This isn’t another “I just tried out Linux and it’s…” blog post. I’ve played with Linux off and on since 1998. Back then I ran a webserver off a “lunchbox” Sun SPARCstation I bought at a computer fair for $40. Over the last 10+ years has gone from “can’t get the sound working, I give up” to “I’ve got just about everything I need”. This blog post will follow that journey a bit, and serve for a precursor to more computer related blog posts.
As I mentioned my first experience with Linux was to scratch an itch to run my own webserver out of my bedroom. This was in the days of Windows 98. I don’t remember exactly why I decided to find an old computer and do the Linux thing vs using Microsoft’s Personal Web Server. I didn’t do the hosting thing b/c I was a poor college student. Maybe it’s because I had a job that forced me to work on Unix and I did some webpage creation there. But I managed to get everything working and through the magic of DynDNS ran a website for my cover band out of my bedroom over a DSL connection.
Because I ended up with such weird hardware there were only so many distributions that I could use. I ended up with Debian. The thing I remember most is the ability to browse the many “packages” of software available online and then install it by typing in a command. This was or would become the apt-get command that I think helps make Ubuntu so popular today.
Fast forward to after college and I tried Linux on a PC computer. I basically wanted to play, and see where Linux was at compared to Windows. I looked around at the the various distributions available. I wanted one with a Desktop Environment. Last time I used mostly used the command line. I did have Ice Window Manager but that was pretty basic.
I decided on Slackware. It had a reputation of having a rock solid basic system. And all of the packages were layed out in a modular and sensible manner. The hot Desktop Environment at the time was KDE so that is what I tried. I thought it looked better than GNOME (this was 2002/3). I got the software installed OK and booted into Linux and started up KDE. But I could not get sound working. I tried a couple different things but never got it working. Being a music fan That was a non-starter for me so I deleted the partition and went back to Windows.
Three year later that computer was getting old and slow. I got a “new” computer through work. Actually it was a computer work didn’t need anymore and they were auctioning them off for charity. It was a good deal and at least newer and faster than what I had. One problem is that it came with Windows 2000, which wasn’t cutting it anymore once you where used to XP. But this was the era of Windows Genuine Advantage and I didn’t want to pay for what Microsoft wanted for a license of XP and I didn’t want to bother with cracks and patches to get around WGA. In comes Linux again and this hot newcomer distribution Ubuntu.
Ubuntu was pretty slick, and I can see why it was gaining so much traction as the go-to distribution for desktop Linux. But there was a few things that annoyed me. The biggest is the lack of codecs to play mp3s and various “non-free” audio & video formats, the biggest being Microsoft’s wma & wmv formats. Now I understand the ideal of promoting open source formats like Ogg Vorbis & Theora but having to go to search Google & Ubuntu Forums for answers and then go to third party sites to get the codecs is just going to drive potential users away. And those codecs were full of problems. There were several wma videos I tried watching and they just wouldn’t work or would freeze. I had problems with avi files too. I also had major problems with Java. Never got it working. I tried downloading/installing packages from Sun and the official ones from Ubuntu. Never worked. Irene wasn’t crazy about using it and after a few months of use I found a deal that was too good to pass up.
The deal was on a refurbished HP. Core2Duo processor, 2GB RAM, 320 GB HD, $300. And of course it came with Windows Vista. I was a little apprehensive about Vista since i heard mixed review about it. Getting the computer and firing it up, on one hand it was pretty, on the other hand it seemed slow to boot, login, and whenever the User Account Control stepped it. Now first off people all over the net have lambasted UAC. I don’t have a problem with it being there and how it works. My only problem is that it is so slow to operate, and that there are two different screens that can show up, which can lead to some confusion. Why did Microsoft even waste the time to develop two different screens that do the same thing?
The slow boot and login thing got to be so excruciatingly bad that is what ultimately forced me back to Linux. I searched and searched online and tried to use some “boot performance monitor” thing that Microsoft built in all to no avail. I have no idea why the bootup was so slow but the login was slow because of the stupid Windows Search thing that would thrash my HD looking for who-knows-what everytime I tried to login, making my system unresponsive. Worst yet Windows Media Player would get in on the act and start doing something in the background, making it so that if you actually tried to use WMP it would not start up because it was already started as a background process. That one turned out to be a bug. If you turned off the Windows Search thing, which probably involved a registry edit, it would cripple the start menu features that were new in Vista.
Another big Vista gripe of mine is the new Explorer interface. The new way of doing the address bar is cool, but why did you take away my toolbar buttons? Especially the “up” button? Even further is why did you take not even put a comparability mode in so we could go back to an XP like Explorer if we wanted to? And how could you have screwed up to algorithm that decided which Explorer view to show? Just about all my folders ended up with the picture view. That was another registry hack to fix that one. Service Pack 1 seemed to have fixed the booting and login speed issues some but by then I had thrown in the towel. Speaking of SP1 for some reason it never asked me to download it. I read that it was out in an article a couple of months after the fact. Thanks MS, I didn’t really want those updates!
So now I spend most of my time in Xubuntu, which is a community developed version of Ubuntu with the GNOME desktop replaced with XFCE. XFCE is know for being “lightweight”, which means it uses less RAM and is more responsive. And it uses GTK+ at it’s core, which is what GNOME uses at it’s base as well. GNOME is a layer on top of GTK. So as long as a program isn’t built for KDE, it will run and look good in XFCE. Ubuntu has been improved since my last try. Java worked out of the box. There still wasn’t included non-free codecs but getting them was easier this time around and they work so much better. My printer, my camera, my video camera all pretty much worked out of the box.
Running Linux has also given me the ability to play with compiling programs. I have compiled Linus Torvalds’ Git source code management software and started playing around with that. And I complied my own version of my favorite editor, VIM. The stock Ubuntu one came with Perl, Python, and Ruby integrations that I was never going to use. And I was able to compile a few of the PHP 5.3 betas and release candidates. So I got an early sneak peak at some of the new features at work.
There is still some learning to do and some growing pains to working on Linux. But it seems at times that it’s easier to get answers, or you can look at a configuration file and see what it’s doing. I’ve even looked at some C source code to see how something works. And that’s neat. Though that could be the geek in me talking.