On my desktop machine at one of my customer sites (where I spend two or three days a week), I’ve been running Debian sarge for the last six months or so. It’s working quite well for me. So when a disk failure forced me to do an OS reinstall on my home machine, I figured, why not dual-boot and try running Linux as my main desktop OS? Ubuntu seems to be the up-and-coming popular Linux distro, so I figured I’d give it a whirl. Here are the ups and downs I’ve run into.
Brown screen of death
My first naive install attempt was just a straight install from the full distro DVD. The actual install process went swimmingly, but when my system reboted into Linux and tried to fire up the window system, I got nothing. Or rather, I got an empty brown screen with a mouse pointer and nothing else.
It turns out that this is because I’m using an Nvidia GeForce 6800 video card. There are two Nvidia drivers, “nv” and “nvidia”, the latter of which is a closed-source driver provided by Nvidia. Ubuntu uses the “nv” driver, and it doesn’t work. You can’t even switch to another console screen.
Switching to the correct driver was quite a chore. After several false starts (at least each reinstall is pretty quick) such as doing a server install of the OS and installing the GUI components by hand afterwards, I ended up doing another full install and, during the second phase of the install process, switching over to another console screen (alt-F2) and waiting for /etc/init.d/gdm to appear. When it did, I saw that it looks at /etc/X11/default-display-manager to make sure it’s supposed to start up. I edited that file, adding a “-” to the end so its contents wouldn’t match what the init script expected to see.
The install completed and didn’t fire up the window system (hooray!). I ran dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg which let me choose the correct driver. Good thing I’ve been using Debian for months already or I would have probably given up at this point.
With the correct driver selected, I put /etc/X11/default-display-manager back to its old value and started gdm. It came up just fine and gave me a login prompt.
GNOME is still sketchy
I run KDE at my customer’s site for no particular reason; it was the first desktop environment I installed and it seemed to do what I needed it to do. Since Ubuntu uses GNOME by default, I figured I’d give that a try. There certainly seem to be plenty of people who prefer it to KDE.
My initial impression was not bad. There are some little niceties like the way you can see where on your screen the windows are located when you hit alt-tab. It has a minimalist, clean look that’s pleasing to the eye.
GNOME puts its menu bar at the top of the screen and its taskbar at the bottom. Since I like really tall windows for editing source code, I set each of those bars to autohide. That worked okay, but having two hidden bars was a little strange. No problem, I figured, it lets me choose where I want the bars on my screen. I’ll just stick them both on the bottom and autohide them.
Nope. It sort of half-works, but the two bars seem to fight each other for supremacy. When I moved the mouse to the bottom of the screen, it was anyone’s guess which one of the two I’d get: the taskbar, the menu bar, or more often, some flickery or overlapping combination of the two. Okay, I figured, so I don’t get to do that. I put the bars back where they started.
I fired up the Synaptic package manager and installed some additional applications. Many of them automatically appeared in GNOME’s “Applications” menu, which was nice. But some didn’t. No problem, I figured, I’ll just add them myself.
Nope. Short of digging around in a bunch of XML files, there appears to be no way to edit the menus in GNOME. This blows my mind. It is not exactly some super-obscure thing to want to manage your menus and add new applications to them. Windows has had drag-and-drop menu editing since it first introduced the Start menu back in 1995. KDE has a perfectly functional menu editor built in. Do GNOME users really just accept whatever menus the OS decides to give them, or are they all XML hackers?
Worse, the built-in help claims there is a menu editor. It says all you have to do is open “applications:///” in Nautilus (the GNOME file manager, though you won’t find a “Nautilus” item anywhere in GNOME’s built-in menus under Ubuntu). But when I did that I just got an error message. Some Googling revealed that the previous Ubuntu release supported editing the menus that way, but that the feature has somehow disappeared in the current release without the docs being updated accordingly.
I didn’t feel like coming up to speed on GNOME’s XML format just to add a couple menu items at that point, and it at least did let me add icons to the menu bar to launch my apps, so I moved on.
Speaking of Nautilus, if there’s a way to get it to open folders in the same window rather than opening a brand-new window, I sure didn’t find it. Well, actually I did: if I switched to “browse” mode (such that there’s a tree view on the left side of the window) it stayed in one window. But I didn’t like having to switch to browse mode every time I wanted to use the file manager without cluttering up my desktop with a zillion useless windows.
Some red WINE
There are a few Windows apps I use on a regular basis for which there are no Linux equivalents. I tried setting some of them up under WINE with varying degrees of success.
- Internet Explorer. No, I don’t use it myself. But when I need to test my web code for a customer, I need to test it under IE. This installs under WINE with the help of WineTools. It’s a little glitchy but good enough for day-to-day sanity checking of my work with an occasional boot into Windows to double-check.
- Oasis. This little strategy game is my preferred way to distract myself for a few minutes. It doesn’t work at all under WINE. I even shelled out for Cedega (figuring I’d be able to use it for multiple games) but that’s no help.
- TyTool, a TiVo video archiving tool. This ran under WINE nary a glitch. The keyfile editor’s video pane sometimes gets partially overwritten, but other than that this one works great. In fact, I think it’s slightly faster under WINE than it is under WinXP!
- Quicken. Yes, I know about GNUCash and Kapital and Moneydance. I’ve tried all three. Anyone who seriously suggests that one of those is a serious replacement for Quicken either has very simple finances or much more patience than I do. Anyway, Crossover Office supports Quicken, according to its web site. I wasn’t nuts about paying extra to run software I’d already bought, but I probably would have done it. Except…
- PocketQuicken. I use this constantly to track spending while I’m on the road. And it only syncs to Quicken on Windows. There is no conduit for it on Linux. So I was going to be booting back into Windows every day or two no matter what. Big strike against Linux on my desktop here.
I set up my Firefox and Thunderbird installations to share their profiles with their counterparts on Windows. See the previous entry on this blog for details on that.
Media players for lots of formats, even Windows-specific ones like WMV9, installed without too much difficulty, though getting all the codecs installed cleanly is a bit of an involved process that includes importing PGP keys. But I was able to watch a Quicktime video in my Firefox window with only a little bit of Googling around for install instructions. And after I fired up Mplayer’s main window and switched its audio preferences to use ESD rather than ALSA, I could even listen to a Quicktime video in my Firefox window.
Sounds like a confused mess
Oh, Linux audio. What a jumbled train wreck you are. Audio is one place where the Linux mantra of “give the users lots of choices” is less an asset and more a giant pain in the ass for users.
If you’re running nothing but GNOME apps, or nothing but KDE apps, sound is not a big deal. The GNOME apps will all talk to esd and the KDE apps will all talk to artsd and everything will be happy.
But if you want, say, Thunderbird to play a sound when new mail arrives, God help you. It commits the cardinal sin of trying to open the sound device when it wants to play a sound. Ha! How naive. To get sound to work, you get to run Thunderbird under a little wrapper called esddsp (or artsdsp in KDE) that intercepts attempts to open the audio device and instead connects to the mixer daemon.
Why can’t the sound device itself be the interface to the mixer, so no wrappers are required and apps don’t have to be specially compiled to talk to a particular daemon? Beats me, but apparently that’s a bad idea for some reason.
Since I couldn’t edit the menu items under GNOME, there was no way to add that wrapper to the system-supplied menu item to launch Thunderbird. So I ended up creating a Thunderbird launch icon on my menu bar to run “esddsp mozilla-thunderbird” and just reminding myself not to touch the Thunderbird menu entry. How slick.
Can I get that on paper?
Next I went to set up my printer and ended up switching desktop environments. GNOME appears to have nothing as nice as KDE’s printer install tool. That in and of itself wasn’t enough to make me switch, but it was kind of the straw that broke my back; there were enough little annoyances piling up with GNOME that I finally threw in the towel and installed KDE.
Once I was up and running in KDE, I ran the printer install tool. Now, I say it’s a nice tool, and it is, but it’s still not seamless. I have a Canon MP730 combo printer/fax/scanner, and that model is not listed in the KDE install tool’s list of printers. However, by trying out several other Canon printers, I eventually found a driver that produced correct output on my printer.
Scanning, however, was a different story. I had never set up a scanner under Linux before. All I knew about it was that the scanner subsystem of choice was called “SANE.” There was no scanner setup item in the KDE control center (nor had there been one in the GNOME administration menus that I’d noticed). I installed the SANE packages, but still saw no “set up your scanner” app nor any instructions for doing it, so once again I hit Google. And was dismayed to discover that there is no SANE backend driver to support my scanner. Nor is there one that’s even close, as far as I can tell. If I want to scan something, I’m booting back into Windows. Big strike against Linux.
The KDE RSS reader, Akregator, is pretty nice. Almost as good as my preferred Windows reader, SharpReader, though it’s missing a couple minor convenience features such as auto-loading the article body into the internal browser window when there’s no body in the feed data. Kudos to the KDE folks for that app; I’d say it’s easily the second-nicest one I’ve tried.
Close but no cigar
As I was drifting off to sleep at the end of the day, the question crossed my mind, “Okay, so there are some things that’ll be a hassle if I run Linux every day. What things will be better than they were with Windows?” And I couldn’t really think of anything significant. Most things are about the same either way, but a few things like PocketQuicken and my scanner and games are either outright impossible or very difficult. If I’m running Linux, I have to boot Windows regularly to do what I want to do with my PC, but not the other way around.
I want to prefer Linux, I really do. I like free-as-in-speech software. I like the knowledge that I can, theoretically, fix any glitches I run across, and I prefer UNIX as a platform just in general, though I’m not religious about it. Nonetheless, I find it frustrating that there are just a couple of things holding me back from nearly never having to boot into Windows.
I’ll stick with it for a little while longer. But I suspect that before long, I’ll get sick of the constant OS switching and will be back to running Windows as my default.
Maybe next year.