This past week I have evaluated five Linux distributions to see if any of them would make suitable replacements for Windows XP so that I could avoid Vista. Sadly, Linux proved to be far more finicky and troublesome than I expected. Take it from me, if Windows XP is behaving itself, then don’t try to fix what ain’t broken; stick with what works!
It all started out on Boxing Day when I installed Kubuntu 7.10, which I chose because I prefer KDE, but also because of name recognition; I’ve heard good things about Ubuntu so Kubuntu must be good, too. Right? Wrong! Kubuntu is maintained by the community which means that it doesn’t get the proper care enjoyed by its progenitor. Here, then, is a run down of each distribution and why ultimately I’m sticking to Windows XP:
Apart from the general impression that it’s Ubuntu’s unwanted step-child, Kubuntu (from what I can now remember; it was a week ago, afterall) had all sorts of issues (full write-up here):
- The screen saver was broken and wouldn’t activate automatically (but previews were OK)
- The back and forward buttons on my mouse in Konqueror actually scrolled left and right, instead of going back and forward in my history
- Compiz was a bitch to get working (though, to Kubuntu’s credit, nowhere near as horrid as openSUSE 10.3 – see below). To change the theme in Emerald I had to send emerald a -SIGUSR1 switch in a terminal every time. The default themes were set so that inactive titlebars on windows were almost completely transparent, and trying to adjust the dozens of sliders in the Emerald theme manager to correct this was tedious.
- The version of Kontact in Kubuntu wouldn’t respect the system-wide colour scheme – the default being far to bright with a very light off-white.
- Adjusting the master sound volume had no effect on programs playing audio, not even if I selected the right channels. Perhaps this is due to the fact that sound systems in Linux are a dime a dozen so I guess KMix can’t control them all?
- Since Kubuntu 7.10’s release I guess most developers are concentrating on KDE4 for Kubuntu 8.04. Speaking of which, I downloaded the KDE Four Live CD to check it out. In short: awful. The screen capture on that page shows enough, really. The taskbar is way to chunky and you can’t configure it (in this preview, anyway) and the only other major change is the addition of widgets to the desktop, which don’t excite me at all. KDE4 worries me in that a good desktop environment may end up becoming even worse than GNOME!
Probably the best of a bad bunch, but it has begun to let me down and after my experiences with other distros, my willingness to tolerate the finickyness of Linux has deteriorated considerably:
- PCLOS, as it’s abbreviated, was one of the distros recommended in the comments to my Boxing Day linux post. Hearing that it’s a good KDE distro and after my brother’s interest was piqued by Compiz in Kubuntu, he downloaded an ISO.
- We first installed it on my brother’s machine which uses a NVidia 8800GT video card. At first we couldn’t get the driver to work but with some help from the #pclinuxos-support IRC channel, we had eye-candy in no time.
- Getting it to work with my ATI Radeon X300 video card was just as hassle-free. I was impressed.
- It wouldn’t allow us to write to our NTFS partitions by default, though, and getting it to work wasn’t a walk in the park. It turns out that we had to install the ntfs-3g and ntfs-config packages (like a new user would have known that!). I don’t understand why read/write support to a user’s existing NTFS partitions isn’t enabled by default (like it was in Kubuntu; I don’t remember doing anything to get it working in that distro).
- My PCLOS experience came to a crashing halt when I installed a few video players (not liking the ones on offer). I can’t remember which one I marked for removal but I discovered that Synaptic had completely fucked things up on my next reboot. All I got was a message box saying “Could not start kdeinit. Check your installation” and an emtpy X session where I could still spin my Beryl cube around. Eye-candy is nice and all but without any applications, what’s the point?
- After three hours of brushing up my console survival skills (by installing lynx and irssi, the IRC client; I used to use bitchx or ircii many years ago, and it took a while to find even the name “irssi” because typing “sudo apt-get install ircii/bitchx” did nothing so I was scratching my head for a while). Anyway, the nice folks in the #kde channel eventually put it down to a missing libart_lgpl2 package, which I installed, and got X working again.
- After this fiasco, I began to doubt PCLOS. An old friend always used to say that the RPM packaging system was evil and that DEB was better. Maybe he’s right because simply marking a few video players for uninstallation shouldn’t completely break your system like that.
- (added on 11-Jan-2008) It seems that breaking kdeinit is an easy thing to do on PCLinuxOS: they even have an article at PCLinuxOS Magazine called Howto Repair kdeinit Problems for when you install a few too many programs and break your system. I don’t know about you but this whole dependency thing in Linux is supposed to prevent such breakages. If one thing requires an update, then everything depending on that update gets upgraded, and if one package doesn’t like that dependency, you’re supposed to be informed about it (much like openSUSE’s YaST will bitch constantly about dependency problems when installing ATI video drivers).
I decided to check out the latest release of openSUSE having tried 9.0 and 10.2 before (but not with a serious intention to use it as my main OS).
- The installer offered to downloaded latest updates during the install, so I thought “why not?” and let it fetch the updates. After 10 minutes on my 1.5mb connection of seeing a hundred or more *.gz files download, I began to get the impression that maybe it was downloading the whole lot from the server again? I had just downloaded the ISO from my ISP’s mirror so I didn’t want it chewing up all my monthly quota.
- So I rebooted and opted not to download the updates. When openSUSE finally installed I went in to the control center to add some repositories. Since my ISP mirrored them I added the local OSS and Non-OSS repositories, which turned out to be a huge mistake, evidently, because this caused me no end of grief in trying to get my ATI driver working for Compiz (opinion in the #suse IRC channel was that my ISP’s mirror was broken; very handy!). Another couple of hours troubleshooting on IRC wasted so I decided to re-install it again and let it do everything the way it wanted.
- The openSUSE installer took forever! Well, maybe not forever but three hours, which seems like forever compared to the zippy installers for Kubuntu and PCLOS.
- Into openSUSE for the second time and I decided to follow the instructions to the letter. Default repositories all round and a reading of the official instructions would be in order. I decided to read the page aptly named ATI. Good? Apparently not, as an argument ensued on the #suse channel as to which was the best method to install an ATI video driver (apart from the fact that ATI cards sucked and that I should have bought a NVidia card).
- Somebody else suggested I follow these instructions by downloading an “ati.ymp” file that would take care of everything for me. This simply resulted in a big window full of dependency warnings.
- Then somebody pipes in saying: See http://opensuse.org/ATI — i suggest NOT using ati-config and instead use SaX2 -r -m 0=fglrx
- I then suggested downloading and installing the driver direct from ATI’s web site but this met with a great deal of scorn so I just gave up on openSUSE in the end. No operating system on the planet is worth this much of a headache!
Mandriva was also recommended to me in the comments to my last post, so I downloaded the Mandriva Linux 2008 One KDE cd from my ISP’s mirror.
- It refused to start X from the CD (either for live-cd perusal or to facilitate a complete installation). Not even with various combinations of acpi=off, noapic, nolapic, or vesa as kernel parameters would get X to work. I couldn’t Ctrl Alt Backspace out of X to run XFdrake to re-configure the video card, and neither could I Ctrl Alt F3 out to a TTY. I thought the disc was corrupt.
- I decided to boot it off my home theater box connected to my plasma TV in the lounge room. It manages to boot successfully, detects the NVidia card, and allows me to enable Compiz with full eye-candy even more easily than PCLOS. It wouldn’t size the screen properly, but then again, it is a Samsung 42″ plasma with horizontal pixels and a native resolution of 1024×768, so I guess Mandriva could be cut a little slack on this issue.
- The same CD boots fine off my sister-in-law’s PC which has an ATI Radeon X1300 video card, so I guess Mandriva 2008 just doesn’t like Radeon X300s. I should probably get a NVidia card, but Mandriva is out of the question for now, which is a pity because it looked good, and is the distro on which PCLOS is based, so it should be decent. I also hear from a lot of KDE fans that it’s a good choice if you like KDE.
Linux Mint 4.0
I was browsing through DistroWatch.com and came across a guy reviewing loads more distros than myself (full list of reviews at Adventures in Open Source). He rated Linux Mint very highly so my brother downloaded an ISO and dropped off a copy this morning.
- The Live CD booted easily and the desktop loaded into what looked like a very polished GUI indeed. It was GNOME, so it was complete rubbish, but the work Linux Mint have done on the presentation and graphics side of things far outpaces anything Ubuntu are doing (brown is not a nice colour, and neither is orange!).
- The install goes without hitch and a balloon appears near the bottom of the screen on first boot telling me that it is using a proprietary driver. Good, I say to myself. Compiz is going to be a walk in the park. Wrong.
- I open the control center and take my time finding just where to configure the video card. There are lots of control center icons in Linux Mint and I think they could have halved the number and made each one have a few more tabs to group things better. Anyway, it says I’m using an ATI driver that lists mach, rage, etc. Clearly, it doesn’t look like a Radeon driver. I’ll choose Radeon instead. The applet wouldn’t let me choose Radeon for both (it’s a dual-head card so there’s a drop-down for each one; it doesn’t say which is the one I’m currently using). The other combo lists “fglrx” but no matter which option I choose, I end up with a very crappy resolution in X.
- Clearly, the so-called “proprietary” driver offered by Linux Mint is crap, so I do the unthinkable. In my frustration, I download “ati-driver-installer-8.443.1-x86.x86_64.run” from ATI’s web site.
- Given that Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu and is completely compatible with the Ubuntu repositories, I decide to look at the unofficial wiki linked from ATI’s web site to see how to install it properly. The instructions for installing it the Ubuntu way look about as useless as any other method that uses an official repository, so I’ll try installing it manually, which looks about as nightmarish as the dreaded openSUSE instructions.
- I finally decide I’ll just chmod 755 the installer and run it as root (which is basically what ATI recommend anyway, none of this re-packaging and editing config files nonsense!).
- Lo and behold, and after asking #linuxmint how to enable Compiz, I have full eye-candy support. Beats the shit of any so-called “proprietary” driver offered through the usual repositories. Why re-invent the wheel and make things needlessly complicated when the driver offered by the video card manufacturer beats the pants of any rubbish offered by the distros themselves?
- In the end, though, Linux Mint does use GNOME, which is far too Mac-like with it’s philosophy of hiding most configurable options from the user and forcing everybody into one mould. Even the default Xchat client, xchat-gnome, is a rebadging of Xchat but with many preference options stripped out, such that you can’t have channels as tabs along the bottom by default. Even if Linux Mint is nice in every other way, it uses GNOME, and their KDE version isn’t quite up-to-scratch, I believe.
SimplyMEPIS 7.0 (added on 7-Jan-2008)
With recommendations from bobber (comment #42) and Tom G (comment #46) saying that MEPIS is the perfect distro for people wanting a Debian-based distro and KDE, I decided to download the 64-bit version from my ISP’s extensive mirror to install on my Intel Q6600-based system:
- The MEPIS docs say “Download all compiz packages from the Mepis repo via Synaptic. (Do a search on compiz)” so I mark everything matching “compiz” for installation. I then install python-ctypes like a good boy, then open the specified web page to download compizconfig-python. There are i386 and amd64 versions of that package so I ask #mepis and am advised: “do not use the amd 64 it differs to the intel 64” so I download the i386 version. When I try to install the i386 version it says “…package architecture (i386) does not match system (amd64)”. So, even though I install the “release 64” version of MEPIS, it’s really the AMD 64-bit version but which also works on Intel 64? How about just naming the packages “64” without AMD or Intel in the name? Wouldn’t that be less confusing?
- I then try to install the amd64 version of the package and see, among other things, this message: “considering removing python-compizconfig in favour of compizconfig-python …” and “conflicting packages – not installing compizconfig-python”. It seems that when I was earlier directed to search for “compiz” and install all of those packages, I installed python-compizconfig without noticing, but the same instructions say I should install compizconfig-python, which seems to be one and the same thing. This is another thing that bugs the hell out of me about Linux distros: they’re forever renaming packages for no good reason, such that any online documentation becomes out of date thereby leading the user on a wild goose chase sorting out these unecessary problems.
- I then have to install “ccsm” but Synaptic can’t find a package matching this name. Now I’m sure this really means compizconfig-settings-manager, so yet another bum-steer for new users. Nice going, MEPIS. There is no “fusion-icon” package in Synaptic so I download the amd64 package from the above URL. Trying to install it reveals this collection of lovely of errors:
dpkg: dependency problems prevent configuration of fusion-icon:
fusion-icon depends on compizconfig-python; however:
Package compizconfig-python is not installed.
fusion-icon depends on ccsm; however:
Package ccsm is not installed.
- So, I can only assume that some lunatic decided it would be nice to rename compizconfig-python to python-compizconfig such that further package installations now won’t work. Welcome to dependency hell. DLL hell in Windows is largely a thing of the past but dependency issues are about as annoying as I remember them even from last century!
- An interesting observation: installing any package via Synaptic using the default, out-of-the-box, repositories, says “WARNING. You are about to install software that can’t be authenticated! Doing this could allow a malicious individual to damage or take control of your system”. So MEPIS doesn’t even trust it’s own maintainers?
- Anyway, I decide to try clicking on the compiz fusion icon on the K menu just to see what happens and lost my window manager with the following error: “The application KWD (kde-window-decorator) crashed and caused the signal 11 (SIGSEGV)”. Not surprising, really, given the unresolvable package dependency nightmare above.
- After rebooting I was, surprisingly, able to spin the Compiz cube around but opening any applications resulted in mostly-grey and partially-drawn windows that I couldn’t move around. So, I had a cube and not much else.
- MEPIS is also fond of forcing me to use a resolution of 2048×1536 with a refresh rate of 60Hz on my IBM 6652 21″ CRT monitor, which not only means that I can’t read anything but that I will also get a headache due to the excessive screen flicker. If I change it to 1280×1024 in KDesktop, with a refresh rate of 85Hz (even though it can go above 100Hz) it will stay that way for the current X session, but reboot or log off and on again, and it’s back to 2048×1536. By specifying the correct model number in MEPIS’s X Window Assistant, I can see that it has the vertical and horizontal frequencies setup correctly, but KDesktop just won’t use high enough refresh rates or remember my resolution.
- So, in short, MEPIS is no better or worse than any other distro I’ve tried.
If Windows XP ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t install Vista. Just stick with what you already have. Even if XP’s recovery CD is a tad dumb, dealing with that little problem is nothing compared to the nightmare of finicky linux distributions and all the software that does things their own way, like disagreeing on sound libraries, or having a choice of new windows opening cascaded, centered, or “smart” (meaning centered, top left, top right, etc until it runs out of places to put them), instead of just where you last left them (that’d be asking too much!). If you’re easily annoyed by inconsistency and the need to tinker with things to get them working, you aren’t going to like Linux one little bit.