Friday, December 21, 2007

Geek fun = more testing on the Linux offer of the fall 2007

There were quite some busy weeks and I believe that some of the latest 'Linux experiments' on the Dell Latitude X300 (1.1 GB RAM) and Apple iBook (1 GB RAM) might have not been reported on time - so I will try to fix that right here :)

Since Mandriva 2008 was lacking a little and I already had a working Ubuntu installation on the X300 where I could fall-back at any time (as you probably know from
here), I decided that I could also play a little with some of the other famous distributions that were released more or less recently - the 'extra twist' was that at about the same time I was also taking a look on some PowerPC installation on the not so old iBook G4 that was so lacking in speed in Leopard - on that one I already had my old Tiger installation placed on an external Firewire HDD (a 2.5'' HDD - which means that it can be perfectly powered over 1394 but also means similar performance to the internal IDE HDD or slower, and by far slower than an external 3.5'' 7200 RPM cheap disk ...) but there was enough space left on that drive so I decided to have a look on how well Linux could run from an external drive...

So I first decided to go with Fedora 8 for x86 and PPC, and also Ubuntu for PPC so together with the existing Ubuntu x86 I could have a nice 2x2 matrix and I could enjoy some simple oranges-to-oranges and apples-to-apples comparisons (pun intended :) ).

I have started with Ubuntu LiveCD on PPC (mostly since I already had some experience from the x86 installations) and on the X300 I also started the Fedora 8 LiveCD (in order to 'multitask' a little).

Fedora 8 i386 LiveCD was looking very promising - the kernel was newer than the one in Ubuntu so I had high hopes, and on top of that I liked the default theme and colors from Fedora A LOT better than the Ubuntu combinations - the installation went smooth and things were initially looking good!

On the iBook the Ubuntu installation also started well - to boot from a CD on the iBook you must press and hold the <c> key just after starting the computer (or press and hold the <option> key and then select from the list). The LiveCD came up OK and PowerPC Ubuntu was looking just like the x86 version - and the installation started well and went OK up to almost the end - unfortunately the only problem was that at the very end it complained about something related to detecting the boot device (which was not the internal HDD, but instead an external 1394 HDD) and that was pretty much it ... it was never able to boot by itself :((

The help came from the next-installed-Linux = Fedora PPC - that one was also having some serious problems (I believe the default-installed kernel was not built to boot from FireWire) but using the Fedora CD I was somehow able in the end to work around yaboot problems and finally be able to boot the Ubuntu installation :)

At this point on the x86 front I was somehow happy for a day or so with Fedora - it was looking very polished (I also really liked the slowly-changing backgrounds) ... until I had the time to actually try to activate WiFi and suspend/resume, at which point I started to notice that things were far from perfect - later I have read some posts that during that first week after launch there were some serious problem with the update servers but my experience was VERY frustrating and when placed together with the problems in the PowerPC version I decided it was too much ... so Fedora was for the moment gone (but if I have the time I will certainly take another look to the next release in a few months).

The only other widespread distribution with both PPC and x86 versions was OpenSUSE 10.3 - so the plan was changed towards doing the same 2 * 2 matrix, but this time with Ubuntu and OpenSUSE 10.3 :)

The first problem was that surprisingly the OpenSUSE 10.3 LiveCD can not boot from an USB drive (as is the case in X300 notebooks) - so for that one I had to use the 'normal setup DVD' - and I have used the same type of setup for PowerPC (I believe that no OpenSUSE LIVE CD exists for PPC anyway). Both the x86 setup and the PPC setup were without further problems and in the end I got my 2 * 2 test matrix!

Now a few ideas that could help other people doing similar installations - the first thing that you should know is about file systems and 'partition styles/labels' - probably most people interested in computers already know that you can format a 'disk' (actually a partition/slice) in just one of the many possible 'file systems' and different operating systems might see it as read-write, read-only or not at all depending on the precise combination of OS and file-system. At this point (December 2007) Linux is by far the most competent OS in this regard - you can write OK on almost any type of partition including FAT/FAT32 (old DOS/Windows 9x), NTFS (new Windows) and HFS (old Mac) but in order to write on HFS+ (new Mac) you might need to disable journaling first! OSX 10.4 and 10.5 also seem to be able to read NTFS (but so far not write), read-write FAT/FAT32 and also can read-write EXT2/EXT3 (Linux) partition with
ext2fsx. Under Windows 2000/XP the EXT2/EXT3 (Linux) partitions can be read/write with ext2ifs and ext2fsd (can be somehow risky but I had very good results with ext2ifs_1.10c). The bottom line is that so far the absolute safest way to 'share files' is by using FAT32 (but permissions will be lost and files can not get past 2 GB). Another safe option seems to be Samba (windows-style network file sharing) and maybe even EXT2/3 !!!

However there is another tricky point on cross-sharing disks - the 'partition styles/labels' - the PC-style partitioning is generally the best supported with the exception of old PowerPC systems that can only boot from disks with Apple partitioning style (which is not normally recognized by Windows, so plugging an external 1394 disk with that partition style in Windows or connecting an Mac in target mode will not 'work'). Again, the most versatile is Linux, which can recognize and create both styles even when booted from a LiveCD :)

Booting Linux is also more complex/trickier on Apple (and especially PowerPC) machines - normally a very small (1 megabyte, 0.001 GByte) hidden HFS partition is created and from there a boot-loader called yaboot is started, which then will boot Linux itself - but that process is nowhere near the power of GRUB that you can use on a normal x86 machine :) Anyway on x86 all recent distributions get a 10 on setting the bootloader, but on the iBook only SUSE managed to handle installing a boot-loader OK and then booting OK from that - Ubuntu got an error installing the boot-loader on an external 1394 disk and Fedora 8 did not have support for FireWire booting :(

The Linux boot time is OK under PowerPC - Ubuntu seems to be slightly faster but SUSE is also OK. Both are slower than Tiger but in the same range as Leopard (or close enough). On the Dell X300 Ubuntu is also the fastest Linux in this recent tests (also faster than the Ubuntu on iBook) but not as fast as XP :) (and maybe soon I'll also be able to say how fast Vista will boot on X300, but I don't hold my breath on that :) )

One part that I liked to experiment with was the '3D window manager' - I am 99.99% happy with Compiz/Fusion on Ubuntu but on x86 SUSE I also decided to get the latest 'development builds' in order to get 'separate wallpapers' and in the end that was perfectly possible as you can see in the screenshot from the right (click on it for the full image) - but it was far from simple and generally the degree of integration in SUSE does not seem to be as advanced as in Ubuntu (among other things only Emerald window manager seems to be stable enough while both GTK and KDE default window managers will sometimes crash; another potential problem is that a patched Nautilus is needed for the 'separate wallpapers' trick so overall that might be less than ideal at this point and as a result I never tried to achieve the same results under Ubuntu). I was not aiming so hight on the PPC 3D eye candy and I believe that on SUSE I never activated the 3D part, but on Ubuntu PPC it seems to work as well as on Ubuntu x86 and both are more usable / spectacular in this regard that Vista or OSX (and that is especially nice since we speak about two rather old computers - rather underpowered after modern standards).

One small gizmo that I liked a lot under SUSE is the 'international clock applet' - you can see it on the second screenshot - but after some searching I was also able to add it to Ubuntu from here! (it seems to be a Novell contribution that looks to be also very well received on Fedora where some extensions are already planned). Also in the screenshot - the SUSE 'Start Menu' which probably might look a lot more friendly to people that have only seen Windows before than the default Ubuntu layout (with the menu on top) and also the top of the YAST window (with the Emerald decorations and transparent borders).

The equivalent screenshot for KDE is also here - this one is with the default wallpaper and the green OpenSUSE 10.3 theme - generally is very nice how SUSE implemented the entire green theme in both KDE and GNOME and the similarities also go to the 'Start Menu' positioning - but while the KDE version is somehow more Vista-like, I consider it less usable this way (cascading menus might not be very easy for 'mouse beginners' but it is CERTAINLY faster for power users).

Another feature that I first discovered by accident on KDE under PowerPC OpenSUSE was the 'multi-finger trackpad' - a two-finger tap is actually a middle-click and a three-finger tap is the right-click - OBVIOUSLY that should have been REVERSED (the far more useful right-click should have been generated with the simpler two-finger tap), but the feature is VERY HANDY on the iBook (where 'engineering for morons' was more important than actual 'usability for normal / power users', and also where the bottom-right-corner-tap does not seem to work). The very good news are that the same feature was also present under PowerPC Ubuntu (and also under both SUSE and Ubuntu on x86, but on the Latitude that is far less of a problem since the bottom-right-corner-tap does work very well and is more convenient - and you also have two real buttons anyway). In case on your PowerPC Linux none of the above tricks work I believe you might need to use F12 for right-click and eventually F11 for middle-click.

Wireless connections might still be somehow tricky for certain configurations - the X300 is using a Broadcom 4324 a/b/g that has NEVER worked OK with any native Linux driver - however it works VERY well using ndiswrapper on all the Linux distributions that I have tested this year - setting ndiswrapper can be somehow trickier in certain conditions (for instance on the latest Mandriva) but usually is not a problem (but first you need to blacklist bcm43xx) - and as a result it pretty much worked from the first attempt under both Ubuntu and SUSE (on Fedora there was a problem with updates/repositories and they are rather strict on non-open drivers so I never got that one working in the short interval while I looked at it).

The wireless adapter in the iBook is a Broadcom 4318 but ndiswrapper is not an option on the PowerPC architecture - so I was a little afraid. Getting that to work was a long struggle but in the end I got that working quite well under Ubuntu and acceptable under OpenSUSE - just remember that with WEP 4318 seems to only work in Linux PPC with 'open authentication' and not with 'shared authentication' (which also is not more secure so there is not a huge point in using it).

There is however a small problem with the SUSE 'network manager' - under both PPC and x86 that one is sometimes VERY tricky and I have even seen it once refusing to connect with the wired ethernet cable - the Ubuntu version was A LOT better!

However that is not the SUSE deal-breaker - the HUGE problem with OpenSUSE is the actual 'package/updates manager' - it is INCREDIBLY SLOW and some of the related programs that have a GUI are incredibly intrusive and badly designed, popping windows and stealing focus all the time. Even only the 'initial startup update check' is able to get the CPU to 100% for quite some time and generally the entire experience can become very unpleasant if you are used with the speed and efectiveness of the Debian package management utilities (which are also used by Ubuntu). Also Mandriva was almost as good so maybe I was a little spoiled before trying SUSE, but in the end I can't see myself using it on the long run :(

Always a very tricky part in Linux is the power management / suspend / hibernate / resume - and in this case things are even further complicated on the proprietary iBook by the use of the external FireWire disk - as you remember Fedora wasn't even able to start and both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE 10.3 can only boot after a COLD START - it seems that a warm start can mess some things in the 1394 part (and also in the video init part, which I could also see with the Tiger original setup disk!)

On the iBook so far only OSX Tiger seems to be able to suspend / hibernate / resume OK, OSX Leopard is OK on suspend but is messing things after resuming from hibernation (which might be excused from Linux but not from the latest over-hyped Apple fad) and both of the major OSX versions seem to keep the FireWire devices powered when in 'Sleep state' so it might be possible that the FireWire commands to get disks to sleep might not be a standard after all :(

Neither Open SUSE nor Ubuntu are able to suspend or hibernate on the iBook - the bcm43xx driver might be part of the problem (it certainly is on the X300, but on the iBook there is no ndiswrapper alternative) - actually SUSE only lists a command to suspend to disk and after activating that it gives an error but does nothing bad, while Ubuntu only lists a command to suspend to RAM which seems to be perfectly executed ... it only has fatal problems when trying to resume from that state :)

On the Latitude X300 both Ubuntu and SUSE will suspend / hibernate / resume just fine, but with a number of tricks (the very first one being that in my configurations bcm43xx must be blacklisted, the second is that on Ubuntu it is much better to NOT use the default new experimental modesetting Intel video driver) - and a nice touch is that on hibernate SUSE is also updating the GRUB configuration so that it will directly restore from that point. Suspend/resume seems a tad quicker on Ubuntu than on SUSE (and almost as fast as the one in XP, which is as good as the one in OSX Tiger on iBook). On OpenSUSE there is also one extra trick involved since s2ram needs extra parameters - so I had to search a lot on the net before learning that I have to create a file /etc/pm/config.d/s2ram and add a line S2RAM_OPTS=" -f -m" there in order to have everything working perfectly!

The overall impression was quite positive and on the Latitude X300 Ubuntu is certainly staying on the internal disk, SUSE only until the next interesting Linux to test and for the moment I am keeping both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE on the small external HDD together with the old OSX Tiger just since it seems such an advanced PowerPC recovery HDD :)

One final note - a small rule that I have with my reviews is that at least one week must be spent using mostly the stuff that is reviewed before actually starting to write about it - that (and the fact that I also have real work to do) explains why most of my posts seem somehow delayed when compared with some of the hyper-optimistic articles made for money / services / self-promotion - when for instance people claim that
Leopard is faster you have to wonder if they have EVER really tested it on a PowerBook/iBook ... but I guess that the full truth might have not been so easy on the fanboys, which in turn would have just went to other sites depriving the site/author of revenues ... so everybody wins if we just live in a fantasy world without any connection to the reality ... oh well, everybody wins except for the morons tricked by the hype - but in the long term even that is a good thing since certain people only learn by paying hard :)

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Anonymous keenerd said...

a two-finger tap is actually a middle-click and a three-finger tap is the right-click - OBVIOUSLY that should have been REVERSED (the far more useful right-click should have been generated with the simpler two-finger tap)

One might think this, but there is more than a decade of precedence. Historically, the middle mouse was emulated by clicking the left and right mouse buttons. When touch pads came about, the behavior of middle clicking (using the index and middle finger simultaneously) was preserved.

Personally, I find I middle click far more often than right click. In my uses, right click is only for obscure editing in gimp/inkscape/xara/blender/cad, while middle click is paste (in every application, GUI or CLI), or open in tab (firefox/opera/elinks).

8:18 AM  
Blogger cool_stuff_or_not said...

Of course that I see how for the top 1% Linux users that is the best choice (and make that top 10% if they work on PC laptops, where there IS a right-click button), but for the 'majority in the middle' my suggestion might be better - and 100% certainly on the Apple notebooks, where there is no fuc*ing right-click button since at some point in the '70s Steve Jobs was really afraid that the second mouse button might be too complex to handle for the average user from 2008 :)

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Frenci said...

I'm having the same problems you had in booting a Fedora or Ubuntu from my external firewire drive connected to my iBook G4.
Can you tell me how you solve the problem?

3:06 PM  

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