There's been a lot of discussion around the blogosphere about some very prominent technophiles migrating from either MacOS or Windows to a Linux flavour of Operating System. The conversions are spurring probably premature speculation of whether Linux is about to hit the big time in terms of desktop deployments.

My main system at home is Windows 2000. I have been fairly happy with Windows 2000. In my experience it's the best OS that Microsoft has made thus far. I've had the same install for about 6 years (I have not had to re-install or re-format my system in all that time). While this says good things about stability, I don't think I have to convince anyone that boredom has long since set in. Additionally, and perhaps more practically, support for Windows 2000 will be ending sometime on the horizon (presumably when they deploy and entrench Vista), so I've started to consider my options.

It's interesting that 6 years of a fairly good OS install with plentiful applications and games has not instilled a lot of Microsoft loyalty in me. Of course I'm influenced by the other things going on around Microsoft (legal battles, questionable practices) so that has obviously tainted my view towards them. Another factor is my recent involvement with some open standards like SVG and browser-based development (where Microsoft has stagnated for a good 5 years until recently).

And yet, I think another factor must be that when I bought my current custom-built computer, the retailer threw in Windows 2000 professional with the system. In other words, the OS never cost me anything. To upgrade to XP or Vista, I'd have to shill out some money.

One big thing to consider in a move like this is how entrenched I've become with the things that I do and the data that I keep on the system (some might call this "locked in"). The things I need to do involve:

  • Office-type applications. I've experimented enough with OpenOffice to be confident I can move almost seamlessly.
  • Platform development, C++ coding. I am fairly confident that I could move from Visual Studio to Eclipse CDT with some effort, but a greater effort will be in learning how to code to Linux instead of to the Windows API. My work with SDL will aid this transition, but my time spent with DirectX can be considered lost.
  • Photo editing. I'm familiar enough with GIMP that it shouldn't be a problem.
  • I also like to play the occasional game in my spare time. Hm, maybe it's time to give Microsoft some of my money in a different direction
  • Web Browsing. This is not an issue, my two favourite browsers, Firefox and Opera both have versions for Linux.
  • Web Development. I use TextPad so I'd need to adapt to a Linux text editor. So far it looks like Kate will do until I find something better.
  • DVD burning. Most Linux distributions come with applications that do this.
  • Video editing and encoding. I use some non-FOSS software for capturing video and I use TMPGEnc to encode from raw to MPEG2, I'd need to find a suitable replacement for these. It's possible that VLC Media Player might help, but I haven't gotten it to work well enough in Windows yet, so I'm not confident about its level of functionality in Linux. I use mplayer to rip from my DVDs to my hard drive, but I have yet to play with mencoder to see if I can get the same level of flexibility as TMPGEnc (TMPGEnc is very easy/intuitive to use). As for video editing, again I'll have to investigate alternatives because I actually bought Pegasys' TMPGEnc DVD Author and I've had no complaints.

This last item takes up a good deal of space (>200 GB), leaving not a lot of room for a dedicated partition for Linux, especially if I'm not sure that the OS will work on my hardware and meet my needs. I've experimented before with OS emulation, but it really requires the next step to make the final call.

The "next step" is downloading and burning some ISOs of LiveDVDs. LiveDVDs allow you to boot up into the OS just as if it was installed on your hard drive. You can test how the OS works on your hardware, but it doesn't require you to reformat hard drive partitions. You can download and install software while running from a LiveDVD to test things out. I think the only thing you can't do is use your CD/DVD player, since that's where the OS is installed from and the device is "in use". Anyway, I've been enjoying playing around with Ubuntu, Kubuntu and OpenSUSE, but it STILL took some figuring out (in other words it didn't work straight "out of the box" so to speak.

In the beginning, all three LiveDVDs did not work for me. They would boot up properly, but when it finally got time to show me the GUI login screen things would completely fail (freeze or dump me to a command-line prompt). While I have a fond recollection of my MS-DOS days, to live in an operating system nowadays requires a proper GUI. I tried manually configuring my X-server to no avail.

I believe my system is fairly atypical for a desktop platform. I have an aging nVidia GeForce4 Ti4600 card made by the now-defunct Visiontek, the motherboard is a server-grade motherboard from Tyan with SCSI drives attached and there are dual AMD AthlonMP CPUs. From my Linux experimentation years ago, I worried that any one of these things or a combination of them could be causing some unknown hardware problem that I'd have to experiment and tweak... At this point, I kind of threw up my hands and ranted inside my head:

"You mean to tell me that the average user still experiences these kinds of hardware problems when trying to install a modern Linux distribution?!? Linux has no hopes of succeeding on the desktop front if it can't even bring up a basic windowing environment!".

Several days later, I finally decided summoned the energy to debug the issue a bit by looking at the X-Server log files that were created right after the boot-up from the Ubuntu LiveCD when the X-Server failed. In there I found the curious line that the graphics adapter found was an ATI Rage XL (not nVidia) and that no screens could be configured.

Then I remembered: in additional to on-board SCSI and network adapters, my motherboard also has a nominal 4MB ATI display adapter.

I went and downloaded my motherboard's manual and looked at the specs. Sure enough there was a jumper to disable the display adapter.

I opened up my box. Sure enough I had not put a jumper on those pins to disable the display adapter.

I installed a spare jumper to those pins and tried to boot up again using the Ubuntu LiveDVD. Sure enough that was the problem: All Linux distributions had been finding my on-board display adapter and assuming that it was my primary adapter. Because I have no monitors attached to it, invoking the X-server was failing.

I question why the installers don't do more comprehensive jobs looking for other adapters when the first one found fails. Surely I'm not alone in this problem? Here's hoping that at least this blog entry will serve some other folks like myself who are experiencing this frustrating problem.

Anyway, I'm now happily typing this in Firefox 2 Beta 1 using OpenSUSE 10.1 running from the LiveDVD. I'm liking the eye candy that I see in KDE. That's not to say that I haven't investigated all the other items above, but at least booting up into Linux is no longer going to be a problem for me. Once I applied that jumper, boot-up was completely painless for all three Linux distributions, detection of my video card, sound card, network card, etc all took place automatically without the slightest need for me to do anything. They just need to fix that display adapter detection/scanning logic...find out which display adapters have monitors connected first...

§276 · July 13, 2006 · Linux, Software, Technology, Video, Windows · · [Print]

4 Comments to “Linux In The Prime Time”

  1. Kai Hendry says:

    I recommend the editor vim. There might be a KDE frontend version of it.

    I hope go for Ubuntu dapper with Gnome or perhaps Xfce. Good luck

  2. Marc says:

    I run Ubuntu Dapper and when I need an occasional Windows app, I fire up Windows 2000 in a QEMU virtual machine. Works great for me.

  3. Thanks, Mark. I think the blog issues I have been having are now fixed. Please let me know if you experience otherwise.

  4. The editor in VM works fine.