Saturday, May 12, 2007

About Ubuntu spinsters, mac-zealots and what the real Linux people use on their systems ...


For some time now I was hearing a lot of rumors about how amazing Ubuntu is - including some daring posts on how Microsoft should start having nightmares about it ... but surprisingly mostly from pathetic Apple losers that somehow managed to realize that Apple will never be a threat for Microsoft (or for Dell for that matter) - and can only survive by 'hopping' to the next thing that might (iPod) or might not (AppleTV) be 'hot' for the moment.

But since I was anyway going to redo my Linux installations (on both my dual-core Opteron primary desktop and my 1 kilo Dell X300 - twice lighter than the best Apple ever managed to get so far)
about one week ago I decided to also get the latest Ubuntu Live CD (7.04) and try to give it a shot - if it was going to be good I could keep at least one of the 2-3 installations ... if not ... the EXT3 partitions were anyway going to be erased so it was only a loss of some time ...

The Live CD was starting OK on both systems - but it was mostly in the default configuration mode - and I was also expecting a friend with a lot of Linux experience (and another distribution as a backup - see below) and the most important test was going to be how well could things go on the X300 (which was always VERY tricky in Linux) - so that's how I started the tests. While the installation went fine the final result was rather unimpressive - the CPU was not very well throttled,
also the wireless part was not working by default and most important of all - suspend and hibernate were not even close to working (which was always a huge problem in Linux on the X300, but with Ubuntu at least the crash on restore was looking spectacular, almost Apple-style - for 60 seconds we actually believed it was a desired visual effect and that's how it was supposed to work) - so on the subnotebook Ubuntu was voted out without even a single remorse ...

On the desktop the hardware was a lot more 'standard' - so most of the normal things were working by default - but again the new 3D part was not working, the CPU was always kept in the 'performance' (hot) mode
and again suspend/hibernate was not looking good - so again Ubuntu was a small disappointment ... and worse of all, it managed to seriously f*ck things on the (rather complex) Vista + OSX boot process from a PATA drive that I keep as a second drive after the SATA which is the 'default boot drive'. After 10 minutes of fixing the boot problems I finally managed to get things back to about the same point where I started - Ubuntu was not a keeper, but the best part of the story is yet to come!!!

The bottom line on Ubuntu - more hype than substance for the high-end user. It might not be a bad choice for somebody that knows nothing about computers and will get it fully pre-installed - since it is rather friendly and safe (actually even safer in the Live CD version) but once you have existing hardware where it must run, things can easily go wrong. I also first liked the 'African theme' but that is not so easy on the eyes after the initial contact and has to be changed, it was also nice that it automounted the OSX partition, but the main good thing that I got from Ubuntu was the curiosity to give GNOME another chance ... I might also take another look at Ubuntu on my iBook G4 but I don't expect too much on that
pathetic hardware either ... (update - it starts OK but enabling the 3D effects leaves 'noise' on screen and is not 100% usable; also power-management does not seem to work very well).

And now to the actual pleasant surprise - my friend is a long-time fan of Mandriva Linux - back from the days when it was called Mandrake - so we started with two DVD versions of the Mandriva 2007 Spring PowerPack - one for 32 bits and one for 64 bits. The HUGE surprise was that after the problems with Ubuntu on the Dell X300 ACPI / power management part, Mandriva installed and started just perfectly !!! I could not believe my eyes - after almost 4 years I was now able to suspend / hibernate in Linux on the X300 - and successfully resume :) The CPU was also using by default a dynamic policy - generating far less heat - so Mandriva was the clear winner on the X300. Even the new '3D desktop' part was starting OK - so during the next days I took Mandriva for a real-life test in the 3 installations that we did - 64 bit on the desktop, 32 bit on the desktop and 32 bit on the laptop, with almost half of the tests on the notebook!

I will not get into full details - but generally things were working quite well - actually most normal things were working OK since more than two Mandriva version ago, but now having low power mode and suspend / hibernate / resume I could really use the X300 as a notebook in Linux 'full time'!

The first part where things got tricky was the wireless connection - simple unprotected WiFi was working OK for years in Linux, in recent years even the number of native drivers was decent, but anything involving some security was very tricky. More than one year ago I gave up on having wireless on Mandriva since it was only working as far as WEP, and that only with ndiswrapper and with some strange bug where it was leaking memory to the point where it was only usable for 15 minutes :( With the latest Mandriva
2007 Spring the wireless was detected OK with the native drivers, but for some reason WPA was never actually working (which still is a big problem in some configurations, see below). After a few hours I was very close to give up again, but then I decided to try with the latest Dell 2000/XP drivers and ndiswrapper ... and huge surprise - things work just fine even with WPA !!! I still suspect that by using this convoluted approach the power-saving mode is not optimal for the wireless part, but it works and actually even in Windows the Dell driver was not optimal by default, so ... WPA still remains a problems with the native driver, and it is also a problem with the VERY old orinoco-based 802.11b-only (no g) card from the even older Dell X200 - and unfortunately on that one the Windows drivers are not recognized by ndiswrapper :(

The other tricky thing is the new '3D desktop' part - the really impressive
option (actually better eye-candy than OSX - or Vista for that matter) is Beryl - however that one is not (yet) integrated very well with KDE (which previously was always my choice on Mandriva) - it is still highly usable with two-three problems - one is that the 'virtual desktops' are not perfectly integrated, the second is that KDE is not 100% ready to see the <Win> key as a <Super> modifier (and instead will see it somehow as the <F13> standard key) and the third is that in some conditions (and pretty much always on LogOff) the '3D interceptions' can go wrong ...

I was anyway happy using KDE without the '3D desktop' when I also decided to take a look at how things are in GNOME with 3D - and again a very nice surprise - in GNOME things are A LOT better by default!!! The virtual desktops are slightly better (and the taskbar knows when not to show applications that are from a different '3D virtual desktop'), the
<Super> key is a modifier and can be configured as it should be, and the '3D interceptions' go wrong a lot less (but are not 100% OK yet); <Alt>+Tab will go to the new 'preview task switcher', <Win>+Tab will activate the '3D ring task switcher' and on my system <Win>+Escape will activate the 'all desktops window picker' - which is virtual desktops + OSX Expose in one - too bad that one is not very keyboard-friendly (yet). You can also assign commands to different corners and in my case I have also defined the "`" key as the 'reverse Tab' for both Alt and Win - the X86 name of that key is 'grave' (from grave accent) - and all are being set from "Beryl settings manager" (under Applications / System / Configuration / Other). That being said KDE is still the more mature option that I use on the desktop, but GNOME remained for the moment the default on the notebook...

So in the end I now have 3 new Mandriva installations that work surprisingly well, that will get their updates in a very friendly way and that indeed
some day might be a nightmare for BillG but LONG before that it will be a HUGE problem for SteveJ - however right now it is a very powerful tool in the hand of the more technical people that would like to keep their freedoms away from the convicted monopolist (MS) and also from the company not (yet) convicted but a LOT worse in regards to freedom - Apple of course.

PS - the post was 100% written on the Dell X300 under the above Linux in Firefox over wireless with WPA and a few 'suspend to RAM' and one 'hibernate' before finishing it :)

Updates:

a) it might not be very clear for a newcomer - Mandriva has both KDE and GNOME (and they have obviously worked a lot to have certain things working in a common way), while Ubuntu is only GNOME and for KDE you need Kubuntu (which I have now tested - looks slightly more usable than the plain Ubuntu but still less interesting than Mandriva);

b) with KDE + 3D Aquamarine (the window decorator) will crash a lot and there will also be problems from time to time when trying to log-off;

c) however in Mandriva KDE is a LOT better on sessions, log-off and many other 'shortcuts', and also has very good keyboard usability (especially once you get Win to be Super_L - see some of the comments); GNOME is sometimes very poor on keyboard shortcuts and in Mandriva there is far less session control :(

d) still things can go HORRIBLY WRONG with Beryl + certain focus combinations (for instance a protected screen saver can start but the focus can never get there - which means you can no longer get back to your programs);

e) enough about 3D eye candy - the real huge step forward with this version was power-management - things work very reliable on that - but suspend / hibernate / resume is still slower than in XP; the same can be said about boot time - even if Mandriva is already using a 'parallel boot' optimization that according to them can get 20% improvements in some conditions!

f) and a final link (very little, but related to the new 3D desktops) about another Linux (SUSE) used by somebody that is a top-level FOSS contributor - Fear and Loathing in Cupertino :) And here another one about something that is not even Linux ...

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Ed Daniel said...

Glad to see you being 'alt.net' - this might help re: the Win key:

"xmodmap -e 'keycode 115=Menu' Then you can go set the win key to the shortcut you want. Note: it will appear as menu in kde's control center"

This worked for me.

BTW my prognosis thus far is that Ubuntu is getting ever closer to the goal of a suitable Microsoft replacement for the desktop. It has a serveral hurdles to overcome most notably ever-better hardware and configuration support. That said I'm confident the project WILL achieve this.

6:25 AM  
Blogger cool_stuff_or_not said...

Actually what I want is
xmodmap -e 'keycode 115=Super_L'
but somehow that one is not so easy to make permanent - in order to actually get it to work I had to edit /etc/X11/Xmodmap and in KDE to activate the corresponding option in Xkb options under Control Center / Keyboard Layout

1:42 AM  
Blogger kuriharu said...

Your evaluations of both Ubuntu and Madrake seem backwards; if Ubuntu requires tweaking to get hardware to work, then it should be for the experienced users, and Mandrivia should be for the users who don't want to tinker and configure their system.

This isn't a knock or plug for either system; I just thought it was a little clumsy.

10:36 AM  
Blogger cool_stuff_or_not said...

Answering to kuriharu - my posts are in no way partisan to any preconceived idea and I don't try to 'prove' anything to anyone - unless clearly stated so :)

You must understand that any open-source distribution can IN THEORY do 'anything' that some other distribution is doing - the main idea of the post was that there still is a certain amount of work that needs to be done if you want very specific results.

Right now the results that I expect from a notebook can be met with that certain amount of work on Mandriva but on Ubuntu the effort is a lot bigger - and as a result right now I believe Mandriva is a MUCH better 'generic all-purpose distribution'.

Ubuntu is somehow simpler and probably installed by default on a clear hardware configuration (think Dell) it might be able to be a hit - however if you don't get it CORRECTLY (and FULLY)preinstalled from your hardware vendor your mileage can vary dramatically ...

12:16 PM  
Anonymous gnubunny said...

I had better luck with ubuntu on my laptop and desktop machines, out of the box so to speak. than i did with mandrake and later mandriva.

i moved all my machines to ubuntu due to this.

11:20 PM  
Blogger cool_stuff_or_not said...

For gnubunny - obviously different hardware might work in a different way - but should we understand that with your notebook(s) (what model(s) ?) Ubuntu will suspend/resume after the default installation ? Any tests with WiFi using WPA ?

7:11 AM  

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