Ashton Mills17 September 2007, 12:44 AM
The challenge continues as Ashton Mills forgoes the tasty delights of Windows for a world subsisting on Linux. Is it enough, or will he go hungry? Read on to find out about Ashton's challenge to rip and encode MP3s to an iPod.
This month proved interesting -- I was given a challenge not by myself, in my adoption of Ubuntu as my desktop and world, but by my partner: walking up to me with a beaming smile and holding her latest purchase, the two CD Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, The Musical, she said 'Can you put this on my iPod?'. As a self-confessed not-geek she's assigned all computer responsibilities to me, and with full confidence in my Linux desktop I confidently said 'Of course!'. Afterall, it was open source that took the Fraunhofer MP3 format and ran with it, providing a range of free MP3 encoders and then further improving the format. So this would be a snap, right?
Well, not quite.
In this project we're making the assumption that Windows does all that we need, and we're seeing if Linux and open source software measures up. Perhaps that's not an entirely fair place to sit, as there will be tasks open source software can do better. However, as the de-facto in operating systems for which everyone is familiar, it's our best basis for comparison. Oh geez, enough of the waffle, here's how we'll rate the experience of going Windows-free:
Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
Pass -- No problems. The task can be completed exactly as under Windows.
Iffy -- When a task could only be partially completed, or completed but not without issue.
Flop -- Not possible to complete at all. Probably not a good thing.
Despite fixing up MP3, WMV and other media format playback in a previous installment of the challenge, I quickly discovered that this didn't apply to actually encoding as well as decoding. I could play MP3s fine, but I couldn't seem to encode them. Starting up Sound Juicer, the de-facto Gnome CD ripping software, I found that its feature set was missing the ability to actually encode MP3s. Which is somewhat of an oversight, you'd think, being a CD ripper. Oh, it handles other formats -- including ripping to WAV, Flac (a great lossless format) and Ogg (lossy, generally superior quality to MP3). And if I was ripping for myself I'd use Ogg anyway, as I've done for most of my collection.
But iPods don't play Oggs, I need MP3s.
To be fair to Sound Juicer, its ability to encode is defined by the underlying Gstreamer media engine in Gnome, so the lack of an option to encode to MP3 actually resides there and not with Sound Juicer which is just doing what it's told. The problem is, there was no help within Ubuntu on how to enable MP3 encoding, and no automated tool that I could find. Which is crazy, as this has got to be one of the most common tasks to perform under a home operating system. Well, unless you were born last century and still love vinyl. But I digress.
Again the Ubuntu forums came to the rescue and there was a simple, but somewhat convoluted, solution: First, install some Gstreamer libraries for lame (a cross-platform open source high quality MP3 encoder), and then create a new MP3 profile in Sound Juicer to call on the Gstreamer lame support, with the following cryptic Gstreamer pipeline definition:
audio/x-raw-int,rate=44100,channels=2 ! lame name=enc bitrate=160 ! id3v2mux
So, not exactly something your average Joe is going to either know or be able to work out without outside help. Again, as touched on in part two of the challenge, the lack of MP3 support in all its forms is more an issue of proprietary and licensed technology than an oversight, but still it would be a simple thing to add a big fat message stating 'Can't rip to MP3? Go [here] to enable it...'.
With the new MP3 profile in hand, Sound Juicer worked its magic ripping and encoding on the fly, and filling in album and song title details sourced from MusicBrainz. I had my MP3s.
MP3 Encoding: Iffy -- When a task could only be partially completed, or completed but not without issue.
|Sound Juicer is Ubuntu's default CD ripper and encoding tool.
|Adding MP3 encoding support to Sound Juicer - Pic 1.
|Adding MP3 encoding support to Sound Juicer - Pic 2.
Introducing the iPod
With MP3s ready to go, the next task was to copy to the iPod. Ironically, I was dreading this more than the encoding, for the last time I tried this under Linux it was anything but easy to get working, if indeed the operating system recognised the device at all.
Not so with my Ubuntu install. In fact, it couldn't have been easier.
After plugging in the iPod Nano, an iPod icon appeared on the desktop and Rhythmbox, Ubuntu's default Gnome-based media player, popped up. Underneath the icons for the local collection playlists was an iPod device. It could read and play from the iPod, but I quickly found it didn't appear to enable transferring to it. Not a problem as Amarok, a rather sleek KDE-based media player and organiser which I had also installed, found the device and although couldn't immediately identify it -- a popup box with options ranging from 'Creative Nomad', 'Generic Media Player' and of course 'Apple iPod' was presented -- once configured it happily transferred to and from the iPod with a click of button (well, two clicks -- select the tracks, then 'Transfer'). Much easier than futzing with iTunes and its controlling interface under Windows, and exactly the type of result you expect from your desktop -- to just plug it in and go.
Talking to the iPod: Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
|As easy as it gets -- plug and play iPod on the desktop.
|Rhythmbox found the iPod's collection automatically - Pic 1.
|Rhythmbox found the iPod's collection automatically - Pic 2.
|Amarok, more fully featured than Rhythmbox, was used to easily copy songs to and from the iPod.
Upgrading to Edgy Eft
Soon after keeping my partner happy in her music the latest version of Ubuntu 6.10, 'Edgy Eft', was released and with it a host of upgrades and new features. Well, I thought, this is as good a time as any to evaluate the upgrade process!
So, trusting the Ubuntu developers, I took the plunge.
Now by default the Update Manager looks for and installs only new or updated packages for the current distribution, in this case my Ubuntu 6.06, and doesn't automatically offer a full upgrade to the new one. This actually makes a lot of sense -- you might not want to upgrade, and so you're only going to want to see the packages (new programs, security fixes etc) that apply to your current version.
Telling Update Manager I do want to perform a full upgrade to the new version is easy enough -- the release notes on the Ubunutu home page tell you to launch the Update Manager from the command line (instead of the Ubuntu menu) with: gksu "update-manager -c"
So that's exactly what I did.
The jump from 6.06 to 6.10 sounds small, and it's certainly no leap like going from Windows XP to Windows Vista, but none the less almost every package in the system needed to be upgraded. The Update Manager reported that 77 packages would need to be removed, 182 new packages installed, and 928 packages upgraded. If you weren't aware of it before that under the hood there are an awful lot of packages installed, you certainly were now! The total download for the new and updated packages would weigh in at 769MB. I'm effectively re-downloading my entire operating system. But would it keep everything -- especially my data, my work, oh and my MP3s -- intact?
As it happens, yes. After waiting just over half an hour (I'll take a moment now to hug my ADSL modem -- what, don't you do this too?) and watching it sequentially upgrade my system, while I'm still using it, it eventually prompted to reboot. It wasn't entirely seamless -- it reported a configuration error with a Python package, which ironically came from the Automatix install routines that gave me full media playback capability. But aside from this I was greeted with an updated Ubuntu login manager, desktop theme, and ultimately operating system. My desktop was now using the latest Gnome 2.16, but everything was where I expected it to be, and all my programs worked as before. Most of them just had newer version numbers.
As an aside, as it's probably not immediately apparent, but upgrading to the new version didn't just upgrade the base operating system, but also all the applications I had since installed on top as well. Think about it for a moment -- imagine upgrading Windows and having all your third party applications upgraded at the same time, everything from utilities and browsers to games and office applications. That's what the upgrade system does here, checking all packages not just those originally installed, and grabbing the latest versions. Literally, fantastic, as I don't need to hunt around for these myself. I even got a new version of my Sound Juicer.
Taking the upgrade plunge: Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
|The Update Manager reports a new version of Ubuntu to download...
|...and with it an extensive list of packages to upgrade and update (over 1000!)
|Upgrading the whole operating system was simple and easy, and worked in the background.
Open Source Challenge