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Book Reviews Books Media

X Power Tools 219

stoolpigeon writes "The X Window System has been around for over twenty years and is the display system for an incredibly wide range of operating systems. With the number of Linux users growing, there are more people working with X than ever before. Most modern desktop environments provide user friendly interfaces that make modifying X rather simple. There is not a need to dig into config files and settings as in the past. For those environments without such tools or for the user who loves to dig deep into their environment, this book can be a simple way to understand how X works and how to tweak it in any number of ways. If you want things that 'just work' and have no interest in digging around below the surface this book is not for you. On the other hand, if you think the best thing to do with a shiny new tool is to take it apart, well "X Power Tools" by Chris Tyler may be just for you." Read on for the rest of JR's thoughts on this book.
X Power Tools
author Chris Tyler
pages 254
publisher O'Reilly Media, Inc.
rating 9/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 0-596-10195-3
The author, Chris Tyler, is a professor at Seneca College in Toronto as well as a programmer and Linux user. His first book published by O'Reilly was "Fedora Linux: A Complete Guide to Red Hat's Community Distribution", published in 2006. He cites the growth in X users, combined with active development and the lack of existing books that address X as the motivation for writing "X Power Tools."

X is the windowing system on a wide range of Unix and Unix like systems. Chris is obviously most familiar with Linux and so the material is heavily Linux oriented. This is most apparent when the book deals with Session Managers, Desktop Environments and Window Managers. The material focuses on Gnome, KDE and Xfce and their associated components in regards to X. For the Linux user this could be a valuable resource.

When I've had issues in working with X locally and over the network, I've found that while what I need is available on the web, getting just what I need can be very labor intensive at times. Usually just what I want is spread across tutorials, on-line man pages and forum posts. Sorting out what applies to my situation can be especially difficult when I'm not even sure just how things work for my setup. Chris makes this kind of guessing unnecessary and provides the locations and function of key files. He also spells out how the most important files and tools can be best used.

For the sysadmin on another platform, these Linux specific sections are not going to be much help. Most of the book though, deals with X itself. I've already loaned my copy to one of our AIX admins more than once and I think he plans on picking up a copy of his own.

When Gnome and KDE provide an interface for modifying or customizing X functionality, the book gives at least the name of the program and sometimes screen shots and explanations of how the tool works. This is always after an illustration of how to get the job done with the tools that are a part of X itself. From fonts to keyboard layouts, multi-display to kiosks, everything required is laid out in straight forward terms.

For me, as a Fedora user, this means that having read this book I approach my work environment with a new level of confidence. Behaviors that used to puzzle me, now make complete sense. Quirks that bothered me, no longer need to be tolerated as I know have the tools to get things working just the way I want, rather than using defaults.

The book has just come out, so it was being written before the release of KDE 4. I've looked through the documentation and I don't think any of the changes to programs like KDM or KWin make the information in the book out of date. In fact, according to the KWin release notes, when discussing KWins new compositing support, "...manual configuration of X may be required for proper results..." So if you are a KDE user that likes to live on the edge, this book may come in handy.

O'Reilly says that their "Power Tool" books are comprised of a series of stand-alone articles that are cross-referenced to one another. To be honest, it didn't feel much different from reading any other tech book. Topics flowed naturally and the articles are analogous to sections that divide up chapters in other books. One nice navigation feature is that page numbers are on the bottom of the pages while chapter and article numbers are at the top corner in a decimal notations. For example at the top of page 58 there is a grey square containing the number 3.13 which means that it is the 13th article in chapter 3.

The book has a thorough index. It also comes with 45 days free access to an electronic version through O'Reilly Safari.

For me the only real weakness of the book is that I would like to have seen more information on working with X on Unix. When reference is made to specific implementation of X it is almost always in regards to Linux. I wouldn't want to lose that, but I think a mixed environment of Unix, Linux and Windows is more the rule than the exception today. It would be more work to include other operating systems, but it would have also made the book much more valuable.

All tech books face the danger of becoming quickly useless as progress marches forward. X is actively being developed, but at the same time, looking back on its history I think this book will be useful for sysadmin and user for some time to come.

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X Power Tools

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  • As long as the program lives on (even as abandonware), so does the technology and the potential for manuals and other HOWTO material. People still buy QBasic By Example (and blogs still rave about it) even though it was unbundled from Windows in Vista (maybe even XP, I'm not sure) and most people (myself included) haven't written a proper program in it for coming up on a decade.
    • Isn't that one of those oxymoron things like "Military Intelligence".
      • by rbanffy ( 584143 )
        don't be so picky. You have to consider what languages were available at the time. Qbasic and its predecessors came free with every version of DOS and that is a significant competitive advantage over, say, Turbo Pascal. I know that, at the time QBasic was introduced, there were much more advanced languages on the market, but if we are to explore this avenue, Smalltalk/80 was already putting the Java (or C# or C++) we have today to shame.
    • by fm6 ( 162816 )
      Actually, QBasic was never in any version of 32-bit (NT-derived) Windows. It would be very hard to do without a virtual machine, because QBasic is a DOS program, and 32-bit Windows isn't built on DOS. Unlike 16-bit Windows, which was really just a GUI and scheduling layer on top of DOS.

      You probably associate QBasic's "unbundling" (the more usual term is "end of life", or as nontechnical people say, "death") with XP because that was the first version of 32-bit Windows that had enough 16-bit backward compatib
  • How bad can a review be? This provides no useful information, except that the reviewer seems to have liked it a lot.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) *
      What did I leave out that you would like to know? I'm always looking to do a better job and would appreciate any help in that regard.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by logru ( 909550 )
        * What does it cover?
        * What are the chapters?
        * What detail does it go into?
        * Who is it aimed at?
          * Would a newbie find it useful or bewildering?
        * How expensive is it?
        * Is it easy to use as a reference or do you read it cover to cover?
        * What didn't you like about it?
        * Was there any bad information in there?
        * When you say it's more linux aimed, to what degree?

        Those are just some of the questions I can come up with from the top of my head...
        • I try hard not to just summarize the book. Or just go over stuff that's really easy to get - I think you might find that this page [] has a lot of what you want - the toc will give you a great idea of what the book covers.

          The subjects are covered thoroughly as I mentioned, with coverage of command line as well as gui tools and the appropriate config files. There is also some explanation as to why things work the way they do and nice ideas/examples of various ways that those options can be implemente
  • by Toreo asesino ( 951231 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @03:55PM (#22410312) Journal
    is that it know the hardware it's running on better. You shouldn't need a file to say what resolution your monitor can do for instance; it should just know and keep track of preferences of what resolution you'd prefer maybe.

    This isn't a troll; monitors and graphics cards have been able for donkeys years to tell the OS what resolutions and refresh-rates they are capable of for years now and X hasn't caught on.

    And that's pretty much my only complaint.
    • by pembo13 ( 770295 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @04:01PM (#22410392) Homepage
      You mean X should be able to auto config itself and not rely on a set resolution in /etc/X1ll/xorg.conf? Kinda like how it does now?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Yes, that works great if you plug in one display when you install and never change it.

        Now go to your nearest Mac, plug in a second display (while it's running), and watch what happens. Then go to your nearest Linux box, plug in a second display (also while it's already running), and watch what happens. Note that the Mac was using both displays about 4 seconds after you plugged it in, and the Linux box was not.
        • by FooBarWidget ( 556006 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @04:57PM (#22411190)
          Nope. This has already been addressed in the most recent release. In fact the goal of this release is automatic hardware hotplugging support with no config files.

          Actually it already works now. I'm running Ubuntu 7.10. Not too long ago I plugged in a beamer into my VGA port, and it... just worked! No configurations, no restart, it Just Worked(tm).

          If you're going to whine, at least make an effort to stay up to date with the facts.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by ADRA ( 37398 )
            There will always be problematic hardware that needs more than just using auto-probed settings using than using /proc and EDID settings. My issue is a minor one, but a major head-ache. I've got a TV as my monitor, and like many many TV's on the market, the TV overscan/underscan issues. The only way to property configure that monitor is for someone to manually plug in settings to come up with a few 'magic' resolutions that will 'just work' out of the box of any new distribution.

            But I do agree, most of whats
            • by krmt ( 91422 )
              Very little is required to be in xorg.conf these days, and that amount has been getting less and less over time. You no longer need a serverlayout section, for example, because it's now inferred from the remaining sections. If you have no video card section one is automatically figured out for you. These are all relatively recent (last year or so) developments, but they do exist in the source tree today.
          • by pembo13 ( 770295 )
            Exactly my point. Xorg auto configs now (I can't exactly say that I prefer it myself)
    • You shouldn't need a file to say what resolution your monitor can do
      If you have a monitor that can tell X what it can do, then you don't need anything in your config file. I've only had to set them in my xorg.conf when I was running xvnc with no monitor attached (it defaulted to 800x600 I think, but I wanted a higher resolution).

      X.Org 7.4 doesn't even seem to need a config file at all.
      • by mjm1231 ( 751545 )
        While what you say is true, how this works in practice varies by distro. The last several times I've installed slackware, I didn't need to run any config script or edit any files to get a working xorg setup.

        However, I have an old P3 running xubuntu that I use on a daily basis which has taught me that detecting a monitor is one thing...redetecting a monitor is something else. Windows is often not much better in this regard, but at least the interface for changing the monitor settings is easier to navigate

    • by mpapet ( 761907 )
      is that it know the hardware it's running on better.

      Xorg does this just fine on vaguely modern hardware that doesn't need extra hacks. (Intel, I'm looking at your graphics chipset!) It's the distro's configure script that isn't up to the job.

      Of course, you COULD contribute a better script...
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Enleth ( 947766 )
      mv /etc/X11/xorg.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.bak

      And restart it. Seriously. Since about a year, the best way of running X on a PC is to let it autoconfigure itself without any configuration file, not even the one generated by some distro-supplied automatic configuration system.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ianezz ( 31449 )

      This isn't a troll; monitors and graphics cards have been able for donkeys years to tell the OS what resolutions and refresh-rates they are capable of for years now and X hasn't caught on.

      Uh? Xorg (and XFree86 before) have been querying monitors characteristics via DDC for years. HorizSync and VertRefresh are just for really ancient monitors/graphic adapters. Look here [] if you don't believe me.

  • by Enleth ( 947766 ) <> on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @04:09PM (#22410490) Homepage
    From man xorg.conf, verbatim:

    Nobody wants to say how this works. Maybe nobody knows ...

    On the more serious note, Xorg might have some misfeatures and shortcomings - that don't really justify everyone whining there, but, well, it's kind of typical - but the sheer fact that something designed over 20 years ago to operate with hardware and software long forgotten still does its job well and manages to keep up with other windowing systems even when it comes to bells and whistles (Composite, etc.), while being ABI (ABI, mind you, not API) compatible with software that actually is 20 years old, means something. That's one solid piece of engineering, the kind one doesn't see often.
    • by syousef ( 465911 )
      If you're seriously saying that 20 year old (predecessor) binaries will work on a modern OS, I'd love more detail.
  • XDMCP is one of my favorite features of X. But, getting it set up is such a royal pain in the butt, especially on networks with mixed distros and OSs. It's been a few years since I've had to administer it much, but my only real gripe with X was the time it took getting a good XDMCP environment up and running. Hope there's some help with it included.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by misleb ( 129952 )
      Really? I don't recall having much problem with XDMCP. Granted, I never had to do it large scale, but it was more or less just a matter of having one machine run XDM/GDM and then on "client" machines start X with an option that points it to the IP of the XDMCP "server." IIRC, there is even an XDMCP browser. The only thing is that some distributions (maybe most these days?) don't enable listening for TCP connections by default for security reasons. So you have to know where to enable that.

  • Does it talk about how to get the bloat out of X, and perhaps low bandwidth?

    Not bashing X as its got its place and is universal, but no one can honestly say its resource friendly.
    • Not bashing X as its got its place and is universal, but no one can honestly say its resource friendly.

      Are you sure? I've personally used X on these machines: [] [] [] With accelerated 3D in 1993.

      Not to mention a bunch of other machines I can't find convinient references for. Bear in mind that a well written X11 program will still display on those machines (albeit probably missing some modern feature
      • by nurb432 ( 527695 )
        Its not that my PC is too old, i just prefer not to waste resources.

        So X has improved over the years? It doesn't seem like it to me, but thats good they have made advances instead of going backwards. I still don't think it has exited 'bloat' as i consider it, but i will check out this KDrive thing this week as i have not heard of it before, and perhaps change my opinion. ( as really X is a good thing and i would never suggest it go away.. )

Disks travel in packs.