’ or your
# array will desync and will not let you boot your system.
default saved

The saved option works because Ubuntu so kindly already specifies Windows as the default when this option is invoked. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the very bottom of your GRUB file (emphasis is mine):

# This entry automatically added by the Debian installer for a non-linux OS
# on /dev/sda1
title Microsoft Windows XP Professional
root (hd0,0)
chainloader +1

Save your GRUB file and reboot. Don’t be alarmed if your computer does not immediately default to Windows. I found that I had to manually switch it to Windows once, but then GRUB remembered my choice after that.

Turn Windows Server 2008 into an Excellent Workstation – Part II – Third Party Software

Welcome to the second part of our series on turning Windows Server 2008 into an excellent workstation. If you missed it, please see Part I – The Basics as well as how to get Server 2008 for free (students only).

In this post we will take a look at some third-party software and its compatibility with Server 2008. In no way is this post comprehensive, but it should get you started in figuring out if your software is compatible. When possible, I tried to stick with free software.

This article is from an x86 (32-bit) perspective, though I doubt the x86-64 version differs much. I welcome any and all additions in the the comments below.

Free Security Software

Unless you like living dangerously, you should run antivirus software on your Windows machine. As I’ve written before, I prefer free antivirus software. Unfortunately, not all free antivirus programs will install on a server operating system. While there may be some registry tweaks or other hacks that will allow them to install, I’m not comfortable living with that. Who knows when an update may break compatibility or functionality?

Below are free antivirus and security programs that I have personally verified.

  • AVG Free Editiondoes not work
  • Avast Home Editiondoes not work
  • ClamWinWORKS
  • Comodo Internet Securitydoes not work
  • Malwarebytes’ Anti-MalwareWORKS
  • PC Tools Free AntiVirusWORKS
  • Returnil Virtual System 2008 Personal EditionWORKS
  • Rising AntivirusWORKS

Google Software

All Google software that I have tried installs and works as expected.

  • Google DesktopWORKS
  • Google Earth 4.3WORKS
  • Google Picasa 3WORKS
  • Google SketchUp 7WORKS
  • Google TalkWORKS


Good news! All common web browsers that I have tried work without flaw.

  • Firefox 3WORKS
  • Google ChromeWORKS
  • Opera 9.6WORKS
  • Safari 3.2WORKS

Free Media Players

Continuing our good luck streak, every media player that I have tried (so far) works without known issues.

  • Foobar 2000 v0.9.6WORKS
  • iTunesWORKS
  • J. River Media Jukebox 12WORKS
  • MediaMonkey 3.0.6WORKS
  • Quicktime 7WORKS
  • Songbird 1.0WORKS
  • VLC 0.9.8WORKS
  • Winamp 5.5WORKS

Office Applications

Almost every office-type application that I tried works without flaw. Fortunately, both MS Office 2003 and 2007 work fine, since that would be a deal-breaker for most people.

  • AbiwordWORKS
  • Adobe Reader 9WORKS
  • Lotus Symphony 1.2does not work – (It installed correctly on my machine, but would not launch a new document, spreadsheet, or presentation. It it works for you, please let me know.)
  • Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007WORKS
  • OpenOffice 3 WORKS

Other Utilities

Major victories in this area include recent updates to Skype and the Windows Live Applications that make them compatible with Server 2008.

  • 7-zipWORKS
  • CCleanerWORKS
  • FilezillaWORKS
  • Jing ProjectWORKS (only after you enable .NET 3.0 – see Part I)
  • Microsoft Virtual PCWORKS
  • SkypeWORKS – (Version 4 BETA works fine. Version 3 was troublesome, though version and later may also work fine.)
  • Sun xVM VirtualBoxWORKS
  • Windows Live ApplicationsWORKS (Yes! Previous versions would not install on Server 2008, but the new updates install and work well.)
  • μTorrentWORKS

Video Games

Admittedly, I am not much of a gamer, but here are a few games that I can personally verify. I especially welcome additional contributions in this area.

  • Diablo II LODWORKS (with 1.12 patch or above)
  • Elder Scrolls IV: OblivionWORKS (with latest patch)
  • Guild WarsWORKS
  • Starcraft: Brood WarWORKS (with 1.16 patch or above)
  • Titan Quest (plus Immortal Throne) – WORKS
  • Warcraft III: The Frozen ThroneWORKS (with latest patch)

As you can see, there is far more green than red, meaning that the overwhelming majority of applications should work with Server 2008. In fact, I’d say that Server 2008 is hardly limited at all. As a general rule, if it works with Vista SP1, it should work with Server 2008. I did not mention it above, but even two professional music applications that I use all the time – Finale 2008 and Reason 4 – work without problems.

Security applications are the main exception. Unless you want to pay for a server-compatible antivirus program, I suggest sticking to PC Tools or Rising antivirus.

Games are the other category that I could not test well, but again, if it works with Vista SP1, it should work with Server 2008. If you find exceptions, or have any other comments or questions, please let me know in the comments below.

Synchronize Your Ubuntu System Clock with Internet Time Servers

Note: This guide was written for Ubuntu 8.10, but any GNOME-based Linux system should be similar.

If you want your Ubuntu system clock to stay in sync with Internet time servers, follow these simple instructions.

Step 1 – Open Time and Date

Go to the System menu → Administration → Time and Date.

Step 2 – Unlock

Click the Unlock button and enter your password for authorization.

Step 3 – Install NTP

Once unlocked, switch the Configuration from Manual to Keep synchronized with Internet servers.

If NTP (Network Time Protocol) is not installed on your Ubuntu system, you will be prompted to install it.

Curiously, my Time and Date configuration settings remained stuck on Manual until I closed and re-opened it.

Step 4 – Choose Time Server (optional)

The next time you open Time and Date on Ubuntu, you will have the option to select a time server.

The default choice is, though feel free to select a different time server (or add your own).

Pretty neat stuff. May your system clock always stay in sync.

Printing in OS X: Parallel Ports, Drivers, and Mayem

Don't Buy One of These! They Don't Work!

This is a quick tip. In a word, do not buy the USB to Parallel conversion cables. They SOMETIMES work, which is worse than not working, because then you start believing that they might work, but when it comes time to print something serious (like a 100 page document), you will go insane… you’ll print 3 pages, then the print queue will jam, you’ll have to reset it, and it will take 4 or 5 minutes to get the next 3 pages into the queue, then it will jam again, and again and again. It’s nuts. You will have wasted $10 or $20 bucks and you won’t be able to print anything reliably.

Using Parallel Printers with OS X

So how do you use a parallel printer with an OS X computer? Macs haven’t had parallel ports on them for years, but there are still plenty of printers out there that do. Here’s my hot tip: get a dedicated print server and hook this into your network. This works, it works well, AND it’s scalable. If you get another USB printer, this option will cover you. If you have multiple computers in your house that need to share a printer, boom, you’re in luck.

This guy is a good friend to OS X
This little guy is a good friend to OS X

I recommend the
($110) because I’ve been using it for about 2 years and I haven’t had any problems with it. I simply plugged it into my router, plugged in the printer, and poof… OS X was able to find it. I’m not using the wireless option on this device, but it is there if I ever need it — if you don’t need the wireless option, TRENDnet has cheaper models. It has two USB 2.0 and one Parallel printer port. I’m sure there are other similar products out there, but the point is to let this little “computer” handle the printing instead of trying to make OS X do the difficult (?) job of translating printing to a parallel port. Check out a print server like this if you need to interface with a parallel port printer on OS X. It’s well worth the money.

Mount Multiple Disc Images for Free with Virtual CloneDrive

Please insert disc! I mean it! Insert the disc now!

If you grow tired of programs that demand the presence of a physical disc, you can bypass that requirement by running the disc virtually.

Virtual CloneDrive, by SlySoft, is a free program that allows you to mount and run disc images so that your computer will think they are physical discs. This is handy when an application checks for an inserted disc, such as installing/running software or playing a video game.

Virtual CloneDrive supports most popular image formats, including ISO, IMG, BIN, UDF, and CCD files. You can choose which file types to associate by default upon install.

You may have to reboot after installation (or after adding additional virtual drives). As of the most recent version (, Virtual CloneDrive supports up to 15 virtual drives. Wow!

To mount an image, just right-click on one of your virtual drives and browse to the Mount option. You may then choose your desired image.

If you need some help determining which of your drives are the virtual ones, you can enable the Virtual Sheep option to give your drive(s) a nice sheep icon.

Virtual CloneDrive works with every version of Windows from 98 through Vista 64. I haven’t tried it yet on Server 2008, but I suspect it will work fine.

I really like this free tool, but if you want to try an alternative, I suggest MagicDisc. Daemon Tools used to rule this roost, but they upset a lot of people with the bundled inclusion of spyware in version 4. I’ll stick to Virtual CloneDrive.

Oh, and if you need to convert Nero NRG images to ISO, see my tip on using IZArc2Go.

10 Great OS X Applications for the Web Developer

One of the things I think of every single working day is how great a platform OS X is for software development. Now, take that with a grain of salt… I do development in a LAMP dev shop running Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP, but we’re running some enormous sites (,, and All of those technologies are open-source, and (in my opinion) very well suited for serious commercial sites. Java is fine if you need to send a man to the moon, but it you just need to say “Hello World!”, you’re still might be dealing with a rocket launch…

Peanut Gallery Java Pot-Shots

.NET isn’t any better… every .NET shop I’ve dealt with has had horrible down-times and massive release delays… but I digress…

Why is OS X Awesome for Software Development?

  1. Exposé — this feature saves me 30 to 45 minutes per day (yes, I’ve timed it). It’s unbelievable how much time you can save if you can quickly get between documents and apps.
  2. The BSD Subsystem — if you’re working with Linux/PHP/Perl/MySQL, it saves so much time to have OS X’s Terminal right there with a Unix variant under its hood. No need to emulate with Cygwin or go remote with Putty. You can test your Apache config or database queries without ever having to connect to the network.
  3. My Mac Runs Windows! — I can test my web pages in all major browsers by flipping between OS X and Parallels Desktop running Windows, or by using VirtualBox.
  4. It’s Not Windows — ha ha… I had to slip that one in. Sorry if you’re suffering through XP. I mean Vista. I mean the NT kernel.

Top 10 Applications for Software Developers on OS X

Ok, on to the main event. Here are ten great applications for a software developer working in OS X. These are the applications that have found an integral place in my workflow. Not all of them are free, but I have tried to list a free alternative when appropriate. I’m not recommending you get ALL of these, but depending on what exactly you’re doing, you might want to try out a handful of them.

iTerm: A Better Terminal

1. iTerm (Free)

Link – iTerm

This is to the command line what Firefox is to browsers: if the Terminal is IE, iTerm is like Firefox. It is simply a better Terminal. It allows tabs and bookmarks for those of you who log into multiple servers.

TextMate: a powerful interface and editor2. TextMate ($57)

Link –TextMate

I do like Smultron a lot (it’s free), but TextMate’s interface is preferable to me. It’s similar to a full-featured IDE such as Eclipse (which is also free) because it gives you a full folder-structure view in its document drawer (something that Smultron or TextWranger do not).

One thing – unlike Eclipse, TextMate is lightweight and fast without ump-teen Preference pages. If you need an IDE, give NetBeans (free) a try.

Transmit: a Powerful FTP/SFTP client with a great interface3. Transmit ($30)

Link –Transmit

Although there are free FTP clients out there, Transmit has one of the best interfaces because it incorporates Mac OS X’s column view. To be fair, I have had some problems connecting to certain servers when using Transmit, but I don’t know enough of the firewall internals to know why one client performed better than another.

If you prefer a free alternative, my recommendation is Cyberduck (free).

Sequel Pro is the sequel to CocoaMySQL4. Sequel Pro (Free)

Link –Sequel Pro (Free)

There are only a couple of choices when it comes to GUI MySQL interfaces for OS X, the other big one being Navicat (they have a lite version that’s free). The other popular choice for a long time was CocoaMySQL, which is still available for 10.4 users, but development on it has been abandoned and the project has moved over to Sequel Pro (the sequel… get it?) Sequel Pro offers an improved interface for 10.5 users (I prefer it to Navicat).

OmniGraffle: graphing, flowcharts, and designs5. Omnigraffle (Bundled with OS X, or $100, or $200 – Pro)

Link – OmniGraffle

Imagine Microsoft Visio, but clean and not bloated and well… not Microsoft. If you have to diagram databases or put together product requirements for documentation, this is a beautiful little product that may have come bundled with your Mac. The Standard version can almost get you through the medium and large projects. I haven’t seen anything on the Mac that comes close to what this application offers, and even though I get the feeling that the high price tag is getting validated by riding Visio’s bandwagon, I still think this is a good bit of software.

6. PhotoDrop (Free)

Link – PhotoDrop

This is a very simple app that lets you create droplets for bulk image processing. Each droplet can do things like convert images between formats, perform scaling and cropping, even watermarking. If you are doing web development, this is just a simple (and much cheaper) alternative to running Photoshop’s Save for Web feature over and over and over again. Very, very handy.

unArchiver: never type a weird command-line un-tar statement again.7. The Unarchiver (Free)

Link – The Unarchiver

This is handy if you’re frequently dealing with Zip, Tar, GZip, BZip2, Rar, 7-zip, LhA, and StuffIt files. Yes, you can handle many of these on the command line, but if you’d rather deal with a GUI, this tool is handy.

8. Nvu (Free)

Link – Nvu

This is a complete Web Authoring System for Linux, Windows and OS X. It’s like a free version of Dreamweaver (which maybe you’ve already outgrown?).

It has good support for style sheets and a Javascript console, but one irk is that the tabs that show multiple open documents seem to disappear if you are viewing the HTML source for the document (instead of the “Normal” WYSIWYG view). If you’re beyond the integrated WYSIWYG type of thing, have a good look at Eclipse (Free)… it’s a big framework that does a lot of things, but a number of web developers I know use it for its convenient browsing and previewing capabilities. Eclipse also integrates with versioning software (like SVN), but because it’s heavy-hitting, I only recommend it for more mature users. NetBeans looks to be a lighter alternative to Eclipse, but I haven’t tried it myself.

9. Seashore (Free)

Link – Seashore

This is a lightweight photo-editing application. It’s got all the things in Photoshop that I use frequently (layers, brushes, and exporting for web). It’s got some handy keyboard short-cuts, but it’s missing others.

SuperDuper: Elegant and Powerful Backups10. SuperDuper! (Shareware, $28)

Link – SuperDuper!

This is a popular backup utility. If you’re serious about doing development work, you know there is a lot of effort put into maintaining your valuable code and prior versions of it. You can use SuperDuper to create bootable clones of a drive, too. Hot stuff.

You can use SuperDuper! for free (forever), but the advanced features are available for a $28 fee.

Honorable Mention: Fluid (Free)

I mention this little app because I’ve found it extremely handy over the past couple days. If you compile a site into its own app, you can take advantage of the built-in Apple-tab shortcut to get to it. Another really helpful thing about working within the application-switching workflow is that you can assign the application(s) its own icon. That’s REALLY helpful when you’re working with a dev and a production version of a site… honestly, those simple little things can prevent disaster.

But the real reason I was compelled to mention Fluid is its inspector. It breaks a page down into the html tags, images, and style sheets ridiculously well. In my opinion, the layout of this program is sickly good… IMHO it’s better than the revered debugging plugin Firebug for Firefox. Wow. Yes, really. I’ve never had an easier time tracking down problematic HTML or a goofed up CSS declaration. However, the Fluid-compiled web site seems to have some weird behavior with its caching… you know the drill: make your edits, clear the cache, refresh the page. But sometimes the Fluid version doesn’t refresh correctly. I don’t know if this is something I can configure or if its an artifact of compilation, but I really hope it’s the former. The DOM inspector is just too slick to overlook. For more information, check out Brian’s post about Fluid.


I hope you’ve benefited from my sharing of this short list. I don’t recommend that you rush out to get all of these programs: some of them may be more relevant than others. If you think one looks interesting or practical, give it a try and see if you like it. Feel free to post your own suggestions about helpful OS X applications for software and web development.

Feature image credit: Guillermo Esteves