Back on linux !

Well, it’s been 6 months since I bought my computer, so I thought that maybe Linux can run on it properly now.

When I bought it, no Linux distro would run on it because of its hybrid graphics (Intel GPU for power savings + nVidia GPU for performance) setup. A few months later, a beta of Pardus Linux did run, but very poorly : fan ran at full speed nearly permanently, and the KDE 4 desktop was even more unresponsive than I remembered. In short, it booted, but was not yet usable in practice.

Now, I had a look at the various solutions available, and I thought that Fedora was worth giving a try. And after the few hours spent setting up and tweaking Fedora 14 “Laughlin” 64-bit, it is indeed a fairly good experience.

Gnome is more tweakable than you think

As time passes, I start to get used to the way Linux work and know what I’ll need to tweak on a fresh install before getting an usable desktop operating system. Some things will never change :

  • Flash Player was not included. I don’t care what Steve Jobs and Richard Stallman think, I just can’t live without it. Canvas is not going to replace Flash in those silly browser games I love anytime soon, and a lot of YouTube content still does not have a good WebM version around. Trying 64-bit linux in this context was a bit of a bold move, but it just worked perfectly in practice, thanks to the “Square” pre-release from Adobe which works as well as a RTM release as far as I’m concerned.
  • MP3 and DVD playback were not at the party either. On the other hand, as in Ubuntu 9.04, the procedure is fairly straightforward : go to http://rpmfusion.org/Configuration , install the two rpm packages, and then install the few packages which should have been there in the first place if Fedora was not distributed in the US : gstreamer-plugins-ugly, libdvdread, libdvdnav, and libdvdcss.
  • RAR archives won’t open before you install unrar.
  • NTFS drives and partitions won’t work before you install ntfs-3g.
  • Although you can install OpenOffice.org, you probably will have some problems with your documents’ formatting before you install the usual Microsoft fonts (Comic sans, Times new…). Fortunately, the excellent Unofficial Fedora FAQ explains how it’s done.

Most of these problems come from the FOSS nature of Linux distros and is not subject to change any time soon. I have to say that Fedora makes this acceptably easy for an experienced Linux user like me. Now, there are some things which Fedora 14 does very well for a desktop Linux distro :

  • Everything but my multitouch touchpad worked out of the box. This includes the special keys of the keyboard, even the infamous “calculator” key. The touchpad only required a bit of fiddling in the mouse settings to work : it was supported by the kernel, just not set up properly.
  • The installer looks very polished and works very well, except maybe for the partition manager parts which could have been made easier by adding more graphical stuff for resizing, moving, and creating partitions, like in GParted. I even encrypted my home partition for fun, and it works (though not having to type two passwords at boot required a bit of hacking).
  • The package manager is very, very fast. More generally, everything feels fast, but it might be all that time I spent using Windows ;)
  • The included set of package makes sense. Of course, being used to having GIMP and OpenOffice out of the box, it feels strange to have to install them. But I already know about those, and it’s easy to find them in the package manager. On the other hand, it’s hard to find good GUI system management software on linux, and having Fedora pick some very good ones saved me some time of trials and errors.
  • SElinux and PolicyKit are fundamentally a good path to follow, though I think that Fedora chose the hardest part by implementing it under years of software coded without capability-based security in mind.
  • Globally, bundled software has a nice integrated feeling (with e.g. e-mail accounts in the “settings” menu). Bonus points for that.

Now, not everything is perfect, though :

  • The bug report tool feels largely unpolished. If the kernel oopses, for some reason (and this is a highly critical event, isn’t it ?), the bug reporting tool will be unable to contact the server. During the more classic crash of a desktop application, you’ll have to make a choice between reporting to “Bugzilla” and “Logger”. Without any further information. Do you know which is best as an average Linux user who doesn’t know anything about the internal structure of the Fedora project ? Myself, I don’t…
  • Package management is glitchy. One of the first time my distro booted, I had the pleasure to see PackageKit deadlock : searching for a package while updates were being installed, I realized half an hour later that both task were waiting for each other. Didn’t manage to reproduce it later, though.Another imperfection is the way packages are presented in the package manager : you get a crude access to yum’s package database, and not to things like package groups : if you want to install, say, openoffice, you’ll have to select all sub-packages from oobase to oowrite. It feels really strange.
  • Hybrid graphics do not work. There are people working on it, but when I tried some experimental module, all I managed to do was to completely freeze my computer. There is some code supposed to play with this in the kernel, called “vgaswitcheroo”, but all it does is causing a kernel oops on every startup of my computer. In short, both GPUs are kept on while only one is used, which is obviously very bad for battery life (I still have to measure the actual effect of this).

All in all, it is a good experience though, and I think I’m going to stay on linux for some time. I’ve tried my own instructions for setting up a computer for OS development, and I’m happy to say that apart from a few (now fixed) glitches, they worked perfectly. So when this mess at the end of the year is over, I’m ready to go back to OSdeving — just on a new OS.

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2 thoughts on “Back on linux !

  1. Amenel December 30, 2010 / 11:54 pm

    I was also installing Ubuntu 10.10 (and FreeBSD 8.1) yesterday after being forced to reinstall Vista due to a failed RAID mirror unRAIDing that erased the MBR… yes, some moron from JMicron or Phoenix considered that there’s no reason someone would want to separate two disks in a mirror configuration and retain access to the data on the disks.

    I installed Kubuntu 10.10 on a laptop and upgraded 10.04 to 10.10 on another laptop. But for me, 13 years after my first contact with Linux, the experience is still barely polished. There’s no way I’m using Ubuntu as a main OS. I’ll keep it so that I can use excellent programs like fdisk, testdisk, dd, etc… but the GUI is a no go for me.

    Kubuntu 10.10: 3 seconds after I’ve logged in: crash. Great.

    Things would be too long to explain but just yesterday night, the headaches that I had with the wireless connections were unbelievable. Was it KDE? Was it Ubuntu? I don’t know but I don’t see a non technical person faring well with this. For instance, both of my wireless NICs appear as “Wireless 802.11”. The “software manager” can’t find KOffice… What configuration is that? Isn’t KOffice a part of KDE? So why do I have to search Google to find out how to install KOffice? The “package manager” listed things like “koffice-dev” or “koffice-libs” or something similar.

    The plasma interface is jerky. Click somewhere, think the click hasn’t been registered, click again and the K menu opens… and closes! Nice. I still don’t understand why they don’t swallow their pride and make the Windows key open the menu. Willing to copy the paradigm but not one the most useful aspects of it? If I can avoid using the mouse, I’m happy.

    Anyway, still a bad experience in my eyes. Until those Linux guys come down from their techie hill tops, until they assume the user doesn’t know what the distro is and how it works, I continue to deem the effort a failure. Maybe trying out another distro is the solution.

    PS: what happened to the Happy birthday post from yesterday noon? Did the Apple police kick your virtual door? WordPress put a 404 error and this is not the first time I receive an email notification for a post that I can’t read.

  2. Hadrien December 31, 2010 / 7:45 am

    AFAIK, the problem is Ubuntu AND KDE.
    => KUbuntu seems to be a neglected part of the Ubuntu ecosystem. In the experience of my brother, GUI tools in the areas of package management and network management are unreliable garbage. The fact that you have an unusual hardware setup (two wireless NICs) probably doesn’t help either.
    => After a lot of time trying KDE 4, I always go back to Gnome 2 each time. Sure, Gnome is very ugly by default and not very customizable, but it just works, smoothly and logically in my experience, three qualities which KDE 4 does not have to the same degree to say the least (though the “it works” part has been getting a lot better recently).

    Aside from that, well… I’ve been avoiding Ubuntu lately. As time passes, it seems that I move further and further away from their target audience, so there’s no reason to stay any longer. I get tired of them always including alpha quality software for the fun of it. PulseAudio, ath5k, KDE 4, Compiz… They really were not ready for prime time at the time they made them enabled by default, nor they actually brought something really useful. And when Ubuntu actually adds up some finished and polished feature, it’s always something which is useless for me, like this “social networking” integration in 9.10, window buttons going backwards in 10.4, the closely avoided windicators in 10.10, and in 11.04 Unity-for-dummies as a default interface (where you can’t even drag and drop files, according to a review I’ve read)… Enough is enough.

    As I said, so far, Fedora works much better than last time I tried. No upgrade broke everything completely to date, in fact they rather seem to have made the system more stable as they’re supposed to.

    PS : The problem with email notifications is that you have make your post right the first time, something I’m not very good at ;) I scheduled this post for January 10, the birthday of this project, the problem being that I “scheduled” it for the 10/10/2010 the first time ^^ So if you want, I can publish it now instead, I just thought that it was maybe a bit too early.

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