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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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