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Linux Lite install

Linux Lite
Moss Bliss

This is a distro installation report which did not make it onto Distrohoppers’ Digest. I installed version 4.4 on this occasion.

The installer is Ubiquity: the more you use it, the easier it is to use. I had no difficulties. It was interesting to see some of the default settings being more reasonable than most, such as the screensaver turned off by default. They still need to turn off the timeout for a screen blanking and locking during installation and maybe set the default to be a little longer after installation.

They chose a lot of apps that I don’t use, in fact they use a lot more apps than I would expect on a light distro. When you have to remove half of what they install, you start to question why you pick that distro and not something that only had the apps you use. I removed LibreOffice, gimp, Thunderbird, and a few others. I added Ubuntu restricted extras, neofetch, Grub customizer, and my games such as they are, and put a lock on kmines as the current version still has a bug in saving your score. I used FreeOffice this time.

I booted back to Mint, took grub back, ran Grub Customizer, and booted back to Linux Lite to run some more tests.

I installed the printer driver for my Brother printer. Everything went smoothly but I did not get a test print. I checked the network address, ran the install again, still no test print. I booted back over to Bodhi to prove that my printer was working, which it was.

When I installed Audacity, I wound up with version 2.3.3. these days, that’s not a bad thing.

Overall, this works really well but is not anything different. The little problems might be big problems for someone, but getting back to the devs might get some of them fixed. I actually remembered earlier versions having fewer issues, but again, there is nothing earth-shattering.

Cutefish OS

by Moss Bliss

This is a review which was judged to be too incomplete to include in Distrohoppers’ Digest podcast. Cutefish OS is created by the developers of Cutefish Desktop, which has already been released on Manjaro Linux. It is based on Ubuntu core.

I installed this on my Lenovo ThinkPad T540p. Somewhere I saw it listed as a 0.4 beta? Beta is not mentioned anywhere on the system after installation.

I didn’t notice the installer button on the bottom dock even though I looked for it. So I opened the launcher. Install Cutefish was finally found in the launcher, out of alphabetical order. It launches a flawed version of Calamares, which, when you try to replace a partition, attempts to create two partitions in the same space and write to one of them. This is an old problem that is long since been fixed. I chose to go ahead and use the whole disk.

This is an interesting distro, which uses BTRFS on Ubuntu core.

The dock at the bottom shows the launcher, Firefox, calculator, unnamed file manager, settings, unnamed terminal, Kate, muon package manager, cutefish installer, and trash

I finished the installation, obeyed the instruction to remove the installation medium and press enter. It then rebooted.

The desktop is reasonably well designed, with a taskbar at the top which includes Bluetooth, cutefish-gxkb, a widget which includes volume, battery level, and battery percentage, and time. The dock is the same as before, minus the install icon. Installation did not pass my Wi-Fi password to the installed system. The installed screen resolution is 1368, which is what I prefer.

There is a choice of light or dark theme and a choice between 6 accent colors. You have a choice of six backgrounds. You can move the dock to left bottom or right, default is bottom. There are other options to size the font or hide the dock. There are several other very simplified options, including an inability to switch to a 24-hour clock or to modify your power settings beyond two options available.

The kernel is 5.11.0-31 generic
Firefox is 91.0.2

Calculator remains unnamed, as does the file manager and terminal. The terminal is so transparent that it’s hard to see and default text is very tiny.

Updates using Muon package manager went fairly quickly but I was left quite confused as to what actually updated. It seemed to be crammed in using the default size. Expanding it seemed to help a bit. According to the launcher there were 34 icons available to launch, some of which are standard plasma apps but not many. Discord is included by default as is telegram. One of the buttons says Cutefish Full Upgrade, I thought I had already done that. I pressed it to double check and it’s downloading 301 more packages.

As installed, it does not include an office package. I’m wondering if it will throw that in to the upgrade. It is upgraded in the kernel slightly to 5.11.0-37. there are some Wayland upgrades and several plasma libraries. The upgrade took a very long time, at least subjectively, as one would expect from 301 package downloads and installations.

I confirmed that there was still no office package installed after the upgrades, or at least there was not one showing on the launcher. It does, however, include a program called catdoc, which claims to be able to extract text from MS Office files.

Some unusual choices in software are made, though not necessarily unwelcome ones. It continues to use systemd, as one would expect from a system based on Ubuntu. All audio sources are handled by pipewire, not pulseaudio although that appears to be included. Muon appears to be similar in scope and presentation to Synaptic; at this stage in my use, I prefer Synaptic. After the updates, I removed Transmission for no good reason, and I noted that my launcher now only lists 27 icons.

If you like the options presented then you will probably like the system. If you find them few and limiting, you might contact the devs to see if they would add more.

There does not appear to be a setting to turn off my touchpad. Also I just discovered that the updates did not include updating Discord to the current version. I could not get either the archiver or qapt to install the new version, so I opened the terminal and installed gDebi, grabbing neofetch and Ubuntu restricted extras while I was at it. After using gdebi to install discord, I found the icon is still opening the old version. And for whatever reason, I no longer have the downloaded package. I downloaded again, saved it, and ran gDebi from terminal, which worked.

I’m also not finding a workspace switcher, everything just piles on top of each other.

I also went into shut it down and decided to turn down the brightness. The system locked up for about 2 minutes and then told me I needed to authenticate it with my password but would not allow me to enter the password in the field provided. I must say, I’ve never had to enter my password before just to turn down my brightness. The system appears to remain locked at that level. After a few more minutes of waiting I did a cold reboot. When I rebooted I went straight to the brightness turned it down. I did not get prompted for a password for another 2 minutes. Same thing happened, no way to continue.

As I could not close this down without holding down the power button, I decided it was not ready for prime time and withheld my review from Distrohoppers’ Digest.

Reborn OS install

by Moss Bliss

This little distro is an Arch newcomer, and there were some surprises in store.

I downloaded the ISO and burned the stick. I installed the stick in my Lenovo ThinkPad T540p. The installer was simple to use once you figured out that there wasn’t a Continue button to hit, just an arrow. There was a choice of many desktops, including a phony Pantheon which was actually a themed Cinnamon. I chose the UKUI desktop mostly because I never used it. I was tempted to try Mate.

I was then prompted to select features, which are groups of applications. There are a number of different browsers I could select, as well as a number of different offices, including LibreOffice, FreeOffice and WPS office, perhaps others. I can choose my office package and my browser; otherwise I got a selection of types of packages and selected the category, not the individual software. When I was done selecting software, I got a disclaimer about the AUR. I then goet a recommendation to use additional cache because the installer needs to download a ton of packages. I selected None.

Let the system sort mirrors, leave them as they are, or manage them manually from a graphical list provided. I let the system sort the mirrors itself.

At this point it asked how I would like to proceed, with the default being erasing the whole disc and installing. Since I have two discs, and since it did not give me the option, I chose the manual option. I selected sdb1, with boot on sda. I assume I will have to use bios to get to the distro I have installed on sda1 to reset GRUB.

Instead of proceeding with the installation it asked me to set up my user. Most distros either have you do this earlier, later, or wait until you finish the install and boot into it to get this task done. It’s a fairly common looking screen. Unlike some, it did not try to create my username from my real name, which I found refreshing.

Then it presented me with a checklist to show that yes I’d done everything, I hit the “next” arrow and was asked for confirmation to continue the installation.


While it is installing it lets you know the six themes that they have created.

The installation started at 1:21 and soon started fetching software and cycling through its promo screens, of which there are three.

Power management attempted to turn the screen off even though my computer was plugged in, I had to keep moving my mouse to keep it from going to sleep. I would hope that it would continue installing, but I have had Arch installations which did not. I was able to set the power profile while it was installing, and also found an easy switch for turning off my touchpad.

Firefox 93.0.1
Linux kernel 5.14.9.arch2-1

Downloading finished at 1:57 and installation started. Installation finished at 1:59, and configuration and cleanup commenced, which completed in less than a minute and then I rebooted.

It booted directly to the OS and the boot was fast. Updating was not necessary as it installed the latest packages. I just have to install packages that did not offer me and configure things. Plus I am happy to report that the installer copied my Wi-Fi information to the finished installation.
But it would not use my Wi-Fi. I had to physically turn off a message that Ethernet was not connected before it would start using my Wi-Fi.

I could not get the forum page to finish loading, and tried again over the next few days. If I can’t get my wifi working and can’t get help for it, that’s the end of my review.

Endeavour “fixes” its GRUB issue

Endeavour “fixed” their grub problem. The issue of having lots of multiples of distros (on a multiboot system) on the grub menu is gone. So is booting other distros from Endeavour altogether. Endeavour completely controls grub, and the only way to get back to your other distros is to boot to the BIOS menu (F7 on my System76, F12 on Dell and Lenovo…)

I solved this problem the same way I solved Manjaro boots in the past — reclaim grub to whichever distro I want and run Grub Customizer. This will show Endeavour on the Grub menu, but, just like Manjaro, you can’t boot to it. You have to go to the BIOS menu to boot Endeavour.

This is one point different from Manjaro — with Manjaro, if you allow it to control grub, you can still boot all your distros. With Endeavour, if it controls grub you can only boot Endeavour (but like Endeavour, trying to boot Manjaro from a grub controlled by a non-Arch distro leads to a black screen).

These results have been run on a System76 Kudu 3 (2016). I had the Manjaro results on this machine and 3 others from different vendors, some laptop some desktop. Your mileage may vary.

Moss

The Origins of the Graphical User Interface

In this series of articles, I will be going through the history of the Graphical User Interface (GUI). The questions addressed will include:

  • What is a GUI?
  • How old is it?,
  • Who created the first one?
  • Why did they create it?
  • How have they evolved over time?

I will try to cover as much of this as I can.

What is a GUI? A GUI (pronounced gooey) is how you interact with a computer or other electronic device without needing to type in commands using a keyboard. The most common ways of interacting are by way of a stylus, mouse/trackball, touch pad or just your finger. You tap or click on icons that represent functions you wish to perform. When the early computer pioneers created text input via keyboards, the computer become more broadly used. The early adoption was slow and had a niche following. They knew a better way was needed.

How old is it? The idea started longer ago than you might think. It all started with a device called the light pen. The light pen was created around 1955 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a private land-grant research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was part of a larger project. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Research Lab approached MIT about creating a computer to act as a flight simulator to train bomber crews. After some initial talks they decided to fund the development under the name Project Whirlwind.

The light pen was a light-sensitive wand that was connected to a computer terminal’s cathode-ray tube (CRT) display. The light pen detects changes in brightness of screen pixels when updated by the CRT’s electron beam and sends that timing information to the computer. Since the update of pixels was one at time by the electron beam and at a known refresh rate, the computer terminal could figure out where the light pen was touching the screen. Over time, once it was determined to be reliable, it was more widely used on the Situation Display consoles of the AN/FSQ-7, a large computer system for military airspace surveillance built by IBM (though MIT still aided in the development). After IBM took over development, they made use of this technology on many of their other terminals.

A few things about the terminology and the technology that was used in the 1950’s and 1960’s: These computer systems were multiple cabinets that would fill an entire floor of a building. When they say it was a graphics terminal, by today’s standards it was text . These Graphics Display Units (terminals) were only input and output devices, as they needed to connect to a Central Processing Unit to be of any use. The graphics terminals themselves processed all the input and output for the Central Processing Unit. A graphics terminal consisted of a CRT, light pen and a keyboard. To show an example, here is an IBM 2250 Graphics Display Unit, click here.
The Central Processing Unit is what we would refer to as the computer. It contains the core memory, disk storage, keyboard, control panel and a line printer. You can click here to see an example of a IBM 1131 Central Processing Unit and here for an example of a IBM 1130 Central Processing Unit. Click here to see them connected together. (Images courtesy of Columbia University in NYC, IBM, The Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences and By Martin Skøtt – Flickr: IBM 1130, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia)

Countless people at many companies and universities continued further development throughout the 1960’s. The US Government continued their involvement by funding many of these projects. Here are some notable creations:

The Sketchpad was a computer program by Ivan Sutherland in 1963. It is considered to be the ancestor of both Computer Aided Design (CAD) and a major breakthrough in computer graphics in general. It was the first program to use a complete graphical user interface. It ran on the Lincoln TX-2, which was an advanced transistor-based computer built in 1958 by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Users would draw on the screen using a light pen. They could create an initial drawing and then further modify it using geometric constraints. Geometric constraints was a major invention. In short, this allowed for precise drawing as apposed to free hand drawing. It would correct crooked lines to an exact length, and angles could be maintained while the drawing is modified. Below is a 7 minute 16mm film from 1963, it is a demonstration of how Sketchpad works.


The RAND Tablet, developed by the Rand Corporation in 1964, was a input device that used a stylus attached to a 10″ by 10″ (254 mm by 254 mm) printed-circuit screen using capacitive sensors. It looks and functions similar to today’s drawing tablets, like a Wacom tablet. The Rand Tablet had 100 lines per inch (25.4 mm) resolution, capable of digitizing 1 million locations, and used a handwriting recognition program called GRAIL (Graphical Input Language). GRAIL could identify 53 hand drawn numbers, letters, symbols and geometric shapes. It was also able to use gestures to manipulate text and etc on the screen. This product was the inspiration for the later creation of devices like Wacom’s drawing tablet, Apple’s Newton and the Palm Pilot by Palm Inc..

RAND continued to develop computing devices and computer systems. They also partnered with IBM to create the VGS (Videographic System). It was a very interesting computer system, but a little too much to explain here. It combined video content (viewable on modified TV’s) and the RAND Tablet to allow a way of annotating the content. Cartographers found this system an amazing tool to create and annotate maps. I will link some PDF files below.

RAND Videographic System. This is a technical over view of the complete system. Shows all the components that were used.
https://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R0753.html

RAND and the Information Evolution. For information specifically on the Videographic System, start at page 89.
https://www.rand.org/pubs/corporate_pubs/CP537.html

Light pen usage continued into the 1980’s, as early personal computers had the ability to use them. They fell out of use later in the decade, due the fact that you needed to keep your arm extended for long periods of time. A similar technology was used on game consoles, where the light pen was made to look like a gun, such as was used in a popular arcade game called Duck Hunt.

Shown below are two YouTube videos on how the RAND Tablet functioned. The first one is a 2 minute excerpt of a 97 minute presentation done by Alan Kay called “Doing With Images Makes Symbols: Communicating With Computers”. He is one of the many computer scientists that were responsible for the graphical interfaces that we use today, and is best known for is work on object-oriented-programming and windowing graphical user interface design. The second video is the original video Alan was commenting on in his presentation. Alan started it at the 7 minute and 30 second mark. The entire video is 14 minutes long and was produced by the RAND Corporation from the mid 1960’s. It is a very well produced video and the computer screen is very clear and legible. If you don’t want to take the time watching it; I would suggest at least skipping through it, as I think you will be surprised at its functionality.

Alan Kay “Doing With Images Makes Symbols: Communicating With Computers”.

The last two projects of the 1960’s I am going to mention were also revolutionary in how modern graphical user interfaces operate. The following was the work of Douglas Engelbart, he was an engineer and inventor. He joined the Stanford Research Institute (now know as SRI International) in 1957. His interests centered around how people interact with objects they use in day to day activities, with a particular interest in how children do the same. He recruited others in the 1960s to form the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute. Out of the many contributions he and his group made to computing, I will mention three of them that I consider ground breaking.

He created the idea of hypertext. It is the foundation of how point and click actually works. The icon is a link that refers to another object. Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a Computer Scientist at CERN (European Nuclear Research), used this idea to create HTML in 1989, and released it in 1990. To quote him “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name-system ideas and—-ta-DA!—the World Wide Web”.

Continuing on with Douglas, he and his group (he is named on the patent) created the computer mouse. It was given that as a nickname because the cord resembled a mouse tail. They intended to create an official name but the nickname caught on. The first prototype was in 1964 with its public demonstration in 1968. The patent was filed on 1967 and granted in 1970. You might find it interesting that the trackball predated his invention. It was invented by two separate people in separate countries a few years apart. Going by the earliest date first, an English engineer named Ralph Benjamin invented it in 1946 and was granted the patent in 1947, he called it roller ball. A few years later in 1952 a British electrical engineer in Canada named Kenyon Taylor and his team at the Royal Canadian Navy’s Digital Automated Tracking and Resolving project (DATAR) created their version of the trackball.

I saved the best for last. One of the three aforementioned projects Douglas worked on was the Augmentation of Human Intellect project. That project created the oN-Lin System (NLS). Douglas was inspired by some papers written by Vannevar Bush in 1945. He was an early engineer, inventor and science administrator for the US Government. His concept was called Memex. It outlines how our computers work today, really shocking how he described the functionality 76 years ago.

The NLS was software that allowed many functions. To name a few, there was document creation/removal and editing. You could select text and link it to other portions of the document or even another document (a form of hypertext linking). Edit a document with multiple people remotely, which makes it the first groupware application. (Think of it as a Wiki.) This had the ability to move and resize multiple windows. It was also the first time anyone had ever seen a mouse before. The early development was using the CDC 3100 in 1965 and later using the Scientific Data Systems (SDS) 940 in 1968. These were smaller yet more powerful computers compared to those used in the 1950’s. Instead of filling a floor or multiple floors of a building, these computers (fully connected) were about size of a bus. Each unit was about 4 ft wide (1.14m) and 6 ft tall (1.87m). The amount of these connected together determined the computation ability and the amount of memory available, for a lack of a more technical explanation.
Developments of design concepts began and were supported by the US Air Force from 1959 to 1960, and Douglas later published a framework in 1962. In 1968, development moved to the above mentioned SDS 940 using the Berkeley Timesharing System, which was an operating system that allowed multiple people to use it. Non time-sharing operating systems would need to process the request of person before it could process another.

Douglas and his team gave a demonstration at the Association for Computing Machinery / Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (ACM/IEEE)—Computer Society’s Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, California on December 9th, 1968. This demonstration is referred to as The Mother of All Demos. Douglas’s terminal was connected via a home built 1200 baud modem back to their lab in Menlo Park. Additionally a mouse, keyboard and a 5 key chorded keyset was connected to the terminal. They also had two microwave transmitters, video switcher and cameras on loan from NASA. Which providing video between the conference and their lab in Menlo Park. Output of terminal was projected on a large screen for the audience. After the 90 minute long demonstration the audience gave a standing ovation. I will link below the 90 minute video and a highlights playlist of 10 excerpts plus 2 additional videos from the 90 minute video. It is about 24 minutes if you watch all 12. I found it quite amazing at what this software could do. There is an over the shoulder view of the keyset, mouse and keyboard. The keyset in on the left, it looks like a 5 key mini piano.

The Mother of All Demos
Excerpts of from The Mother of All Demos.

To see the list of videos click once on the = in the top right of the video window, if it does show them click again.


In the next article, we will enter into the 1970’s and the beginning of the GUI as you know it today.

Hardware Review: HAVIT 89 key mechanical keyboard

I have to admit that the keyboard has always been an after-thought when I have purchased a computer. In fact, prior to the purchase of this particular keyboard, I have only ever owned ones that came stock with my system purchases. I have certainly used different types of keyboards over the years: from early 90s mechanical options to various Dell-branded membrane keyboards, and ergonomic options (never been a fan); however I have not actively sought out specific keyboards.

All that is to say that I have some frame of comparison, but am not a keyboard expert. So when my Dell membrane keyboard of ~5 years died and I needed to replace it, I was initially inclined to buy the cheapest option available.

But after listening to a discussion on keyboards on MintCast (after the release of the System76 Launch) I decided to finally think about what I wanted in a keyboard and try out a modern mechanical keyboard. The HAVIT 89 key mechanical keyboard was what I ultimately decided upon, and I have to say that I have been quite happy thus far.

My use case

Generally speaking, I can type on any keyboard. I can comfortably switch from tiny netbook keyboards (what I am currently typing on) to full 104 key keyboards with minimal impact on my comfort or typing speed. I prefer a cabled keyboard to avoid a risk of battery dying mid-work, although I do see the benefits of wireless. I type for several hours per day, mostly word processing and e-mails, but also do data entry (a few hours a week), as well as video editing and videoconferencing where keyboard shortcuts are heavily used.

Product Summary and Overview

The main drawing point to this keyboard for me was the layout. It has a tenkeyless (TKL) size with 89 keys. I appreciate this size because I have limited desk space and it keeps the mouse nearby. What distinguishes this particular keyboard from other TKL options is that it has the option for a full number pad (editors note: can we still call it tenkeyless when it has a number pad?). They accomplish this by combining the scroll pad/page up/home-end keys with a number pad. You can switch between the two setups with a simple key combination (Fn + backspace for permanent switch) or temporarily by holding shift down. This is a particularly unique layout that I haven’t seen widely used but that was extremely appealing to me. 90% of the time I spend typing I have no need for the number pad. However when I am doing data entry I prefer a full number pad for efficiency. This keyboard gives me the best of both worlds and I have to say that it the setup has lived up to my expectations.

The keyboard comes in two colour options: black, white and orange (often called the halloween style in reviews) and in white with blue, pink, yellow, and orange (i.e. jellybean style). I opted for the black, white and orange option. I would imagine that opinions will be divided on the looks of this keyboard. It certainly draws attention and I quite like the retro look, however those who prefer a more conventional option may not be a fan. Regardless, the PBT keycaps can easily be replaced with your preferred caps. In this picture you will see that I replaced my “windows key” with a Linux Mint key from WASD keyboards. The process took about 30 seconds with the included keycap puller and the new key fits perfectly.

The keyboard uses Jixian Red switches and they are not hot swappable which is understandable at the price point. The Jixian Red switches are not as commonly seen on other brands but I gather from some of the reviews that they are similar to Gateron red switches. I don’t personally have enough experience with mechanical keyboards to confirm this. What I can say is that they are quite comfortable and I have had no issues with double tapping or skipping. There is a fair clicking sound when typing but it isn’t obnoxious. There is no backlight, which may be a sticking point for some. Gamers may prefer the RGB option at a slightly higher price point.

The build feels really solid, probably more than I expected when I purchased the keyboard. It is wired and the cable is not detachable but braided cable is of decent quality. The keycaps are fair, I have heard that the lettering may fade over time but haven’t experienced this yet. In the meantime the caps fit snug and are comfortable. If fading does occur they are easy enough to swap out. The big question which I can’t answer right now is longevity of the keyboard. The manufacturer says that the key life is 50,000,000 uses, but who knows if that is really the case.

I purchased my keyboard through Amazon for a little under US$50 which I can now say is a bargain. You can also order direct from the manufacturer’s web site and I have seen it on several other sites so it seems fairly available. I have been very happy with this keyboard. It isn’t a premium mechanical keyboard like the System 76 or the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard and as such it does not have all of the typical premium features. But my goal was to purchase an entry level mechanical keyboard, I didn’t want to pay for hot swapping, wireless connectivity and RGB lighting only to find that it wasn’t for me.

Given this goal, I am 100% happy with my choice. I love the layout which is perfectly suited to my daily activities. It seems well made and has been a pleasant typing experience. There has been no issue with compatibility for either Windows or Linux Mint (all the hotkeys work on both systems). So if you are in the market for a basic mechanical keyboard then this is an excellent product that is worth considering.

Jelly Comb – Evolutionary Trackball


I recently purchased a Jelly Comb MT50 trackball as a replacement for a dying Logitech M570. I don’t know if it’s objective, but the M570 buttons seem to be less sturdy than they used to be… My friend Joe repairs a lot of M570s and suggested I get one.

It looks good. It feels good. There are some differences that almost escape you, such as the fact that the button cover is one piece, split and flexible enough to use for individual buttons.

There are differences. The battery is internal, not replacable (unless I send it to Joe or another tech), and rechargable. It turns off when it becomes idle, rather than waking with your mouse usage, and you have to physically turn it off and back on when you boot if it has been longer than a certain amount of time.

It charges with USB C. Or, and here’s a big difference, if your computer has current Bluetooth, it can not only run as a Bluetooth device (and not use your WiFi signal or the dongle at all), it can charge via Bluetooth.

Showing USB-C, internal light, indicators

The price on Amazon is similar to the M570, so the difference in pennies you pay should not be a factor in choosing either trackball. You’ve never heard of Jelly Comb? That could be a factor.

This looks like a better trackball, feels like a better trackball, and probably, down the road, will continue to be a better trackball. It’s not any single thing that makes it stand out: other than the Bluetooth capability, there is nothing that would make you want to throw your M570 away and buy one of these. But that M570 is going to die, or stop working as well as it used to, sooner than you used to be able to count on for a Logitech device, and it is my opinion you should strongly consider replacing it, when it does, with a Jelly Comb MT50.

Moss

Update Nov 30, 2021

I got a chance over the past few days to try the Jelly Comb MT50 as a Bluetooth device. It seems to work better on some machines and in some distros than others, but if you can get it to work, it can save you dongle programming or extra trackball purchases.

I also discovered that you don’t have to turn it off and back on when you start your machine, just have to hit the button to select Wifi, Bluetooth 1 or Bluetooth 2 — one quick click and the device is on. This reduces the point of friction noted above. Just remember that you need to keep it charged.

Linux Mail Clients Deep Dive: Thunderbird

E-mail has been around forever, predating even the web. Despite its age, and the continuous influx of new messaging platforms, it remains the most widely employed form of electronic communication. It offers a combination of reliability, ease of use, flexibility, with an open and non-proprietary structure that appeals to both new and seasoned users. When it comes to accessing e-mail the options are numerous and the choice can be deeply personal.

Most e-mail services offer web-based interfaces that can be accessed through any device and with any operating system. While this can provide users with basic functionality, many users require a dedicated mail client for expanded functionality, the ability to review messages offline, and for managing multiple accounts. In this series of reviews, the ItsMOSS team will review the various mail clients available to Linux users and share our experiences.

Mozilla Thunderbird

Thunderbird is developed by MZLA Technologies Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation. Thunderbird has been in active Open Source development for close to 18 years. It is available for Linux, macOS, Windows and unofficially on FreeBSD and OpenBSD. The built-in features are many.

  • Calendar, local and remote server
  • Chat via IRC and XMPP compatible services
  • RSS Feeds
  • Address Books local, LDAP and Text file import
  • Usenet News Groups
  • Filelink service functionality for WeTransfer, Nextcloud, Dropbox and Box
  • Event and Tasks
  • End-To-End Encryption via OpenPGP and S/MIME

To further add to the functionality, Thunderbird supports Add-on programs. These Add-ons are similar to the extension feature of Web Browsers. I have personally used it on Windows and Linux off and on since it was released.

Installation and setup

Thunderbird can be found in most repositories along with Flatpak, Snap and Appimage. If it’s not already installed in your Linux Distribution. Once installed and opened for the first time, you will be prompted to configure your mail account or accounts. By default it supports POP3 and IMAP, with Microsoft Exchange accounts needing an Add-on to work. Once you type in your name, email address and password, Thunderbird will look to see if it already has the configuration for that provider; if it does, you are done. If not you will be prompted to enter the details specific to your provider. An Exchange account will require the installation of a Add-on and adding your account details to that Add-on. There is also the option of importing mail messages, address book entries, feed subscriptions from compatible applications.

My use case

I’ve been using email for close to 30 years. I started out using Pine, which was a text based email client which used the ncurses interface to give it a somewhat graphical interface. There was no mouse control: you would use the keyboard arrow keys and the enter key to navigate. I would dial in to the University with my modem. I have seen the advancement of email clients over the years. After entering the office workforce in the mid 90’s, I began to use Lotus Notes and Outlook. For my personal email I continued to use Pine for many years until switching to Eudora and then to Thunderbird. After changing careers, I no longer had an employer-provided and -supported email account, and one thing I missed was the ability to see sent emails and read emails despite what computer I was using, due to limitations of POP3. Since the invention of browser based ‘Webmail’, I started to use it to resolve that issue. Once Email providers began offering IMAP, which allowed for two-way folder synchronization, that revived my interest in mail readers.

User Experience

Thunderbird’s functionality is very similar to other email clients mentioned in our previous articles. Your accounts’ folders are on the left panel, with the contents of the selected mail folder in the center panel. Below that is where your selected message is displayed. These windows can all be adjusted by dragging them; optionally, you can display a single day of calendar events in a panel on the right. You can also customize the tool bar by right clicking on it and selecting customize. Other options are available via the View menu, or, if the menu bar isn’t shown, press the alt key on your keyboard.

If you have used other mail clients, you will find similar behavior in Thunderbird. Replies are defaulted to in-line, where the message is quoted below where you would enter your text. Forwarding a message follows the same format as a reply, with the original subject, date, from and to fields listed below. Creating a draft message is very simple, just click on File from the menu bar and select save. That message will then appear in the Draft folder in the left panel; to re-open it, select it from the Drafts folder and resume typing. Once you press the Send button it will be removed from the Drafts folder and placed in the Sent Mail folder. The Address Book is only needed if you are editing or adding new entries. After clicking on Write to create a new message, simply start typing in the name in to the To field, it will automatically display matches in a pop-up window directly below. There is a bit of contention over Address book synchronizing along with the Calendar (more on that below) if you are coming from Outlook. Since that is a native function of the Exchange server. Thunderbird attempts to solve that via text file import using such formats as LDIF, TAB, CSV, TXT and VCard (VCF) or via a Add-on app like TBSync.

The default Calendar integration is not as robust as Outlook. It will prompt to add an event to the calendar if the person sent an ICS file as an attachment to the message. If HTML links are present in the ICS file, they will be preserved in your calendar entry. An ICS file is a standard iCalendar file format that most if not all clients support. Thunderbird does natively support LDAP and iCalendar (not an Apple product). You have the option of importing an ICS calendar file or using a remote ICS service. In order to support CalDAV or CardDAV you will need an Add-on. Synchronizing depends on the provider; some will only support 1-way sync (download from the service to your computer) and others support 2-way sync. Better, and perhaps easier, functionality can be gained by installing an Add-on calendar app replacing the existing default feature.

Over the years Thunderbird has been a popular choice, compared to the paid version of Microsoft Outlook available in MS Office. Thunderbird was still a go-to choice even when Microsoft released Outlook Express, which was a feature-reduced version of Outlook available in Windows. Within the past decade, the look and feel of the various mail clients have kept up with current norms. Many will say the same is not true of Thunderbird; despite the appearance upgrade 4 years ago, it still looks a little outdated. I can’t say I blame them, I think MZLA’s design is more of function over form. It doesn’t mimic the interface that the other current mail clients use. If you used Thunderbird a decade ago, you will see that it hasn’t changed. The Get Messages, Write, Address Book, etc tool bar icons are in the same location and order. The calendar looks and functions the same. That is not to say that they haven’t mimicked other designs. In the past few years they decided to hide the file menu by default (to view the bar you would press the alt key).

When Microsoft released Office 2007 with their new Ribbon Tool Bar (which shouldn’t be confused with the Ribbon Design concept of the late 80’s and into the 90’s) they called it “The Fluent UI”, and it was further refined in future versions. Thunderbird did not make a similar design change, which leaves it looking more dated.

I should say more about the Add-on feature of Thunderbird, one feature which sets it apart from other E-Mail Clients. Unfortunately it is not all roses. The Add-on feature works similarly to the Web Browser Extensions or Gnome Shell Extensions. The Achilles heel of Thunderbird’s Add-on functionality is that a change can essentially break the Add-on. As with the Add-ons of the aforementioned products, they are not all maintained by MZLA, but are independent developers, in many cases donating their time and efforts creating the Add-on. Generally you will not have a problem, but when you do, you are at the mercy of the developer of that Add-on. The Add-on system in Thunderbird will only let you add Add-ons that are compatible with your version. Even if you try to manually install it, Thunderbird will disable it if the Add-on is not compatible with your version of Thunderbird. When this happens, it obviously upsets a number of people. Many will call out the Thunderbird developers to not fix what isn’t broken. This type of issue has been going on for years and not just with Thunderbird: Gnome Shell is notorious for updates that break extensions for example.

Version 78 was released last summer, with an overhauled Add-on system which left many Add-on’s unsupported. It was up to the developers of each product to update their Add-on. I will point out that not all Add-on providers are providing their software for free. There are some who offer products for a fee, and those have a more-vested interest in keeping up with updates. This is not to say that free developers do not attempt to keep up with updates, but they may be less motivated to, or may be too busy with paid projects.

When I updated to version 78 from the version 68, I lost the ability to use gContactSync, which was an Add-on to sync my Contacts from Gmail. I searched for a replacement and found TbSync; this supports CalDAV, CardDAV, Google and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). If you are using OwnCloud, NextCloud or iCloud then you are covered because they use CalDAV and CardDAV. Replacing gContactSync with TbSync wasn’t a big deal, just a bit of an annoyance.

Final Thoughts

Over the years I have found Thunderbird and the Add-on system to be reliable, though it can be a bit annoying at times. I have never felt that it was lacking any functionality I needed, due to the Add-on features. It may not be very flashy like other E-Mail clients but it will get the job done. I would not have any reservations using Thunderbird as a Outlook replacement when used with a well-supported Add-on for MS Exchange support. For personal use, it is quite usable in its default configuration, though it is not as lightweight as Geary, Claws, or KMail.

Linux Mail Clients Deep Dive- The Lightweight Options

E-mail has been around forever, predating even the web. Despite its age, and the continuous influx of new messaging platforms, it remains the most widely employed form of electronic communication. It offers a combination of reliability, ease of use, flexibility, with an open and non-proprietary structure that appeals to both new and seasoned users. When it comes to accessing e-mail the options are numerous and the choice can be deeply personal.

Most e-mail services offer web-based interfaces that can be accessed through any device and with any operating system. While this can provide users with basic functionality, many users require a dedicated mail client for expanded functionality, the ability to review messages offline, and for managing multiple accounts. In this series of reviews, the ItsMOSS team will review the various mail clients available to Linux users and share our experiences.

Geary, Claws, and KMail

My previous entry in this series (on Evolution) was focused on finding a full-featured mail client and personal information manager. With 8 different accounts that I monitor regularly including a mix of exchange and imap, and with multiple active calendars, the options are limited on Linux (or Windows or Mac for that matter).

However, not everyone has such a complex use case. For many people, the mail client is used with one or two accounts, and additional functions like calendar and tasks lists are unnecessary. In fact, even I don’t bother with my work accounts on my secondary systems. In this case, an enterprise-friendly client is not needed and one might consider lightweight options for a simpler interface.

I tried out Geary, Claws, and KMail, three lightweight mail clients that are in active development and suitable for those who don’t need a comprehensive information manager.

Claws

Claws is a free and open source lightweight mail client that is available in the repositories of most Linux distributions as well as Windows, MacOS, and BSD. It just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It initially started as a developmental branch of Sylpheed (Sylpheed-Claws) but was eventually forked and now appears to be more active then its parent development (Sylpheed’s latest release was January 2018).

Initial setup of Claws is fairly straightforward. You enter the basic details for the account (Full Name, Mail Address) and choose your server protocol. For many accounts you can then click autoconfigure and it will automatically pull the server details which is extremely convenient. Occasionally I have found that you will need to manually enter these details. Be forewarned that Claws will only work with IMAP and POP servers so you will need to look elsewhere if your email is hosted on an exchange server.

Once you have configured your account(s) the interface is fairly standard with an account list and folders on the left and message list with previews to the right. The default layout (message list above the preview) can be changed to three columns (account list, message list, and preview all alongside one another), wide message (the preview column runs the width of the screen under the account list and message list, wide message list (the message list runs the width of the screen over top of the account list and preview, or small screen (account list, message list, and preview are viewed one at a time and take up the whole screen). Personally, I found the three column to be the most visually appealing and functional.

Overall I found the user experience fairly decent in Claws. It isn’t the most visually appealing client, but the interface is simple to navigate and very fast. The toolbar is not overly complicated but that actually conceals a fairly feature rich environment (for a lightweight client). You have an address book, mail filtering system, and signature functionality (simply create a signature file in a text editor and then link it through account preferences, compose). This constitutes the key features in Claws, however this can be expanded slightly through plug-ins (available on the Claws Web site). For example, the ability to view .pdf or to receive attachment warnings.

The verdict:

This is a perfectly functional and fast client that does what it says. While it is not a solution for exchange accounts, for POP/IMAP accounts it gets the job done with no fuss. A worthy option.

Geary

Geary has been around since 2012, initially developed by the Yorba Foundation. According to Wikipedia, the original purpose of Geary was “to bring back users from online webmails to a faster and easier to use desktop application”. That is a mission that I can get behind!

Eventually Yorba stopped operations and, after a fork to Pantheon mail initiated by ElementaryOS, Geary became a GNOME project. It remains in active development, with the most recent stable release coming in September 2020.

Like Claws, Geary does not try to be a one-size-fits-all personal information manager, but remains a clean and simple email-only client. Geary is available in all major repositories and a flatpak is available.

On first boot you are met with a very simple welcome screen that asks you to choose your mail service (Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook.com, other). If your account is with Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook/Hotmail, Geary will automatically incorporate the server details. All that is needed is a login and password. For other IMAP/SMTP accounts you will require the server address and possibly ports to configure. It’s a bit more work than some clients (Claws, for instance, pulled the server details for most of my accounts) but still fairly straightforward. Like Claws, Geary does not work with exchange e-mail servers.

Once your client is installed, you are welcomed with a fairly modern and clean interface which is amongst the most visually appealing of all Linux mail clients.

Like Claws, it also has a very clean interface with limited buttons on the toolbar. However, behind the scenes it is also quite lean. The only option for changing settings is by clicking the little mail icon in the top left corner. This brings up options to edit accounts, a handful of preferences (automatically select next message, the look of the conversation pane, and sound options) and various help screens.

That’s it! No calendar, no task list, no address book, no filtering options or integration of other apps. It took me a while to find the option but it is possible to create signatures. Once your account is created go to the account list (from the mail icon in the top left) and choose to edit your account. At the bottom of the tab you can create a basic signature.

The verdict

Geary is never going to be mistaken for Thunderbird or Evolution in terms of the features it offers. But that’s the point. This is a lightweight mail client in the truest sense and it is very effective in achieving this goal. It shouldn’t be an option as a personal information manager but for basic e-mail usage it offers the simplest and most visually appealing interface of the lightweight mail clients that I have tried.

KMail

KMail is the e-mail component in Kontact, the personal information manager for the KDE desktop environment. It is designed to be used as an integrated PIM package, but individual components can be downloaded, including Kmail. KMail itself is available in the repositories of most Linux distributions.

I will start by saying that it is a bit of a misnomer to call KMail a lightweight mail client, particularly when used alongside the full Kontact suite. It is significantly heavier and more feature rich than Claws or Geary, but the lack of exchange integration and an incomplete integration of calendar and task features led me to include it alongside Claws and Geary.

Account setup starts off fairly simple. It is just a matter of entering your name, email address and password. KMail can find your provider settings from the internet by checking a box – this is quite effective and worked for every IMAP/SMTP account I tested. You can also enter the information manually if it does not work for some reason. Once this process is complete, KMail offers to configure email encryption with GNU privacy guard. This is somewhat unique amongst the mail clients I have tested. Certainly other clients are able to do encryption in this way (Evolution and Thunderbird have the option in the account settings and Claws has a GPG plugin), but it is rare to incorporate this into the setup process. For new users this might be a greater level of complexity than they are comfortable with, but advanced users may appreciate this.

Once you have configured an account, the interface is quite clean and simple with the typical account/folder list on the right and the message list and preview tab to the right. There is a simple list of actions in the top panel. This is fairly typical but I do find the interface to be slightly more modern looking and visually appealing than other clients (ie. Claws, Thunderbird, Evolution and even Geary).

KMail offers a handful of features like mail filtering, a very nice signature setup, and a rich plugin environment. Being a KDE entity it is also highly configurable with the ability customize toolbars, and virtually everything else. A pet peeve of mine was that sometimes when I would change a setting or appearance (i.e. width of columns) that the change wouldn’t be retained the next time I launched Kmail. I’m not sure if this was unique to me as I only tested in one system.

The verdict

Ultimately I find KMail as a standalone client to not really fit a use case for me. It isn’t really lightweight (Geary and Claws are far lighter) but it isn’t really a full featured personal information manager either. That’s where Kontact comes in. Kontact actually does a very nice job of incorporating separate applications for Mail, Addresses, Calendar, and Tasks together (it also incorporates a news reader and pop-up notes) such that it really does seem to be a single application that approximates the functionality of Outlook, Evolution, or Thunderbird. It has a more modern look than other Linux productivity managers with lots of customization options and a smooth interface.

So if I am thinking about at Kmail then it is within the Kontact suite and the peer group would be Thunderbird, Evolution etc… The big barrier for my own adaptation is exchange integration and unfortunately that is absent at the moment. (*I will be exploring this in greater depth and if I find a solution I will update this article accordingly). So Kontact is one to keep an eye on as a full featured client but for now, as a lightweight option or a comprehensive personal information manager it comes up short in my mind.

Final thoughts

When I am looking for a lightweight mail client, my personal choice is Geary. It is the best-looking, with a simple and highly functional interface. It is currently the client that I’m using for my children’s systems. Both Claws and KMail are functional options that have plenty to offer, but for a lightweight mail client I’m looking for the lightest and simplest with the cleanest interface — and that’s Geary.

Linux Mail Clients Deep Dive: Evolution

E-mail has been around forever, predating even the web. Despite its age, and the continuous influx of new messaging platforms, it remains the most widely employed form of electronic communication. It offers a combination of reliability, ease of use, flexibility, with an open and non-proprietary structure that appeals to both new and seasoned users. When it comes to accessing e-mail the options are numerous and the choice can be deeply personal.

Most e-mail services offer web-based interfaces that can be accessed through any device and with any operating system. While this can provide users with basic functionality, many users require a dedicated mail client for expanded functionality, the ability to review messages offline, and for managing multiple accounts. In this series of reviews, the ItsMOSS team will review the various mail clients available to Linux users and share our experiences.

GNOME Evolution Mail

GNOME Evolution (generally referred to as simply Evolution) is a mature client that has been around for over 20 years. Initially developed by Ximian, it has been free from its inception. It is the default mail client for GNOME, although it is compatible with most other Linux Desktop environments. I have personally used it in Mint Cinnamon, Mint Mate, Manjaro Mate, Lubuntu, and ZorinOS without major issue.

Installation and setup considerations

Evolution is available is most respositories and there is also a flatpak available. It is the default mail client in Debian GNOME and Fedora GNOME. Regardless, finding this application is straightforward for most distros. One thing to bear in mind during installation: if you wish to use Evolution with an exchange/office 365 account then you will need to also make certain it installs exchange-ews, and if it does not, do it yourself.

On first launch, you will be asked to configure one or more mail accounts. POP3 account installation should be as simple as providing a address and a password. Exchange accounts are a little more complicated (see further detail below) but feasible.

Summary of my usage case

I am a very heavy e-mail user both personally and professionally (I am a researcher and university professor). I rely heavily on productivity features like calendar integration and task management.

At the moment I have 8 separate accounts that I use regularly. I have a Hotmail account that I’ve held since before it was owned by Microsoft; it is mostly for spam these days but a number of old friends still use it. I also have a Gmail account (for using the google ecosystem), a ProtonMail account (main personal account), two office365 accounts for work, a POP3 account from my internet service provider (rarely used except for billing), and an account for a professional organization that I volunteer with which I hold temporarily while I sit on the board of directors. Given the breadth of accounts I monitor at any given time, web-based solutions are not appealing and I require a dedicated client. For the past 15 years, that has been Microsoft Outlook; before that I used Lotus Notes and, initially, Eudora.

Regular readers may remember from my February article on Office Suites that finding a replacement for Microsoft Outlook was a major priority for a permanent switch to Linux. So I enter this exercise with this as my main focus.

User Experience

Anyone who has experience using Microsoft Outlook will instantly feel at home with Evolution. The layout is very similar with the account list and mailboxes on the left with a message pane and preview window to the right. The preview window can be re-arranged in the settings menu (again with options very similar to Outlook). Below the account list you will find tabs to access mail, contacts, calendar, tasks, and memo’s similar to what you would see in Outlook. I actually find these tabs more intuitive and easier to navigate than the current Outlook setup.

This similarity to Outlook permeates absolutely everything about Evolution. The signatures feature (accessible under edit, preferences, composer preferences) is almost identical to Outlook and most basic functions (including folder management and flagging of messages) are functionally equivalent. One difference in basic functionality is in forwarded messages. In Outlook you have the option of the message being included in-line in the text. Evolution is similar to earlier versions of Outlook where the forwarded message is included as a separate attachment. Another minor issue is when you receive e-mails from outside your time zone it does not automatically convert, so if I receive an e-mail from Australia it sometimes appears as if it arrived “tomorrow”. Outside of these minor considerations I find the functionality to be near equivalent.

In looking through reviews of Evolution there seem to be two schools of thought on the similarity to Outlook. Some people are turned off by this, wanting nothing to do with Microsoft whatsoever. Others, like myself, appreciate the familiarity which eases the transition process. Much like LibreOffice this an application that you can give to longtime Office users and have them “up and running” reasonably quickly. The learning curve is not what one would face (for example) when switching from Adobe Photoshop to GIMP.

The primary difference between Evolution and Outlook isn’t actually in the features but in the integration of other applications. There is no Teams or OneNote plugin; Zoom integration is also incomplete (i.e saving a meeting opens an e-mail with the invitation details but it does not embed into your calendar automatically). This is true for most e-mail clients in Linux, although Thunderbird does play nice with Zoom and can expand functionality with various plug-ins. Unlike Thunderbird, Evolution does not really have a “plug-in” culture to change appearance or expand functionality. It does have a list of plug-ins under the edit menu but these are fairly limited and there is no download centre like you would see with Thunderbird or Firefox. This does mean that appearance and features are limited to what is available within the application. For most users I think that this will be fine.

The calendar and task integration in Evolution is quite strong compared to other options on Linux. It allows for multiple calendars including Exchange, google, nextcloud etc… and you can choose which ones to display at a given time by checkbox as in Outlook. One papercut issue with the calendar right now is that calendar entries are in plain text rather than HTML. So if there is a link in the invitation (say a Microsoft Teams invitation) then you have to copy and paste it into a browser rather than clicking on the link.

Exchange Integration:

When considering mail clients on Linux there are a variety of options, but when exchange/office 365 is a requirement then the options become quite limited. In fact, as best I can tell, Evolution Mail is the only client on Linux that offers the ability to manage exchange mail and calendars without any associated costs. Mailspring can synch exchange mail but has no calendar integration, Thunderbird requires a plug-in (OWL) that costs ~$10 USD per year, and Hiri is a proprietary software that costs money (it also appears to be no longer in development).

So in many ways Evolution is the logical choice for anyone using an exchange server. However it is not without its challenges. First, as mentioned above, you must make sure that you have installed the evolution-ews package. Second, is that adding an account is slightly more complicated then simply adding the address and password. It can be as simple as manually adding a “host URL” such as is seen in this example:

https://www.eduhk.hk/ocio/content/faq-configure-evolution-access-office-365

However it can also require providing a bit more information (tenant and application IDs…) that may require contacting your system administrator or working with Azure yourself. For such cases the Evolution wiki instructions are clear and accurate (if slightly complex):

https://wiki.gnome.org/Apps/Evolution/EWS/OAuth2.

Which method is necessary depends on how the server is configured by your company/institution but using one of the two approaches you should be able to confirm your account via your preferred 2FA method and then be up and running.

If you absolutely require exchange but the above procedures sound too complicated for you then I would encourage you to consider Thunderbird with the OWL plug-in. It costs $10/yr but once the plug-in is installed then configuration is as simple as providing a log-in and password (and 2FA).

The Verdict

Choice of mail client will always be dependent upon your use case. If you are only interested in receiving mail from a single POP account and do not require a calendar then you may be interested in a lighter client such as Claws or Geary (I will have write-ups for these clients in the future). However if you a heavier user, require calendar and exchange integration then Evolution should be on your radar.

For me, Evolution was really the final domino to fall in my switch to Linux. If you have any affinity for Outlook then you will instantly feel at home with this powerful and intuitive e-mail client. In my opinion it offers greater functionality than most Linux mail clients and better visual appeal and free exchange integration compared with Thunderbird (the only real competitor from a business/productivity standpoint).

I will take my position one step further: it is time to make Evolution the default client in major Linux distributions. Thunderbird (the most common choice) looks like it crawled out of 2003, does not have exchange integration out of the box, and even when you have exchange configured, generating a professional signature is time consuming and complicated. Other clients lack adequate calendar integration or the ability to add all of your accounts. As it stands right now, new Linux users who prefer a powerful mail client will be left longing for Outlook and either switch to a web-based interface or leave Linux altogether. Evolution offers new users familiarity and functionality that could ease the transition. I know from experience: a year ago I was that person and it wasn’t until I found Evolution that I truly felt ready to switch full-time. The impact on experienced users should be minimal since they are either entrenched in Thunderbird/Geary/Claws, using a web interface, or doing e-mail via their phones. Asking them to install their preferred client after the fact shouldn’t be an issue.