Friday, June 25, 2010

Ubuntu LTS - from 'huge disappointment' to 'acceptable Lazy Lynx' ?

There have been a number of previous Ubuntu versions which were clear disappointments, with 8.04 LTS going to the top of the list (see for instance here), so the launch of the latest Ubuntu LTS version - 10.04 Lucid Lynx - was expected with understandable curiosity.

Unfortunately after a promising beta version the first release candidate started to expose ugly problems which unfortunately remained in the final version :( It is however possible to get past those and with a little effort get a very acceptable installation - but that is obviously not something very simple for a newcomer or when we speak about deploying it on a small number of computers - so the correct codename for the version IMHO should have been 'Lazy Lynx' :)

The first and most serious problem is a very unfortunate (and IMHO far from smart) change in regard to X11 on a number of video cards - most notably some VERY common Intel models used mainly in notebooks - with the result that actually many systems that were very stable under the previous 9.10 can't even boot the 10.04 LiveCD !!!

So if you just tried to start the 10.04 LTS LiveCD and after 5-10 minutes you get a computer that just hangs with a black or garbled screen and no feedback at all (most notably no starting sound) you are most likely a 'victim' of that problem (one other alternative might be RAID-related stuff, but that one most often just 'blocks' the computer for like 3-5 minutes only and after that is starts OK). One ugly but GENERIC workaround for the video problem is to start in 'safe video mode' - unfortunately in the current version that option is no longer 'friendly' in an obvious menu so you basically need to press F6 and erase the 'splash quiet --' part of the options and replace them with 'xforcevesa' - this can solve plenty of problems but unfortunately you are now stuck with the VESA minimal video driver (which will remain after installation) and all acceleration and 3D is gone :(

The real workaround for certain Intel video cards is to actually use another option - 'i915.modeset=1' - apparently older X11 code was failing on maybe 3% of the Intel video cards with the default modesetting behavior (and for that case you needed 'i915.modeset=0') so somebody decided to reverse (disable) that - which seems that now fails in like 10% of the cases :( Anyway, if after that your LiveCD starts nicely then you will be able to install just fine but the booting process will fail on the first restart - so again add manually (once) 'i915.modeset=1' to the boot options and then once booted OK from the command line do:
sudo echo options i915 modeset=1 > /etc/modprobe.d/i915-kms.conf
(which will set that option persistently). Some other information on the matter can be found at this page - but note that the version of the page might talk about older cases where you had to disable modesetting (which is now the default).

As I said another (rare) problem might be in certain RAID configurations - but patience and attention (plus eventually some Google skills) will get you over that :)

If you want optimal interoperation with Windows another 'pre-installation trick' would be to format the Linux partition in advance with EXT3 and the older 128 bytes inode (mkfs.ext3 -I 128) and do not let the installer to reformat the partition (and in the installer you should ALWAYS use the advanced/manual partitioner !) - that way you will be able to read and write to that partition from Windows with EXT2 IFS !

On certain hardware configurations (Broadcom cards) WiFi will not be configured by default and you will need at least once a wired Ethernet connection so that the 'hardware wizard' will be able to fetch the (restricted to deployment) Broadcom firmware. After that your network will start and you can enable time-sync (which will install ntp) and most certainly you will have over 200 Mbytes of updates :)

While the default general color combination is a small improvement over previous versions, the 'new looks' are actually worse - apparently there is some huge 'OSX envy' somewhere at a very high level at Ubuntu and that leads to some very dumb usability/efficiency decisions - one of the most talked subject about 10.04 is about how to get back to the classic button order so here is again - you start gconf-editor, go to apps → metacity → general and change the value for button_layout to 'menu:minimize,maximize,close' ! Of course that is only part of the road to a decent look - I also MUST change the theme from the new Ambiance to Clearlooks (which allows me to configure the color for the title bars since it is the same as the color for ' selected item').

Also I always make certain the 'desktop effects' are on 'Advanced' (which means compiz) and then install compiz-settings-manager where I have a huge amount of personal productivity settings (including a large number of hotkeys). I also need my favorite firefox plugins + my passwords + my bookmarks, then I install VLC (in this version on my notebook it seems to need to be manually configured for OpenGL video output since otherwise will crash the system), and of course WINE 'just in case'.

The look and usability will be more than acceptable in the end:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have used Ubuntu since 2007 on eMachine i533, Toshiba Notebook P20 and of late a homebrew with an Asus P5G41 board and never have experienced any problems.
I would say "Look B4 you leap". Every store bought computer mentions that it is designed for use with a Microsoft OS !!!

2:58 PM  

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